The mastermind behind some of the last decade’s most iconic ad campaigns talks about changing career tracks and what it means to her to have it all.
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.
Celine Khavarani may not be as instantly recognizable as the celebrities she’s teamed up with throughout her career, but you’ve surely seen her work. While heading up VIP teams at companies like Prada and Marc Jacobs, Khavarani has spotted up-and-coming talents for some of the most memorable ad campaign and front row moments of the last decade — think Hailee Steinfeld’s controversial spots for Miu Miu or Dane DeHaan’s turn as the face of Prada menswear.
But in 2018, Khavarani switched gears, moving from VIP to a broader PR role as senior vice president of communications at Tamara Mellon, with whom her professional path has been crossing for 14 years. She first interviewed with Thomas Yeardye, Mellon’s late father, for a role at Jimmy Choo in the early aughts, which cemented their longterm relationship. “He was somebody that she admired very much, and because we had a really good meeting, I think that’s all she needed to offer me the job,” she recalls. When Khavarani ultimately left Jimmy Choo to join Prada, she did so with the blessing of Mellon and the promise that they would work together one day.
That’s just one of many relationships Khavarani has built to get her where she is today: Working in a family-friendly start-up environment which allows her to take time off to spend with her child and still getting to learn every single day on the job. “I’ve been here for a year and a month, and I have learned so much. My days fly by,” Khavarani says.
There’s much to learn from Khavarani’s career path, from the importance of taking every phone call and answering every email to overcoming the fear of learning new things and changing gears late in your career. The new mom is also chiming in on how she defines “having it all.” Get ready to take notes.
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What first interested you in fashion?
My mom is super stylish; she was just a very ahead-of-her-time dresser. When I was 14-years-old, she had a closet full of Saint Laurent and Celine, designers like that. I used to complain that the other moms at school would bring their kids in sweatpants, and she was in suits. I didn’t get that she was different, but it wasn’t a bad thing that she dressed differently.
How did you get started?
I went to UCLA. I studied art history and I wanted to get into the art world, whether it be at a museum or a gallery. My senior year of college, I interned at Christie’s auction house. They placed me in the PR and events department, so I started working on the events and the auctions that would happen in Los Angeles, and then there were press releases that we did on the modern and the contemporary auctions.
I found out that Eric Clapton was going to be auctioning 100 guitars to raise money for his drug rehab center in Antigua. The auction was happening in London, but the guitars were going to go to several cities to be on view for collectors, and they’d be coming through L.A., where Giorgio Armani was going to throw this big party for Eric. My boss, who is still a very good friend, would go to these meetings with the Armani team and she’d come back with things for me to file in the binder. At one point, I was like, “Let me get this straight: These people travel around the world throwing parties for actors and musicians? I want to do that.” It was an absolute light bulb moment.
I loved working on this event, and when the day of the event came, I set out to be super intern. They were going to display all these guitars, and the displays the Armani team had made for these guitars was not acceptable for the Christie’s design team, but the kind of stands that were safe were not what the Armani people thought were aesthetically pleasing enough to be in the party. So I got in the car, I went to The Guitar Center, I bought a bunch of stands and a bunch of white spray paint. I came back and we all spray-painted the stands, we put masking tape where the guitar was going to touch the guitar, and that’s what we used.
It worked and my first job out of college was working at Giorgio Armani in L.A., in the PR department.
What were you doing at Armani?
I was the PR assistant [under] Wanda McDaniel, the first person that ever worked for a fashion house working on VIP. I did everything from assisting and fittings to events. But their press was still totally editorial in L.A., so I got a little taste of everything. I learned about how the industry worked, and I also had a lot of realizations of how I didn’t want to work, how I wanted to do things differently, hopefully if and when I moved up.
And then you went to Bulgari?
I was the first person to have the job of West Coast PR manager. That was putting jewelry on actors and for award shows and film festivals. It was also doing all the West Coast events and working on anything basically special projects on the West Coast.
I had a boss there who was really nurturing and supportive; any idea that you brought her that you fleshed out, she’d always say yes. She let me build it and she let me teach myself along the way, and then would step in to guide me when I needed it, but she was absolutely not a micromanager. I knew the onus was on me to be successful and to be creating moments that were impactful for the brand.
How did you first connect with Prada?
I heard that Prada was going to hire in L.A. for a very long time. Probably a year into Bulgari, I interviewed with [Prada], and I knew they were meeting with everybody in the city — it was a very coveted position, so over the course of close to two years, I had several interviews.
It would keep me up at night. I had an appointment with somebody right before I got the offer, and she said to me, “Imagine what your business card would look like, imagine what you’d look like sitting at your desk, imagine how you’d introduce yourself when you work there.” I would lay in bed at night and just think about these things and introduce myself as if I worked there because I wanted the job so badly. I was very, very fortunate that basically right when I hit three years at Bulgari, I got the Prada offer.
I came in April 2004, and we were meant to have this massive store opening party in L.A. I had to build a guest list, pretty much from scratch, of close to 2000 people. We had this incredible party, and then once the event was over, I had no office, I had no job description, I had no samples. I realized very quickly that they would eventually realize that I’m unnecessary, at that time.
And that’s when you moved over to Jimmy Choo?
Prior to coming to Prada, a friend of Tamara [Mellon]’s had recommended me for the position at Jimmy Choo, because Jimmy Choo was hiring for the first time in L.A. as well. When I got the Prada job, I called Jimmy Choo and the response at the time was, “We’re sorry to hear that, we liked you very much, if anything ever changes, please let us know.” By October of 2004, I realized that Prada didn’t need me, so I called Jimmy Choo and I said, “If you’re still interested in me, I don’t think this was the right fit for me and I’d really love to be considered.” I was very lucky that they said yes.
I went to Jimmy Choo and had two incredible years there. It was great, because Tamara was always this open-minded person who, no matter what your idea was, whether you agreed with her, you disagreed, she was always open to listening and hearing your case. I was still in my 20s and working my way up and it was amazing to have these incredible opportunities. She would always include me in all of her meetings when she was in Los Angeles; I was meeting studio heads and various entrepreneurs.
Why did you move back to Prada?
Exactly two years into Jimmy Choo, Prada had an event. They invited me as a guest and the morning after, a former colleague called and said, “We have a new global communications director. He would like to hire somebody for the position that you vacated; can you please meet with him and tell him what you didn’t like about it so he can rehire?”
I went and I met with him — I was very happy in my job. This, to me, was just a very belated sort of exit interview. I told them all the things I thought could’ve been done better during my time at Prada, and that was it. Three months later, he calls and says, “I’ve spoken with Miuccia, we want to bring you back. So if we change everything that you said you had an issue with, would you consider the job?”
I was sitting at the airport on my way to London to do my annual review at Jimmy Choo; I had the best week with my colleagues, and was torn the whole time. I came home and got this FedEx offer letter from Prada, and it was like, everything and a bag of chips in terms of what I felt like I hadn’t accomplished the first time. I felt like I had given up the first time, and this was giving me a chance to go back in and do everything that I really wanted to do and thought that I could do there. I called Tamara and I told her I’d gotten the offer, and she said, “It’s amazing, if I were you I’d accept it too. I’m so proud of you. You’re going to kill it and we’ll work together again one day.”
She was so supportive, and that, to me, sealed the deal, so I went to Prada and I had an incredible run there. I did Prada men’s and women’s, dressing people and inviting them to shows. Halfway through, they started having me assist with casting campaigns, so Hailee Steinfeld, Dane Dehaan, Tobey Maguire, James McAvoy — I worked with Mrs. Prada’s office on those and was very lucky to be on set with Annie Leibovitz and James McAvoy, in a deserted industrial warehouse outside of London.
It was really special; we did events all over the world, from Seoul to Tokyo to the Venice Film Festival, and I had an amazing time. I just felt like I was married to my job. I started [at Prada] at 29, and I woke up one morning at 37 and I thought, something’s got to give. There’s no way I can have this job and have a family.
How did you get the job at Marc Jacobs?
Right around there, Sebastian Suhl, the CEO of Marc Jacobs at that time who I had worked with at Prada, called me and said, “We are revamping the company, we want you to come in and oversee all global celebrity, and it’s going to be this amazing opportunity, come meet with Marc.” I met with Marc, who is this incredibly charismatic, warm, open, kind person.
As much as I love Prada, as much as I didn’t want to leave, I felt like in order for my personal life to be able to even have 50% of the time in my life, I needed to change my job. I had the most impossible task of resigning in person, sobbing. I could barely get a word out, because I felt like I was leaving my family. People say you can have it all, but I don’t believe you can have everything all at the same time. I think there are different phases in your life where you have different focuses and priorities, and as much as I loved my time at Prada, I needed to look into a different chapter of my career in order to allow my personal life to flourish, in a way.
I went to Marc and I started in August of 2015. I had been there for a year and I decided I was getting older and I didn’t want to miss the chance of having a child, so in August 2016 I got pregnant on my own via an anonymous sperm donor. Being pregnant, having a baby and going on maternity at Marc Jacobs was the most perfect place, because it is such a family friendly company. Everybody there, including Marc, was so incredibly supportive, and it worked because the job was not as intense as I had anticipated it being.
Why did you leave to take the job at Tamara Mellon?
A few months in, I realized that as much as they wanted to make celebrity a really big priority at Marc, it hadn’t happened the way that I thought it was meant to.
Right around then, the heavens opened up and Tamara Mellon gives me a call. We go to lunch and she’s telling me about this new, amazing company that she has launched, a direct-to-consumer luxury brand based in Los Angeles where she’s giving all of her employees equity and there’s an unlimited paid time off policy — which is unheard of where I come from. I mean, you would beg and plead for an extra one day off a year.
I had to learn a whole new data language to start this company with her, because we’re digitally born. So I go meet with CEO Jill Layfield — she is a data tech wiz — and Jill is talking about things I’ve never once heard of in my life: ROI, KPI, LTV. Even though I worked for some of the largest companies in the world and I’ve had a very successful career in almost 20 years, I realized how much the industry is shifting and how much of a dinosaur I will very soon be if I don’t learn this new digital language and work for one of these companies.
The timing of Tamara calling me — in my personal life, in terms of my career and what I wanted to accomplish, what I wanted to learn and how I was so ready to grow — was perfect.
How did you enjoy the gear shift from VIP to the more traditional PR side?
It was very scary in the beginning, and I warned Tamara that I don’t know any editors, I don’t know how to pitch anything, I don’t know how to really write a press release for business press, how to do funding round closing and how to pitch that. I was terrified that I would disappoint her in the beginning, and the first six months were really hard, because getting people to trust you and to know you who have never really heard your name before was very tough. I leaned on a lot of former colleagues. I went to a lot of old friends and said, “Will you please introduce me?” because it’s very hard for me to come in cold. I came in very humble and very honest.
I actually enjoy the press side of things. I really enjoy the business press, which is a strange thing to say because it’s a lot less glamorous than what I’m used to doing. But the journalists that I have met have been incredibly inquisitive and the questions they ask and the way the conversations go have made me think in a whole new way about the business and about what’s interesting to consumers. I think it’s all made me smarter, it’s all made me more open-minded.
What skill sets did you bring from working in VIP for so long that you were able to translate into that?
I think what has helped me the most along the way is being resourceful. I used to have to do things based off of Yellow Pages. You have Instagram at your fingertips — that in itself is a resource. You can Google things. You can think of who’s had a great party in the past, look up what they’ve done and see if there’s somewhere that lists who did that.
It’s not being afraid to have a novel idea and to pursue it. And I think it’s being a people person. I really like meeting new people, I like making new friends. I’ve never viewed any call with a publicist or a journalist as a transaction. I’ve always felt very lucky that I’m making a new friend, and if along the way you can work together somehow, amazing. It’s more longterm for me for now.
I also do a lot of favors for people. I go out of my way to see what I can do for people, being gracious, being thoughtful, being kind and helping people out when they need, because then ultimately if you ever need a favor back, you’ve established a groundwork for not being embarrassed to say, “I’m so sorry, can you help me with this?”
Along your career, you’ve made so many of your opportunities. What was the key to that?
I don’t know if I’ve created them or if I’ve just been really lucky. I have to believe that, to some degree, you create it by what you put out into the world. I’ve always believed that I’m good at what I do, I’m a good person, I’m kind, I’m thoughtful, surely I’m going to be okay. It’s also talking to people, and again, having friends and putting it out there in the world. You’re just included in more conversations.
But within the VIP space, again, it was never transactional for me. I saw how a lot of people that did what I did, how they worked, and it was about wins. There were plenty of fittings, I’ve got to tell you, where — even if we’d made the actress a dress — I said, “It doesn’t look good, you can do better, go get something else.” I would never tell my boss that I said that, but that girl will always know that she can trust me, that I’m not trying to get things done for work if it’s not the best for her.
How did you build up those skills on the VIP side?
I take every single meeting, I return every single email, no matter what. I don’t think any request, any email, any phone call is ever below a response. That has a lot to do with it. There’s a number of people that I’ve met so early on in their careers because a publicist or a manager said, “Hey, I just signed X person, will you take a meeting?” and you make a new friend and you stay in touch and you see where things go or don’t go. I’m just open. Being so single track minded about, “I want to go from A to B, and in order to go from A to B, I need to meet person XYZ and I have to go to this party” — it’s just too linear, and I don’t think life is linear.
I’m curious about the world and I’m curious about people and I’m curious about their journeys, and I think the greatest gift that this career has given me is that I can meet so many new people. When you have a really big network of people, there’s always somebody to call to ask for help — and I ask for help a lot.
I acknowledge when I don’t know something all the time. Coming into Tamara as a senior person and being in meetings, my first few months, I’d be raising my hand in every single meeting and saying, “I don’t know what that means, can you please explain that to me?” It’s no shame.
What do you look for in people on your team?
Kindness, number one. Number two, not thinking any job is below you. I would never ask somebody to do something that I wouldn’t do myself. Every little piece makes what you do better. If the floor is dirty, I will happily go get a broom and sweep the floor. If there are dirty dishes in the sink, I will happily wash them.
I think it’s also being able to see two steps ahead of what needs to be done, and coming in with solutions instead of problems. We’re all going to make mistakes, we’re all going to forget things. I do more than anybody else. But I own what happens and I find a solution.
I really can’t think of anybody I’ve worked with that hasn’t been great, and I almost feel like I’ve learned as much from them as I hope they have from me, because it’s really been a dialogue. I feel like if you’re going to give me these really special years of your life, your first years working, if I’m going to be so lucky that I get to be your first boss, then I have a responsibility to teach you something, and I have a responsibility to take you to meetings and introduce you to people and help you get the next phase of your career. Nobody wants to have a great assistant and then have to get somebody new because they move on, because it’s tough, but I also think that it’s very selfish to try to keep somebody under your thumb.
What’s your ultimate goal for yourself?
I’d love to have more time with my kid. If that means being able to be in the office less but get as much done, if that’s possible, that would be a dream. I love where I am now, I like this startup entrepreneurial thing. I miss the international component of it, so I think when we go international and there’s more of that, that would be exciting.
Honestly, maybe to become a consultant. I can take my luxury background, experience, relationships, couple that with everything that I’m learning here, once we go public or get acquired or I cash out — because I’m here for the long haul — once that happens, to be a consultant part-time so I can spend more time with my kid, that would be the dream.
But listen, there are brands that I love that are fantastic. If along the way, Nike came and said, “Come run our global influencer program, global celebrity program,” that could be awesome, or if Netflix came and said, “We want to start doing shows about fashion, come run that,” that would be awesome. I don’t believe in being so tied to one thing happening, because then that limits you. I’m just open to whatever falls in my lap.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.