Read on to find out more about Paula’s jealous-making career, shopping habits and most fabulous fashion moments…
LPA: What was your first job in fashion and how did you get it?
PR: My first proper job in fashion was working for Lynn Franks, the publicist who was the inspiration behind Edina in Ab Fab. She was, and still is a force of nature. I had been to university in Dublin and there were no jobs there, so I arrived over here and wanted to get a job as a fashion journalist but didn’t know a single person. At that time you really needed to know people as everybody had been to university with each other or they had parents that knew each other. I didn’t know anybody and had the idea that one way to get a job as a journalist would be to get to know the journalists. I thought PR was probably a good way to start, a way of getting into the industry but around the side door. Lynn Franks’ office was on Long Acre and I just knocked on her door and asked if she had anything going. It turned out that she had just taken on an Irish high street client with a huge chain of stores but Lynn didn’t know anything about Ireland. She heard my accent and asked if I knew the market in Ireland and I replied that I did but only as a shopper and she said “oh well, you’ll do!”
LPA: Having worked as a fashion director at various major publications since the 1990’s, why did you decide to move into the retail field this year?
PR: I’ve never been somebody who has a plan. I’ve always really admired people who’ve got 5 year plans but I never ever got round to making one. I’ve always made decisions about new jobs on a very instinctive basis. When I heard about this position my first reaction was that it’s not where I would naturally end up. But then the more I thought about it, the more I was absolutely excited by the possibilities of working at a place like Harvey Nichols in this market. The possibilities that it has for reinventing itself and really addressing modern luxury… I couldn’t resist it so I had to say yes!
LPA: What does the role of Fashion Director for a major luxury department store actually entail? How different is it to your previous position at Grazia on a day-to-day basis?
PR: I’m still trying to figure that out! I’ve only been here for 9 weeks, so it’s really early days. We’re relaunching online and that’s a fantastic touchstone for me because Grazia Live was a huge part of what we were doing there. At the moment I’m working with the digital department, delivering content, figuring out ideas about how we can engage customers with online, how we can make that exciting in a kind of magazine editorial way. This morning for instance we were planning what my blog should look like, the digital department are designing a whole new platform for it which is going to launch in January 2013. I kept thinking in Grazia terms and wondering why couldn’t just do it next week but actually the way they’re going to do it is much better! We’re also spending a lot of time thinking about how Harvey Nichols faces the future. We haven’t invested any significant amount of money in that store for 20 years. Adding the 5th floor was revolutionary at the time but since then they haven’t done anything. We have a significant amount of money to spend so it’s just figuring out how we spend it to create a store that is really going to excite people in 2013 and beyond. A lot of the other big stores in England have invested conspicuous amounts of money and to me, they now fulfill a very particular function. They’re big, they’re bold it’s all about square footage and they have left wide open for us space for the kind of place that’s more intimate, more about personal experience and more about product that is highly curated. Harvey Nichols is right in the heart of where a huge amount of luxury shopping goes on and it’s poised to be at the heart of what people want from a shopping experience now. None of the things we sell are essential to anybody, people need to come to us for an experience . What I generally go shopping for is therapy so they need to come for that too.
LPA: What are your views on the print V digital debate, should one be awarded more gravitas than the other? And do you think that the rise of digital press will ever leave print publications redundant?
PR: Digital is already taking over print in some ways! Any print journalist who hasn’t embraced digital media is, dare I say it, dead it the water. You just can’t now. For the past 4 or 5 years Grazia Live was a significant part of what we were doing at the magazine. It was a struggle, I have to admit, even though journalists are all concerned with “new things” trying to get our head round how to deal with digital and make it part of our daily routine was quite difficult as the extra amount of work that you have to do is huge! Our Online Editor Jessica Vince was incredible. She helped us understand how the digital wraps around the paper product and extends its’ reach. That was a massive learning curve for me which I certainly want to bring to Harvey Nichols as well. For me, the print magazine for me is still the thing that I curl up in bed with and that correlates with retail. The bricks and mortar store is where you go to have the shopping, drink your cappuccino and people watch while you can buy all the real essentials online. There’s a place for both and that applies to retail and journalism. The online is something you can do on your mobile phone in a taxi, or on public transport, on the train, or in the mornings. I listen to Radio 4 when I get up and then when I get to the office there are a couple of blogs I check to see what the popular culture agenda is. The digital is immediate, it’s a quick fix, it’s absolutely instant but it goes hand in hand with the paper product. I don’t think one is going to wipe the other out in the same way that a bricks and mortar experience is the heart and soul of the retail experience, the online gets wrapped around that.
LPA: On that subject, London Fashion Week has recently started running a separate accreditation section for “bloggers”. This season I overheard a few magazine journalists and industry professionals expressing their’ not overly enthusiastic view of the increasing number of young bloggers at the shows and around Somerset House. What do you feel about it?
PR: Bring it on! I think everybody has to earn their space. At fashion shows you have a finite amount of chairs. Burberry is probably the biggest show but with all of the world’s markets opening up now and more and more people wanting to attend it means that every single space has got to be justified. Whether you write for a magazine or a blog, you’ve still go to earn your bum-on-the-seat space. When digital press and blogging was all very new I think it furstrated people who had more conventional positions and could easily demonstrate how they worked and how many hours and years they put in, but it’s the contribution that you can make. If you have an opinion, a passion for the industry, staying power and a way to prove that you can communicate with your audience – which is all any of us are trying to do – I think you absolutely legitimately belong there. Any industry that doesn’t accept that kind of newness is just in a spiral of decline.
LPA: Which designers or brands do you personally wear and why?
PR: What I would like to wear and what I can wear are two very different things! If my lottery numbers came up and I could wear anything it would be Valentino. I absolutely adore what they’re doing and I’d just have everything as it walked off the runway. I just love their whole modern femininity. I’m also a Chanel girl and have a few bits and pieces that I’ve managed to acquire over the years. My divorce dress I brought from Alaia, so that’s a default option! But the economic reality of my pocket is that I’ve got 3 children and they’re all in bloody expensive schools and lifestyles so generally what I will do is shop around for bargains. I love going to Uniqlo as I seem to fit their jeans fantastically well and I also go there for cashmere. Raoul is another brand that I absolutely adore and I think this season brought more from them than just about anywhere else. They’re brilliant. I don’t like being a walking billboard for a brand so Raoul’s everyday things are perfect. I went to have a meeting with Diane Von Furstenberg the other day wearing a Raoul dress and she was totally flummoxed by where it was from! It was great.
LPA: Winter may be only just beginning but in fashion terms, it’s high time to start thinking about SS13. Are there any key pieces or trends we can buy into now that will see us through to next season and beyond?
PR: I know, now I’m in retail Spring/Summer is already arriving because of the pre collections. I think hold on a minute, I haven’t even seen all the winter stock! But then by the time we get our head around Winter, the sales start so you can actually look out for some really good bargains. This season I really wish I’d bought one of the beatnik treatment peacoats Donna Karan did for DKNY, or a military coat. I think a really good military coat is always a great buy. The other thing I’m loving that really carries on for SS13 is what I’ve started to call the “trophy dress”. Maybe it’s because I’m feeling slightly insecure and out of my comfort zone in this new job so when a big meeting happens I personally feel really good in a fantastic dress.
LPA: Having worked in the fashion industry for over 20 years, I can imagine you’ve witnessed some pretty incredible things. What would you say has been your ultimate fashion ‘moment’?
PR: There are millions! When I had to write a little press release for arriving here I said that I applauded at Alexander McQueen’s first show and cried at Yves Saint Laurent’s last. There have been so many amazing moments… Galliano’s Haute Couture show when he had an actual steam train… The Chanel show around the ice berg… Lots of moments in London when you realise a great talent is born like McQueen or Mary Katrantzou or Peter Pilotto and you just get that tingle in your spine. But I think the most memorable moment of all time was probably Karl Lagerfeld’s show for Fendi on the Great Wall of China. That was a “pinch me am I awake” moment!
LPA: From my experience it seems that opinions vary on whether its’ worth doing a fashion specific degree in an area like journalism or PR. With University fees having gone up this year, would you advise someone hoping to work in a non-design area of the fashion industry to do a degree or just gain experience though interning?
PR: I didn’t study a fashion specific course. I think journalism and fashion journalism in particular is one of those things that you really do learn on the job. At Grazia we certainly had London College of Fashion grads that were fantastic but we also had lots of other graduates from other disciplines who were equally fantastic. My own daughter has just gone to university and had a lot of soul searching about what she wanted to do. The only advise I could really give her was to not try and plan for the future. Just do what you love and what you’re talented at because you’re going to have to work bloody hard at it and put in so many hours. I’d certainly advise going to university if you possibly can. I certainly think it’s the most fantastic opportunity, especially in this economy. The possibility to be in an institution where you have the opportunity of thinking without commercial constraints is something I think everybody owes it to themselves to experience if they possibly can.
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