The Vogue Festival Draws A Crowd

LONDON, United Kingdom – There was a special vibe in the air at the Royal Geographical Society in London over the weekend as British Vogue editors, normally ensconced behind their desks at Vogue House or off on fashion shoots in far flung locales, were instead zipping around with clipboards, cue cards and headsets, each playing their part in the first ever Vogue Festival.

Brainchild of editor-in-chief Alexandra Shulman, the sold-out two-day event offered readers a chance to have a much more up-close and interactive experience of the Vogue brand than has ever been possible through the physical magazine or website.

From a panel discussion with the capital’s brightest designers and a keynote speech by Diane von Furstenburg to one-on-one conversations with David Bailey, Dolce & Gabbana, and Stella McCartney and intimate workshops hosted by a cast of Vogue editors and stylists, the event showcased both the subjects featured in the pages of Vogue and the talented team of people who make it all happen.

“I thought it would be really fun to make the world of Vogue come alive with the general public, because no one has done it,” Ms. Shulman told BoF in the green room, just before her highly anticipated on-stage conversation with Tom Ford.

Big names like Mr Ford drew enthusiastic crowds of young, aspiring fashion and business students, and curious fashion consumers. The smaller workshops were also heavily oversubscribed. At midday on Saturday, the queue of people waiting to get into a talk with photographer Tim Walker and former Vogue fashion director Kate Phelan (now at Topshop) snaked all the way around the building. The conversation had to be staged twice in order to accommodate the demand. “The talks that we put into the education centre, which only takes about 130 people, could have filled up the auditorium,” observed Shulman.

But this was no staid business-to-business conference. “All along I was very keen that it would have other things, that it would not just be talks. I wanted it to have events going on around it,” she added.

Indeed, the RGS venue was packed with fun, off-schedule activities, including a photo booth which enabled readers to appear on their own faux Vogue covers, several make-up and beauty stations, and a Vogue café with a live deejay. “In my dream world, I’d have more of [these things], but in the end we’ve been contained by the space,” said Ms Shulman.

And if there was a risk that the festival would become a set of highly-scripted, fashion-y conversations, most of the time, things felt natural. Fashion features director Jo Ellison deftly managed her way through a boisterous conversation with legendary photographer David Bailey. At one point Bailey joked with the audience: “Don’t sign any copyrights with Condé Nast or Hearst or anyone else.” A few minutes later he referenced “a ghastly contract with American Vogue,” to chuckles from the crowd, including the front row of executives from Condé Nast. And when Ms Shulman asked Tom Ford a question about his sexuality, he countered by asking her if she had ever slept with a woman. The audience erupted in laughter and she was nearly reduced to giggles.

It was these unscripted, authentic moments that were the real highlights of the event. Somehow they made the Vogue brand feel more real and open than ever before. And after each talk, young people were given the opportunity to ask questions of their role models, often seeking advice on how to succeed in the fashion business. At times, the festival verged on something more like a fashion university, which, by the way, is something that Condé Nast already has in the works.

But apart from brand-building and reader engagement, is the festival a business in and of itself?

“This is a very different business model. This is not making a ton of money for Vogue. Right from the get go, this was about making it affordable for the general public,” said Ms. Shulman. Tickets for a half-day session were sold for £75, or about $120, not quite priced for most student budgets, but still achievable for some.

With four sessions in total and 750 available places for each session, ticket sales alone would not cover the event costs. “It’s a very modest money maker, really,” agrees Stephen Quinn, the magazine’s publishing director. “But of course the idea is that it is a great piece of engaging, persuasive, charming publicity for Vogue. As long as it wasn’t going to lose me any money, you could go ahead and say let’s do it.”

Critical to the festival’s success from a financial perspective was securing Vertu, the luxury mobile phone company, as headline sponsor. “We were very successful in persuading Vertu to put down an important and substantial amount of seed money. Then [we] had the basis [for seeking out] ticket sales. [We] needed both.”

In exchange, Vertu was guaranteed a presence in the coverage of the event on the Vogue website and in the magazine, as well as branding and presence at the event itself, including a special invitation-only ‘Vertu Debate’ held on Friday evening.

“I think it’s just the power of brand Vogue. They know it’s the leading fashion magazine in Britain,” said Mr Quinn. He did not provide exact figures on the amount of sponsorship provided by Vertu, but said he “imagined it would represent a relatively modest part of [their overall marketing budget].”

Apart from a few teething issues around space and production quality, the event was very well received. Indeed, the festival already seems to have outgrown the Royal Geographical Society space in its first year. But based on the hordes of young fashionistas who showed up from all over Britain and across Europe to be part of the event, it seems Ms. Shulman is onto something more important than just another revenue stream. She is securing a relationship between British Vogue and the next generation of readers, who increasingly expect to participate in the the brands they love.

“I’ve learned that there is a real engaged audience for this. All of us have been really thrilled and moved by the audiences. They have been so obviously happy to be here. They are very engaged. They’re asking questions. They are doing everything,” said the beaming editor.

Mr. Quinn couldn’t have been more complimentary. “The biggest single excitement for a publisher is when you come to an event and it is full of younger people, because the magazine is constantly renewing itself,” observed Mr Quinn. “That’s what Vogue does, because it always does have to move on.”

Imran Amed is editor-in-chief of The Business of Fashion