When Clara Jeon and Kenneth Loo were introduced to each other last July by editor Justin Min, they were both looking to start a new chapter in their careers, pun intended.
Jeon was a freelance fashion publicist who had worked both at agencies and in-house with brands and was frustrated by the many challenges young designers face trying to get their businesses off the ground. Loo, who founded the LA-based fashion and retail creative marketing firm Kenwerks in 2009 and has 15 years of experience, was trying to find a way to work with niche, designer brands. And they both were eager to think outside the PR box.
A lunch revealed their like-minded approach and kicked off many conversations, and on Dec. 1 of last year, they officially signed the requisite dotted lines to form Chapter 2: a public relations and brand strategy firm — separate but tied to Kenwerks — designed to provide emerging designers with a full suite of services: public relations, marketing, creative direction, e-commerce infrastructure, social media management and a showroom space. Jeon and Loo hit the ground running with their first three clients: Pyer Moss, En Noir and Made Gold. They enlisted Min as creative director and Jared Ralys as director of VIP services in Los Angeles. (Both hold the same titles at Kenwerks, with which Loo now splits his time).
Jeon was already working with the founding brands, but wasn’t able to support their growth in a freelance capacity as much as she knew they needed. "I was seeing that these designers have zero time to design because they're busy managing their websites, they're busy trying to sell, they're busy doing market appointments, they're busy doing PR appointments, they're busy doing their own social media," she said at Chapter 2's midtown studio. "You're almost inhibiting your own growth by trying to do everything yourself." Together she and Loo aim to take those tasks off a designer's plate in a seamless way — and starting with strong e-commerce sites for every client.
That's one of Loo's specialties. "It’s heartbreaking to watch [designers] just run themselves around and not be doing what they're best at, what their core competency is," he said. "They also get the benefit of really seeing what's working, what's not working — oftentimes… what [sells at] wholesale is the opposite of what's a slam dunk on e-commerce." That information is key for press purposes, too. "It's also an opportunity for me to educate Clara on what's working and not working, from an e-commerce perspective, because listen — press is great, but at the end of the day, the drive is to really sell products."
Jeon and Loo point to an intensive project with En Noir as an example of their full circle approach: In February, designer Rob Garcia met with press and buyers while Loo relaunched the website and Min styled a look book shoot. By the time a story went up on Hypebeast a week later, the En Noir site was ready for the traffic spikes and sales. The fall 2016 Pyer Moss runway show (styled by Erykah Badu and inspired by depression) was another high point for the young agency because the team had a clear idea of what they wanted to achieve and it translated in ample press coverage. "It was a turning point for the brand," said Jeon.
Jeon's loyalty to Chapter 2's designers is characteristic of how she and Loo want to interact with all clients — and one of the biggest ways the agency is differentiating itself. "There is definitely this predatory kind of 'blood thirst' with agencies where they really want to cycle through brands to get their rent paid and to get to the next brand," said Jeon. "Client retention is a huge issue, if you talk about what's broken in public relations," added Loo. He said agencies often fight to sign brands, only to pass the bulk of the work to assistants and "never really look at the account ever again." Young designers in particularly are vulnerable to being trapped into expensive, unsustainable contracts, said Jeon. "We don't ever want to lose our clients," she said.
Jeon and Loo prioritize a direct-to-consumer strategy not just to drive sales, but to free designers from having to conform for other retailers. “I think the hardest thing that designers feel pressured to do is obviously sell, and they start listening to a lot of people who tell them what to do design-wise,” said Jeon, who has seen brands change their approach to try to get into certain stores. “I still see younger brands that are coming up [being told], ‘Oh, if you guys want to have the success of Public School, you need to be more like this or you need to do this.’ And we’re in the opposite camp.” Jeon still advises on the trends that customers are looking for, but she never wants to push. "That was always what I envisioned for all of my brands: to have a space where they feel really encouraged creatively to have their own process, to say what they want to say… while on our end we could provide them the structure to really help grow them into a scalable business.”
To that end, Jeon and Loo rely on full transparency when it comes to their designers' businesses to better target their PR efforts — even if the pair, who laughingly describe their partnership as a marriage, don’t always agree on the methods. For example, Jeon values print placements more than Loo does. But, of course, online coverage drives digital traffic and sales — as does celebrity placements, which are never paid for. “It used to get all thrown into this bucket called brand recognition,” said Loo. “With analytics you can really see what impacts."
So what happens if a designer is heavy on talent but light on the funds to actually pay Chapter 2? "We just play an advisor role," said Jeon, focusing on e-commerce until the brand has grown enough to formally commit. But there's a limit to how many more clients the team of four can handle in the agency's intimate style. Since its launch, Chapter 2 has signed on Cotton Citizen and RVN and is talking to more brands that would "make sense sitting next to each other on the sales floor." Jeon is planning a few new hires in the coming months to support the growth.
"Our designers are referring us to other designers, which is really kind of unheard of because most clients are afraid to share who does their PR jobs, because they feel like they are going to go on the back burner," said Loo. He and Jeon said they could double their client list now, but they don't want to. "My dream is to never be that big powerhouse whatever, but I want us to always have a certain integrity in everything that we're doing," said Jeon. "I don’t think we want to be the biggest kid on the block, but we definitely want to be the coolest kid on the block. We want to always be that kid that has something interesting to say."
It all plays into the name. "Chapter 1, it's an introduction," added Loo. "In Chapter 2, that's when you really start telling the story."