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Ed Filipowski, Fashion Catalyst

The co-president of fashion PR powerhouse KCD talks exclusively to BoF about public relations in the digital age and the firm’s new entertainment and tech division.
Ed Filipowski in 2016 at New York Fashion Week | Photo: InDigital.tv
By
  • Lauren Sherman

NEW YORK, United States — It's the second day of New York Fashion Week and Ed Filipowski's office, which he shares with business partner Julie Mannion, is neat and serene, as natural light streams through windows offering a view of the Hudson River. KCD Worldwide, the public relations and production powerhouse, which he and Mannion co-own, moved its headquarters from 7th Avenue to the Meatpacking District in 1997. "We came here when Pastis opened," Filipowski says, sitting at the worktable that serves as an island between their desks. "We were the second in the neighbourhood."

It's a nice anecdote, but one he delivers without an ounce of sentimentality. Filipowski, whose official title is co-president and chief strategist, doesn't like to look back, which may be the thing that, above all others, has kept him in a seat of power for more than 30 years. The executive — whose demeanour is almost consistently calm, even when he's working the door at a high-pressure show like Marc Jacobs — joined KCD in 1985, when he was still in his early 20s and the firm was known as Keeble Cavaco & Duka.

Today, he is ready to announce yet another chapter in the company's history: the launch of a new entertainment and technology division, which has been in development and under wraps for the past year. New technology clients include Launchmetrics, a fashion platform sprung from the merger of digital solutions provider Fashion GPS and influencer marketing platform Augure. While Filipowski declined to disclose other names, industry sources with knowledge of the matter confirmed that both Apple Music and Beats have also retained the company's services.

Entertainment clients include the Tony Awards, the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Benefit Gala, Mattel and Paramount Pictures, which hired KCD to work on the premiere of Zoolander 2. The firm will offer its longstanding services — from PR strategy to launch management — to its new clients. However, instead of forming a new team to serve its new entertainment and tech verticals, KCD will draw upon more than 100 employees from the company's existing media relations, creative services and digital divisions, across the firm's offices in New York, London, Paris and Los Angeles.

What happened to our industry was bigger than us. There was no way we could have remained in our tiny little bubble of elitism.

“It’s something that has rapidly grown in the last six months especially, with clients from the entertainment and technology industries that have come to us for a brand connection to fashion,” explains Filipowski. “We have found those projects to be very inspiring not only to ourselves, but to the designers that we take them to. It’s really us being the fashion connectors,” he continues. “The breadth of designers and talent that we can reach, combined with our credibility, puts us in a unique position.” The development comes as the Internet and the rise of fashion entertainment are turning a once closed industry into a more immediate, open and democratic world, making the business of fashion PR much more complex and, in many ways, quite different to the days when the primary objective was to court traditional mediators like magazines.

According to Filipowski, what has set KCD apart — allowing the firm to keep pace with these seismic shifts and remain an industry leader for more than 30 years — is a company culture of openness and adaptability. “I honestly dislike having these conversations about this change that we’re going through because I think it’s not fruitful. We’re going to become what we’re going to become,” he says. “Somebody said to me today, ‘We should have just stayed elitist.’ I was so shocked, and I tried to explain that it would have been impossible. What happened to our industry was bigger than us. There was no way we could have remained in our tiny little bubble of elitism.”

Filipowski says that the idea of being “open to possibility” is something that has been a part of KCD’s fibre since before he arrived at the firm, two years after its inception. Like many in the fashion industry, the executive earned his first position at the company with persistence and a certain amount of finesse.

The story goes like this: Filipowski read in The New York Times that KCD had signed Charivari, a then-buzzy upscale specialty store. He sent Kezia Keeble flowers in a Charivari bag with a note expressing both his congratulations for landing the account and interest in working for her. She called him back. "It all goes to back to Kezia," he says, recalling her keen interest in the spiritual practices that were in vogue in the mid-'80's, including the Light and EST. "She took me to the Light in Brooklyn and we would lie on the floor in a circle. You were supposed to get some light from somewhere. Little did she know that I would be out all night and go to EST straight from a club," he recalls with fondness. "I was 23, how could I say no to her? She's in a Chanel suit practicing the Light! So I had to say yes, I had to go. What else could I do? But it was so valuable because she had that belief that she could do anything and that anything is possible. Julie is even more that way than me."

When John Duka and Keeble passed away in 1989 and 1990, respectively, Filipowski and Mannion informally inherited the company, working alongside Paul Cavaco. By 1991, they were named partners and, in 1992, when Cavaco left KCD to help Liz Tilberis relaunch Harper's Bazaar as its fashion director, the agency was theirs. "I didn't really have any plan whatsoever to own an agency," he says. "But Julie and I learned how to run our business quite successfully by fortunately having similar values, a tremendous lack of ego, never forgetting service first and the high ideals of our founders."

By 1993, they had renamed the firm KCD, a nod to their predecessors. By 1999, KCD was expanding to Europe. "Tom Ford called me and said, 'Ed, I have a great idea. You're going to open an office in Paris and consult on the YSL public relations for me. Oh and, by the way, your husband [current Barneys New York chief executive Mark Lee] just accepted the CEO position, so you have no choice.' This was all at 9.03 in the morning," he laughs. "But I did. I told Julie that we were doing it. When we came to Paris, the idea of us always saying yes and coming back with the suggestion of another possibility was so unheard of there," he continues. "We were considered so aggressive just because we would not give up."

Paris is where KCD’s European headquarters are now based. The firm has also opened an office in London and, most recently, Los Angeles. However, Filipowski says the biggest shift in the trajectory of the business came around 2005, when the rise of digital media began to transform how fashion was consumed. “When that first hit us 10 years ago, it was water, water everywhere,” Filipowski recalls. “Everybody was trying to be everything. The eye of fashion wasn’t just us anymore. The eye of fashion was everybody.” It was in 2002 that KCD commissioned Eddie Mullon, a tech consultant to the firm, to develop the product now known as Fashion GPS, a digital platform that helps publicists do everything from sending invites to runway shows, to tracking samples. KCD’s employees were Mullon’s first guinea pigs, but, starting in 2006, others began to adopt the platform, earning Filipowski and his team praise for having the foresight to imagine how technology could help to transform the back-end of fashion.

At the same time, fashion was growing into a new pillar of popular culture, fed by reality television shows like Project Runway, the business of red carpet dressing and the rise of the celebrity fashion labels. "Today, we find ourselves acting as almost talent managers for our designers," Filipowski says. "They're interested in other ways they can communicate their brand or themselves through the entertainment world. It's something that we really want to begin to explore on a larger level." It's telling that, of the handful of designers who make appearances in Zoolander 2, nearly all of them work with KCD in some capacity, including Valentino Garavani, Alexander Wang, Tommy Hilfiger and Marc Jacobs. Filipowski says that, this time, it was a happy accident.

Runway shows have also become direct-to-consumer marketing spectacles — and much bigger productions, with increasingly elaborate sets and concepts (often designed to attract Instagram posts). “We hope to be the partner for brands who want to do this in a credible and appropriate fashion way,” says the executive. “We all know how, when you intersect fashion and entertainment, how so very wrong things can go.”

In 2010, KCD launched a digital division, which in many ways paved the way for its new entertainment and technology arm. But the firm’s new initiatives haven’t always met with success. Digital Fashion Shows, the firm’s once industry-only, streaming fashion show platform, was never widely adopted. But it sparked other ideas, says Filipowski, including an Instagram fashion show for designer Misha Nonoo. “[Digital Fashion Shows was] a breakthrough in the earlier digital times and a B2B solution for editors,” Filipowski says. “What we have found is the format for delivering shows is in constant evolution. The platform still exists and we are developing new ways to deliver shows digitally. The solutions are constantly changing.”

“Somewhere I learned to never talk about the past as if it should exist again,” Filipowski continues. “I thought that was very wise advice. Just keep talking about going forward. This is why Kezia returned my phone call when I sent her flowers. We’re fully open to possibility. We don’t say no, we say yes. It’s the principle of the agency — and it goes back to the very beginning.”

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