Founder Murray Bevan on twenty years of fashion PR agency Showroom 22

Murray Bevan interview

Murray Bevan, founder and director of Showroom 22. Image by Blake Dunlop.

Managing two decades in the fast-paced fashion industry is definitely worth celebrating and Showroom 22 founder and director, Murray Bevan, is elated to mark his brand’s twenty-year milestone this year. Launched in April 2002, Showroom 22 was Aotearoa’s first fashion public relations agency and while many agencies have popped up since, it is still leading the way forward.

To date, there has been little fanfare of the business’ two-decade milestone which is in keeping with Murray’s modest approach to his success. He launched Showroom 22 at just twenty-two years old fresh from working as a Media Liaison for celebrated designer Karen Walker. It was there that Murray first encountered international fashion PR showrooms which Karen Walker was utilising following her success at London Fashion Week.

While we’re much more aware of the mechanics of how PR works now, twenty years ago it was a different story and as Aotearoa had zero fashion PR agencies up until the early 00s, local designers managed their own public relations in house. It has to be said that the media landscape was very different back then, print still ruled, social media didn’t exist and websites were a new and often clunky exercise that many were not too sure what to make of. What mattered to most local designers was getting their garments in the glossy pages of fashion magazines Fashion Quarterly or Pavement and showcasing their collections at the newly launched New Zealand Fashion Week to get the attention of international buyers and media.

With a growing interest in New Zealand fashion, Murray saw an opportunity to launch his own PR agency and took the leap to create Showroom 22. “The original vision for it was to recreate what I had seen overseas and as much as that sounds relatively simple, we didn’t have anything here like it,” says Murray Bevan. “But what I’d seen overseas was so successful, inspiring and energetic, I was really trying to recreate the relationships, energy and ideas. Fundamentally, I wasn’t trying to do anything different or create coverage that hadn’t already been done by brands in New Zealand but it was more about breaking down the hierarchy and to try and give a voice to brands that were on the up and up. Because from what I’d experienced, media tended to go back to people they know and trust because it’s easy and brands benefit from that hugely. I wanted to crack open some opportunities for new people to walk through those doors.”

During his time at Karen Walker, he had picked up the basics of PR and a good network of initial contacts that would help him get his own showroom started. While moving on from the brand he’d enjoyed working for and a secure wage was a big step, it wouldn’t be the last time he collaborated with Karen Walker and as it turned out, he had made quite an impression on the designer herself.

“I met Murray when he was at high school. He’d help us out in the holidays with mail-outs (remember those!) and from my first meeting with him I was hooked: pressed, white t-shirt; khaki shorts; transistor radio playing RNZ Concert and the neatest of neat piles and processes; and don’t even get me started on his impeccable manners,” says Karen Walker.

“What revealed itself more slowly over time was a sense of humour that fitted beautifully with my own; a work-ethic without fault; loyalty that was off-the-charts and the ability to remain calm and measured in any crisis. I consider Murray to be one of my very closest friends and I’m forever grateful to have had him in my life these several decades and look forward to many more to come.”

Murray Bevan interview

Karen Walker and Murray at The Department Store NZFW Presentation, produced by Showroom 22, September 2010.

His positive attitude and composure served him well in the early days of Showroom 22 as he was finding his feet as a business owner and attempting to secure his first clients. While he may have worked for a leading designer, Murray didn’t consider himself a fashion person, he was still playing football five times a week and was more obsessed with Ali G and Nike than the latest designer collections.

“Until I worked for Karen I didn’t even know the difference between a skirt and a dress,” laughs Murray. “Fashion was definitely not my thing, I wasn’t obsessed with it, I wasn’t very fashionable, I didn’t have a lot of exciting or expensive clothes and I was very not from the fashion world which I think helped me enormously because I had the ability to take the risks that other people said to me at the time ‘No, that won’t work’ or ‘That’s not how we do things’. So, I was able to go ‘How do you know? We haven’t done them before.’ It was a bit of a weird time because I was trying to convince people that they should believe in what I was doing but then I was also turning up kind of not looking like what they’d seen before so it was a bit jarring. There were lots of reasons not to trust me!”

He had been successful in his role at Karen Walker, but when it came to approaching people with his new idea, they weren’t so sure to start with and expected Murray to bring them what they were used to, whereas his plan was to do things differently. “I had to pitch my idea over and over again so that people understood what the hell it was I was even doing because they didn’t know. It wasn’t like I was starting a magazine, I was starting a PR agency that only dealt with fashion and you could borrow samples which you didn’t have to pay for and you could loan them. Lots of people were like ‘We don’t get it, what do you mean? There’s a hook here?’”

His potential clients and media weren’t the only ones who weren’t sure about Murray’s idea, his mother was also concerned about him starting a business and urged her son to be cautious. While he took heed of his mum’s advice to make sure he was on top of the accounting and tax side of things, he wasn’t worried about failure itself, seeing it as less of a worry because he had no reputation yet and nothing much to lose should it not work out.

“I think when you start with new ideas like that you’ve got to go into them assuming that they might fall over and be ok with that. You have to be ok with failure and as an agency and as a director of an agency I’ve become able to take punches if I need to. We lose clients seldomly but some of them do leave or we go pitch for a client and we don’t win it. It’s kind of the same thing. You’re baring your soul and you’re giving someone a new idea that you think is really amazing and sometimes it doesn’t gel with them.”

In early 2002, Murray signed up for a month-by-month lease on his first office in Auckland’s bustling High Street, paying $1000 a month to bring the vision of his showroom to life. He brought a desk in from home in Howick, laybuyed a computer from Gateway PC and got a couple of clothing racks from a stainless steel manufacturer in East Tamaki. He painted the walls, polished the wooden floor himself and was open for business.

But doing business was very different twenty years ago, forget smartphones and Wi-Fi, accessing the internet was via a super slow dial up connection and contact with clients was mostly by a landline phone and faxes, as cell phones were expensive and free minutes were not yet an option. Being in contact with people was slower and costly but matched the measured flow of information at the time. Murray purchased a business cell phone which was sold to him by a salesman who visited his office with a briefcase full of phones, an odd concept now when you can walk into a retail store and buy one easily, but an amusing indication of how things have evolved.

Murray Bevan interview

Kathryn Wilson and Murray in Hawke’s Bay, February 2013, for a Showroom 22 Lifestyle Project with NZ Herald Viva.

“Back then I used to send all of my press releases by mail. I used to have to put 100 press releases in paper envelopes and send them out to people because people actually still checked their letterbox. I know it sounds old fashioned now but it was actually completely acceptable and it was just the way people did things. Sending out a printed press release on a piece of 80 gsm A4 paper in a white envelope to their mailbox was how they wanted to receive information. Then slowly dial up internet got going and because it was quite expensive, I’d write a whole bunch of emails in the morning and then I’d log on and send all my emails and watch a whole bunch come in and then I’d turn off the internet. I’d then do that again a couple of hours later and do the same thing three or four times a day.”

The slower pace of communication for the new business made it that much more exciting when something big did happen and Murray got a break in his first year when top fashion photographer Derek Henderson reached out to set up a story for British magazine Intersection. The profile piece was on a car club which was a bit outside of Murray’s remit but he got a young up-and-coming photographer on board and took it on as a project. These days, Showroom 22 deal with clients all over the world on a daily basis but back then it felt particularly thrilling to be dealing with an editor in London and to be creating international work. It was one of the first jobs that made Murray feel like he was on the right track and gave him some momentum to build on.

As he built Showroom 22’s business in the early years he signed some fashion clients that were also in the beginning stages of their businesses but would go on to become long-term clients and close friends, like designer Kathryn Wilson who launched her eponymous footwear brand in 2003. The two saw eye-to-eye early on and worked closely on growing the profile of Kathryn Wilson’s label which is now one of Aotearoa’s premier footwear brands.

“Murray Bevan thinks BIG and has encouraged me to do the same over the last 18 years of working together at Showroom 22,” says designer Kathryn Wilson. “I have so much respect for Murray both personally and professionally, we have grown together in the industry and he has been an integral part of advising our brand strategy, direction and future plans for Kathryn Wilson Footwear, and he’s become a great friend.”

Those relationships have also been integral in the success of Showroom 22 which is something that Murray is grateful for and he has several long-term clients who have been with his business for many years. “It’s meant the world to me,” adds Murray. “Not only have I grown an incredible friendship with the likes of Karen and Mikhail (Gherman – Karen Walker’s husband and business partner), Juliette Hogan, Kathryn Wilson, Anjali Burnett and Rachel Easting from Twenty-seven names, even Marc Freeman from Camilla and Marc. It’s not just what I’ve got out of it, it’s the fact that, and I know they’re all astute enough that if they wanted to they would leave me, they don’t have to stick around, so that they’re still around now gives me an enormous amount of confidence that what we’re doing is still working and it’s the right thing to do. Also, personally the relationships mean a lot me because those guys really trusted me and believed in me when no one else was willing to take a punt.”

Murray Bevan interview

Long-time friends and Showroom 22 clients Rachel Easting and Anjali Burnett of Twenty-seven names, May 2014.

Another of Murray’s early clients was designer Juliette Hogan who won the Steinlager Dare to Be scholarship with Karen Walker, which saw Juliette head to the prestigious Parsons School of Design in New York to study for six months. It was there she designed her first collection and showed it to Murray from a suitcase upon returning to Aotearoa. Juliette launched her eponymous label in 2004 and Murray was there from the beginning having recognised the designer had a bright future ahead of her. “If she didn’t believe in me that I could take her places and I didn’t believe in her that she had a future then who knows what would have happened but we both took a punt on each other. That was an incredibly exciting thing and we rode this awesome wave together. Me introducing her to new media and stylists and editors and her enjoying success through wholesale, fashion shows and brand partnerships. So, it was this huge beast that just kept gathering momentum and you’re both driving it from opposite ends of the locomotive. It was kind of hard to explain as well because I come back to that point that no one really knew what I was doing and we were all kind of figuring it out together but it was hugely exciting times too.”

Those early years were fuelled by enthusiasm and Murray revelled in each success but there was also the challenge of figuring out how to maintain clients and what would keep them on the books? With no investors, family wealth or board of directors to lean on, it was one man flying by the seat of his pants believing that he could do it while figuring things out along the way. One of the main challenges of a new business that was also a new concept was figuring out what clients would be willing to pay and how long they would stay for? Would they stay for a month or six months and how do you budget for that? Murray was well aware that he could do really well for six months and then potentially hit a season where things didn’t quite work and all of a sudden people don’t believe in him anymore. He found those first few years were quite nerve-wracking knowing that should his clients decide to leave his business could go under.

However, Murray was determined to make Showroom 22 work and he dedicated himself to working solidly on it and for those first three years it was just himself doing everything. He was busy and enjoying it but also working a lot with no holidays, to continue growing the business he needed to hire some help. The first employee that Murray hired was Lucy Slater, who is currently Juliette Hogan’s in-house brand manager. Back then, Lucy had recently gained experience in marketing and PR for Chris Cherry at RCM Clothing. She had also worked in London for Marks & Spencer producing fashion shoots and was accustomed to working with bigger budgets, timelines and projects.

“Lucy was amazing because she really expanded my mind in terms of what was possible,” adds Murray. “I think even to this day I’m probably a bit too modest and I think ‘Oh no, we couldn’t do that, let’s just scale it down, under promise and over deliver and we’ll stick to what we know and do that really well.’ Lucy came in at the right time to shake me up a bit and say ‘Hey Muzz, we should be doing things like this, we could be charging a bit more, here’s how to manage your invoices, here’s how to make money from projects.’ She started to give me a more global sense of how the business could operate better.”

“Back then, it was really difficult to find people who knew what I wanted to do because still so few people understood what I was doing. The brilliance of Lucy at that time was that she knew exactly what I was doing and also having a woman work for me at that stage was really helpful because I was there trying to sell female products to a largely older female audience. So, me talking about bras and knickers or skirts and dresses was just nowhere near as convincing as when Lucy came in wearing the product and looking amazing, then people really started to believe in it. That was a key moment for me.”

Murray Bevan interview

Rebecca Lawson, Murray and Lucy Slater at an ‘I Love Fashion’ party, produced by Showroom 22 at 420 on K’ Rd in 2006.

In 2006, Rebecca (Becs) Lawson joined Showroom 22 as Showroom Manager, bringing with her three years’ worth of experience in PR for brands such as Heineken and Nivea. She helped Murray continue to grow the business and remembers her time working with him fondly and is one of the many former team members and clients who have become good friends.

“Murray is one of the most hardworking, dedicated people I know. He has been a driving force behind the NZ fashion industry, and I know it brings him so much joy to watch brands (and friends) flourish,” says Rebecca Lawson. “I’ve got many great memories of working for him in the early days of Showroom 22 – fashion shows, parties, dinners and events – but what stands out the most is just good chats with a great friend, over a veal scallopini at SPQR.”

Murray also remembers his early staff with affection, and the difference that having them on board made, “Honestly, Lucy and Becs were great examples of what happens when you employ good staff,” he adds. “You don’t need many, you just need a couple of really good ones and the difference is huge. I remember the change in my mental health, with the anxiety and the pressure that was on me beforehand to do everything on my own, then all of a sudden you’ve got great staff members there helping you carry the load. It was like my whole world had changed; it was pretty amazing.”

These days, Showroom 22 are well known for their helpful, friendly and hard-working team who ensure that client’s needs are met and media and influencers are kept in the loop with the latest news and collections. Over the years, Murray has hired many team members who he trains in how Showroom 22 does PR and what matters more to him than experience is a willingness to learn. Each new person is properly trained in Showroom 22’s tone of voice and how Murray does things, which ensures attention to detail and an understanding of how to deliver what’s required in an ever-changing media landscape. He’s known as a kind and supportive employer, who takes great care of his staff which now numbers five team members as well as frequent interns.

Having a strong team has been integral to Showroom 22’s success and so has having notable clients which include some of Aotearoa’s leading fashion brands like Kowtow, Allbirds and Deadly Ponies. Over the years, Murray and his team have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands such as Adidas, Levi’s and Gucci. He’s aware that some clients join Showroom 22 because they want to be seen alongside those brands.

“I figured out that people partly liked what we were doing because of the brands that we represented and I think that’s a really hard thing for agencies to accept,” says Murray. “It’s that you’re not really a great agency, you’re a culmination of really great clients. You know agencies don’t exist without clients. It’s kind of like saying that I’m really great at PR but actually I’m not, it’s the relationships I’ve got with media and KOLs (Key Opinion Leaders) that allow me to be good at what I do. I could be really good at writing a press release but if I just live in a vacuum and don’t know anybody then I’m really bad at what I do. So, you can’t have too big of an ego because you’re really nothing without your clients.”

Murray Bevan interview

Past Showroom 22 staff members Olivia Vincent and Anna Brock with stylist Karlya Smith, May 2014.

For those clients who choose to work with Showroom 22, Murray and his team dedicate their time to delivering the best possible results. With New Zealand-based clients that can be incredibly hands-on at times, delivering a wide range of projects and tasks, while for the big international brands the work required is usually more specific and the focus is on meeting the KPIs set by the brand. In some ways it’s easier to deliver very set things but there is that pressure of working for a big brand that could potentially leave you just as easily as they came to you. Murray finds that their expectations are often different as they’re used to having a PR agency in the likes of Hong Kong, Los Angeles, New York or London that does a very specific task for them such as pushing samples to get them into magazines. No events, arranging interviews or other media coverage required. For Showroom 22, with established networks, that kind of task is straight forward and as long as the KPIS are met the brand is happy and pays well for the service.

On the other hand, with smaller local brands, especially ones that are starting out, there can be quite a lot of handholding to help figure things out and Murray often got asked questions like ‘How do I find staff?’ or ‘How do I lease a retail store?’ in his early days with many brands that are now well established. But he’s always happy to be hands on when required and recalls helping wash the windows on the morning former label Harman Grubisa opened the doors to their Herne Bay store. When Juliette Hogan leased her first store in Ponsonby, Murray was also there painting it with the designer and her family in the days before it opened.

Trying to balance the demands of work and keep everything going is a challenge for any business owner, especially in an industry like fashion that is fast-paced and constantly changing. Murray’s own role in Showroom 22 has also evolved over the last twenty years with him stepping back from day-to-day showroom tasks and media releases etc., working instead on client relationships and pitching for upcoming work alongside working on the business itself.

“To be honest sometimes you can’t balance it all, there’s a lot going on at an agency like ours, we’ve only got twenty clients but we’ve got a lean team so everyone is very busy. And I think what I’ve learnt is that all of our clients are busy too and no-one expects you to re-invent the wheel, they just want to hear one or two really solid ideas, a good bit of strategy that’s going to solve a problem for them and then most of all they just want you to go and do it. And as an agency I suppose what we’ve often shied away from is dedicating huge amounts of our time to writing big, long pitch decks or drowning in numbers and reporting data because I would really rather just be out there doing the work for people so they can see the results. The media are super busy too and we have to really respect that because we ask a lot of the media and people in our circle. So, we also have to know that we can’t be pitching the same editor five things every week for the whole year, they simply can’t get it across the line, so we have to be as mindful about other people’s time as we are about our own time.”

When it comes to the time that Murray has spent on achieving goals for Showroom 22’s clients he defines success in small achievements and even now, still gets a thrill out of seeing a great piece of client coverage or getting a call from a grateful client who has just gotten a feature or piece of editorial. “Success for me is still making things happen and I think it comes from my innate sense to want to build things which is why I studied architecture,” adds Murray. “I wanted to make things, I wanted to create something. It’s still about helping a client get from A to B and being the conduit that helped them get there. That to me is success, it’s not about dollars, it’s not about the number of clients or the size of them, it’s still about being able to make things happen.”

Murray Bevan interview

Murray and a Sass & Bide team member at their Ponsonby Store opening, produced by Showroom 22, November 2010.

As every business owner knows, success doesn’t happen without failure and it’s how you deal with that which can be the making of you. In Showroom 22’s early days failure was less of an issue for Murray in the sense that he only had himself to worry about. These days, the salaries of his employees, his showroom lease and bills all rest on his shoulders which means failure comes with a different description than it used to and the potential to impact the business more. The ups and downs of clients coming and going over the years has taught Murray to be frugal and balance the books carefully, mindful that New Zealand is also a small market compared to overseas. He’s happy to take the risk on the bigger clients while balancing the rewards and keeping an eye on the future.

“As an agency, we’re always looking forwards, we don’t tend to look back and pat ourselves on the back about how great we used to be or that event we did ten years ago which was amazing because I’m always looking to raise the bar and do something different and better tomorrow,” says Murray. “When I do look back the things that have satisfied me the most across the twenty years have actually been the relationships that I’ve created. It doesn’t come down to a party or a launch or a piece of coverage that we’ve got, it’s actually knowing that I can pick up the phone and call people in the media and I can have dinner with a client or I can see someone on the street that I’ve worked with for two decades and we can have a laugh. To be in an industry that relies on an ever-expanding network and more authentic relationships, to have almost all of those relationships still be intact and positive is immensely satisfying for me. And if anything, my legacy is that people remember me for being a decent person, not a decent businessperson but a decent person to deal with in their life, that will be success.”

In a business that is all about relationships, Murray and his team have worked with hundreds, if not thousands, of people over the last twenty years and in recent years that includes a plethora of influencers and new media who have a different set of priorities and expectations than older more traditional journalists. That’s a reflection of how media and how we consume it has evolved and media roles have changed. An editor used to be hired to work for a magazine and the magazine was always the big entity, the magazine had the power and reputation.

Now, PR agencies like Showroom 22 deal with many young influencers and stylists who have built a following on social media and the focus is on them as a person. It’s an interesting change of dynamic and a change in mentality that PR agencies have to adapt to because they are the ones that are expected to say yes to everybody, which includes clients, media, stylists and sponsors. Trying to please everyone is a relatively thankless and very busy job. The newer generation also have a different approach, expecting things more quickly and to be paid more too.

“As an agency we can’t sit there and say well we won’t deal with these people or that’s really hard or that’s not how it used to be done, it is what it is. And a lot of the creators, stylists and editors that we have met in the last few years are hugely talented and will go on to achieve fantastic things, you just have to learn to deal with people in a different way. It’s about adapting daily to the future and not being too obsessed with how we did things twenty years ago. While it’s amazing that the business is twenty years old we may as well be a year old because we have to adapt so quickly and I think a lot of people these days, they don’t necessarily judge us on what we did ten or twenty years ago, they judge us on what we did last month.”

Murray Bevan interview

November 2018 Season launch at Showroom 22, Murray with team members Rosalie Burns, Zoe Gibbs, Madeleine Cooper, Lucy Pearce, Courtney Joe and Connor Cahill-Fahey.

That change in relationships and how things are done is also reflected in the type of coverage that Showroom 22 are expected to achieve for their clients these days. When Murray started out as the first and only dedicated fashion showroom in the country, managing designer’s samples for editorials and events and giving clearcuts to magazines for market pages was the focus. While Murray still views the showroom as the beating heart of what Showroom 22 does and it remains important to clients, the reality is digital content creation, advertising management, sponsorship leverage and key partnerships with influencers and celebrities have become a much bigger focus for most of their clients.

The huge shakeup in media that was exacerbated by the effects of the pandemic has seen many media companies focus on sponsored content to make money, spending a lot less time on editorial coverage and more on social media, especially the likes of Instagram and TikTok. There is much less time and resources available to create beautiful fashion editorials that magazines used to be known for. Murray has long been a big supporter of Aotearoa’s print media landscape and he recognises that while people still value many of those publications, there is more change coming for media as the market continues to evolve.

“I think the more people shift their focus to digital and social media so too will the showroom become less important but I think the samples and editorial will become more special because there will become less of it and I don’t know how much more of that we’re going to see in New Zealand. I think the pure fashion PR stuff that is based on high end editorial will become incredibly valuable and rarer and as an agency we’re going to have to turn our attention to a far more diverse range of marketing skills than ever before. We can no longer call ourselves a PR agency because PR is now only about a tenth of what we do and that’s really the future, diversification.”

“I hope we see more purist coverage coming back and influencers doing things because they love the brand not because they’re paid to do it. That’s kind of the holy grail but I feel like what we’re going to have to do and what I want to do are probably two different things. Undoubtedly, I think there’s going to be just as much change in the next few years as we’ve experienced to date.”

Since the beginning, Showroom 22 has been ahead of the curve and as he looks ahead to the future Murray Bevan sees the business continuing to evolve as it moves with changing times. “If you look at the New Zealand media landscape and fashion in general evolution is the key word, so we can’t think back to what we used to do and reminisce about how it’s not the same anymore. Evolution is great, it’s what keeps us alive, so we have to embrace it and move on.”

Images supplied by Murray Bevan and Rebecca Lawson.