Women’s History Month might have ended, but why should we stop shining a well-deserved spotlight on those who never cease to amaze and inspire us? Next up in our series is Savannah Engel, the powerhouse behind the eponymous PR firm. Known for her warm and fun personality as much as her results-driven strategy, the Mississippi-native is writing a new rule book for modern-day fashion and lifestyle PR. We caught up with her to hear what sparked her love affair with New York—garbage bags and all!—and what marks her apart as a leader.
You’re from Mississippi, was a move to NYC always in the cards?
Always! When I was seven-years-old, I went to New York for the first time with my parents and my little sister, Alexa, and fell in love. After the theater one night, it was pouring out, and of course there were no taxis in sight. Clearly feeling inspired by the drama of the Broadway stage, we danced back to our hotel singing Gene Kelly’s Singing in the Rain at the top of our lungs. Deciding singing and dancing wasn’t quite enough for me, I jumped in every puddle along the way splashing my family. When we got to the door of our hotel, I looked up at my mother and said, ‘I found my place,’ and from that moment, I knew I would never live anywhere else. Every decision I made after that was to get me a step closer to NYC.
What piqued your interest in pursuing fashion? How did your first internship opportunity at Michael Kors come about?
My mother, who was one of the first female executives at Wrangler in the ’70s, initially sparked my interest in fashion. We would watch Elsa Klensch’s Style show on CNN every Saturday as a ritual together. Seeing my mother as a strong woman working in fashion led me to believe this was something I could do as well. My love for New York also had something to do with it being one of the fashion capitals of the world. Ridiculously enough, I met my first boss Homecoming Weekend at SMU [Southern Methodist University] during a night of celebrating and drinking together. Leah Jacobson, who is an amazing publicist and now has her own firm called LJPR, was visiting her brother at the time. I was on homecoming court that year and was throwing a wild celebration party at a bar when I met Leah and we immediately hit it off. After an absurd night of being over-served, I knew I needed to be her intern and thankfully the feeling was mutual, and she gave me the job at Kors for that summer!
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What made you fall in love with NYC?
Everyone says they love NYC…but I really love it! Everything about the city excites and ignites me. I even love the bone-chillingly cold winters, smoldering hot summers, the traffic, and the garbage bags on the sidewalks…that’s how much I love it! The other day someone started screaming wild obscenities at me to get out of their way. I knew in that moment, NYC was back, and I fell in love with it all over again. I am excited about what is going to happen in NYC post-COVID. Only the die-hard New Yorkers stayed this past year which opened up so much opportunity for a new crop of people and experiences. I know the creativity that is brewing is going to be incredible!
What did your time at Michael Kors and Barneys working on the PR side teach you?
My years at Kors and Barneys were the most formative years of my entire career. I started at Kors before it became the company it is today. I was there at the beginning of the online editorial market. I remember the day we started our Twitter account even though we were still using memos and fax machines (I might as well have a deep side part as I say that). By the time I left, it was a publicly traded company and it’s continuing to grow. The experience I gained from watching and being a part of that growth is immeasurable. Kors, himself, taught me the foundation of my understanding of PR from the old world of fashion to this new age we are in now. God, I miss seeing those aviators every day! It was also a fascinating time for Barneys and it was full of change when I started there. It was experiencing a rebirth with a new crop of talent and creatives that came in after the sale to Richard Perry. Every day there was something new to learn and do, a new collaboration, a new emerging designer to support. We were starting an exciting push to move into the digital landscape. Barneys was absolutely wild in the most creative and engaging way. My interest really sparked in building brands while working there. At the time, Barneys was known for finding and putting emerging brands on the map, many of which were so young that they didn’t have PR representation yet. It showed me that I was able to build a brand from the beginning. But at that time, I had no idea or interest in starting my own firm. Nada!
What did your role at First Access Entertainment involve?
I actually went back to Michael Kors after Barneys to work on celebrity and events globally, eventually focusing on only celebrity. I learned so many crucial skills during my time doing VIP at Kors. I did everything from helping tailoring to fittings, but the most important skill I honed was my skill in negotiations. When I moved over to First Access, it was a very exciting time for the company. They had just launched under Len Blavatnik’s Access Industries, which was an extension of Warner Brothers—giving me access to their entire roster. I was essentially doing what I was doing at Kors, but from the talent side. Having the skill and knowledge of how to do my job from every angle has been crucial to my success in my career.
Tell us about when and why you went out on your own. What was this time like?
If I am going to be honest, the notion was terrifying! After leaving First Access, I had initially planned on taking a break— not starting my own business! I had worn myself out, but still couldn’t just sit still. I started freelancing for all of my friends at agencies like PRC, The Communications Store, and also for companies like Missoni, Ferragamo, Michael Kors, Heron Preston, and Moncler. I even worked with W Magazine as a freelance bookings editor online. I did everything from create their VIP programs, to negotiations, to press for events, event production, product launches…you name it! Then a little ski accident happened, which led to the shattering of my leg at the beginning of 2017. I was finally forced to slow down, which of course, meant starting a company called Palm Creative with Chloe Caillet and Alexandra Cronan and starting the beginning of Savannah Engel PR. For Palm Creative, I built on my background from First Access, it was a creative branding agency that worked with emerging musicians. As if relearning how to walk and starting one company at the same time wasn’t enough, I decided to start Savannah Engel PR as well. My best friend was starting a clothing line around the same time that I was thinking about starting my own company, and I asked if I would help her with PR. She’s now a household name—Markarian. The day I launched Markarian was the day I launched my own company. Within the first week, Emma Roberts wore a piece and Vogue did a story on the brand. It was then that I decided, hmmm let’s do this! Having such a well-rounded background after years of working every angle of the same industry made me want to create an agency that was different and non-traditional. Something that went beyond the archaic way of traditional press, since everything was changing so quickly with digital formats becoming the predominant outlet.
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What were the values that you founded the company on?
I have strived to be one of the hardest working people in the industry and I have surrounded myself with similar people within my company. My company was founded on building small brands or rebuilding brands that maybe need a little pick me up. We function like an in-house PR team for our clients, making sure that each one receives dedicated attention. We invest our time into building our clients’ companies; getting as involved as our clients need us to be. This means attending design meetings, helping to rebrand, handling production and events, doing model castings, handling VIP and celebrity, curating philanthropic programs, collaborations, and more. We have even recently started helping our clients raise capital and do fundraising. The entire concept of PR has changed over the past few years especially this past year due to COVID.
What’s a) the best thing and b) the hardest thing about being a boss?
I love the freedom of being my own boss. It means I can choose new clients and can start initiatives whatever way I think is the best way to approach them, without having to go through an entire corporate process and system for approval. This creates so much creative freedom and thinking, and allows us to turn things around so much faster. The hardest thing about being a boss is actually running a company. You are responsible for so much more than just yourself and your own work. You have an entire team and business to constantly think about and take into consideration with every decision you make.
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Tell us about the client roster you currently have and how your team divide and conquer.
We have a small roster to make sure that we are able to give each client dedicated attention as we continue to grow our own company. We work with Markarian, who we launched in 2017, PatBo who we launched into the American market in 2019, Morgan Lane, Dos Swim, Montserrat, Naomi Campbell’s Fashion for Relief, Poppy Jamie, and Barriere. At the same time, we are constantly consulting on projects for a multitude of brands! We are continuing to grow organically and moving into other areas outside of fashion as well. I want to make sure that my clients and team always have direct access to me.
What does each day generally look like for you?
Every day is different and throws something new at us. We have our retainer clients, but we also take on new projects each month which means something new and exciting is always happening!
What are some recent career highlights?
This year has already been off to an exciting start! I’ve built my company from the ground up over a quick three years, and the BIGGEST moment of my career was definitely Markarian dressing Dr. Jill Biden for the Inauguration and Finnegan and Natalie for the Inaugural Ball concert. My agency is known for a 360 approach to communications that is on the cutting edge of celebrity placement and talent negotiations. We launched my agency and Markarian with celebrity and traditional press, and over past three years leading up to Inauguration, it has been crazy seeing how much the designer, my best friend Alexandra, and I have grown together in such a short amount of time. We’ve also dressed a long list of high profile celebrities such as Kate Hudson, Beanie Feldstein, Constance Wu, Felicity Jones, Kerry Washington, Priyanka Chopra, Lizzo, Thandie Newton, and many more! We work with just about every single fashion show during fashion week and have done too many events globally to count! Right before COVID, I did the Dreamville Grammy Closing After Party in collaboration with our old client ILYSM, helped to rebrand Diesel in celeb/VIP for a year. I lead and brokered a deal for Zayn Malik as creative director of Versus Versace, secured Allure’s first digital cover featuring Lizzo in a custom Markarian dress, and did Diesel’s Hate Couture campaign—which ended up becoming a case study for fashion schools globally!
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How do you think your Southern roots shape your position in the industry and mark you apart?
I have a very thick (loud!) Southern accent and I have never made any effort to change it. I am proud of my Southern roots and have always stayed true to myself. Plus it definitely makes me more memorable!
What do you miss most about the industry pre-COVID?
Honestly the part I miss most about pre-COVID life is a headset…the power…. the authority…the rush of an urgent crackling message from an intern frantically searching under the bright lights at Spring Studios! The feeling of a crumpled up face sheet in the palm of my sweaty hand as I turn a 3×3 foot space backstage into a “VIP” area with the tiniest curtains, a sad folding chair, and the free water sponsors, what’s better than that!?
What do you not miss about the industry pre-COVID?
I’m thankful that the pandemic has slowed the insanely fast paced life of working in fashion, and has allowed us all to become more conscious of the way we navigate the industry through better practices for the environment and for the community around us. It was incredible to watch brands come together to support amazing charities throughout the pandemic and lend their platforms and voices to those in need.
Anything exciting coming up for Savannah Engel PR that you can share with us?
We have so much coming up in the pipeline—you will have to wait and see!