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Sign of the Fashion PR Times: Black Frame Closes Its Doors

Fashion PR is increasingly diverging along data-driven and creative lines. For Black Frame founder Brian Phillips, closing the business will allow him to focus on the latter.
Opening Ceremony Autumn/Winter 2015 | Source: Opening Ceremony
  • Chantal Fernandez

NEW YORK, United States — One of the New York fashion industry's go-to public relations agencies is closing up shop.

Black Frame, the 15-year-old agency that represents brands like Opening Ceremony and Rodarte that were key to a new generation of cool kids in fashion at the beginning of this century, will shut down at the end of February, founder Brian Phillips said. The decision was first reported by Vogue Business. The business currently employs 20 people.

Known for his art-world and Hollywood connections, Phillips started Black Frame in 2004 when he was only 24 years old. His first clients were Dior Homme, under Hedi Slimane, and Visionaire, where he had previously worked. His longtime and most closely associated clients include Opening Ceremony, Rodarte and Nike.

The PR business has changed dramatically in recent years, as fashion brands' needs have changed in the e-commerce era. The traditional approach, where separate companies handle public relations and creative marketing, looks increasingly out of step at a time when social media has superseded the pay-for-play relationship with the press that once kept brands in the public eye.

Many brands and agencies have struggled in the transition. In recent years, PR firms have merged, forming super-agencies that span multiple industries and countries, or added additional skill sets to their offerings. Just this week, London’s The Communications Store announced a new advisory board, touting access to experts in the fields of technology, media and sustainability.

Meanwhile, other publicists have struck out on their own, starting smaller agencies that pitch themselves as operating more nimbly and with less overhead.

Phillips said he no longer wants to be “a PR guy,” but will instead work as an independent consultant in the fields of creative direction, film production and advertising projects. He has taken on these sort of projects under a sister business to his communications agency, Frame Work, which started in 2015.

The most notable Frame Work project was a conceptual fragrance campaign for Kenzo directed by Spike Jonze starring Margaret Qualley, which won awards in the advertising field. Kenzo was a Black Frame client during the years Opening Ceremony’s Humberto Leon and Carol Lim were its creative directors.

Frame Work is also shutting down.

“It is incredibly difficult to find a one-to-one relationship between PR and dollars and cents in terms of revenue, and that’s not why I did this business,” Phillips said. “It was about creating an emotion and a feeling and telling a story.”

Today, brands have to think and act like media companies, and they are spending more money on direct, paid marketing and demanding more data-driven results from public relations agencies. There is less appetite for the kind of creative risks that can have the biggest payoffs in PR — but also swallow large budgets without clear returns on investment.

“Clients oftentimes, when they approach us … they referenced and cited the fact that we were in the creative space as a really important allure for them, but then a lot of them didn’t take advantage of that,” Phillips said. “There is a definite difference between the [key performance indicators] world of PR and then the world of creating a public image and an impression.”

Phillips described his ideal approach as generating storytelling ideas for clients, versus reacting to existing creative content. But there is still resistance to that approach from many clients, who are not structured to think about their communications in an integrated way and need more help with data-driven marketing.

“If I were starting a PR business today, I would probably consider — how do I use [artificial intelligence] and data to guide to decision making?” he said.

Before closing, Black Frame will help clients transition through fashion month and find new representation.

Phillips, who is also the creative director of Garage magazine, said he considered selling the agency but ultimately decided not to because a deal would require him to stay on and “plunged me into being PR in a more intensive way.”

“I started as a one-man-band and I’m going back to a one-man band for this period of time,” he said.

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