Each month we showcase a Washingtonian who works in a fashion related industry. By doing this we hope to show off the great talent we have in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. We are excited to announce publicist and owner of premier luxury public relations firm The Aba Agency Aba Kwawu as our September 2012 “Fashiontonian of the Month.”
Aba Kwawu with clients David Neville & Marcus Wainwright of Rag &Bone at DC opening
We hear this is the 10th Anniversary of your company, The Aba Agency. What inspired you to start the agency?
It’s hard to believe that 10 years have gone by since I incorporated The Aba Agency. It was the running joke in grad school that I would graduate and head straight to New York to work for a corporate luxury firm like one of the LVMH brands or Gucci. When I left London and came back to the States for what was meant to be a temporary break, I met my husband in Georgetown and decided to stay and make a go of my fashion ambitions in DC.
10 years ago, DC was not as cosmopolitan as it is today. Fashion jobs were few and far in between. I worked in marketing for IK Retail Group and then for Saks Fifth Avenue when I was recruited to work for Legacy Custom Clothing, a small company that focused on custom clothing and styling for professional athletes and celebrities. It was there that I met my inner entrepreneur and built a strong network across the country. When the firm decided to close, I had to make a decision to move forward. My academic background allowed me to lecture at Howard University in the Fashion Merchandising department where I taught everything from Consumer Behavior and History of Fashion to Retail Buying and Fashion Marketing. I worked long days and nights to build The Aba Agency while I was also teaching. One project at a time and one client at a time.
Today, The Aba Agency is a results oriented public relations, marketing and special events boutique specializing in luxury lifestyle, fashion, design, entertainment, & hospitality. We’ve had the opportunity to work with an amazing cast of clients including Cirque du Soleil, Tysons Galleria, DeBeers Group, Rag&Bone, AllSaints Spitafields, Mercedes Benz, Renaissance Hotels, Intermix, FotoDC, In Style Magazine, Washington Design Center, Vogue Magazine, Fendi Casa, Fashion For Paws, The Smithsonian Institute and many others.
Can you give us an idea of the DC Fashion Landscape When you first started out?
DC was much less cosmopolitan in 2001 when I started The Aba Agency. We had to do most of our fashion work in Miami and New York with brands like Valentino and Celine. There were still ladies in DC walking around in frumpy business suits, pearls with socks and sneakers on their way to government jobs. Today, many of the best known style bloggers, work on the Hill by day and look like fashion plates. Most trends seen in international magazines can be spotted on the streets between 14th and U and walking the cobble stones of Georgetown. The retail landscape has grown from large department stores with conservative merchandise mixes to cool local boutiques with a distinct point of view. I observed the market evolve when the luxury magazines came into town, offering more people the chance to be photographed looking fab. Events were created just for the magazines and forward-thinking brands such as Intermix took the leap into the market and several others followed suit. The dining and hospitality scenes have also evolved to create a more contemporary lifestyle in DC. With the level of disposable income being the highest in the country, luxury brands including Mulberry, Emporio Armani, Tory Burch, Rag&Bone, Gucci and others are expanding in the market with many more to come.
There seems to be a boom in independent retailers, designers, photographers etc in DC, is this a real movement that’s leading to industry or just a trend?
It is a real movement. I am so proud of the raw talent that exists in DC today. We have bone fide international retail moguls like Iraklis Karabassis of IK Retail (G-Star Raw, Piazza Sempione, Max Mara, Emporio) in our backyard and the likes of fashion photographers Walter Grio, Anton Papich and Tim Coburn thriving in DC. Retailers such as Muleh, Redeem, Relish, Hu’s Wear/Shoes have gained national attention and local designers Paula Mendoza, Pranav Vora, Crystal Hannon and Marti Horwitz are making their mark on the industry.
What advice do you have for DC designers? What should be their strategy for success?
Don’t just mimic the trends. Create a distinct point of view and build a loyal clientele. Look at the success of “in the know” international brands like Isabel Toledo and Yeohlee and know that it can be done. They are less concerned with ads in Vogue and runway spectaculars and more about the craft and quality of design. I would like to see more products manufactured in the DC area and a growth in pattern-makers, seamstresses, bead-workers, and milliners. Once buyers have a reason to source in DC, we can call ourselves a true industry. There is work to be done, but it can happen in the backyard of the policy makers.
As the Regional Director Elect for the DC Chapter of Fashion Group International what do you think the organization’s place is, in the DC fashion story?
The Fashion Group International is a global, non-profit, professional organization with 5000 members in the fashion industry including apparel, accessories, beauty and home.The FGI mission is to be the pre-eminent authority on the business of fashion and design and to help its members become more effective in their careers. To do this, FGI provides insights on major trends in person, online and in print; access to business professionals and a gateway to the influence fashion plays in the marketplace. FGI is critical to the growth of fashion in DC because it connects members to the international network and puts DC on the map.
The DC Chapter is nearly 75 years old and has an impressive history. It’s hard to believe that I’ve been a member since 2001. I can still remember calling the NY Headquarters back in 1999 when I was in grad school in London to ask for membership. When I came back to the States and started my career, I found a mentor who was heavily involved in FGI and still is today on a national level. She encouraged me to join and said “if you work for FGI, it will work for you.” Here I am 11 years later… I cannot be more honored to be the Regional Director Elect of such an illustrious organization.
What is the biggest myth or misconception that people have about fashion PR in DC? That it does not exist or that we do not know as much as our counterparts in New York or LA.
How would you describe your aesthetic in three words?
It is much too difficult to describe my style in three words! My closet has multiple personality disorder right now because I play so many different roles in life. I have my classic, tailored and feminine wardrobe for business (Piazza Sempione, Tahari, Tracy Reece) ; trendy, fashion forward pieces for events and fun (Vivienne Westwood, Rag&Bone, Philip Lim, AllSaints, Stella McCartney) and my casual mommy gear (Vince, Nike, Target). Overall – I’m modern, classic and feminine. I look for things that are classic with unexpected details, prints and color.
For more about Aba and The Aba Agency visit www.theabaagency.com & @theabaagency.