Industry Insiders: Nathan Ellis, Master of Presentation

Syndicate PR’s founder Nathan Ellis on spearheading the popularity of the Fashion Week presentation format, earning Anna Wintour’s approval and looking forward to the most imaginative designer each season.

What has been your most memorable Fashion Week moment so far? One is the 2007 Petrescu project with Trovata, where we created characters inspired by the collection and then unleashed them on an unsuspecting Fashion Week. When WWD ran an article on the stunt mid-Fashion Week because speculated it might be an Ali G prank, I knew we had created something that would really raise eyebrows. Page Six outed us the last day of Fashion Week, and we celebrated with a party hosted by, quite naturally, the faux Romanian socialites and Waris.

What events are you handling this year? This year there’s not a whole lot going on in terms of producing anything. Instead, we’re hosting at the properties we represent in the city — Cooper Square and Thompson LES most notably, but also the Gramercy Park Hotel. This whole season is pretty much a wash in terms of parties … everybody canceled everything, and the shows that are happening are pretty muted. We were really heavy into the fashion show production business but have been taking a break the last two seasons, and we’re going to get back into it in the fall when things stabilize a little bit.

Are there any events that you’re particularly excited about? Typically the anticipated events are the Calvin Klein and the Marc Jacobs parties, neither of which are happening. But what we have going on at the Thompson LES is the IMG Fashion Week kickoff, which should be a lot of fun. It brings together a lot of people from the business, and it’s a traditional start to the week. Then we’re doing an infamous dinner party for Derek Lam, and we’ll be hosting small groups at Above Allen throughout Fashion Week. I think a lot of the socializing this Fashion Week is going to go down in that manner. The after-parties are quite muted, but there are still people coming into town, and they’re still going to want to get together and socialize.

What has been your most hectic season so far? Right when we were launching the Gramercy Park Hotel and we did the production for Philip Lim, Alexander Wang, Trovata, and Vena Cava’s show. We did the launch of Edun for Bono’s One campaign, and I believe we produced Jovovich-Hawk that season also. It was just a tremendous amount of stuff going on simultaneously that was all really exceptional in some way. What I remember about that season was the sheer volume, but also how quality everything we were involved in was and just being completely exhausted at the end of the week — it was basically a 15-day marathon where we had something going on almost every day.

What’s the most challenging part of production for Fashion Week? The most difficult part of Fashion Week is that it’s an endurance test. It can be extremely draining, and you also have to understand that these designers put their heads in the guillotines every Fashion Week. For the younger ones, especially, they’re judged a great deal on that particular presentation. It can create a lot of momentum, and it can also cost them a lot of momentum. So it’s a tremendous amount of pressure because you’re putting months and months of preparation into something that lasts ten minutes tops, and you’re going to be judged by the media. It can be very stressful and the clients — rightfully so –are fairly demanding, and a lot of times you’re asked to work with tight budgets and make a dollar out of 15 cents.

What’s the best way to deal with the pressure? The way to look at it is to see things as a great challenge. You don’t need to spend a lot of money to create a spectacular moment. One of my best memories of our work was a show with Philip Lim, which was the first time he presented. We did a really amazing sculptural presentation in a really unique space, and the whole thing was done for about $25,000. People thought it was beautiful, nailed the collection, and did what a show was supposed to do.

You are given a lot of credit for starting the trend of presentations to challenge established runway shows. How did that begin? I think it all comes down to hitting the notes that the collection hits and doing something that really helps to tell that story. What you’re doing with a show each and every time is telling a story. The amazing thing about New York, is that you think you know this city, but opportunities always pop up when you look at things a little bit closer and you really walk down a block and see it with a fresh pair of eyes. I think that we initially went that route because I had never worked in fashion PR production, and I really felt that there were alternative ways of telling a story than just putting models on a runway. It also satisfied some budget constraints, so we did the first Trovata show in The National Arts Club — no one had ever done an event there. We really used what the space already had to tell the story of their collection, and it was a really good match … people were really charmed by it.

What are the benefits of the presentation format? I think you have to look at each brand and each season in a different way, but I think that it did catch on because it’s a refreshing way, and it cuts out all of the trouble of getting people in and seated. At a presentation, you have a nice hour window where people can come see it at their leisure and go. I think we finally gave that format some credibility when we did one with Trovata at an art gallery. Anna Wintour commented in her “Letter from the Editor” that it was one of the most charming and commercially persuasive shows at Fashion Week. And obviously her opinion carries a lot of weight, because she was known up to that point for really favoring runway shows and not really being a huge fan of presentations.

What shows do you look forward to most? I feel like going to the Marc Jacobs show is always a right of passage as a New Yorker. I remember the first time I was able to go, it was a very big deal to me, and it was a very exciting thing. So on the macro, rock-star level, that’s definitely the top one. But then the cool thing about Fashion Week is that you never really know where that special show is going to come from in terms of the younger designers. Shipley & Halmos is always doing things cleverly and in an interesting way; Alexander Wang is the same, and he’s even transitioning now. He had his early moment where he was the new kid on the block, and now he’s settling into building a brand, expanding it and becoming a real contender. But I feel like there’s always one designer every season who captures people’s imaginations and most people weren’t aware of — that’s the power of the potential. You can be an unknown brand with a $25,000 show budget, and then after Fashion Week, you can have some of the most influential people in the world singing your praises.

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