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Brands Turn to Unusual Sponsors for Fashion Week

As their usual sources of sponsorship evaporate, fashion brands presenting new collections at both digital and physical runway shows must reconsider how they offer value to partners.
Jason Wu presented his Spring 2021 collection alongside a runway furnished with wooden chairs and tropical plants by American home improvement store Lowe's. | Source: Jason Wu
  • Alexandra Mondalek

NEW YORK, United States When guests arrived at Jason Wu's runway show earlier this week, they were ushered into his vision for Tulum by way of Lowe's, the home-improvement chain that furnished nearly one thousand tropical plants to line the runway, plus distressed wood chairs for guests.

That a big-box store better known for its selection of plumbing fixtures and power tools was sponsoring one of New York Fashion Week’s marquee events is a sign of just how deeply the pandemic has upended the usual formula for how designers pay for shows. Typically, automakers, airlines, high-end liquor distributors and other luxury-adjacent brands are lined up months in advance to foot at least part of the fashion week bill. This year, with marketing budgets slashed and few live events on the calendar, it was more of a last-minute scramble.

For Wu and Lowe’s, it was also an opportunity.

With many of American fashion’s heavy hitters sitting out this September or releasing video previews of their collections, Wu had the spotlight more or less to himself. Meanwhile, Lowe’s, eager to capitalise on the pandemic nesting craze, attached itself to a name with credibility in the fashion world. The goal: convince shoppers Lowe’s is a design-centric shopping destination, rather than just a place to purchase a new lawnmower, said Chief Marketing Officer Marisa Thalberg.

Even if corporate sponsor marketing budgets rebound and characteristics of the usual fashion week schedule return, some of the pandemic-era oddities might endure.

“Unlikely collaboration partnerships are where the most interesting things and the most exciting things happen,” said Graham Baldwin, founder of the brand Graham Tyler, who has appeared on the official New York Fashion Week schedule four times. “There can be more humour and less uppityness ... That's a huge white space that is being overlooked.”

Redefining Business as Usual

Plenty of traditional fashion week sponsors were in the mix this week. Maybelline made up Wu's models, while Oribe and Bobbi Brown worked with Cinq à Sept. Klarna, the payments platform that has become a frequent sight at fashion events in recent years, partnered with the Council of Fashion Designers of America, which releases the official calendar. IMG, a fashion week organiser alongside the CFDA, helps broker deals with designers (like the Lowe's partnerships, but also a collaboration between The Blonds and Moulin Rouge, The Musical) during fashion week and through the rest of the year.

But the usual array of luxury automakers and airlines, which often negotiated seven-figure sponsorships lasting multiple seasons, are sitting out this September. For these brands, the value of a sponsorship comes from the show itself, whether it’s influencers tagging brands in front-row selfies or candid backstage shots that can be used in ad campaigns months later. Digital shows make a smaller splash on social media.

“Because you're not bringing those ... stellar brands, you're not going to have the same quality of audience as a result,” said Marc Beckman, founder and chief executive of DMA United, an advertising agency that has helped broker fashion week sponsorships for years.

BoF reached out to multiple past NYFW sponsors who either declined or did not respond to requests for comment.

A New Sponsorship Model

In their absence, new and unlikely commercial sponsors have offered a life raft to cash-strapped brands that want to show this season. But they’re also expecting more than top billing on a press release.

In addition to including Lowe’s furniture and foliage on his set, Wu curated a selection of home decor items on the chain’s website. In an emailed statement to BoF, Wu said, "I am always grateful for my sponsors who help me realize my vision every season. As a mid-sized business, we always have to be very mindful of what we can afford, however through these mutually beneficial collaborations with our sponsors, we are able to execute my creative vision and stand out in the midst of much larger brands.”

Lowe’s had similar arrangements with the designers Rebecca Minkoff and Christian Siriano. The company is livestreaming the designers’ shows on Twitter.

“We knew NYFW wouldn’t operate the same as it has in years past, so we thought it made perfect sense to contextualise the fashion experience within what people are experiencing every day by bringing the shows into their homes,” said Lowe’s Thalberg in an email, adding that the sponsorship was an opportunity to change how consumers perceive the retailer.

Designers and their sponsors need to have some connection to avoid confusing consumers. When Tara Subkoff relaunched her brand Imitation of Christ this year with a bicoastal presentation in Los Angeles and New York on Monday, the collection — made up of hand-sewn upcycled sports jerseys and silk shift dresses — was offered as a see-now buy-now collection to be sold exclusively on TheRealReal, which sells used and recycled clothing.

Other small designers have had difficulty attracting sponsors this season. Baldwin, who won the CFDA Elaine Gold Launch Pad prize in 2019, presented his latest collection on the CFDA’s Runway360 web platform, which is free for designers to use. He still spent between $7,000 and $10,000 on materials, an assistant, a publicist and production costs for the video and lookbook, he said. The cost was significant given that wholesale partners had cancelled and postponed orders placed before the pandemic, depriving him of revenue he would have funnelled into the show.

Baldwin said he’d be open to working with a wide variety of brands, pointing to the collaboration between designer Telfar and fast-food chain White Castle as one unconventional example he admired.

It's important to let big companies know that even a few thousand dollars to a small designer can completely change their collection.

Brands are also exploring ways to extend sponsorships beyond the runway. The audio products brand Skullcandy helped pay for Collina Strada’s February show. The label also created a pair of branded headphones that were featured at the event, part of an ongoing relationship between the two companies. Unlike a simple cash payment, a product can earn a fashion brand design fees, royalties and a percentage of sales, said Amanda Carter, founder of Mode PR who has worked with Collina Strada.

Despite the constraints surrounding marketing budgets for the foreseeable future, it’s the smaller brands — those with loyal engaged audiences — who might offer sponsors the most surprising value, not to mention help keep bootstrapped designers in business.

“It's important to let big companies know that even a few thousand dollars to a small designer can completely change their collection,” Baldwin said. “Hopefully, they would consider looking at and sponsoring brands and working with them to create really exciting and interesting things not just during fashion week, but throughout the entire year.”

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