Promoting yourself is part of the game for any celebrity. But 22-year-old American musician Lil Nas X’s marketing chops have impressed so much that on Twitter, calls are growing for him to land a chief marketing officer gig once he’s done with music.
That day is still likely far off and in the meantime, Lil Nas X is the one benefitting from his instincts. The artist, who dropped his first studio album this month, has managed to propel his premiere single “Old Town Road” — what could have easily been a one-hit-wonder — into a full-fledged career by leveraging the power of social media and being unafraid to stir up controversy.
Now, fashion brands are lining up to work with the artist, née Montero Lamar Hill. On Monday, French designer Jean Paul Gaultier released a capsule collection with Lil Nas X, which included 666 units of a remixed version of the French brand’s archival mesh top, which became popular in the 1990s.
“A generation-defining global pioneer — and the epitome of Gen-Z — Lil Nas X represents the true colours of JPG’s spirit, with radical freedom of expression held as the thing he values the most,” read a statement from Jean Paul Gaultier announcing the product launch.
Lil Nas X’s value in fashion is already proven. In 2020, he worked with Christian Cowan on a broad collection that included t-shirts, sweatpants, denim, gowns and more, sales of which benefitted an Atlanta-based LGBTQ youth organisation. During last week’s Met Gala, the artist and his three-piece Versace ensemble generated the highest media impact value (a measure of marketing activity across digital channels) of any celebrity at the event, according to LaunchMetrics.
“Not only is he a talented artist but his radical self-acceptance and fearless creativity make him the perfect brand ally,” said Launchmetrics chief marketing officer Alison Bringé in an email. “This speaks volumes, especially for brands looking to connect with the younger consumers who are seeking authentic and relevant voices to connect with.”
But the same reasons that make Lil Nas X a marketing powerhouse — namely a fearless pursuit of attention and controversy — are also qualities that can make fashion brands wary.
Take the Nike-MSCHF battle: in April, Lil Nas X partnered with creative agency MSCHF to create a customised pair of Nike Air Max 97 sneakers containing human blood, dubbed “Satan Shoes.” Nike — likely concerned with the demonic association as well as the trademark infringement — quickly filed a lawsuit against MSCHF. That case was eventually settled and the shoes were recalled, but the incident is an example of how Lil Nas X strategically courts controversy. Now, he’s linked to a lawsuit from a multi-billion dollar entity — a frightening prospect for a potential brand partner.
Any brand that chooses to align itself with Lil Nas X — who has become a queer icon and LGBTQ advocate — stands to gain access to his marketing instincts as well as credibility in its claims of inclusivity, said Marc Beckman, founding partner and chief executive at DMA United, which brokers deals between talent, entertainment studios and the world’s biggest fashion corporations. One of DMA United’s clients is Sony, Lil Nas X’s record label.
But it’s important to let “the creatives be creative,” he said, allowing the artist or talent the freedom to express a brand partnership on their own terms with “as much leeway as possible.” Including brand final approval requirements or safeguards in a contract can also act as an insurance policy.
“A majority of the brands today in the fashion, luxury and contemporary designer world are afraid” to work with Lil Nas X or artists like him, said Beckman. “Then you have companies that see the value and they’re willing to take a risk. Those are the ones that are really going to benefit.”