Communications Consultant

Malcolm Carfrae

Saul Taylor / June 5, 2019

In one sense Malcolm Carfrae is classically Australian. He found his way to New York via extended stops in London and California. But in another sense, Carfrae is an all-American success story having conquered the Big Apple at Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren before setting up shop on his own with the much-vaunted Carfrae Consulting.

What brought you to New York?

I studied history at university and like many Australians I packed my backpack when I finished and went on a year-long trip around the world. I went to London like a lot of Australians did back then. I didn’t want to go back to Australia. I wanted to keep my travels going so I found a job working in retail which kept me travelling a little bit longer. I then decided to do a Masters degree and went to UC Berkeley in California for a year. I went back to Sydney to complete my thesis when the lure of overseas got me again and I moved back to London.

I decided that I wanted to try and work in fashion because it seemed so glamorous, especially at that time. It was right when McQueen was showing for the first time and there was so much momentum in London. My friends who worked in fashion told me to approach between 10 and 20 different fashion brands and PR companies and just offer to work for free. That’s the only way of getting a foothold if you have no experience. I did that. This is pre-email, so I sent all these letters to people and a few responded. The founder of Bryan Morel PR asked me to come and see her and she offered me an internship on the spot.

Within three months she’d offered me a full-time job and that’s where it all began. I worked there for seven years and then I got called by a headhunter who was looking to fill a position in New York for Calvin Klein. I was flown to Paris to meet the Global Head of Communications and Marketing and never left the airport. I met with her for half an hour and flew back to London. Within a couple of days they said they wanted me to meet with Calvin himself. So I flew to New York and had a 15 — no joke — 15-minute interview with him and then I was taken to a small room and offered the job.

On the way back to London my head was spinning. They wanted me to start immediately and I had to pack up and say goodbye to everyone. I think that was a seminal moment in my career where I was just thrown in at the deep end. I had PR experience but none working with the American media. The American fashion landscape is very different. Americans have a way of working which is so fast and efficient.

I can’t bear not being informed, so it was like a baptism of fire. I learned quickly on my feet. It’s one of those things when you move to a new city and you don’t even know where to get a haircut or have electricity installed in your apartment. On top of learning a whole new job I also had to acclimatize to living in New York. But within six months I knew that I wanted to stay. I loved it so much that I was at Calvin Klein for 11 years and within three years of starting there they gave me the top job of Global Communications.

When did Ralph Lauren come into the frame?

Ralph Lauren had been after me for a few of those years. I didn’t really want to move as I was happy at Calvin. But I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse so I went over there to oversee Global Communications. After two years I was ready for something new. Having worked in the top jobs at Calvin and Ralph there wasn’t another job in fashion that I wanted unless I moved to Milan or Paris. So I made a decision to create my own job.

I wanted to set up a company that was different from all the other consultancies and agencies I had worked with. When I was at Calvin and Ralph I employed up to 20 agencies globally, so I was aware of how they all worked and of the fact that you would normally meet with the founder and be deeply impressed with them. But before you knew it you’d be assigned an account executive to be your daily contact for 99 per cent of your working relationship. I didn’t like that. I wanted to create the kind of company where I would be the primary contact for my clients, functioning as part PR agency, part brand and marketing consultant and part in-house head of communications. In many ways it’s the role that I had for so many years and it’s very natural for me. Some of my clients don’t have somebody in that role and they use me to help them oversee their communications and marketing. Of course, it means that I can only have a certain number of clients at one time because I’m so deeply involved. But to me it just feels more strategic and more holistic to work with brands in that way.

What is the secret to good communications?

I think honesty, integrity and being true to what the brand identity is. Not trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. I think that the brands that are doing well right now are ones that know themselves. They’re nimble and are creating a niche that no other brand is filling.

What role do events play in what you do?

It’s super important for brands to really own a moment in time if they’re going to do a successful event. There is so much activity in the press and on social media. In order to stand out and create noise you have to differentiate yourself, do something unique and true to the brand DNA that resonates with consumers. Something that creates a visual tableau that people who aren’t there are fascinated by.

How does social media play into this?

Every time we put together an event we think about the way it looks on social media — who’s being invited and how they might share it. Whilst also keeping the integrity of the brand. And that’s a combination of the way it looks and who’s invited, what the message is, where it’s held, how big it is and other factors. And something that 10 or even six years ago we would never even have thought about. It was always just about creating a beautiful experience for the guests. Now we’re thinking about how this brand gets amplified on social media.

Do you enjoy it?

I love it. If you don’t love what social media has done to our industry then you may as well check out because it’s a part that you have to embrace. For me it’s exciting.

Which event has pleased you most recently?

We did an event with Zimmerman in St. Tropez last summer and we invited 50 people to celebrate the new store. We specifically chose a time when there wasn’t much going on in the fashion calendar and that worked with people’s schedules. That was highly impactful because a lot of people in the fashion world who I know reached out to say they’d seen it on social media. Our goal was to make it a highlight and I think that we achieved that.

What makes a great event?

Getting feedback from people who weren’t invited saying they wish they had been. That’s when I know I’ve succeeded when I get multiple queries from people saying, “I wish you’d invited me, why didn’t I hear about that?”. Then you know you clearly did a good job.