Here at Fashionista, we're passionate about covering all the ways that the industry is changing for the better. That's why we wanted to honor the forces working tirelessly to reshape what it means to work in fashion and beauty. With our annual series, Fashionista Five, we'll be doing just that by highlighting (you guessed it) five people whose work we've admired over the past year.
Sandrine Charles knew early on she wanted a career in public relations. And as soon as that clicked — in college, thanks to her godmother — she pivoted from pursuing a pre-law track to securing internships at communications firms. However, as she tells it, her trajectory wasn't totally straightforward.
Charles graduated during the recession, so in her early professional years, she just followed the job opportunities. That meant that she hopped between agency and in-house roles, traditional PR and social media work.
"I mean, if I was tired, I should have given up because by the time I landed back in agency, I was mid-level," she explains, over the phone in August. "I just worked really hard. By the time I left one agency, I had brought in new clients and they had let me lead the men's division. I left as a director."
It was this back-and-forth, though, that set her up to where she is now. She was able to find and hone her strengths, for instance: After going back and forth between PR and social roles for a while, she returned to an agency and remembers her bosses saying, "'Oh, you're good at this. Do you want to try that?' So I worked on Carhartt, I worked on G-Shock, I helped out with Doc Martens." She rebuilt out her editorial network and saw an opportunity to bring in clients like Kith and Noah, which would then help her develop a reputation for repping buzzy menswear brands.
"It was then that I realized," Charles continues, "'I can do this. And I'm really good at doing this.'"
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She's carved her own path at Sandrine Charles Consulting, the public relations firm she founded in 2015. (Clients include Daily Paper, Bobblehaus, Sneakersnstuff and KNC Beauty.) And this year, she, along with Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner, set out to ensure that others like her can not only build successful careers in fashion, but also get equity, feel represented and be heard in the industry, by co-founding the Black in Fashion Council.
"I can't call out one thing because everything needs work — whether it's HR processes, diversity in C-suite, not only bringing in diverse people but also helping them climb the ladder within these companies... There's just so many categories to tackle," Charles says of the work she, Peoples Wagner, the Black in Fashion Council's executive board and the different subcommittees they've created to tackle different areas of the industry are actively doing. The Black in Fashion Council launched with 38 companies on board (including Fashionista) in August, but that's just the beginning. Charles says there are many more conversations happening behind the scenes, with colleagues and potential partners alike — something that Charles says makes her feel hopeful about the future of fashion.
Ahead, Charles takes us through her career trajectory, from interning to starting her own company, plus the most important lessons she's learned along the way. Read on.
What drew you to public relations? When were you first introduced to communications as an industry?
Through my godmother. She used to work at a label. I moved to the city and had a lot of access to concerts, and I was intrigued initially on who the people outside were. When she told me, I did a little bit of research and for two years — four semesters — I did internships. I wanted to learn if it was possible. I did corporate, I did agency, I did media. I wanted to see what those comms departments looked like and see if I liked it. I originally was going to school to be a lawyer.
What made you want to focus on fashion, specifically?
I just enjoyed the experiences I had at the fashion agency. I liked how I could do a variety of things and work with a variety of clients and really encourage them to do a lot. So I shifted my focus to that, but also kept my open eye to consumer stuff.
What was your first fashion PR job?
I graduated in a recession and while I was trying to find a job, I wasn't necessarily getting them. For me, that was a larger issue because, I thought, 'You've invested all this time. You've done all the internships, you're doing the work.' I started there, [before] finding my second position that I loved, at Haddad. I was more in the marketing department, so I got to explore that. I worked across kids for them and was learning the ways that in-house brands communicate and how I wanted to communicate to my peers, what I thought were interesting conversations.
Since then, you've worked both at agencies and in-house. Having jumped back and forth, what have you learned? What have been the takeaways that have helped you as you continued to build your career?
Take the best and forget the rest. There are obviously unsavory moments that I don't want to highlight or support by giving people a platform, but I also think that those experiences helped shape how I treat my team and interact with clients, because there was more of a learning curve there.
For me, it's more so learning the strategies [of agency versus in-house] and seeing how they are received — like, I purposely am not doing a 100-page deck because I don't know who wants to [read that]. I like to be clear and concise and also super honest in my communication with my clients. When I create a database, it includes attainable and aspirational goals that we can work on season to season. And then as we reach those points and make those check marks, we're able to come together and go, 'Okay, this was for us. We're definitely on the right path for where we want to be in the coming years.'
What made you want to go out on your own and start Sandrine Charles Consulting?
I already had my LLC and everything set up, because I thought I was freelancing for the rest of the year. An editor actually was the one that said, 'I believe in you. You should definitely do this.'
I think for me, it was also knowing how to build it and operate as a department. The fact that I already knew how to do so was also [important] to me because it was already something that I had ingrained in me. I knew you had to do it. So of course, I started building my team slowly — and not a large team, I'll never have a large team, [unless] things change on the largest scale of everything. I'm on every account. I'm able to speak to everything we're doing. I'm also able to help my team work in a very concise way so that they're also getting their wins and getting their roses. You don't have to wait until you're a manager to do so. And their skillsets are at the same level as other people. So of course we want more clients and I'm open to more clients, but at this point I don't need to see numbers for the workload we have.
I just knew that if I were an agency and I was starting a department, what are the first things I need to do? How do I need to set this up? Those are the steps I took immediately.
Is there anything you wish you'd known before you started your own company?
I knew it would be a lot of work — I mean, it's a lot of work, [but] I guess dealing with the backend more. When you're at a different company, you get to pop in and out of different departments as you do your job. But when it's your own company, you have to be 100% invested and involved in finance and legal and all the nuances that goes into operations.
My first hire was my finance guy, who I've known for years. My second was a lawyer. My third was an assistant. I knew that the most important things were the operations — no one had to teach me that. For me, it was common sense. I'm not proficient in QuickBooks, so how can I have a team if I don't know how to pay them? Then, having a lawyer because someone has to read and edit contracts and speak to clients. It was very important that I had all those structures in place.
How do you pitch Sandrine Charles Consulting to potential clients?
Luckily, 98% of the businesses are referral. Maybe that'll change in the coming years — I mean, everything's so different, but I've been lucky to have that network of people who have referred me for every client we have.
What have been some of your favorite projects that you've worked on since going out on your own?
We've worked on a lot of cool things. I mean we're small, so I try not to highlight one over the other. But we launched an ALife and Crocs collaboration — ALife is still a client, have been since after my first year. We've done really fun collaborations with Sneakersnstuff, they've been a client for three years. With Daily Paper, we're working on a lot of cool collaborations and releases. I launched this auction for this gentleman selling his entire Supreme selection, which we ended up partnering with Sotheby's for. I definitely enjoy brands where I have connectivity to the entire team, so those are some examples of that.
A lot of your work has been in the menswear space. How did that happen?
It was actually what I received as clients when I went back to agency. A lot of the brands they were giving me were these specific types, so I ended up continuing on in that category. I really do enjoy the teams I get to work on and the releases I get to work on. I definitely have become an expert in that space, so I have a level of comfort [in it], but there's always a challenge. For me, carving out that [specialty has been] great.
What's your favorite part of your job?
I really get excited when I get coverage. It's like, you do all the work and you just want to see where it lands. Anytime I secure a large feature, even now as I'm super senior, it's still a great moment that I love to share because I like the storytelling of it. Storytelling is a big component of why I did change my career and go into PR, because you get to follow the story.
I think that is the driving force on why I do what I do: I love that my clients are happy after successful launches and doing a good job. That makes the work all worth it.
This year, you added another title to your resume: co-founder of the Black in Fashion Council. How are you continuing to build that out, now that you've announced the group's initial partners?
Since June, we've been having dozens of conversations with various brands, downloading them on what we're doing and how we're doing it. Lindsay [Peoples Wagner] and I were very strategic in terms of creating a plan that shifts the industry as a whole. It only works if everyone is unified in moving forward in this way. We're very proud at the initial brands that have signed on. I think that it's a great tone to set. We've had more brands that have signed on since then, so I think that we're really just figuring out what this looks like as a whole and how we can make an impact.
What has working on this brought to your career or professional outlook?
When I say I don't want to give breath to certain situations, I'd just rather not give them a platform. But what we are seeing is that some people have way worse situations that they may or may not know how to navigate. So Lindsay, myself and our executive board want to come together and figure out the best planning to create structure throughout the industry — not just when there's an issue or a racist item going down a runway that it shouldn't be. It has to be consistent and ongoing. Otherwise, the same problems will repeat themselves.
What has been the most gratifying part of working on this so far?
I don't think we've had time to stop and have a pinch-me moment. We're still actively trying to get everyone on board and then start downloading them next quarter and then working with them in January. I mean, we're in awe at the support, but we're also working throughout the day through midnight for the past month, at least. And we're going to continue to do so because we're passionate about this. I guess when we have a chance, once everything is funneled and finalized, I might have a moment to sit back and kind of take it all in. But for now, we just know that the work has to be done.
The people at brands that have championed us to get their companies involved has been really, really refreshing. You never know when you're going into something like this what the feedback will be, but it's really nice to see that it's not just diversity within these companies that are like, 'Yeah, we need to do this for other people.' It's our peers. It's people noticing that there is a hole here, that we keep repeating the same cycle. They want to be a part of the change. So it's really great to see that. And we hope it continues.
What's something that makes you feel hopeful about the fashion industry in 2020?
I'm hopeful to see this continue. I hope to realign and make change. There's so much going on in the world around us that we also want to ensure that we're taken care of where we work. A lot of us are working, constantly working, so when your work becomes your home — especially working from home — you want to feel at peace while you're trying to do a good job. We want people to continue to keep this foot on the gas and then improve the landscape.
What inspires you about fashion?
Oh, I've always been inspired by fashion. I mean, I grew up in the suburbs. I was always dressing up — my family is Caribbean-American, we're dressed for everything, so it's always been a part of my identity and my culture.
I think that my fashion has changed. I'm definitely way more casual now, where I was always in a dress or skirt or heels for the majority of my life. I have an entire sneaker closet in my apartment. It's just also figuring out what fashion works for you and what fits your personality and aesthetic. And I found a love for that as I continued to evolve.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.