In our long-running series “How I’m Making It,” we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
Within the past year, corporate America has seemingly rubbed its eyes and woken up to the reality of institutional, systemic racism that has pervaded it for…ever. Thanks to organizations like Pull Up for Change and 25 Black Women in Beauty, the beauty industry has been one of the most discussed fields when it comes to highlighting arenas ripe for change, for building more genuine inclusivity into corporate structure and for amplifying the stories, needs, voices and ideas of BIPOC communities. For Kilee Hughes, founder of brand strategy and PR agency Six One, these ideas have always been core to her work. They’re what motivated her to branch out from stints at companies like Paul Wilmot, Nike, Net-a-Porter, L’Oréal, Luxottica and Shopbop to found her own agency, one that didn’t ignore or overlook people of color in beauty, wellness and lifestyle.
Since its inception about six years ago, Six One, which has a presence in both New York City and Los Angeles, has maintained a streamlined but impressive client list. (Current clients include Violet Grey, Glory Skincare, Tia Mowry’s supplement brand Anser, BeautyBeez, Acaderma, Native Atlas and SceneGence.)
Hughes named her agency Six One to honor her own height, a trait which has often set her apart from those around her. But it’s her dedication to the job and to feeling deeply invested in every brand she works with that truly sets her apart in the industry. Along with her all-female team made up predominantly of women of color, Hughes takes these client relationships personally: “We don’t refer to our clients as ‘clients’; instead, I like to say, ‘we are an extension of their team,'” she tells Fashionista. “When businesses hire Six One, they are hiring a team of high-performing individuals who are dedicated to communicating and working with them.”
Hughes — who rarely does interviews because she likes to let her clients shine, but made an exception this time around — took some time to share what her career trajectory has been like, how being laid off three times actually guided her on her path and how she’s been coping with the weight of 2020. Read on for the highlights of our conversation.
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Tell me a bit about your background and how you decided to pursue a career in PR.
I definitely had been drawn to communications from a young age. When I was in college, I thought I wanted to be an MTV VJ or be on-air and quickly realized that definitely wasn’t for me, but it has more to do with just the fact that I’m six-foot-one, and the majority of people who are on TV are very short. I was a student athlete — I played volleyball at USC — and when you’re a student athlete, you’re very limited with the types of things you can major in. So I majored in communications.
Like a lot of young women, the desire to work in fashion or beauty in some capacity was always at the forefront of my mind. My mom dabbled in modeling at a young age. So [after college] I decided to take a huge leap and move from California to New York. I’d never visited New York. But I did my homework ahead of time and slowly but surely started to make connections. In college I didn’t know exactly what shape [a communications career] would take. PR kind of fell into my lap. There’s so many publicists in New York City, so that was who I was connecting with.
What was your first PR job like?
I got my agency start at Paul Wilmot Communications. I think I found that job online, on Monster.com. I was there for a little over a year. There was definitely a learning curve, working with various clients and having to juggle multiple balls. The clients were predominantly in fashion — this was back in the day when you had what’s happening right now in the beauty industry in fashion. A lot of celebrities were dipping their toe into fashion — J. Lo had a fashion line, Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, P Diddy — everyone was moving into the retail space. So I started in fashion and it was intense, and it was also the first time I’d ever gone overseas. My first trip was to Milan for fashion week, and I got to go to Paris. But I never felt like I was a fashion girl. Working in PR at an agency didn’t really reflect my values and also just visually — my mom would joke that I was the one chocolate drop, and she wasn’t wrong.
How did you make the decision to move on from Paul Wilmot?
I was laid off. I’ve been laid off three times in my life, and every single time there was a hustle that came. I was just resilient. I ended up going out and getting a job at Barnes & Noble for the next day. You go through so many different phases: fear, anxiety, denial. I went through all of that. But the layoff didn’t last very long. I ended up getting plucked to go in house and work at L’Oréal on the marketing and PR team. It was contractual, so it wasn’t a full-time role, but I had already set my sights on traveling. I’d never had the opportunity to actually see the world and to go and kind of get amongst it. Within three months, I got a visa and moved to Sydney, Australia.
I didn’t know anyone, I just knew it was obviously English speaking, very far away, with a beautiful climate. The program that I enrolled in helped with the process of looking for work. I did a lot of thankless jobs — like being a waitress — at which I ended up failing. But I was taking a bit of a gap year.
Do you think spending time abroad gave you a more global mindset that has served you in your career?
I’ve always lived life wanting to have a different viewpoint. But traveling and exploring and having those experiences are so important. When you’re out in the world, trying new foods and hearing new languages and interacting [with new people] — I’m more attracted to those individuals [who have had those experiences]. Those are the types that I really try to hire, versus those straight of college, straight into a work situation for many years on end. I believe that more empathy comes with that. You’re having to adapt and in some ways be uncomfortable.
You eventually moved back to New York and began working at Nike. Can you tell me about how that came about?
I’d been dipping my toe in fashion and just felt like I never fit in. Nike was, in so many ways, an incredible opportunity that came about from pure randomness. My friend was traveling to Miami on business and invited me to come along for the free hotel room and then invited me to dinner with her boss. A casual conversation with her boss and led into an opportunity at Nike months later. My position was director of athlete publicity. I was part of this marketing engine, but so many of the athletes we were working with didn’t need publicity — it was like LeBron James, Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams. And so again, 2009 happened, and I lost my job again, but I was okay with that because I was getting married and moving back to Australia to live in Melbourne. It was like a blessing in disguise, because I ended up getting hired to work for Nike in Melbourne. I was there for a year.
My time at Nike is one of the highlights of my career, even despite getting laid off, because I was in an environment where diversity and inclusivity were celebrated. It’s the first company I worked for that you did not have to have a college degree. They hired talent that had a certain street knowledge and street smarts and were connected.
When did you gravitate back toward beauty and wellness PR?
I came back to New York again after a year in Melbourne and got a job at Net-a-Porter, helping with the launch of beauty and wellness. I was going through the list [of retailers] and I just was like, wow, there’s no diversity on these lists. That’s when I really started recognizing a huge missed opportunity, knowing how much money [Black consumers] spend on beauty. The Black dollar is heavy, not to mention the Latinx dollar.
In doing more research, I realized there was no agency that existed that just focused on beauty, wellness and lifestyle that was being led by a Black woman at the time. They did and do exist as a combination with other parts of the business, like fashion or tech or food and beverage. But none of them solely do beauty, wellness and lifestyle. So that’s where the light went off. I left Net-a-Porter and freelanced for a little bit and started gathering my notes. I ended up winning my first independent beauty client, Frank Body, and represented them in the U.S. And that’s also when I officially decided to launch my own agency, Six One, about six years ago, in 2014.
How did you go about building your own agency, starting from scratch?
I did a lot of research. I knew what I didn’t like — we all know what we don’t like. We’ve all been in situations where we’ve entered into a sandstorm. We’ve all been in situations where there’s been a bait-and-switch. I worked my tail off. I still do, but I pulled all nighters for clients. It was just me in the beginning. I remember sitting on a bar stool for hours on end, just cranking it out. But having been on the brand side, I had been able to cultivate relationships with advertisers and editors, so I had a lot of women who I could tap into. I bought on a young girl who had no PR experience and trained her. We worked together my house. We just pushed through. How I started to just expand and grow was a lot of word of mouth.
How many clients do you work with now?
We have 12 currently. And that’s very intentional. It’s a different approach to the big agency life — so many agencies just bring on anyone. But my team and I talk a lot; they’re a young, very talented group of diverse women. And while I don’t know where we’ll grow to, I’m fine with where it is now. I try to minimize the amount of clients we have because I really am involved in everything.
We work with small and large brands, and that hands-on process has done well for us. With clients, I always say they’re our bosses, so wake up, be great, because being good is the enemy of great. Really strive to do well and to think through the lens of what it would be like to be a founder, as much as you possibly can. So we’re small, but mighty.
What is the agency’s overall mission?
Our goal is to foster a community in the beauty, wellness and lifestyle space, bringing equity, inclusion and diversity to PR. The unmet need here is that minorities are the forgotten masses. We recognize that there is an essential need to bridge the gap. This has always been a growing concern to us as we are speaking to a disproportionate balance of culture.
African Americans and Hispanic communities spend trillions of dollars on beauty and wellness products, but have a major lack of PR representation. We’re proud to be predominately minority-based and Black-owned. The industry is lacking, and in this current climate, there is a spotlight on diversity, inclusivity and equity. It matters.
What professional goals do you still hope to accomplish?
Right now in this current pandemic, the honest answer is there’s a lot more personal goals than professional. Personally, I just want to have a lot more intention. This year started off rocky for me. I lost a big client. Actually, I lost three clients during the pandemic. There were a lot of tears and a lot of emotions that I couldn’t control because for me, it was unpredictable. It was hard for me to forecast.
But I’ve really tapped more into what fuels me when viewing and fostering connection, who I’m maintaining relationships with. I love just connecting with friends and people who I respect. But professionally, my main goal would be to continue to amplify voices for people of color in this industry where many are forgotten. Now we’re starting to see this change and I’m celebrating it. I began to identify what was fueling me. But also, I work hard. I think I work harder than a lot of publicists. I have to because I am a woman of color and that’s just been ingrained in me, to be the best. I played on the all-white volleyball team at USC in a predominantly white sport. I’ve worked in predominantly white industries.
I’ve been so inspired to see Pull Up for Change’s Pull Up or Shut Up initiative and call for the industry to become more diverse. I want to see consistent change from a professional level. I’d like to see more agencies like mine that are being led by women of color.
On that note, a lot of what you’ve prioritized in your career — amplifying stories and voices of people of color — is getting attention on a bigger scale right now. How do you feel seeing these conversations take shape?
I’m stepping into this light. This makes me so emotional. I feel seen and I feel heard. I’ve had to do so much stuff in terms of proving myself from the beginning. Sometimes it’s like, no matter where I’ve worked — Nike, Luxottica, Saks Fifth Avenue, L’Oréal, Shopbop, Net-a-Porter — it didn’t even matter. I’d still have to prove myself. Now I’m able to just have one quick phone call and ask some really important, necessary questions, like ‘Who are the decision makers in this process? What’s your timing? What’s your budget?’ I never used to ask those things because I was afraid. Now I’m much more selective and assertive.
I also think that now is a time for all brands to do their own internal and external audit. They must look to be more reflective of consumer spending habits and the buying power of African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans. PR professionals must take it upon themselves to strive to be more inclusive, because the market is growing faster than ever before.
What lessons have you learned by establishing your own agency that you wish you’d known from the outset?
The hard lesson I’ve had to learn is: You cannot do it all and there are only so many hours in a day. Concentrate your time and account for where you spend it. You should also find the right individuals to complete your agency so you can work fluidly and collaboratively as a team. Collaboration is necessary because this is a service industry.
How do you think the nature of PR has changed, if at all, during the course of your career?
The news cycle is ongoing, and it never turns off. Digital is king, and while print still matters, it’s very limited nowadays. My advice to anyone starting out would be to do your research and develop relationships with media and influencers. Although the storytelling side of PR is just as relevant as when I started, the delivery of that message has changed, as well as the audience. As PR professionals, we must consider how we tell stories across different mediums. Social media has a different audience than print, and we can’t treat them the same.
What advice would you give to someone starting out in the industry and looking to follow a similar career path?
You must immerse yourself in the news cycle, what’s topical and trending. Be fearless. Rejection comes often and swiftly. My advice is to study, watch, listen. Identify what type of PR you want to go into. Media is different than corporate; corporate is different than crisis. Some individuals are suited for different paths. This industry is glamorized, but it’s fast-moving and forces you to think on your feet. You must be decisive and strategic. So, know what you are good at, what you have a vested interest in, and pursue it.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
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