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When you're running your own high-power fashion PR firm, you need to have a certain level of backbone. It's that, plus a healthy dose of ambition, that has gotten Kelly Cutrone where she is today.
The founder of People's Revolution knows a thing or two about what it takes to make it in fashion, and she's shared that wisdom both on TV (Kell on Earth, anyone?) and in the two books she's co-authored. Whether it's firmly denying Kanye West's fashion influence or providing guidance as a judge on America's Next Top Model, Cutrone has become one of the most vocal and visible members of the industry.
Racked caught up with Cutrone to talk about some of her worst PR mistakes, the decision to start her own firm, and how she handles being a working mom.
How did you get into fashion PR?
I've been doing PR basically my whole life. My first job was as an assistant at a PR company. From there, I became the director of PR at Spin and then I started my own company with Jason Weinberg. I opened People's Revolution in 1996, and I started with a couple clients and diversified into hospitality and fashion. It all comes back to how you start stuff at the beginning. I was super thorough and had an infectious energy which I think, no matter what company you start, is really the way to do your best.
How did you land your first clients?
I've never chased a client ever, I've never solicited—I'm not really good at that. I'm not a pitcher. I just started working and people started calling me. It was word of mouth. It's like having a cool little flower shop on the corner and not doing advertisements.
Why did you want to start your own firm?
To be honest, I don't really like to work for other people. I make way more money owning my own company, I don't want to have to answer to anyone, and I like being an entrepreneur. I've been offered tons of director of communications jobs over the years. It's like the difference between being a cop and a bounty hunter: I still like being a bounty hunter.
Photo: Getty Images
Are there any downsides to working for yourself?
Yes! When something goes wrong, it's your fault. Even if you get mad at your managing team or you're upset with your assistants, really the only person to blame if something's not working in the company that you own is yourself. That's definitely a downside. There's also a lack of comfort, since there's always a thought that your company might downsize.
What was one of the most important moves you've made in your career?
I think risk-taking and calling the shots and doing what I felt intuitively has always been a good thing. Whether it's to fire people or hire people, I've been in business for 18 years, so I've made a lot of decisions. The most important thing is that I've done what I felt to be right. I've been a part of a lot of victories, so there's a tremendous learning base that comes from that.
What are the best and worst parts of your job?
I get to look into art and inspiration and be surrounded by gorgeous, gorgeous stuff all day long. That's a really nice part of my job. The other thing is that I work for myself, so if I wanna go at 7:30 in the morning, I have a key to the office, and if I wanna go at noon, I can. I have freedom to book my lifestyle. I can come and go as I please. I'm still responsible for the bottom line, but I'm a responsible person. The worst part about my job is the amount of misperceptions and things that can go wrong in communications. Sometimes it's like playing a really intense game of Telephone on a daily basis. You start out wanting to say one thing, and by the time it gets moved around, it comes out completely different.
Do you have any PR disaster stories?
One time we made a typo in the RSVP phone number on Jeremy Scott's fashion show invite. That number turned out to be for the Red Cross Survival and Disaster Rescue Squad and the guy's name was Muhammad. So everyone would call to RSVP and they'd hear, "This is Muhammad from the Red Cross, the number one response team, leave a message." And I was like, "Holy shit, are you fucking kidding me?" It turned out that Muhammad went on vacation with his family to Niagara Falls, and we tried to break his password code throughout the night. Eventually we called the Red Cross, who got him to change his voicemail to, "This is Mohammed, if you're calling for Jeremy Scott please dial this number." I've had to bribe postal workers to remove 3,000 invitations from the mailroom because we miscalculated the postage years ago. I also got fired by Yigal Azrouël for letting Ashley Duprè, Eliot Spitzer's mistress, into his show. And there was this one time we did the Agent Provocateur opening in LA, and I ordered some petit fours and champagne and chocolate-dipped strawberries for the editors. At one point during the party, I looked around and all the editors' lips were stained black from the icing. Everyone was laughing. If you work in my office, and we're doing anything in the dessert category, I'll scream, "No black icing!"
Photo: Getty Images
What are some of the biggest industry no-nos?
First of all, the misuse of the word couture. If you're like, "Well I do couture," I say, "Well, are you a member of the Federation of Couture? No? Then here's a newsflash: You're not a couture brand." Next, I think my biggest thing with my brands is giving them realistic expectations. Because the whole system has changed, you know? If a client's gonna say, "Well, why don't I have more reviews?" I would say, "Well, how many reviewers are left?" I think the New York Times has three or four people and there's 400 shows. Style.com—that's not guaranteed. Women's Wear Daily used to be guaranteed, now it's not. Half of the regional fashion departments have been knocked out due to budgets. I think that's the most important thing that I do with my clients. I like to be real. If they want to be in Vogue, I say, "Show me your Vogue product. Vogue is a very specific brand. Oh, you don't have Vogue product? Okay, so why should you be in Vogue?"
Why did you decide to go into TV, starting with The Hills in 2008?
I was in my office when I got a phone call from an editor at Vogue, asking if I'd be on a show called The Hills. I knew what it was, but I had never seen it. That show came at a weird time because there was this real sense of elitism in the fashion industry. The attitude was, "Do not mingle with the public." Everything was closed doors. So at the time when I was invited to go on the show, there was a shift. I thought, "Why would Anna Wintour put her baby, her protected Teen Vogue on this?" And then I thought, "You know what, there's gotta be something to this." I looked into it deeper, and I realized that the advertising was like $300,000 for 15 seconds, which is a huge amount. I was like, "I can distribute my clients' messages for free! Through MTV! This is genius!" So I did it for free, and I thought it would be great for my clients. I never thought that eight, nine years later I'd still be on TV. I never thought that I would go from doing it for free to making the same amount in 12 weeks as I do in 52. It's an incredible amount of money, but I'm not telling you how much it is.
Does TV show who you really are?
I don't really care. I do think that The Hills saw a huge influx in public relations majors all throughout the United States. I know that my career's been studied in PR classes around the country. Do some people like my persona? Yes. Do some people hate it? Yes. Do I really care? No. I was already a big girl by then, and I'm very, very, very focused. I don't really care what people think. I do think that women in particular are treated super harshly. If you called other groups derogatory names the way people speak about successful women, you'd be shut down.
Photo: Getty Images
What's it like being a working mom?
I think moms are overworked whether they're working moms or stay-at-home. My mantra is to remember what's important and to keep your eye on the ball. My eye on the ball is about financially supporting, not only my daughter, but my mom and then the people that I employ. So sometimes that's through meditation. Sometimes that's having dinner with my child during the week. I struggle to have dinner with my child every night. I'll tell you, its my biggest regret. I would love to be able to say that I eat dinner with my daughter Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. I eat dinner with her every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday every meal and I cook, but I miss two nights a week with my kid. Just two, there's no way around it. She sits at the table without me. Most working moms in New York will tell you that they run home to see their kids before they fall asleep. It's just part of the deal.
Do you think the PR industry is friendly to working mothers?
I think it depends on the worker. To be honest with you, I'm the only one in my office who had the baby. I think that there's a lot of pressure in the PR world. I think it's hard to be a working mother in any job. My daughter starts school in the middle of Fashion Week, and I go to bed at 3:30 in the morning because I'm doing a seating chart. Am I still doing dropoffs on that first day of school? Absolutely.
Were there mistakes you had to learn the hard way?
Yeah, of course, there's a ton of mistakes! One, your employees are not your family. That's a mistake. When you start out and think you're all in this together, well, you're not. I own the company and everyone else is passing through, that's the truth. Is that sad? Yeah. Do I miss some people I used to work with? Sure. Do I accept the fact that people aren't going to stay and work the amount of time that I do? Did it take me seven years to figure it out? Yeah. Two, you better have a fucking great contract or you're gonna get fucked. Yeah, that took me a long time to learn, too. I've learned a lot about the law from being in this for so long. I've learned a lot about accounting and getting stiffed the hard way, like trusting a client who owes $30,000 and is like, "No, it's cool, my dad's gonna front me cash, I'm totally gonna pay you," and then they scoot off with everything in the middle of the night. Has that happened 100 times? Yes. There's a very serious backend to this business which is accounts receivable. PR people and other outside vendors are usually the last to get paid. That's why I'm so honest and unfiltered about my mistakes. I share them openly because those have become great teachings for me now, and I want young people to know the business.
What advice would you give to people looking to get into PR?
If you don't like competition, don't work in PR. If you shy away from competition, this is not the profession for you. You don't compete against your competitors, you compete against yourself. I've never in my life tried to outdo another publicist, ever. I don't try to do that at all. But if you're not competitive and you don't like to work hard, you don't like being tested 'til the ends of time, this is not the right job for you.