Denise Williamson’s been a part of New York’s fashion industry for almost twenty years.
She made it through FIT, worked in house at Calvin Klein, fooled around with showroom ideas, networked her way into one of the most successful PR and branding companies in the city and now runs the showroom, Williamson PR and Williamson Consulting.
Our discussion was meant to revolve around her day to day life, but instead it took a few philosophical turns into the state of the fashion industry and what she sees in the future. Of course, we also talk about her clients, including Trovata, Jen Kao, Kimberly Ovitz, Raf by Raf Simons and Madeleine Thompson, her kid and the fun parts of working so hard.
So let’s start from the beginning. Where are you from?
Chicago, born and raised.
What’d you want to do when you were little?
I always wanted to own a clothing store.
Yeah. That’s why I moved to New York and went to FIT. That was always the plan.
How did it evolve into this?
Well my first job post-college was at Anne Klein. I was doing sales and it was like boot camp; we were there until like 9 or 10 every night until I was pirated away to work at Ellen Tracy. I was there for a few years, then Buckman for a year, which was even more like boot camp. And after that, I’ve worked at Joseph Abboud, Calvin and several other major fashion houses. Always heading up PR, merchandising, sales – a little bit of everything.
When did you decide PR was the thing for you?
I guess when I opened up the showroom, so 10 years ago. I wanted to work with designers who aren’t as savvy regarding the business aspect of it, work closely with them on branding their lines.
How do you brand something?
Well, I think it’s years of experience, but it’s also knowing the designer and recognizing what they’re trying to say and what they’re trying to get across with their collection. What market place do they want to penetrate? What customer are they trying to reach? When you’re launching a new brand, that initial entry into the market is extremely important because re-branding something is extremely difficult. So you have to listen very closely to what they’re trying to do. What publications are they interested in and what stores they want to be recognized in.
So back then, when you opened the showroom, did you do it because of all your creative friends, or did you have to go out and search for clients?
It was over margaritas actually. Seriously. I knew I wanted to do it for awhile, but I was sitting outside with my margarita and just realized it was time. I knew I wanted to work with designers and help them with the business side of their work and I just decided to go for it. I knew that I had the experience and the relationships to make it work. The idea came about in April and the showroom opened in August.
How many clients did you have when you started?
That’s a lot, though.
Yep. And I just kept meeting with designers, and it’s only grown since; now I have an LA showroom.
So how do you start? Details?
I found this space. I got really lucky and found an amazing space in SoHo.
Poppy Delevigne models in Madeleine Thompson’s lookbook, one of Denise’s newest clients
It was this space?
Right next door. Yeah, the landlord was incredible and there were a lot of doctors and lawyers and everybody else that wanted the space and she gave it to me. Then I started going around, meeting designers who were starting new collections and we started working together. And, I mean, Trovata I’ve been working with for six years now and the relationships just kept growing from there. We’ve launched some amazing brands since we’ve been open. We worked with Cloak, Rag & Bone, it’s been a wonderful experience and a lot of hard work.
I’m sure. What’s the hardest part?
You just don’t go home at the end of the night and shut off the Blackberry. It’s continuous. It’s 24/7. You wake up with it, you go to bed with it, you’re there on the weekends. I take it very seriously. For these designers, this is their life, it’s not just their collections, you know? It’s a lot of pressure. Especially when you’ve got fourteen of them and you’re developing their business. You’re the one that could keep them in business next season, or not. Obviously, it comes a lot from their talent too, but we take it seriously.
Let’s sort of go through a day in your life. I’m sure it changes daily, but what are the key points.
Well I love waking up early in the summer, around six thirty quarter to seven. I have my coffee, spend fifteen to twenty minutes organizing my day, checking my emails and planning my to do list is for the day. After that it’s organizing my daughter, she’s nine. I make her lunch, cook her breakfast, get her ready and to school by 8:30. Then I come home and get myself ready, answer more emails, maybe do yoga and go to the office.
So you are in the office at some point of everyday?
Try and give me an idea of a recent day.
Well, this morning I had a meeting at nine thirty and now I’m meeting you. Then we have a press meeting and I have a lunch appointment.
What’s a press meeting?
I meet with everybody on the staff to talk about new business and our current clients.
How many clients do you have right now?
Fourteen, ranging from lifestyle to men’s to women’s and accessories. So we’ll sit down and talk about our goals for the week and see what everyone’s working on. We always try to think of new innovative ways to launch our company and our designers, so we have great brainstorming sessions in a more formal of meeting every week that sort of continues on a day to day basis. Then I’ll come back to the office and meet with the sales division and then tonight we’re going to the Women of the Year Awards.
That’s a pretty packed day
Everyday! And then I’ll see my daughter at the end of the day and we’ll start all over again tomorrow.
So what about a Fashion Week day?
Well everything starts earlier on a Fashion Week day. We’ll get here around 8:30 and be here until midnight at least.
Denise Williamson’s Soho showroom
How far ahead of time do you start meeting with clients and sort of talking things over about the show?
Well, we’ve already started for Septemeber. We’re looking at sponsors and locations, deciding whether or not to stage a runway show or a presentation and meeting with our clients to review the collection and talk about merchandising. We try to gather all of the information we need for the best foundation.
Does the client come to you and say I want to have my show in this space, with this many people? Or is it more of you going to them and saying: these are your options?
We sit down with our designers and talk about what feels right for them. Is a presentation acceptable or should we move on to do a runway presentation. What is our budget for the season? What’s the overall message we’re trying to get across. It’s pretty collaborative.
Is one more or less stressful for you guys?
Presentations are always easier.
Everyone loves the presentations.
It seems like the editors are liking the presentations more, too. Don’t they?
I mean, I’ve only done three fashion weeks, but I love them. You don’t have to worry about missing the clothes because you get at least an hour in which to make it and you don’t sit in a seat for forty minutes doing nothing and freaking out that you’ll miss the next whatever.
Yeah exactly, I mean each one is a lot of work. For a presentation, you don’t just want a few models standing around. You might have to work harder to create an atmosphere, but it’s definitely more personal and less stressful for everybody. But you can’t beat the impact of a runway show, the music, the models, the pace – you walk out going wow that was amazing and you don’t forget it. So you know, if you have someone who wants to be high style and is really trying to get a strong message across I would tend to go for a runway. Budget wise, it’s much more affordable to do a presentation and I think that’s why a lot of designers are into them right now. Which is smart because they’re actually putting their money into their collection, and I think right now it’s really important for young designers to be innovative and offer a lot of fashion direction for their price point. The consumer’s becoming extremely educated and you really have to give them a lot for their dollar. It’s a great time to hone in on what your skills really are. There are enough basics out there – at any price point – so now the question is, how are you going to stand you out and what’s going to drive someone to buy your collection?
That’s a good philosophy. I feel like things are pretty bad, but when they get better they’ll be better than they were before because so much will have been weeded out.
I agree. It’s about adapting to this change right now. I think there are a lot of great opportunities out there.
You mentioned how much more educated the consumer is. As someone who has been in the business for so long, have you seen how that happened? I mean fashion is so much more accessible even than when I wanted to work in it.
Well, I think that there’s a lot more in the marketplace then when you were a kid. So many more designers have emerged. European designers have really had a strong impact on the American market consumer. American brands are going more overseas and the world is getting smaller. The consumer is being offered so much more. There wasn’t Top Shop, there wasn’t H&M there wasn’t Zara (well Zara’s been around for a while), Forever 21, you know? But it’s also about what the consumer wants; do they want disposable clothing or do they want something that’s going to sustain? You don’t just drop $300 on a dress to wear for the night anymore. You want to know if you can wear it next month and to dinner and and work and a wedding. The customer thinks about it so much more.
Do you think that makes it easier or harder for new designers to succeed?
Harder. But at the same time, it’s a good time for great designers to shine .
There are so many. And so many great designers doing really similar things.
Right, so I think it needed to be disturbed and those that have a very strong message will forge ahead and be successful. The one thing that I always tell my designers is that you have to know who your consumer is. You have to know who you’re designing for. We always sit down and do a profile on who she or he is. What’s your age group? What does she do on weekends? What kind of work is she doing? Her whole lifestyle. They have to have a muse a clear identity in their mind while designing a collection. You can’t be everything for everyone, you know, so you really have to focus on what your strengths are.
Seems like consistency is hard for a lot of younger designers.
They want to embrace and be the new trend but then it’s hard to look at a collection and then look at three collections earlier and know that it’s the same designer.
Yeah. But I think also the problem is that they get so many mixed messages out there. Everybody’s telling them, “you should do this,” or “you should do that. But you have to stay true to what you started off with and your design. I think you can always become more educated in the way that you do it by learning who the consumer is, but you have to stay to true to what you’re about. And when you grow to meet what the trend is, you have to do it within the realm in which you started.
How do you pick your clients? What does it take?
Well, a lot of times they pick us.
But you have to say, “Okay, yes, I think we’re a good fit.”
Right. Well, when I see the collection and meet the designer, I need to know if they’re really in it for the long haul. Do they see the collection growing? I’m a real stickler on quality. And are they receptive to ideas and suggestions? But I really think the most important thing, always, is that they really have a very strong idea of what their collection is about and where they see it going.
Steven Alan said the exact same thing. Somebody who’s message is crystal clear.
And you can tell when you meet a designer. You can really tell.
Do tons of people approach you all the time?
We get a lot of clothes. I really like mixing up domestic and international designers and making sure nobody competes in the showroom. Everybody has a different identity, which is important.
Do you travel a lot?
A lot. I love it.
Where do you go?
Paris, now four times a year for men’s and women’s markets. Milan. I love to travel personally. I’ve been to Tunisia for one of the clients, Amsterdam. I’ve travelled to Madagascar. I’ve travelled to Japan.
How often do you travel?
As often as I can. I get the three month itch.
Yeah, I do too!
Every three months I feel like I want to go somewhere. And I travel personally—Mexico, Costa Rica, Thailand—I just love it.
Where’s your favorite place?
My sister’s studying abroad there this year and I’m so jealous.
Oh, that’s great! I love Asia, too. Something about Asia. I’ve travelled through Burma, Bali, Thailand, everything. There’s just something very magical about it. I’ve taken my daughter, she’s gone around the world with me also. Her grandmother lives in Paris, so she goes twice a year. Our next trip that we’re really focusing on is we’re trying to get to Africa.
Where in Africa?
I think we’re going to South Africa.
Traveling’s so great. It’s shaped me so much as a person, having a pretty international family.
It makes you more open minded. Traveling is the best education that you can give yourself and your kid. For me, I pull her out of school for a couple of days because I think it’s a great education. The thing that I love the most is when you travel to different countries and you see the way that they do things, too, you can bring it back to your own business, your own company, and realize how you can do things more differently and be more unique.
Definitely. You talked about branding earlier & I know you’re actually working on developing a separate branding division. Can you explain?
It’s all having to do with fashion, it’s just the world of it. There are traditional ways of pitching and everything else which is really important, but we like to be on the forefront and learn how to do those things more innovatively and think of more, and new, ideas. Marketing yourself the right way is the most important thing right now. It’s something we really like to work on as we develop. Plus we love connecting the right people with the right production and right models and lighting and venues and everything like that.
So you’re like mentors?
Yeah! It’s fun; it’s really great.
It must be really rewarding.
Do you read a lot of blogs?
Yeah! You have to these days don’t you?
It’d appear that way! What do you look for in a blog?
It’s just something that’s creative. I’ll be honest, I don’t read a ton of blogs. I love Garance Dore and I like to look at the Sartorialist and Sea of Shoes – that little girl in Texas is so cute, but whoever’s mom bought them the YSL cage booties…I mean you’re kind of both, aren’t you? You’re a blog, but youre also newsworthy. I think what’s important for bloggers is that the person reading learns something from it. That, you’re learning something about something, whether it’s fashion or world events. The ones that I like, you know, you’re learning something from it.
Well we definitely try to embrace both. So anything exciting in the future? Any big news?
Well we’re really excited about the whole consulting and marketing aspect of the company right now, which I love. And it’s really interesting. I like taking a new brand, or even a brand that’s been around, and change it around. There are a lot of brands out there that just need a face lift to turn around and meet today’s market.
Cool. Well, thank you! Will you answer our random questions?
PLACE: Costa Rica
DRINK: Mojitos. Or martini, four olives, dirty.
BOOK: Dreams From my Father
MOVIE: Slumdog Millionaire
SONG: Good Day Sunshine, I sing it with my daughter. And I love the girl on the Slumdog CD.
MODEL: I don’t have one.