Four years ago, after an enviable decade working in-house for some of the most exciting designers and brands including Stella McCartney, Maison Martin Margiela, Topshop, Agent Provocateur, Mulberry, Tabitha Simmons and more, Julia Melbourne set up Iris Public Relations, a London based consultancy that services clients in a more bespoke, nimble way, adapting to the changes of our digital and celebrity driven age.
Since setting up the consultancy, Julia has worked with a number of clients including Maison Michel, Alexander McQueen, Ralph & Russo, Byredo, Pringle of Scotland, Paul Smith, Barrie Knitwear, Morgan Lane, ReDone jeans, Nars Cosmetics, Chylak Accessories and Refinery 29. The team works with designers and brands on bespoke strategies; creating authentic celebrity partnerships, producing events, dinners, RTW and Couture shows, launching brands, PR & communications, digital strategy and special projects.
We spoke to her to see if there was any advice she wishes she had been given when she was navigating her way through career options earlier in life, and if there is any advice she would give to someone trying to start a career in the industry now.
What type of career advice was available when you were at school? Did you have any helpful advice when you were making some of the big life decisions that would determine the direction your career and life would take?
Interestingly, career advice is one of the things that I feel that the UK education system is definitely lacking unfortunately. Essentially, unless you have a parent, relative or family friend who works in the industry you are potentially interested in, it can be challenging to find out more about the roles available, ask questions and get a foot in the door.
This being said, I find it really admirable that so many people I have interviewed for positions in my team over the years have persevered, using work placements to experience several areas within the same industry. This allows them to gain insight into more than one specific area, enabling them to fine tune where their interests lie before choosing a specific path. For example, working the editorial side of a magazine, with a stylist, or within several departments at a brand, both on the creative and marketing side.
You started out in the fashion industry in a non-conventional way … explain a bit more about how that happened?
I ended up choosing a more traditional course of French and Spanish at university, as I thought this would be useful in any career. Although I loved learning about the culture of those languages, and travelling, I didn’t ever see myself doing a job entirely focused around them.
However, if I hadn’t been studying French at university I wouldn’t have been able to apply to some of the Fashion houses in Paris, which was essentially how I got my foot in the door. I had interviews in French with a couple of houses and was fortunate enough to be offered a position by both Chanel and Maison Martin Margiela. Although it would be a tough decision to choose between these two at any stage in ones career, I decided to go with Margiela as I thought - correctly - that I would have a really unique, colourful experience and be able to be more involved with the company and smaller teams.
Now that I am in this industry, it has been so helpful on a number of occasions being able to speak other languages, in circumstances such as working on a show in Paris, or being able to speak to international press. It’s always met with so much appreciation if you are able to converse with someone in their own language, and it’s often a surprise as the British don’t have a great reputation for speaking anything other than English.
You worked at Margiela at a pretty amazing time, tell us more about that-
Indeed it was. I worked there for a year in 2005, at a really special time for the house. It was the year just before Renzo Rosso bought the brand, so it was definitely a huge time of change and adjustment for everyone. When I first started we worked in a beautiful, understated French house with a stunning garden and showroom on the rue du Faubourg Poissoniere in the 9th arrondissement, then we moved the entire company to a huge, old converted school in the 11th on rue St Maur. It was a huge building and all of the artisanal teams who were previously at a separate location moved with us too. The reception in the new building was iconic – a campervan was moved into the reception, painted entirely white and the receptionist used this as her office to welcome all visitors.
I feel so honoured and fortunate to have been part of the original team there, to have met Martin and to have worked alongside such an incredible, humble, and creative collective. My job at that time was in the press office: working on shows, presentations and managing the showroom, looking after eleven lines of the collection, pulling pieces from the incredible archives for shoots and taking showroom appointments with international press. One of my favourite memories of that time was a shoot with Purple Magazine featuring Chloe Sevigny. It’s always so exciting to see the collections that you have been working with on your favourite actresses, in print in the most iconic publications.
Another time - around the ‘Kate and Pete’ era – Pete Doherty went straight from an Arena Homme Plus shoot to perform at Glastonbury and the snake ‘boa’ from the collection was lost in the crowd. Those times feel so special now as it was pre-digital days, when a lot of shoot and show requests were still done by fax… which seems so distant now in an age dominated by the internet and social media.
You have worked with a number of high profile celebrities over your career. How do you feel the landscape has changed?
After working at Margiela, I was in-house at Agent Provocateur where I worked with Serena Rees and Joe Corre, proof that a brand rich in authentic identity is not something you can always easily recreate. They collaborated with genuine friends of theirs, and we launched one of the first fashion films with Mike Figgis, featuring Kate Moss in ‘The Dreams of Miss X’.
When I first started working at Topshop the landscape was very different: we didn’t have huge budgets to work with paid influencers and ambassadors, as many international brands do nowadays. My role was to think in a creative, strategic way about how we could nurture mutually supportive relationships with emerging artists, actresses and tastemakers in an authentic way, helping them with any projects they were working on and developing a long-standing relationship with the brand. Many of the artists that I worked with back then are now being courted by big fashion houses and have won global recognition for their work.
Launching Kate Moss Topshop was an incredibly exciting time – there was such an anticipation in London and globally for her collection, being part of that moment was so much fun.
Nowadays, big international brands risk losing integrity through inauthentic relationships with partners and ‘collaborators’ if they are solely paying for paid placements and appearances, rather than genuinely working in a strategic way to support larger initiatives and collaborative work, or creating a platform to voice important conversations.
Since setting up your consultancy you have worked with a number of big established brands as well as smaller ones – which do you prefer?
I really love both! The beauty of being a consultant is the variety, which keeps things exciting. It is amazing to work with established brands and houses, collaborating on iconic campaigns and creating very special, press-worthy events and moments. On the other hand, all brands are small and potentially unknown when they start out, so one of the most rewarding aspects of my job is discovering a new brand or designer and nurturing their vision of where the brand can go. Working with clients to help map out how they are going to get there is so exciting, as is sharing the hard work and the reward from the milestones achieved together – whether that is securing the first international stockist, their collection being worn on the red carpet or an exciting collaboration or partnership.
Why did you decide to leave the security of a job to set up on your own?
I realised that most senior level professionals in my industry specialized in PR, Events, Celebrity or Digital, and unless it was an in-house role, there were no consultancies or agencies that were offering a flexible combination of services. I founded the consultancy in order to offer an agile solution to the ever-changing landscape of the industry; clients that we collaborate with have the option of number of different services and are offered expertise in multiple areas. When we collaborate, we are not limiting partners to just one area of expertise; we work on strategies that incorporate several services to complement each other for the best results longer term. We work as an extension of the in-house team and as a sounding board, to advise and guide as well as implement the strategies.
What was the best advice you ever received career-wise?
Work hard and be nice to people!
I am still in touch with so many of the people I have worked with throughout my career. It’s so amazing to see what previous colleagues are doing and to revisit those friendships and collaborate together on new projects.