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How Gia Kuan Went From Studying Law to Democratizing Fashion PR

The New Zealander-Taiwanese founder of Gia Kuan Consulting didn't always fit into fashion, which is part of what makes her so good at her job.
Gia Kuan. 

Gia Kuan. 

In our long-running series "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.

When Gia Kuan was a law student in Melbourne, Australia, she wasn't organizing samples at a fashion house or crafting pitches at a PR agency. She'd go on to do those things, of course, but not yet. Instead, an 18-year-old Kuan was working at a nightclub, first as a promoter, then as a "bottle girl," serving champagne set ablaze with sparklers.

"In Australia, the drinking age is much younger, so it was very common for college students to work in nightlife," says Kuan, who grew up between Taipei, Santo Domingo and Auckland. "And honestly, it was an easy job and you got paid in cash. Little did I realize any of that would apply to my career in the future. But now, thinking about what I do in terms of events management and PR, a lot of what I had done early on set a foundation for how I could operate the way I do today."

At the time, Kuan wasn't exactly angling to break into the fashion industry. It took her working another part-time job — this one at a luxury fashion store — for all the pieces to click into place. Because though she was always interested in fashion, she explains, she never envisioned actually working in the field itself.

Kuan made a name for herself in the PR space at Comme des Garçons, Dover Street Market and Nadine Johnson (where she took a hiatus from fashion altogether to focus on art), before launching Gia Kuan Consulting (GKC), her eponymous consultancy that today reps the likes of Telfar, Kim Shui and Luar. Today, fashion comprises just half GKC's roster, with the rest being a cocktail of arts and culture clients. Where GKC is different from a traditional fashion agency model, she argues, lies in that mixture in and of itself: No two clients are alike, so neither are the ways in which GKC supports them.

"Discovery is a very big thing for us," she says. "We do a ton of research on people and the press so we're not regurgitating the same context over and over again. That's a big no-no for us. We're always thinking about what moves the needle, and what the new communities are that we can build upon."

Below, we caught up with Kuan about her childhood growing up across three continents, producing blockbuster fashion shows and amplifying emerging designers to uncharted heights.

Tell me about the origins of your interest in fashion, before you pursued it as a career.

It's been an interesting ride. Intrinsically, I was always interested in fashion, but it was just one of those aspirational jobs. I didn't come from a family who worked in creative industries, nor did I really gain exposure to fashion. I had zero brand awareness. Until the end of high school, I just didn't understand what luxury brands signified. Only when I went to college in Australia — when I was hanging out with kids who went to private school and had the means of being able to consume higher-end fashion — did I start to discover what fashion meant on a brand level.

In college, I worked at a luxury fashion store in Melbourne called Assin, and that was my first step into luxury fashion. They stocked a lot of Belgian designers, from Ann Demeulemeester to Rick Owens, and Japanese designers, like Junya Watanabe and Comme des Garçons; that inspired me to pursue it more. When I finally made the move to New York in 2010, I came to pursue a proper career in fashion, so I enrolled in a short fashion marketing course at Parsons.

You were born in Taipei and raised between Santo Domingo and Auckland. Did your global upbringing influence the way you think about creativity and self-expression?

Growing up in Asia, pop culture was very heavily inspired by Japan. My grandma knew how to speak Japanese because there was Japanese occupancy in Taiwan during her era. I was influenced by that, and it still resonates today. Like, this idea of Kawaii, the culture of cute things. My style is very much that.

Then I moved to the Dominican Republic — my father was working for the Taiwanese embassy at the time as a diplomat — and lived there for three years, when I was between five to eight. I just remember wearing these super-vibrant ensembles, and that was also my first foray into late-1980s, early-1990s Americana. That's how I learned my English. That's why I have an American accent. [Laughs]

Later on, I moved to New Zealand. I don't know if I embraced fashion as much during that time because I wouldn't say it was like, a fashionable place. It was very suburban. My style was more informed by practicality and uniform culture. At school in New Zealand, you have to wear a uniform most of the time. It wasn't like the American school system where you can wear whatever you want, so only at the end of high school did I start to explore style.

Walk me through your career path from the time you graduated from University of Melbourne to your time at Comme des Garçons, Dover Street Market and Nadine Johnson. What lessons did you learn in those early days that you still carry with you today?

Parsons was very much catered to the fact that they're expecting you to do internships. So I did a lot of different internships, my first one at PR Consulting. It was a lot of sample trafficking and running errands. That was my intro to learning the map of Manhattan because we had to lug garment bags everywhere. I got my first taste of what a PR agency meant because when you're studying PR, you have no idea what PR truly is until you're working in it. I also interned at Tom Ford when he debuted womenswear, and through that, I started to learn the big names in the industry. That's when I realized that relationships are everything.

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Toward the end, I started working at Comme des Garçons, and it became my first-ever job. I was there for six years. When I first joined, it was a very small team of only four or five people in the U.S., including sales and PR. The first formative years of working at CDG encompassed a more traditional PR role — sample trafficking and again, learning who's who. I learned to be hyper organized, working with a Japanese headquarters, which is just the way the company works. There was a really, really strong work ethic all around, and that trickled down to their store staff.

At Dover Street, we almost operated at an agency level because we had to understand the ins and outs of most of the vendors the store was carrying. It was known for championing a lot of young and emerging designers, and that's what inspired me to get excited about the new talent that exists within the U.S. and beyond. We set up a support system for those designers, making connections for them with the press contacts we knew, and at the end of the day, that's what felt the most rewarding. Fast forward a few years when I started freelancing, helping friends who have fashion lines get started, and it was the same process: They didn't have any resources, so with my knowledge, how could I bridge that gap between them and the press?

After Dover Street, I exited fashion and started working at Nadine Johnson, which is this iconic boutique agency based in New York City. I worked with her arts and culture accounts, meaning all of their galleries, artists, museums and nonprofits, which I found really refreshing.

And I think Nadine took a chance on me because I was like, 'Well, I studied art history in college and I have a good understanding of contemporary art, but I've never worked in art.' And she was just like, 'If you want it badly enough, you can catch up.' I was so thankful to her for that. We both believed in this idea of, why invite someone you talk to all the time to dinner? That's so dull. She was always into this idea of a spiced-up guest list, and so was I. 

How did you decide to embark on your own, with your own consultancy?

I've always been a curious person. Growing up, I didn't consume fashion the way a lot of other people did, and if I did, I wanted to know the 'why' behind it. The product itself isn't enough. So I was looking to be able to feel a bit more connected to the brand and the person behind it. At the time, some of my older peers were starting their own projects. Eric Schlösberg, who was one of my old colleagues, had his namesake brand and asked me to help him connect with a few people. Those little email introductions were how it all started. I was just helping a friend here and there.

Honestly, I was also just going out a lot. That's how I met Kim Shui and Raffaella Hanley from Lou Dallas and Carly Mark. All of our lives just came together while going out in the New York partying subculture. It was what I imagined New York could be, but I don't think I found it when I moved here in 2010. Fashion week was so much about, I don't know, Lincoln Center and Fashion's Night Out. It was just a different aesthetic. There was this raw energy I felt was missing. But then I started to meet all these people, like Telfar [Clemens], and it just started from there.

Your firm has been recognized for its representation of independent designers and a democratization of fashion shows. How do you go about building out your portfolio, and what are your priorities for your clients once they sign on with you?

When I think back to the earlier days, I wasn't so purposely curating it — but I guess it was. I felt dedicated to giving designers a platform to talk in the press or even just to letting people be aware that these friends of mine existed. It was a selfish self-fulfillment thing. I wanted that New York, American dream that I moved here to pursue.

I believe that because fashion is very much an art form, you don't necessarily have to have formal training to be able to have an audience, nor do you have to have this super-commercial vision. So it's about believing in that and continuing to fight for it for others and tell their stories. That ethos is very much central to what we do when we think about the brands we work with, which spans beyond fashion now. The brands I'm attracted to are the ones that don't fit the mold. They create their own path.

If you were to go through the highlight reel of your career, what would be the big moments that stand out to you, and why?

I mean, Telfar has definitely been a huge moment for me. We haven't done one of those big shows in a while, and to be honest, I don't know if I'm mentally ready for it just yet. [Laughs] But in the earlier days, we did those big, big shows, like at the helicopter pad or at Irving Plaza. It was crazy. It was obviously stressful, but it was so rewarding to see everyone come together, to see the types of people who came through.

I remember doing the White Castle party a few years ago, and that was one of the larger parties we had done because we had to go so wide with that guest list. To this day, I remember so many people who were like, 'This is my first Telfar event, and I fully understand the energy of Telfar at that party.' They remembered Telfar and have followed it since. I was proud of being able to bring value to the brand through that. And of course, now they're so successful and they have their own platform that can reach so many people directly. It's been amazing to see that evolve.

What's something that's exciting to you about the fashion industry right now?

There's more of a sense of liberation in the industry now versus when I first started. Fashion isn't as tied to industry standards as it used to be. And in my little utopian mindset, that was what I had always wished it to be. When I first moved to New York and entered fashion, there were much more rigid standards we had to work through just for young designers to be recognized. But in the past few years, I think people have started to realize that if your brand is strong, if you have a strong voice, you can pave your own way toward success without having those restrictions anymore. That's really, really exciting. 

There are more inventive ways for brands to talk directly to their audiences. There are ways for them to create their own content and use their own voice. I'm excited to see what's coming next.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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