The Drum Awards Festival - Extended Deadline

-d -h -min -sec

Creative My Creative Career Fashion

My Creative Career: Jenna Barnet, chief executive officer at Sunshine


By Amy Houston, Senior Reporter

June 12, 2024 | 8 min read

From her beginnings as an assistant at Calvin Klein during its peak 90s fame to becoming the global PR director for Gucci and then the senior vice president of communications for Ralph Lauren, we look back at the pivotal moments of Barnet’s fascinating career so far.

Jenna Barnet

Jenna Barnet

In the late 1990s, Jenna Barnet moved to New York City from Wisconsin after completing a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature at university. During her studies, she also mastered the Italian language – a skill that would later become instrumental in catapulting her into the luxury fashion industry.

“All the big fashion brands were either Italian or run by Italians,” she explains. “So within the first or second week getting into New York, I suddenly had interviews with Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani, Calvin Klein.”

She landed the Calvin Klein job. This was in the fall of 1997 and during the peak headline-making, boundary-pushing era for the American brand, which famously had celebrities like Kate Moss and Mark Wahlberg in its provocative campaigns.

The job was working as the executive assistant to the tenacious president and chief operating officer Gabriella Forte, who is credited as a pivotal figure in turning the business into the global empire it is today. “She was an incredible force in the industry,” says Barnet. “She had basically created the Giorgio Armani business in the US by being the first person who really broke Hollywood for the fashion industry.”

Barnet felt lucky to see the industry from “the top down,” even though Forte was an incredibly demanding person to work for, and the days were long. During those years, she also met Robert Treifus, the senior vice-president at Calvin Klein, who was instrumental in her career, becoming a mentor and, eventually, a long-time friend. He had gotten a job offer from Giorgio Armani in Milan and asked Barnet if she wanted to come with him.

“Calvin Klein was hot, that was the Kate Moss days,” she smiles. “But Giorgio Armani was hot!”

Barnet landed in Italy and lived there for the next nine years. “Armani is just the most charismatic human on the planet,” she adds.

Barnet and her team were infusing a tremendous amount of energy into the global strategy, focusing on communication with celebrity at its core. During that time, Armani was deeply in tune with the pulse of culture, as Barnet describes it, setting a blueprint for brand behavior in the fashion industry that would endure indefinitely. This marked the dawn of the convergence of entertainment, Hollywood, and fashion.

In the noughties, some of the famous Armani ads included campaigns with celebrity ambassadors David and Victoria Beckham.

But the label couldn’t keep Barnet forever, and she was poached by rival Italian brand Gucci in 2006. This was during a time of major change for the label; Tom Ford had just left, and there were a whole host of different designers.

Barnet only stayed at Gucci for a couple of years before heading to London to embark on a totally new experience at Ralph Lauren. Getting back to her American roots, in a way.

There, she was brought poised to grow the European contingent and position the American label firmly as a player in the luxury market, working closely with both Ralph and his son David. At the time, David Lauren was really in tune with how the old ways of doing PR and marketing were only catering to specific audiences (people who read Vogue, for example) and he saw the brand as becoming more like its own media empire. Barnet says that he was inspirational and ahead of his time with this line of thinking.

As her role progressed, Barnet’s husband got a job in LA as creative chairman at TBWA\Chiat\Day. “I had to have really deep soul-searching conversations with both Ralph and David to say, I don’t want to move to New York, I think the future of media and our business is actually sitting in Los Angeles,” she explains. “And, you know, I need you to kind of take a chance on me and let me move to LA and see what I can figure out for Ralph Lauren.”

It was a risk, but Barnet took on a lot of responsibility. She explains that 10 years ago in LA, a lot of new media platforms were emerging. There was Netflix, Amazon Prime, Instagram and Snapchat. The traditional media landscape was moving on.

“I just knew that culture brands, especially in the luxury fashion business, needed to start speaking directly to their audience. If we continued to rely on third-party intermediaries, we would lose our audience as they migrated elsewhere,” she says. “Businesses would significantly reduce their share of voice if they didn’t start to migrate their strategies.”

The idea was that all creatively led brands needed to become entertainment companies. Luckily, David Lauren was already thinking the same way. “I want to figure out this pathway and I couldn’t do that while I was hired full-time at Ralph Lauren,” she continues. “So, I became a consultant, which was amazing.”

Throughout her career, Barnet had worked inside major companies, figuring out their next strategic moves, but now it was time to build something else. Socially, she knew Al MacCuish, who worked at Mother in London, and understood he was in a similar headspace to her when it came to the intersection of entertainment and brands. He had founded the brand consultancy and entertainment company Sunshine in 2013 and needed an LA arm. Barnet was in.

“It was a huge shift and sort of a gamble because, at that point, I was getting actively recruited by huge luxury houses to run their communications and marketing,” she says. “But I just really had this singular focus that we could do something that was truly industry-defining.”

It was a time when Instagram was emerging, signaling the end of the era of glossy magazines. Barnet explains that the fashion industry is unique because the creative individual is typically the key decision-maker, much like in the entertainment business in LA. With this shift, they were off to the races.

Gucci, Victoria Beckham and Nike became founding clients, with ‘Chime for Change’ - which saw Salma Hayek, Beyoncé and more urging people to fight for gender equality - as the agency's inaugural project. Barnet admits she was learning so much every day, taking every meeting she could, trying to gain insights into this new world.

“It went from a very, at that point, thanks to Armani, a very transactional kind of relationship, that fashion still has to degree with Hollywood, which was about stylists, and showrooms and red carpets. It wasn’t actually about making creative products,” she explains.

“And if it was, it was dressing somebody. So, our whole premise has always been, you can make it, you don’t have to buy your way into it, you can make it, and by participating in culture, which comes very intuitively to creatively lead brands, you are essentially becoming non-interruptive.”

Nearly a decade on, Sunshine has worked with Apple, Augustinus Bader, LVMH, La Mer, Balmain, Asos and Diesel. It’s a little bit of advertising, a sprinkle of marketing, and PR.

Barnet concludes by saying that she has “been able to be in rooms that just literally makes my heart skip” and that, even though there have been ups and downs with running a company, the Sunshine team is always excited to expand and look toward the next project. As proved by the agency's latest move, which saw it being acquired by communications company The Independents in April 2024.

Creative My Creative Career Fashion

More from Creative

View all


Industry insights

View all
Add your own content +