Independent publication Wallet's seventh issue launches today, and is a 'peek into the "privileged room" of fashion promotion and advertising'. Wallet is a pocket-sized fashion commentary publication dedicated to critical dialogue, and issue seven is a deep dive into the incredibly influential yet under-explored field of fashion promotion. The issue incorporates both conversations with PR professionals, and a survey of print fashion ads past, present and future, for a thorough exploration of how the narratives and myths of fashion get made, and, of course, how products get sold.
Editor Elise by Olsen shared with SHOWstudio an excerpt of a conversation with Patrick Scallon, brand communications director at Dries Van Noten. Scallon previously worked closely with Martin Margiela, both at Maison Martin Margiela and at Hermès. Read the full interview, where Scallon covers his work with Van Noten, in Wallet issue seven.
Patrick Scallon is the Communications Director for Belgian fashion designer and brand Dries Van Noten, a position he has held since 2008. This entails overseeing every aspect of the brand’s communications, including press, events and fashion shows. He was formerly Art Director of Communications and Communications Director for Maison Martin Margiela from 1993 to 2008, developing a reputation for rewriting the rules of fashion communication.
Tell us about your background. How did you enter the worlds of fashion and public relations?
The thing is I didn’t ever want to get involved in fashion. I was living in Brussels, and a friend of a friend knew Jenny [Meirens] and Martin of Martin Margiela. They were the owners and the founders of Maison Martin Margiela, although it was just called Martin Margiela at the time. I was very creative, but I was always told as a kid that painting and being creative was a lovely hobby for a lawyer. So, I actually never thought about it more than that. I did a traineeship at the European Commission, writing speeches and doing copywriting and a few things in-between like banking, etc.
I was introduced to Jenny and Martin at a wedding and we started talking. My brother worked in fashion in Milan, and we were talking about the role of the designer, and even at that stage, the fact that designers were starting to become employees, and how creative output was increasingly being measured. We had a rather interesting and even quite volatile conversation over dinner at the wedding. Three weeks later I was asked to come to help. Else Skålvoll, their former PR had decided to leave Margiela, and they wanted somebody to help until finding someone to permanently take on public relations. So, I went to work for three weeks, which became three months, which became three years. I ended up being there for 17 years.
So, in a certain way I was bitten by the bug. I grew up in a political family, studied politics, economics and philosophy, and did a year in law afterwards. I grew up in a domain that was about ethics, about political expression and the individual and such, so I always find that very intriguing. What suited me was that Margiela of course was about Martin’s talents, but also about how that talent was expressed in the industry, and how the company behaved as an entity. I was very very proud and happy that the company found its own voice in a system that was very formatted and quite retrograde.
Can you describe the bug that bit you?
What allowed me to stay was that I was coming in with ideas from other areas, from the political and ethical sphere. Also the fact that Martin wasn’t doing interviews at the time, and I have sort of the Irish gift of the gab, so I’ve always been quite good at expressing myself. So, I complemented him and the company at the same time.
I can’t imagine there being very defined roles at Margiela at the time, but please correct me if I am wrong. What exactly were your tasks and responsibilities? What was the work flow like between Martin, Jenny, and yourself?
There weren’t. My role was a very weird hybrid role. In fact it was best expressed towards the end of my tenure when I was called the Artistic Director for Communications. I actually started off doing things like packing boxes, sending clothes out, fielding interviews. Martin didn’t do interviews, but I’d present requests to him. Then we got to a stage where we realised that the company needed to grow. We needed to engage with the people who were engaging with us to some degree. We came up with the idea of answering interviews in plural. And that evolved into the idea of Maison Martin Margiela, and that was something Jenny and Martin was onboard with, and it was complementing Martin’s talent. At the beginning my job was to help out in sales. I was meeting everybody on behalf of the company.
The success of Maison Martin Margiela was in many ways defined by its marketing – or seemingly, the lack of it. As the Artistic Director for Communications you played a big role in the creation of this legacy. How did you approach this, and were these anti-fashion gestures conscious conversations or tactics that you developed with Jenny? Or were they more organic, spontaneous decisions, a reaction to something?
What we tried to do at Maison Martin Margiela was to homeopathically introduce the idea and to have transparency around the fact that they weren’t speaking directly to Martin. For example, we had an exhibition in Rotterdam under the name of Maison Martin Margiela, but the fashion shows in Paris were under the name Martin Margiela. And interviews were conducted as Maison Martin Margiela. So, people could start to get a sense of, 'Okay, this is on behalf of the company, and this is Martin directly.' But because Martin never did interviews, all interviews were de facto from the company, from the Maison. I would answer those, and in the beginning I had to show them all to Martin before they were published, after a while he just said to go ahead. But it was never anti-marketing, but a seemingly natural way to work if you’re going to be answering things like this with your own sense of humour and attitude. I tended to have a playful or maybe confronting way of answering questions, [and] Martin wasn’t always comfortable with it to be frank.
It was radical at the time, so I can see why. With Margiela you were dealing with a designer who was notoriously press-shy, who never granted interviews and decided to only communicate through his right-hand man – yourself. What was that like?
He wasn’t press-shy at all actually. This is one of the biggest misconceptions - Martin wanted to focus his efforts and his talents on what he was very good at. So, for him, designing a collection took a lot of work; he had to go down to Italy, he had all these things to do, and he preferred to spend his time on that. He felt that the press part was in safe hands and took his foot off the pedal. So, there’s a question of him deciding to focus his efforts on the collection and saying: 'Okay, Patrick can handle this.' Not all journalists do the research that you might expect them to do, and there’s a repetitive nature in fashion journalism that becomes quite easy to disengage from.
Wallet issue seven will go on sale on Monday 16 March 2020. Stockists include: MoMa PS1, The Broken Arm, Slam Jam, Tate Modern, The Store Berlin and Tsutaya Books. For more information, head to www.wallet-mag.com