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How Fashion PR Ace Rachna Shah Built Her Career from Assistant to Partner at KCD

Rachna Shah. Photo: Courtesy

Rachna Shah. Photo: Courtesy

Welcome to Career Week! While we always make career-focused content a priority on Fashionista, we thought spring would be a good time to give you an extra helping of tips and tricks on how to make it in the fashion industry.

In our long-running series, “How I’m Making It,” we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.

Fashion is a notoriously competitive industry, and at times, its reputation precedes it. We’ve all heard the “horror stories” about certain figures’ cutthroat early career days, and we’ll admit that, yes, stereotypes exist for a reason. It takes a certain type of person to break into this business and find success — we’re getting into all that nitty-gritty throughout our Career Week coverage — but quite another to forge their own path and set the bar for future generations. 

In the case of the latter in fashion PR, the obvious exemplar is Rachna Shah, Partner, Managing Director Public Relations and Digital at KCD. That bar? It’s really, really high. Shah, who helped launch the agency’s esteemed digital arm five-odd years ago, has a unicorn of a resume in an industry where change is constant: After spending her college years at New York University and interning at fashion powerhouses that included Barneys New York, she had a plum job all lined up for her after graduation as an assistant publicist at KCD. She’s now worked there for nearly two decades, with a client list that includes the likes of Victoria Beckham, Alexander Wang, Marc Jacobs and Victoria’s Secret.

“I grew up here. In June, it’s going to be 20 years that I’ve been at KCD,” the New Jersey native told me over the phone the week of the Met Gala, which KCD coordinated. “It was my first real job, and I think it’ll be my last. I was blessed to have amazing mentors in Ed [Filipowski] and Julie [Mannion], who have owned the company since I began. Now I’m a partner with them.”

In recent years, Shah has been instrumental in carving out the role that digital and social media play in fashion; for starters, she helped develop the now-ubiquitous Fashion GPS software, which has since been purchased and spun into a company called Launchmetrics. But according to her, that’s not her biggest accomplishment, or what she takes the most pride in — instead, it’s her team. “I don’t want to just tell people what to do; I want to teach them how to do it,” she said. “If I can do that, then I feel successful. It matters to me.” Spoken like a true bar-setter.

Read on for Shah’s firsthand account of how she made it, and what she’s learned along the way. 

Were you always interested in fashion?

I would say my interest in fashion kicked off while I was in college and when I started doing internships in the field. I didn’t come from [a place where I said], “I want to work in the fashion industry.” I wanted to work in journalism, and that was a vague word for me because I [didn’t want] to be a writer necessarily. I wanted to be a theater critic, and that was my initial goal after high school. I lived in New York City and went to college here, [and that was when] I discovered the world of fashion. I was a late bloomer.

At what point did you realize that fashion could be a career for you?

I think it was when I had an internship at Barneys on the PR team with a wonderful woman named Gina Nanni; I worked with her directly. She left and went to what is now called Aeffe and was handling the PR team over there. She asked me if I would come intern there after I finished at Barneys. That was when I felt like I had more passion for this than I realized, if someone was asking an intern to go with them to their new job. It felt, to me, like I had a path, that I will learn and grow in this career and discover where I’m going to end up in my permanent job when I finish college. That was when it really clicked. It was a great experience.

When you were at Barneys as an intern, what aspects of your role and day-to-day duties really excited you?

It was a very interesting time for the company because they had actually filed for bankruptcy; it was when the Pressmans were still running Barneys. Working on the press team, it was this dual role. Part of what I did was photocopy all of the press that came out about the brand. At that time, there were a lot of financial articles about what was going on with the business; there was a lot of not-positive press coming out.

Then on the flip side, Barneys was still doing these incredibly creative events and partnerships with designers — what the brand is still known for today. It was this dichotomy between press and news and a little bit of crisis PR, but at the same time, we still had brand-building and image-making, and there were these amazing designers walking into the store and doing creative things. It was learning about the two sides of what PR is. That was really eye-opening.

How did you wind up at KCD?

I had KCD on my list of places where I would like to work. While I was interning at Aeffe, there was a Moschino boutique opening event and one of the things I had to do was pick up a van full of Italian journalists from a Versus show happening during New York Fashion Week. There was this energy — [NYFW] was in Bryant Park, and I was obviously just standing outside of the tents — with the lighting and the music, and it’s like I could hear the show outside somehow, you know?

That week was also the opening of the Versace boutique on Fifth Avenue, the townhouse, and it was this incredible party where Jon Bon Jovi sang on one floor and Elton John sang on another. Donatella was hosting; Gianni must have been there as well. It was one of those [moments where the] worlds of celebrity and entertainment and music came together with fashion to create what I thought was an incredible event. I remember reading that KCD produced the party, and I was just like, “Okay, I want to know what they [do]!” I’d heard about KCD, but I hadn’t had any interaction with them. It definitely went onto my list because I’m from New Jersey and I love Jon Bon Jovi. It’s as simple as that. [Laughs]

After all that, how did you go about getting your foot in the door?

When I was a senior in college, I finally took a semester off from interning and was focused on getting a job. I had Gina very much as a mentor and someone I could talk to. I was looking for whether I would be in-house or [at an agency], and KCD was on the list. I applied. I didn’t hear back from them. I followed up, and they didn’t have an HR person at the time (as I learned later once I got here), so [I was just] calling the front desk and seeing if my faxed resume had gotten through.

A couple of weeks, maybe even a month after I had sent my resume in, I did get a call that they had an assistant publicist position open, a new position, and asked if would I come in to interview. It ended up that they had just taken on the Victoria’s Secret account and needed to add a publicist to help traffic the collection. 

What was great was that Gina knew phone numbers of the team directly, so she was my reference. I think it was between myself and the person who was currently helping manage the showroom, but I got the job. I was lucky; I had a job when I graduated that would start a few weeks after, which is kind of the ideal.

How has KCD changed since you first started there?

At the time, we were uptown in the original offices. There were seven people on the PR team. There are now, between PR and digital, 25, so things have definitely changed and grown.

There were fax machines and a phone line and there was no voicemail; we would get paper messages. Not to sound like I’m that old, but it’s just that times were different. Technology definitely has changed how we work in a big way.

In terms of the agency, KCD has always had a strong history in the fashion world, with strong connections to designers, because we handle production, creative services and PR. It was a very 360-degree approach to working with designers, and that continues to this day.

I think fashion wasn’t as global of an industry as it is now. Doing PR in the U.S. was very much focused on the U.S. at that point; [only] this small world in the fashion media traveled around following the fashion weeks. It definitely wasn’t like, “Let me think about strategy globally for a brand.” That’s what has changed and developed over the years. Then, obviously, having offices in different cities has expanded our reach because we had to. We have to have people understand those markets and the brands that need our services to be 360.

How has the digital landscape paired with social media changed how you approach your job?

We opened our digital [arm] — that’s my baby — about five and half years ago. In some ways, we were waiting. There was definitely a digital boom that occurred, but we wanted to make sure that if we got involved, it was from a place of our expertise and it felt natural to us and what we do at KCD. When we realized that we could bring the same kind of relationships and knowledge that we bring to other kinds of media, that’s when we made the move to say, “Let’s actually do this. Let’s be that connector and help brands understand what they can use social media for and what the value is to them,” as opposed to just making noise for the sake of making noise, which is what people were doing at that time.

Our clients come to us with their launches or initiatives or collections and we can say: “Here’s your media strategy, and this is how we’re going to make it happen.” We can do the same thing with digital, whether it be social media or visual content initiatives or even digital PR. But once we knew that there was a need for that, we decided to make this into a part of our business.

Obviously everyone is much better educated now, but even [today], people don’t understand why they should use a certain platform. There are a lot of people who don’t understand why they can use a certain platform for one purpose and another one for a different purpose. People need some guidance.

How would you say that KCD’s work is differentiated from other agencies of similar clientele?

I would say for us, it’s about our relationships and our focus on fashion. There might be other brands we work with that are outside this sphere, but the reason they’re with us is because they want our expertise with this industry and with this market. We work with Barbie Style and create all of the content for that channel, on her Instagram. That’s not traditional in terms of a fashion brand, but it’s about the fact that we could give her a credible voice of authority in the fashion industry because we know what that is.

KCD has such a wide range of clients. How do you decide who you want to work with?

When we want to take on a new client, we want to know what their goals are and what they’re trying to achieve. We want to see the product. We want to see those collections, and we want to see if their strategy is married to the kind of product they’re creating. It’s still about the clothes. People say, “I want to be this person; I want people to think of me this way,” but if that doesn’t match what they’re actually producing, you can’t make anything happen. We can’t tell stories that aren’t genuine, or we can’t create a story that’s not genuine for them.

We want to help them reach their goals and ideally, as we always say, aim for the icing on the cake and really give them some of that additional motivation.

What’s the best part of your job?

The best part of my job is working with my team. I grew up here. In June, it’s going to be 20 years that I’ve been at KCD. It was my first real job and I think it’ll be my last. I was blessed to have amazing mentors in Ed [Filipowski] and Julie [Mannion], who have owned the company since I began. Now I’m a partner with them.

I love my clients. I love the work, which is what keeps me motivated. I love putting together an event. I love putting together a strategy. I still get excited when a story comes out about a brand; I love seeing the fashion credit. I still appreciate the nuances of what I’m doing, but the part I didn’t know going into it is what it means to manage people and the challenges that come with that — but also the amazing sense of pride you take in knowing that people are learning from you.

I love putting people into action and teaching. It’s something I really judge myself on. I don’t want to just tell people what to do; I want to teach them how to do it. If I can do that, then I feel successful. It matters to me.

What’s the worst part?

I just don’t have enough time. Not like I don’t dedicate myself to what I’m doing; sometimes we wish there was more time to give to a project or give to a person.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out looking to work in fashion PR?

I say this often because I’ve interviewed so many people who are taking on their first job: You have to be open to what you’re going to learn as opposed to thinking you already know what this job is going to be. There are a lot of young people I meet who are very clear on who they are and what they want and what they’re going to get out of something. I just don’t think this is a job that you go to school for. It’s not a technical job. If I had to learn how to do surgery, someone is literally going to teach me that in school. In this case, there is no exact degree in this job, so you have to let go of your preconceived notions. It’s really about learning who you are in this world and what you want out of it.

The night before I started at KCD, I called my older sister who was living in New York at the time and said, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do tomorrow. How am I going to know what to do?” And she goes, “They’re going to teach you. That’s it. They’re going to teach you.” You don’t walk in knowing what it’s all about.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Homepage photo: @rachnasays/Instagram

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