Profile: Kathryn Earle, MD of Berg & Visual Arts

Profile: Kathryn Earle, MD of Berg & Visual Arts

Berg Fashion Library recently won a FutureBook award for the best publishing website. MD Kathryn has kindly written this piece explaining the background behind the site: In September 2010, we launched the Berg Fashion Library (‘BFL’, an online resource for fashion students and academics. The BFL looks at dress across cultures and throughout history. It will be updated three times a year. At present it includes an Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion (3.6 million words and 2000 images), 60 e-books, an A-Z of fashion, a dictionary of fashion history, a museum directory, and images from a broad range of museum partners, most notably the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The BFL has been in development for seven years, the last five with Berg, but the foundations for the project were laid much longer ago. I have had a fascination with dress for as long as I can remember. It is a particularly rich subject for analysis. It speaks volumes about identity – ethnicity, social class, sexuality, religion, gender, age, occupation.  In addition, the fashion industry is vast; it’s the 4th largest global industry. Yet despite its economic importance and prominence in the media, fashion received very little academic attention until relatively recently. For Berg, this presented a major opportunity.

In the late 1980s and early 90s, I worked for the Modern Language Association in New York on the MLA International Bibliography, which is a search and discovery database for literature and language scholars. It was my first real job in publishing and it impressed upon me the importance of enabling people to find content items that are of interest to them.

Having moved to Britain, I accepted a job with Berg in 1993. Berg had published two books on dress and they had sold well. So I decided to pursue the possibility of a series with their editor, Joanne Eicher, an academic based at the University of Minnesota. Joanne convinced me that there was an increasing number of scholars working and teaching in this area and that they had been largely ignored by other publishers. An opportunity to work on a subject I loved that had been largely neglected was a compelling proposition.

In 1997 we published the first book in our Dress, Body, Culture series, edited by Joanne. Today we have 52 titles in this series, and other fashion titles published outside the series.  In 1997 we also launched a journal called Fashion Theory, edited by Valerie Steele, now Director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Fashion Theory was the first academic journal devoted to the study of fashion as a cultural phenomenon, and it was a tremendous success from the get-go. The launch was covered by a range of print media, including broadsheets such as the Washington Post, The Observer, and The Guardian, Die Zeit and even a major Brazilian newspaper , as well as a range of magazines – W, Vogue, The Times Higher Education Supplement. We were well on our way to building a list around an exciting new discipline.

But at the back of my mind was a nagging desire to get a major database off the ground – a search and discovery tool. There was one problem: we had no money. I was running Berg, but was not an investor, and our owner was not interested in building the business. So, the possibility of making this a reality seemed remote.

Then, in 2002 our owner offered me the chance to buy Berg for a nominal consideration. I did this, after having raised capital with which to build the business. The database idea occupied my thoughts, but you need a lot of content to launch a major online product, and even with all the books we had published and the new investment, I couldn’t see how to make it happen.

Then in 2003 Joanne told me that she’d been approached by one of our large competitors to do an Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion. It was to be the first major reference work to look at dress across cultures and throughout history, without privileging the West. The aim was to engage indigenous scholars who would know about local dress practices. It would be 10 volumes – a massive undertaking. This project would have been the perfect foundation for a major online initiative, but it seemed destined to be published by someone else.

Over the next two years I heard about the progress of the Encyclopedia through Joanne. Then in 2005 I saw her at a conference and she was distraught. The publisher was dropping the project because they were pulling out of reference.  Rashly, I said to Joanne, ‘We’ll do it!’ to which she very sensibly replied, ‘but aren’t you too small?’

She had a point. Berg had a staff of 11 or 12 at that point in time, a number of whom were part time.  (We currently have 16.) Not only were we looking to publish the project in print but we also wanted to bring it out online at the same time – a much larger job. The fact that we had never published a major reference work in our company history, nor launched a major online product, should have given us pause. Clearly we were suffering from a crisis of overconfidence!

However, we tackled it nonetheless. I raised money from supportive shareholders to underwrite the early stages and over time wrote a number of business plans when it looked like cash might constrain development. The last of these was given to an industry contact who asked if he could show it to Richard Charkin at Bloomsbury, which was building an academic division. To make a long story short, Bloomsbury liked the Berg Fashion Library plan so much that they bought the company in 2008.

For us, this was a terrific outcome because it enabled us to take the Berg Fashion Library forward the way we had envisaged it, rather than in a degraded format through an aggregator. And we feel the end result speaks for itself. It’s not perfect – creating a project this complex throws up an infinite number of problems. But we are very proud of the fact that it has won three awards, including the Bookseller’s FutureBook award for best website in 2011, which was a thrilling achievement.

I recall coming back from the US after I had said to Joanne that we would take on the Encyclopedia and telling our production editors that we were going to publish this major work. Our senior editor put his head in his hands and said ‘you have no idea what you’ve just done.’ He was right. He’d worked on the Dictionary of Art, and he did know what I’d just done. But it’s been a terrific journey – not only with the in-house team but with Joanne, who is a powerhouse, our extraordinary volume editors, the contributors who are based all across the world, our imaginative developers, I-Factory, and our brilliant consultants. I would do it all again in a heartbeat.



Kathryn Earle is Managing Director, Berg and Visual Arts, and New Business Director, Academic & Professional Division at Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. She led Berg’s management buy-out in 2002 and sold the business to Bloomsbury in 2008. Kathryn conceived of and launched the Berg Fashion Library.