This weekend Drapers catches up with Exposure founder Raoul Shah, ahead of the communication agency’s 20th anniversary this month. Here we give you a sneak-peek of what to expect.
Eric Musgrave: How did you position Exposure to the media world 20 years ago?
Raoul Shah: It sounds mad now, but there was such definition about everything in our sector in 1993. Style was the remit of The Face and i-D, and, perhaps, Sky and Blitz. Then came the new wave of Dazed and Confused, Tank and Sleazenation. We are proud that we never saw those lines of segmentation, we thought it all could co-exist – start-up magazines, photographers, musicians, creatives, graphic designers, shop owners, bar owners. We were quick to bring them together to collaborate in one cultural landscape because it seemed the natural thing to do.
EM: What background made you suitable for this life?
RS: My parents are Kenyan Indians who came to London in the 1950s. Culturally all the Shahs are Gujarati traders who like buying and selling things. My father Raju had a property business and also a textile importing business that was based in Margaret Street just round the corner from Exposure’s offices. I can remember as a kid helping unload bales of fabric from trucks outside.
I got a 2:1 in Textiles Economics and Management from UMIST (now Manchester Metropolitan University). In the autumn of 1988 I went to work in the Agnès B shop in Paris. As I spoke English, they left me to look after all the Japanese customers.
When I got back in December 88, my dad said he knew a Shah family I should write to. That was Arun, Nitin and Milan Shah who owned Pepe Jeans. Their MD, John Miln (who is now CEO of trade body UKFT) took me on as graduate trainee. I thought it was the best job in the world because I was allowed to sit anywhere and ask questions.
The group comprised Pepe, Hardcore, Big Stuff and the French brand Buffalo. Within six months I went to Buffalo’s head office in Bordeaux as part of my training and stayed there for two years, working on establishing and marketing [the brand] outside France, between 1989 and 91.
When I came back to London I took on the role of marketing manager of Hardcore, the men’s brand. My time at Pepe came to an end when the business was going through some fairly significant transitions and being shaped up for sale. I suggested to my boss that they pay me a tiny consultancy fee and let me work for myself. That was the beginning of what became Exposure.
EM: Name some high points from the past 20 years.
RS: Creating the 40° trade event - thank you, Emap Fashion – was a bit of a revolution in 1996. The idea that a trade show could have entertainment values like a consumer event was a bit unusual back then. We brought in partnerships with Sony PlayStation and MTV, added drinks sponsors to create free bars, and had a proper first-night party that was as good as anything a brand would do. It was inspired by the big Levi’s ad premieres in the 1980s. We brought to a trade show celebs that had no reason to be there, like Jamiroquai coming to sit in a Levi’s shrink-to-fit bath, or Ozwald Boateng visiting even though we didn’t have a high-end menswear section.
EM: How and why did you open in the US and Japan?
RS: Back in the day my belief was that the power of cultural influence came out of three cities – London, Tokyo and New York. There was Ray Petri and Buffalo in London, Shawn Stüssy and his tribe coming out of West Coast America, and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons and her incredible influence that went beyond design and aesthetic creativity. Building an agency in these three cities would give us a validation that our agency is all about making brands culturally relevant. We have been in New York and LA for 10 years and in Tokyo for five years.