There are few sectors of the economy that offer as wide and interesting a range of career opportunities as fashion. "How I Broke Into Fashion" offers a first-hand account of how top fashion professionals built their careers in the industry, tracing their path to success. For industry advice or more jobs like this, visit BoF Careers.
NEW YORK, United States — As the founder of PR Consulting, Pierre Rougier is a behind-the-scenes advisor to some of fashion’s biggest players, from Calvin Klein and Dries Van Noten to Mansur Gavriel and Christopher Kane. Headquartered in New York, Rougier's agency also has offices in Paris and Los Angeles.
A former political science student from Bordeaux, France, Rougier moved to Paris in the late 1970s, where he landed a public relations job working for Hermès, Yohji Yamamoto and Margiela. He moved to New York in 1993 where he was appointed communications director at Onward Kashiyama, a Japanese apparel brand that also represented Helmut Lang and Alexander McQueen.
Rougier launched PR Consulting in 1997, representing the then-relatively unknown Narciso Rodriguez, followed by Balenciaga. Known for his keen eye for talent and for being fiercely protective of his clients, Rougier has been instrumental in raising the profile of brands such as Proenza Schouler and Hood By Air.
BoF: What attracted you to work in fashion, and specifically, PR?
PR: I fell into it by chance. I had never dreamt about working in fashion but I got a summer job at Hermès, learning how to properly wrap gifts in the basement. I wanted to stay on to make money so I joined the switchboard, answering telephone calls. Hermès was starting to do fashion shows around that time and one day, they said, "Do you want to go and lick envelopes on the PR floor?" and I said, "Sure! I’ll do that too." So I started working in the PR department. I took a liking to it, and the person working there took a liking to me, so I stayed on. After a while, the PR director offered me a job at Hermès in London, which I took.
BoF: How did you continue to develop your early career in public relations?
PR: I moved back to Paris after a year-and-a-half. I had a friend who worked at Yohji Yamamoto, and they had an opening in the PR department. To be honest, I was not especially aware of Yohji at the time, although it was the '80s and there was a momentum around Yohji. My first perception was, "oh my god, these people are crazy!" But I took a liking to it, because I loved the intensity of it all. I loved the look of what Yohji was doing at the time and I knew that fashion was a big business. I thought that the crossover between creativity and business and the outside world, having to build perception and image in order to sell product, was very interesting.
I worked at Yohji for about two years. Because I spoke English, I quickly became in charge of dealing with a lot of international companies. I was too junior to be doing it, but that’s how I became more involved and progressed into a more senior position. We’d also be packing boxes for days and days. All the collections would come in and it would be carnage. You’d spend weeks consigning, but that was all part of the job.
If you come in and think that the tasks you’re assigned are menial and not interesting, it’s a mistake.
BoF: What specific skills do you believe are impressive in a young PR at the beginning of their career?
PR: What we do has changed so dramatically since those days. I think the skills that are required now are different. Public relations wasn’t about being social. It wasn’t about going out to parties and being "the face" of the brand. You were an anonymous person dressed in black who was supposed to be working for the good of the company. In fact, it was even a little frowned upon if you were going out to parties and being very social.
When people come in and start working [at PR Consulting], a lot of them think that they have to be very social and present on Instagram. It’s a part of it, but the reality is that you need to take on your tasks, whatever it is, and do it well. We have lots of young people joining the company, and if you do everything you’re being asked to do, it will be noticed. That’s the key. If you come in and think that the tasks you’re assigned are menial and not interesting, it’s a mistake. Doing a good job will get you to the next one, and the next one.
BoF: What are the key characteristics you look for when hiring employees?
PR: You need to have an interest in fashion if you want to work for a fashion division. You have to show an interest in whatever branch you’re going to be applying yourself to, whether that’s hospitality, entertainment or lifestyle. It seems like a basic thing to say, but there are so many people who are coming in for a job and they’re not interested in it. If you want to work in the fashion division, the key is to be interested in designers, be interested in the business of fashion, and be interested in how the industry is evolving.
You also have to be aware of what is required of you. It’s great to have good social media and interpersonal skills, but office skills are important, too. Don’t bet on the fact that just because you’re very sociable and people will love you, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to be a good PR. Remember: it’s not about you. It’s about how you can apply your skills to benefit the brand.
You’re entrusted with translating the designer’s vision to the world, so you have to commit yourself to it.
Over the years, the line between PR and marketing has blurred tremendously. Twenty years ago, all you needed was a fashion show image and a lookbook of the designer’s show. Today, media and content creation have become so important, and a lot of things have become paid content. If you want to get into a career in PR, you need to have a clear understanding of that. You have to be aware of what marketing is and how it works, because you have to be able to advise your client on how they can reach a certain audience, and it’s no longer just through print and images.
BoF: Tell me about a favourite project and the lessons of success you took away?
PR: After Yohji Yamamoto, I went to work with Martin Margiela for a while. It was at the beginning of when he was launching his brand. I find it interesting to talk about it now, because I was so young and so unaware of what we were really doing and what Martin and Jenny [Meirens, Margiela’s business partner] wanted to achieve. I would be lying if I said that I had a full understanding of the ambition and magnitude of that project. We were a very small team and we had no money, so we were working day and night to make things happen.
I didn’t always understand why they were so adamant about this and that. But I learned that when you work in PR and communications, you’re entrusted with translating the designer’s vision to the world, so you have to commit yourself to it. It’s a very important thing that we're doing, whether it’s a for commercial brand or a more niche designer brand. You have to embrace it and really believe in it. Sometimes designers at that level of creative output have an overall vision that we as PR people don’t necessarily have or see.
Fast forward to today, people are still talking about [the Margiela "White Show"] 20 or 30 years later. It’s great to have been a part of it, although I don’t want to take too much credit for it. The point is that you have to commit yourself to these projects and understand that you’re a part of it. Enjoy the ride and provide what you can.
BoF: What do you think is essential to being successful in the fashion industry?
PR: You need to have lots of passion and respect for designers. I tell students to look at Rei Kawakubo’s latest show. Take some time to look at it again and again. Study it and try to understand why Rei Kawakubo is who she is today. Try to feel the emotion and understand why she’s still so relevant.
At the centre of the fashion industry, in my mind, are designers. Of course, there are business partners and people with other skills, but at the centre are the designers, because we would have no fashion without them. Try to understand how they work and then understand how you can broaden their reach.
I’m very happy to see more and more people who are interested in working in fashion. When I started out, fashion was seen as a fluffy thing, even though it was already a huge business. I think that people get the message now that fashion is a real industry and it means big business. I’m very grateful for this.
This interview has been edited and condensed.