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So What Do You Do, Kelly Cutrone, Owner, People's Revolution?
This fashion PR professional talks about her life and her PR firm made famous by The Hills.- June 25, 2008
It's been over 20 years since Kelly Cutrone moved to Manhattan from her small hometown in upstate New York. Since then, she's been married twice, worked as an Atlantic Records recording artist, launched and then left her own boutique PR firm, only to return to the publicity world with her current firm, People's Revolution.
Now, Kelly is enjoying perhaps the biggest spotlight on her career, as part of MTV's hit reality show, The Hills. Whitney Port, one of the show's stars, currently serves as a People's Revolution intern. Yes, she actually does work. Kelly spoke to mediabistro.com about how that arrangement came about, why the Internet has changed the fashion industry, and how TV and media are, "sexualizing kids so quick."
Name: Kelly Cutrone
Position: Owner, People's Revolution
Resume: Worked for PR maven Susan Blond; head of PR at Spin; started her own company
Birth date: November 13, 1965
Hometown: Camillus, N.Y.
Education: Syracuse University
Marital Status: Not married. Have been twice.
First section of the Sunday Times: Style
Favorite TV show: I don't watch TV.
Guilty pleasure: Target
Last book you read: I'm reading a book right now called Conversations with God by Neil Donald Walsh.
Where did you work before founding People's Revolution?
My career started completely by accident. I moved to New York at the age of 21, I was just kind of, you know, a young girl who wanted to live in New York. I met Anthony Hayden Guest, the writer, who was the art critic at Vanity Fair at the time. One day he said to me, "Darling, you have to get a job!" And I said, "Well, I think I'll be an MTV VJ or something." This was like 1987. And he said, "You're much too smart for that, you should be a publicist." And I said, "Well, what is that?" And he said, "Oh, you know, you just talk all day and put people together."
So I went and I had an interview with Susan Blond. My career started with Susan and I worked there for six to eight months, and then I left there and became the director of PR for Spin. From there I left and decided I would start my own company and contacted a former intern of mine who I had hired, a guy by the name of Jason Weinberg, who now owns Untitled, which is now probably the largest and most definitive management company in the country. He manages Hillary Swank, Naomi Watts, and Madonna.
So, we started this company called Cutrone and Weinberg, which was one of the first really young, boutique PR companies, and I did that up until the end of 1991 or 1992 and I just said, "I really cannot and do not want to do this anymore." It was the worst job.
I took some time off, and it's a big long story but I was actually signed to Atlantic Records. I got a record deal, and was living out in L.A., and I just really didn't like doing it. And, I left. I said, "Fashion is the new rock and roll," and started People's Revolution in 1996 or 1997; I'm not sure what year.
What do you think are some of the biggest changes in the fashion industry over the last several years?
With the Internet... I think it's like the Wild West now, and all of the templates of entertainment no longer are serving anyone. They're all breaking down, whether it's record labels or the old-school fashion systems.
Back in the day, the formula used to be, make really beautiful clothes, create an inspiring image, keep it very pure, don't ever let anyone who's not in the fashion world in to see it, stay super exclusive and then you'll have this master license five to 10 years down the road, that will be worth a lot for licensing. Or, some great head-hunter from Paris will come and find you on your island and bring you to Europe and have you head up a fashion house, and they'll also support your own independent line. What we've seen over the last five to seven years is that the French and Italian companies have done that, they've brought in different people, and then they bring these people in for three seasons and they go, "Oh well, you're really great and all these people write about you, but you don't know how to manage a team of 60-100 people, nor can you carry a $100 million company."
So, you know, thanks a lot, we've used you for your press and public persona and now we're going to throw you away. In my opinion, everything is upside down. You have people like Karl Lagerfeld doing deals with H&M, these people working with GAP, Go International with Target, Anna Wintour put Teen Vogue on The Hills. You have these incredible infusions and injections of what some people looking at it might call confusion. What I see is powerful pioneers seeking new distribution outlets and changing the laws and rules of how things work.
What about fashion PR? How has the new media landscape changed how you do business?
Well, I mean obviously, we're on The Hills. I think the important thing is that PR is not something that can be controlled, especially not now. Before you used to have like five press agents, so we talk to 20 people, and with the Internet and the increased attention on fashion and the fact that with fashion shows, lets say there's 400 or 500 people at a fashion show, maybe 25 to 125 of those people are valid and going to make a difference in the designer's work, and God only knows the other 300, who might be younger market editors, who might have a blog under another name, who take all of this as a fashion expert and they start blogging. So, this ability of controlling the image is completely changed.
So, what you have to do, I mean for me -- and the way we're working -- is we want our clients to command and control as many visual moments per season as they can. Whether those visual moments are their own retail stores, look books or fashion shows, you know, things they can control. Once you ship the clothes, they are the product of the stores and the store can put them in the window alongside whomever they want.
Once a celebrity wears a design, if they decide to go out and get drunk and drive home in your dress, it's not necessarily a great thing. So, we're into creating these visual moments and trying to help our clients create as many appendages as possible onto the body of their brands that can walk onto the pages of a particular magazine and make the proper statements for them.
What are some of the ways in which fashion PR differs from other industries?
I think when you're a specialist in PR it's like asking the question, "What's the difference between an orthopedic surgeon and a radiologist?" I mean, there's a lot of difference, you know. But, I think that branding is branding. The great thing about fashion is that it changes every six months, and you never get stuck for two years, or even eight months, like a movie campaign.
And of course, the clothes don't talk back. The clothes aren't going to call you and make you call their lawyer. They're not going to wake you up in the middle of the night because they were busted leaving a club with a drag queen. The clothes are the clothes, and usually the designers are manageable.
So much is made of getting a celebrity to appear on camera with your client's products. Is the celebrity endorsement overrated?
It depends on the celebrity... well no, it's not overrated if it's Uma Thurman who just won an Oscar in your dress and you didn't have to pay her to wear it. That's what I would call a good thing; it's a great placement.
Do I think any brand should depend solely on celebrity? No, because it's just going to look like an L.A. "celebu-tart" brand and it's not going to have the legitimacy and the read with the fashion guard, the true fashion guard coming from New York and Europe. So, I mean, like most things, you want your pie to be evenly distributed, which is, you want to have great design, a cool, interesting or charismatic designer, and if they're not that on their own, hopefully they'll have some type of connection, whether it's a rock star dad or a movie mogul boyfriend, or something that's going to make it easier to push them because the magazines want to feature people that are going to appeal to their readers. If you're a 65-year-old, 300-pound woman, they're probably not going to want to feature you in their magazine.
Also, you want to have good production, you want to have the ability to finance the brand through the terms that it's going to go and deliver them to retailers, and good press and good marketing. Those are all of the components that go into making a successful brand.
New York reported that Whitney Port "becomes bicoastal" while working for People's Revolution, for a new spinoff show. What do you think about Whitney having to carry a show?
Well, I don't know that she is carrying a show. We have no contracts or anything on that, so I cannot confirm that that is true. I can tell you that Whitney is bicoastal because we have a bicoastal agency and this is not her first time at the rodeo, coming to New York. Part of last season, she was in New York for a show we did, she was working here during Fashion Week and yes, she does come back and forth. If there is a pilot or a spinoff, we don't have contracts on that yet, so we can't confirm that.
How would you explain the popularity of The Hills?
I have a bizarre experience with The Hills. I'm a mom and I have a six-year-old, and when my daughter was a year and a half, my mom was trying to give her Disney princess stuff and I was really opposed to it, because I thought the messaging was very negative in the setup for little girls. It's always some poor village girl, and something happens to her, and then poof, this guy shows up and they move to the castle and everything is great.
I just really didn't want my daughter to get into that. I mean so much to the point that I was looking at a Waldorf or city and country type gender-free school because I just thought that it was negative imaging. By the time my daughter was two, she knew every Disney princess, every name, even though we didn't have it in our house and I just totally succumbed to the fact that Disney had gotten my kid and there was nothing I could do, so I mind as well join them and celebrate that aspect of imagination and femininity with her.
And now she's six and she's really into Miley Cyrus, who I think originally the core concept was developed for a tween market, but what's happening is TV and media are sexualizing kids so quick and everything's moving so fast that a five-year-old is now into what a 12-year-old used to be into because of the way things like Disney edits and paces their show.
People like Zach and Cody, That's So Raven, and then Miley, so it was like my daughter just turned six, she just finished kindergarten and she knows all about High School Musical, which is really a tween Grease, if you think about it.
Then what happens for these girls, their next installation is, guess what, The Hills. And they're just old enough to start watching MTV, they're hormonally in place, and they see these four young, beautiful girls who really in my mind are a continuation of a Disney princess, because they live in a world that most people will never live in. And, on top of that, you pick up the extra market of people who do live in that world who want to see themselves reflected back, like the fashion and entertainment people who kind of watch it like it's something like they can't really believe that they're watching, but they are watching and they're enthralled because they can't believe they're watching what they're watching but they're also narcissistic because they see their own world reflected back to them.
And then there's a sub-group of people that are drawn in by their wives. And I know this because when I go out of town or something, people come up to me, like a 40-year-old guy who's an engineer who is like, "Oh, are you on The Hills? I told my wife that was you, I knew that was you." And I say, "Well why do you watch The Hills?" And he says, "I don't know, I like to watch TV with my wife and she started having me watch it."
Being from upstate New York and not being born in New York on Park Avenue, I think I have an interesting perspective because I come from one world and I live in another, and I think for most young people who watch that world, it would be amazing if you're 21 and get invited to go the Crillion Ball in Paris. That's my take on The Hills and that's why I think it is so successful.
How did People's Revolution being in the show come about?
[MTV] asked if they could come shoot our Jennifer Nicholson show at the end of season one, and I said OK. Then they asked if they could come and cover some of our shows in L.A., and I said sure. And I was the same as I was now. They told [the cast] that there would be this woman who would be like Kelly Cutrone.
Lauren was there, and finally, I said something to her. I said to Lauren, "You're going to have to move a lot quicker if you want to work in the fashion business." Then, they started using that in all the bumps to the show. And then they continued with the show, and I saw them one other time in L.A. I saw [Teen Vogue west coast editor] Lisa Love in L.A., and she said MTV wanted to talk about the possibility of working with me. There is a reason why Anna Wintour decided to put Teen Vogue into that show without seeing or knowing what it is. If it's good enough for Anna Wintour, it's good enough for me. I talked to Lisa about the pros and cons of doing it. We took the temperature of some of our clients.
The big thing to check would be, can we do this without losing business? So far, the great thing is, we haven't lost any business from it. Clients that don't want to be involved have been secluded and not involved. The ones that have, have benefited. About being on the show and in public, I don't really care what people think about me. You know on the Web, that stuff like, "Kelly Cutrone's a bitch, Devil Wears Prada," none of that affects me at all.
What are you most looking forward to for this fall's Fashion Week?
I never really look forward to it. I'm a production maniac. And I like all of our clients' shows, we have some amazing things coming up. We're opening some conceptual collective space, which is going to be a home away from home from designers. We have another project with DJ Spooky [in L.A.]. Here in New York I've got my whole lineup of eight to 10 shows.
What are the key things to remember to have a successful show at Fashion Week?
Eat well. Tell the truth. Surround yourself with the best professionals that your clients can buy, from stylists to hair and makeup to music to casting agents. Make sure you secure the right exclusive in the right place. A lot of publicists tell too many people the same story and the client gets nothing.
You claimed that you wouldn't hire Lauren Conrad after working with her during the 2006 Los Angeles Fashion Week. Why not?
Well, I mean she didn't move fast enough for me. There was a year and a half between that first meeting and when we next met. And there was a huge change in her. I'm an authentic person; I wouldn't have someone in my office just because they're on a show. Whitney had [Lauren] come over, and I was surprised by her. I've talked to her, and she's done great. But she's also worked a year at Teen Vogue.
I just got a letter from a former assistant who I fired, who asked for letter of recommendation. I asked him to come in and talk with me first. I couldn't recommend him to a company without knowing more. When I saw him and there were a lot of changes, I was able to write that letter. Same with Lauren. The second time I had the opportunity to work with her, I chose to. We get a lot of kids here when they're young; of course they're going to go on to have successful careers.
Tell us your best "party-crashing" story?
My favorite one ever was someone called me and was asking for a ticket to an event. And they were trying to get me on the phone. They said, "I met you on the subway." I said, "That's impossible, because I don't take the subway." They could have said anything else.
You once said, "I'm really about communicating and about art. I couldn't care less about Calvin Klein or Donna Karan." What designers don't necessarily have a "name" but are master communicators or artists?
I love Jeremy Scott, Bernard Willhelm, Alexandre Herchovitch, Martin Margiela, Yohji Yamamoto. I mean to me, a white shirt is a white shirt. They are incredibly conceptual and spend time and energy and not just into the season, but they're into the cuts and fabrication. Pieces aren't just made to show a woman's body part or to draw a mate.
What accomplishment at People's Revolution are you most proud of?
That I've never bounced a payroll.
Joe Ciarallo is the editor of mediabistro.com's PRNewser.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
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