For Emerging Designers, Celebrity Sells

As celebrity dressing becomes a global media channel in its own right, BoF reports on how emerging designers are growing their brands on the backs of the biggest stars.

Photographers at work on the Red Carpet | Source: Shutterstock

LONDON, United Kingdom — Banks of blinding flashbulbs flank a crimson carpet. Incessant, insistent shouts beg for one more mega-watt smile, one more flick of a train. Square-jawed men in funereal black are sombre foils to the brightly coloured gowns of their escorts, a nation’s wealth of diamonds strewn upon their arms and necks. It is a scene with which we are all familiar; a scene of our times and a scene that billions around the world buy into.

The red carpet has become a mass entertainment format of its own, broadcast to millions by programmes such as “Live From The Red Carpet,” a pre-show to the major film and television award shows that airs on E! Entertainment Television (an American cable and satellite channel, which reaches approximately 96 million American households and 600 million international homes) and offers a rundown of every dress, shoe and jewel, all captured in 360 degrees by “Glam Cam,” a purpose built plinth equipped with tens of cameras, giving each shining piece of appliqué and each fluttering sheaf of chiffon its time in the spotlight.

Indeed, given this kind of exposure, it’s no surprise that fashion brands have learned to tap the power of the red carpet as perhaps the most powerful weapon in their arsenal. The fact is, celebrity sells, perhaps even more than sex.

“Designers [have] learned that getting their gown on the right body [is] a force second to none,” Tamara Mellon, co-founder and former chief of Jimmy Choo, wrote in her autobiography In My Shoes. “A magazine feature [can] reach hundreds of thousands of potential customers for a fashion brand,” Mellon continued. “The way to reach a billion? Dress the actresses competing for attention at a highly televised event.”

Major luxury houses from Gucci to Dior have long tapped the power of celebrity dressing to build their brands and boost sales (if not of the dresses themselves, then of more attainable product lines like accessories and beauty). But today’s red carpets are no longer the exclusive territory of fashion’s biggest players. In fact, as its power and reach continue to grow, celebrity dressing has fast become a pathway by which emerging labels are establishing themselves, building global brand awareness and driving sales.

“The starting point for me was when Zoe Saldana wore a dress to the Star Trek premiere in Germany,” designer Prabal Gurung, who founded his self-funded label four years ago, told BoF. “Then it was Demi Moore, she announced on Twitter, ‘Oh I am wearing this new designer to look out for.’ All of a sudden, I went from 18 followers to 300 or 500 followers on Twitter and then it took off. Last year, four years in to our business Google did this top-searched brands of 2013 list and ours was seventh! It has had a tremendous, tremendous impact in every way.”

That is every way, including sales. “Diane Kruger wore this dress and immediately it was on Moda Operandi on pre-order,” added Gurung. ”These are expensive dresses and there were many more orders. Same with Sandra [Bullock]’s gown,” which the Oscar-winning actress wore to the 2014 Golden Globe Awards. “You see immediate impact.”

“What [celebrity dressing] also does is make the meetings that you always wanted to have — whether it is a retailer or any kind of business deal — [happen]. They’re open to it because they know who you are. It opens doors,” continued Gurung.

“When I meet someone that I gravitate towards and am inspired by, I work with them. It’s organic. I think there is a lot of exposure for both the designer and the celebrity when it is a perfect match,” added New York designer Jason Wu, who founded his eponymous label in 2006 and has dressed actresses Emma Stone, Kerry Washington and others.

Top-tier celebrity stylists like Petra Flannery, Elizabeth Saltzman, Leith Clark and Mel Ottenberg are the gatekeepers who can break and build brands, simply by guiding their clients towards a certain garment. But catching a stylist’s eye is no simple task.

Alana Varel, director and co-founder of Starworks Group, a global communications agency with offices in London, New York and Los Angeles, told BoF: “It’s important to have designers come to LA and spend face time with stylists and talent to really lay the ground work and build a personal relationship, for instance through our work with the British Fashion Council and their seasonal London Showrooms.”

“The red carpet and awards season is such a global platform and incredible opportunity for our emerging designers to build their brands and get their name out there,” said Caroline Rush, chief executive of the British Fashion Council on the importance of the organisation’s London Showrooms and London Style Suites, an initiative launched last November, specifically conceived to promote British designers in Los Angeles, which has attracted the likes of David Koma, Matthew Williamson, Osman and others. “LA is the home of the red carpet and activity in this market is aimed at securing designers’ reputations as the go-to brands for the increasing number of events during the awards season,” read a BFC statement issued at the time of launch.

But the relationship between celebrity stylists and designers is symbiotic. While emerging brands seek exposure, stylists aim to uncover and work with fresh design talent to meet the constant demand for the kind of new looks which can help their clients to build their personal brands on what is a highly competitive stage.

“There are a lot of people out there that get a lot of attention and that are actively seeking a lot [of attention]. To me, it is always looking forward to find something new and cool that other people haven’t worn yet,” said Mel Ottenberg, fashion director of 032c and Rihanna’s stylist. “For every video, every photo shoot, album cover or red carpet [event], I take the same attitude. That is how we keep it moving. I love working with someone like a Givenchy, or Balmain, or an Alaïa for those big moments, but it’s great and really fun to work with [emerging designers] Adam Selman or KTZ for those moments too and do something no one else has done.”

Of course, stage-managed appearances, and images of celebrities actually doing their day-jobs, are now only one aspect of celebrity dressing. Indeed, for the world’s most photographed individuals, the omnipresent paparazzi have turned every moment of their lives — from exiting a hotel to going to Starbucks — into a photo call.

“We were dealing with bloggers and they were really hard work,” said Christopher Bookless, the designer of emerging streetwear brand Less Clothing. “We would send them a top and they wouldn’t even blog it, so we thought, ‘Why are we wasting our time here? Get one A-lister wearing it and it will snowball.” Five samples of his collection were sent out, one directly to a hotel where Beyoncé was staying, “and then next thing you know, New Year’s Day, [paparazzi shots of Beyoncé wearing a Less crop top] came through. Then, three days later Cara Delevingne was wearing it. I have had features in magazines, but with [Knowles and Delevingne] wearing the clothes, it went crazy for a week and the sales boosted by tenfold online.”

But as an emerging brand, Less Clothing is not in a position to send out gratis products to every celebrity and recipients are chosen for two key qualities. “It is about how they fit the brand in terms of what they wear, but obviously if they have got a big [social media] following as well — those are the main factors.” And indeed, thanks to the explosion of celebrity photo-sharing on platforms like Instagram, emerging brands may not even need to rely on the paparazzi to photograph a celebrity wearing their product; the celebrity might just do it for them.

“It is super aggressive, you have no idea how many Christmas presents came through my office. It was wild. I would say that my office is like a thousand square feet and it felt like my entire office was filled to the brim with presents for Rihanna,” noted Ottenberg. “Everyone wants to get in on the social media party. Brands [of all sizes] have realised how huge that is now. People really, really, really want to get on Instagram and all of that, because really people see it.”

Rihanna, or “BadGirlRiRi,” as she is known on Instagram, has attracted over 11 million followers on the platform. Cara Delevingne has about 4 million Instagram followers, while Beyoncé has 9 million, numbers that eclipse the circulation figures of most major fashion magazines.

“With the rise of online journalism and social media, brands now have a window to immediate global exposure,” said Julietta Dexter, co-founder and director of The Communications Store, a public relations agency based in London. “The dressing of a major public figure has the power of introducing a brand not only to new consumers, but new markets, as well. Strategic brand alignment for an emerging designer or label is pivotal in ensuring the correct level of exposure to a target consumer.”

However, for emerging brands, earning top-tier editorial remains vital. “Both [editorial placement and celebrity dressing] play crucial roles in terms of brand positioning,” continued Dexter. “While celebrity dressing allows mass exposure to new audiences and territories, editorial placement will always be key for luxury brands in reaching their target consumer.”

Dressing celebrities has its advantages, however. “Celebrity placement has such longevity in the market place,” Varel explained. “Images can be used on an ongoing basis, months or even years after the initial placement with far reaching implications past editorial, onwards to the sales teams, retail and, of course, the consumer.” In addition to longevity, “[celebrity dressing] represents a strong return through significantly lower investment.”

Ottenberg added: “I think that today [emerging designers seek to dress a celebrity] a lot more aggressively than they want to be in a magazine. The immediate social media reality of somebody wearing their clothes, at the moment, has a really big impact… Although magazines do a huge amount for emerging designers, they really do, there are no constraints on who a celebrity wears. A celebrity doesn’t have an obligation to his or her advertisers.”

“My PR and I were talking about getting into i-D,” said Bookless. “She was saying that it’s hard to get into those magazines now, because you have to wait for the stylists to get in touch, once they have been commissioned for the shoot. Really, there is a lot of time wasted doing that. You may as well try and meet to hand over the clothes – or don’t even bother with the magazines ­– just get your stuff on a celebrity.”