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KE Voices: Stephanie Barker-Fry on purpose-driven PR and working with communities

Distorted image of two girls walking on the street
  • Written byAlexandra Rodriguez Cifre
  • Published date 26 January 2021
Distorted image of two girls walking on the street
Work by BA Fashion PR and Communications students for Agency ELEVEN. Credit: Alisha Harrison, Anna Viazikova, Diana Stanimirova Teneva, Julia Rozanska, Justine Baylis and Jordann Sewell.

After nearly 2 decades of working as a Public Relations specialist for various luxury brands, Stephanie Barker-Fry joined the academic world to work alongside the next generation of fashion communicators. As a Lecturer and Acting Knowledge Exchange Lead at London College of Fashion, she's been leading on KE initiatives where students get to develop impactful campaigns to help brands connect with local communities.

Hi Stephanie. Can you take us through your journey into becoming a fashion PR and communications specialist?

I started my career in fashion PR when I was at university, thanks to my first internship in New York with Sonia Rykiel. I got to work with publications like Vogue, ID, W Magazine and Nylon, building close relationships with international stylists and press — it  was an amazing experience.

I completed different internships within luxury fashion PR when I returned to London, and since then I have worked in many fashion communication roles. One of my career highlights was working with Swarovski and managing their global fashion partnerships. Swarovski worked closely with Central Saint Martins, and I was introduced to the philanthropic initiatives taking place between academia and industry. This sparked my interest in fashion education!

I initially entered this space by contributing to the industry mentoring programme at London College of Fashion, organised by the Graduate Futures team. Through this experience I met Sophia Plessas, the course leader on BA Fashion PR and Communication, who offered me the opportunity to deliver some guest lectures sessions. Following this, I was offered a role as Fashion Communication Lecturer and 5 years later, I am currently the Knowledge Exchange Lead for LCF's School of Media and Communication.

So you got to see how partnerships work from an industry perspective before joining UAL. Did those experiences influence how you approach your current your role at LCF?

Collaborations and brand partnerships have been a fundamental part of my experience as a communications professional. The ethos at Swarovski was to support and nurture young designers through the process of developing their collections, planning shows and communicating their brand to global audiences. It was a privilege to be part of such an incredible pool of talent, documenting the narratives behind the collections as part of our communication campaigns.

Once I transitioned to teaching, I didn’t have as much time to be part of industry projects, but thanks to Knowledge Exchange opportunities I’ve been able to continue this passion by managing projects between academia and industry.

Through Knowledge Exchange, we can support students in their academic journey by encouraging them to utilise their cultural awareness and creative skills when responding to live briefs, in exchange for industry insights.

— Stephanie Barker-Fry
Black and white image of two girls standing in a roof terrace in London
Work by BA Fashion PR and Communications students for Agency ELEVEN. Credit: Alisha Harrison, Anna Viazikova, Diana Stanimirova Teneva, Julia Rozanska, Justine Baylis and Jordann Sewell.

Knowledge Exchange (KE) is the term we use in Higher Education to refer to how universities collaborate with external partners. From your experience, what are the benefits for students and industry working together on a KE project?

Knowledge Exchange allows students, academics and third partners to collaborate in generating innovative ways to respond to the increasing challenges we face within the fashion industry. It aligns with a shift in attitudes that encourages brands and organisations to take a less hierarchal approach in developing creative strategy and recognises that students have equal agency to drive change. KE allows us to interrogate the industry, with a view to creating positive outcomes that benefit all parties.

For students, it’s hugely beneficial. KE projects are not about industry coming and taking advantage of their ideas — we always make sure students' creative outputs are protected and credited. This type of collaborations provide students with  a tangible platform to contribute their research and ideas confidently.

Younger generations wish to work with progressive brands that provide equitable spaces and are committed to driving change. The traditional power structures that ruled the industry no longer command the same respect, so it’s important for student voices to be heard, as we will rely on them in the future. Our role as tutors is to help facilitate this process and research new or potential outcomes.

It’s of vital importance for people in the industry to remain open-minded. A strong KE partner is actively looking to connect with our students' values and stay open to new possibilities.

— Stephanie Barker-Fry
Collage of different creative assets for a PR campaign
Work by BA Fashion PR and Communications students for project CUT. Credit: Kahleen Zhang, Louise Fromell, Anna Morrelli, Yilin Wang​ and Rosio Palma Pendola.

From all the KE projects you’ve been involved in since joining LCF, is there one that has been particularly meaningful to you?

In 2021, I led on a live project which involved year 1 students from the Fashion PR and Communication course working closely with CUT (now ReGo), a social initiative led by Dr Francesco Mazzarella from Centre for Sustainable Fashion to support youth communities in East London and raise awareness around the growing issue of knife crime across the borough of Waltham Forest.

The purpose of the project was to use fashion as a catalyst for positive social change, and my students were tasked to create communication outcomes that promoted this social enterprise — an excellent opportunity for them to research and deliver PR and Branding through the lens of activism and social change.

I was amazed by the students’ insights, seeing how they related their knowledge of fashion communication to bigger societal issues. The creative outcomes were brilliant! They developed progressive ideas and it was great to see how they navigated the needs of various stakeholders so professionally. As we were all working remotely, it was interesting to see how digital connectivity allowed the students to come up with hyperlocal strategies, despite living in different locations around the world.

How would you like to continue using your knowledge and expertise in fashion PR to collaborate with external partners through KE projects?

I’d love to develop community building projects that explore and present communities across new and emerging concepts. It would be interesting to delve deeper into how this looks in the metaverse with the rise of Web 3.0. Huge shifts are taking place within hybrid worlds, which can be overwhelmingly complex for both brands and students to navigate.

Equally, we know brands will be competing against their ‘purpose’ offering moving forward, and this presents a huge opportunity to understand how fashion can genuinely benefit future societies through education, enterprise and creativity. I would like to continue my outreach work by collaborating with partners that wish to expand their philanthropic and educational offering to generate greater social impact.

The LCF community is incredibly international. We can bring global and diverse insights into the present and future of the fashion communication disciplines, which is highly appealing to all our partners.

— Stephanie Barker-Fry

Find out more about how we work with external partners

Explore other Knowledge Exchange initiatives happening at UAL

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KE Voices is a series of interviews where UAL academics talk about their involvement in Knowledge Exchange (KE) activities, reflecting on how creative thinking and practices can be applied to tackle real-world challenges in collaboration with businesses, charities, local communities and other education institutions.

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