How Brian Phillips Built One of Fashion’s Most Powerful PR Firms Straight Out of College

Now, with the launch of Framework, the Black Frame founder is bringing his specific, unwavering point of view to creative projects.
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Now, with the launch of Framework, the Black Frame founder is bringing his specific, unwavering point of view to creative projects.
Brian Phillips. Photo: Billy Farrell Agency 

Brian Phillips. Photo: Billy Farrell Agency 

In early July, Kenzo’s Carol Lim and Humberto Leon debuted their latest film, a collaboration with Gregg Araki. The director is best known for the 1990s Teen Apocalypse Trilogy, a series of black comedies that are now considered cult classics. The short film, “Here Now,” is welcome fun, rendered in Araki’s signature style. Characters are outfitted in bombers, jeans and sweaters from Kenzo’s fall collection, in colors and prints electric enough to pop against the deadpan dialogue and physical comedy.

On Friday, July 3, Brian Phillips — Lim and Leon’s longtime publicist — organized a party to celebrate “Here Now” at an open-air movie theater in Paris. It drew an impressive guest list, including Rufus Wainwright, Simon Porte Jacquemus and Lily McMenamy. Garnering plenty of press, it was yet another win for Leon and Lim, two of the most popular, in-demand designers in the fashion industry.

Phillips certainly excelled at his day job that Friday night, but “Here Now” marked something bigger for him. On the credit role, he’s listed as a producer, while Framework — the creative offshoot of his public relations firm, Black Frame — got a nod for art direction. Over the past year, the team at Framework has art directed several campaigns and videos under the this new moniker. There was a Monique Péan campaign starring Liya Kebede; a Colin Dodgson-lensed series — featuring Gia Coppola— for Rodarte and Superga’s upcoming collaboration; and a Collier Schorr-shot campaign for Opening Ceremony and Intel’s MICA bracelet.

While each of these projects were developed for brands that already work with Phillips on the PR side, Black Frame and Framework operate as different entities. Right now, Framework is a modest operation, consisting of Phillips, a senior creative manager, and an assistant graphic designer. “We’re very church-and-state about these two things,” he explains over coffee in the lobby of the Highline Hotel, just a few minutes away from his West Chelsea offices. “When the time comes to share information, we do, but they really are such different mindsets.”

Phillips is taking a leap with Framework, which is not out of character. Unlike most of New York’s most powerful PRs, he didn’t work his way up the agency ranks, building enough loyalty among clients along the way to be able to break out on his own years down the line. Instead, he began interning at Visionaire while studying art at Columbia University in the late 1990s. The experience had a significant influence on his trajectory. “They were so tapped into this really interesting spectrum of art, fashion and entertainment,” he says. “I thought, ‘I like this. It feels right.’”

Visionaire co-founder Cecilia Dean recommended Phillips for a job at startup production company Fatal Art Syndicate, which criss-crossed between the art, music and fashion worlds. There, he was given plenty of opportunities to see through projects from start to finish. “I was left to do things on my own a little bit,” he says. “I never thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to start my own business.’ But it was priming me for that.” He convinced the founders to move their offices underneath Opening Ceremony, which was owned by his friends Lim and Leon. “That was such an amazing hub,” he says. “When I was there, I was reconnected with Visionaire, which was down the street. I met Libertine and produced their show, and did all this stuff under the auspices of that company, which was not my own.”

Soon enough, Fatal Art Syndicate dissolved. Yet Phillips kept getting hired independently of any business or entity. Most notably by Hedi Slimane, who hired him to consult on an event for an exhibition at PS1. Afterward, Slimane and his team asked if Phillips would be interested in working with the brand on a more permanent basis. He flew to Paris to meet with Dior CEO Sidney Toledano and struck a deal. “It was amazing for Hedi to have that sort of faith in young people,” Phillips says. “To know that this person has the right sensibility, no matter the level of experience. So much of PR is being attuned to what’s going on in popular culture. I think [Slimane] specifically liked the fact that there was no reference point to something that would cloud the approach.”

Black Frame’s first two PR clients were Dior Homme and Visionaire. Not a bad way to start. “It was fake it to make it a little bit,” Phillips concedes. Yet he also seems to be born with the kind of confidence that nearly guarantees success. He knows what he likes, and when to say yes or say no.

From there, Phillips began taking on compelling one-off projects. “It was a great position to be in, to have Dior as a client. It wasn’t like being hand to mouth in the beginning,” he says. “But I certainly knew nothing about starting a business, so there was a lot of things I screwed up.”

One thing he didn’t screw up, however, was maintaining a certain level of standards when it came to picking and choosing clients. The best way to describe Phillips' approach is considered. “I wanted to be really careful about the kinds of things that we were doing,” he says. “ At the beginning it was very slow, one or two fashion shows here or there.”

Next, he signed Rodarte and Acne -- two brands coming into their own in the mid aughts. Phillips helped usher them in. “When I started working with Acne, they were only in two doors in America,” he says. Opening Ceremony came next, and then art-world clients, including what was then-known as the Friedrich Petzel Gallery (now Petzel) and Matthew Marks. A fashion PR agency entering the art world was a “hard sell at first,” he says. “In fashion, you have a couple of successes and people start coming to you. In art, I had to really prove to those clients that we were serious.”

In his first decade running his own firm, Phillips has developed a knack for balancing serious, sometimes niche, fashion and art clients with grander brands, most notably Nike and the Frieze art fair. His personal attraction to the two ends of the cultural spectrum feed into that. During our conversation, Phillips says something about Slimane that offers plenty of insight into his own way of working. “It was this idea of connecting to the most powerful voice in media, whether it be a star or a magazine, but also to something niche, cool, that nobody would expect,” Phillips said. “[Slimane] was focused on those two things and everything else in the middle was thrown away.”

Bringing on Frieze was a sign to Phillips that Black Frame was growing up. “It’s never been about building the biggest fashion PR agency,” he says. Instead, it was about “doing interesting things that are going to keep enabling me to learn more and become more fluent in these different fields.”

Framework came out of that desire to keep trying new things. “We have this knowledge and information about what our clients want and what they’re about,” he says “Who better, in a way, to be part of the formation of their identity through creative and visuals?” Working with Lim and Leon on reestablishing the creative identity of Kenzo sparked him to build an entirely new department within his own agency. (Phillips helped bring in Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari of Toilet Paper, who have collaborated with Lim and Leon on campaigns, editorials and more.) “That was the catalyst for [Framework],” he says. The offshoot’s first official project was Péan’s ad campaign. “There are so many amazing art directors and there is no way we’re going head to head with many of them,” he says. “It’s about finding our own approach.”

For Phillips, a big part of that is video. Specifically, narrative fashion content like Kenzo’s collaboration with Araki. “There’s a big opportunity for us to contribute something in scripted content,” he says. “Fashion needs to take that step into storytelling in a much deeper and authentic way than a behind-the-scenes video of an ad campaign. Those things have their place, but I don’t think the public is going to pay attention forever. Big brands have ventured into [storytelling] in the past, but I predict there will be brand-endorsed feature films at some point that don’t have that clear stamp on them. You already see Prada doing Wes Anderson and Roman Polanski shorts.”

With Araki, it was important to Phillips and the team to make sure his film and the print advertising were in tandem. “What you’re going to see in a magazine is related to the film,” he says. Phillips wants to tackle more projects like these. Someday, he’d like to produce a feature film.

The goal of Framework right now is to work with all different sorts of brands -- many outside of fashion -- on telling their stories in a more nuanced way. “I want to make sure that we’re clear and careful about how this sits differently than what’s already out there,” he says.

As for would-be entrepreneurs who are eager to follow in Phillips’s path? His best advice is that if you feel strongly about an idea, try it. “When I look at designers that we work with, they inspire me to be innovative. Two of the [teams] that I’ve worked for the longest--Humberto and Carol and Kate and Laura--are embarking on journeys that are totally unknown to them. That’s something I value and respect.”