PARIS, France — It was impossible to miss the hot pink catwalk that designer Simon Porte-Jacquemus dreamt up for his tenth-anniversary show this June. The designer had pulled off buzzy shows before, but the cinematic images of models walking down a 450 metre-long runway, framed by rolling lavender fields in Provence, reached a new level of global media hype. It was Instagram catnip, and quickly became one of the most memorable fashion images of the year.
According to global fashion search platform Lyst, the lavender fields show boosted Jacquemus’ social mentions by 1,343 percent in the third quarter of 2019. But such a moment wasn’t pulled off by a Kering or LVMH mega-brand. While Jacquemus declined to reveal the show’s budget (the independent brand transported 300 attendees to the remote location thanks to sponsorship from Air France and railway company SNCF), it certainly wasn’t working with Chanel-sized sums.
Yet the event managed to rival anything produced that season by one of Paris’ big fashion houses in terms of interest and publicity. According to Jacquemus’ publicist Lucien Pagès, “thanks to the beauty of the catwalk running through the lavender fields, images circulated far beyond the fashion world.” Indeed, the show was covered by news and non-fashion magazine outlets globally.
Thanks to the beauty of the catwalk running through the lavender fields, images circulated far beyond the fashion world.
It was the kind of attention every designer hopes to get. But in today’s crowded social media landscape — where brands have to fight for space on an endless Instagram scroll — creating a moment that breaks through the noise is more difficult than ever.
Those challenges only increase for independent and emerging designers with limited budgets and less brand recognition. Houses under the Kering and LVMH stables are better placed to produce large-scale shows and can count on their collections getting valuable media real estate, especially from publications they advertise with.
But creating a resonant media moment requires more than just deep pockets and investment in fashion’s glossy magazines. And while strategy is important, so is luck — there’s no science to “going viral” in fashion.
BoF breaks down five strategies for smaller designers and brands aiming to rise above the daily news cycle and create a breakout moment on a budget.
Lay a foundation of real relationships
Elza Wandler, founder of Instagram-friendly handbag line Wandler, travels to New York and Los Angeles from her Paris home twice a year, taking time to build relationships with buyers and editors in the city. For this autumn’s launch of the “Georgia” bag, Wandler publicist Justin Padgett and his team at DLX New York sent it to editors and influencers like stylist Gabriela Karefa-Johnson and Harper’s Bazaar’s Chrissy Rutherford, with the knowledge that it would align closely with their personal styles.
The goal was that they and others would wear it at upcoming shows where street style photographers would put the bag front and centre. The strategy worked, earning the bag multiple write-ups on style blogs. It translated to sales, too. Padgett said the style has outpaced Wandler’s previous best-seller.
Collaborators help tell and expand your story.
Gifting and product seeding is nothing new, a tried and tested method across brands of all sizes, but “every brand in the world is throwing bags at these people,” said Padgett. Where smaller labels can succeed, however, is by building genuine relationships with influencers, who will be more incentivised to support them, especially at events like fashion week.
But it’s not just important to focus on cultivating industry contacts if that’s not relevant to a brand’s goals or place in the landscape of fashion. A community is a brand's most important asset, said Amanda Carter, founder of communications agency Modeworld, and that community can include other creatives or activists or influencers. “Collaborators help tell and expand your story."
Focus on your brand DNA
Brands that stand out today are those with a real direction and point of view, said Carter. “Figuring out who your audience is, who you are, who you stand for as a brand — those are the brands that get the most attention,” she said.
With its tradition-bunking casting and wild runway performances, Gypsy Sport runway shows are consistent highlights of New York Fashion Week — and a place where talents like singer Cardi B, artist Rico Nasty and model Raisa Flowers are able to get the industry’s attention for the first time.
Gypsy Sport have succeeded at creating a media buzz because, according to PR lead Gregory Werbowsky of Loft Creative Group, everything they do is filtered through the lens of what the brand stands for — a platform to celebrate people who are queer, people-of-colour or otherwise outsiders in mainstream fashion — as led by founder and head designer Rio Uribe.
Werbowsk said many brands want “to be a little bit of everything for everyone” because that equates to popularity and exposure. “But the more focused it can be, the more effective our communication and our strategy can be when you add in multi-dimensions.”
Make actual news
When Ganni, a Copenhagen-based cult favourite with small exposure to the US, opened its first permanent store in New York in October, the news was big enough to generate several large features across different publications. According to Padgett, the store opening was the crescendo of US media coverage that had bubbled up over the course of a year in which the brand was otherwise more quiet in regards to press in the region. With a scarcity of coverage ahead of the date, the impact of the store’s opening was even greater.
Sometimes designers do stuff and they don’t even realise it’s press worthy.
Good angles for news coverage are if a brand is launching a new category, or is a celebrity favourite but hasn’t been covered at all, so it’s like a new discovery, according to Carter. Buzz can also be generated if a collaboration is genuinely surprising.
“Sometimes designers do stuff and they don’t even realise it’s press worthy,” she said, noting Eckhaus Latta’s 2017 show which featured a heavily pregnant model, artist Maia Ruth Lee. The designers didn’t realise at the time of casting that Lee’s presence on the runway would be as radical as it was.
Think visually (and with a sense of humour)
For jewellery designer Lisa Sadoughi, who started selling padded and beaded headbands in May 2018 as an experiment, the visual nature of her product (and their selfie-friendly nature) helped drive sales which are expected to reach 150,000 headbands this year. “That’s the benefit of being in a small company, you can be more nimble and try things out,” she told BoF. Sadoughi is very involved in her brand’s Instagram comments and direct messages, and that’s helped her see how to keep the headband “moment” going, even as others hop onto the trend or copy her style.
Images are arguably our most powerful communication currency. A standout fashion moment, like Jacquemus’ lavender fields, creates a striking visual element that can immediately signal what a brand is about, but a comical element can push this one step further. Take Jacquemus’ pocket-sized Le Chiquito bag. Debuting in March, the bag quickly spread via social media and was responsible for over 12,500 monthly online searches over the last quarter, according to Lyst. The bag has appeared twice this year in Lyst’s index of the 10 hottest products.
Likewise at Gypsy Sport’s Spring 2020 show, some models were covered in full-body biodegradable glitter. Their images had the widest reach of the entire collection, according to Werbowsky, generating press for the brand. “It turned into the sensation of the season,” he said. “All of a sudden you get all these insanely amazing glittery alien memes.”
Invest in authentic or surprising celebrity moments
Dressing a well-known artist or actor comes with a certain level of built-in press coverage, but for independent and emerging brands, celebrity relationships are more effective when there is an unexpected or distinctive element to the tie-up.
It’s fair to say no one was expecting Céline Dion to attend Ronald van der Kemp’s intimate couture show in January 2019. The world-famous singer, who had worn the designer’s dresses before and had tagged the brand on Instagram, attended only two shows that day (the other one being Valentino). She sat front row, sporting a metallic suit from the collection and posed with the designer backstage after the presentation.
The suit Dion wore was from a limited edition of 12 pieces, and it sold out immediately. The brand also got lots of specific customer requests via their website and Instagram account. “You gain a lot of contacts,” the designer said to BoF. “It’s also brand building. You reach a completely different audience that you wouldn’t normally reach.”
Another example is Bode’s custom corduroy suit for singer Leon Bridges at the Grammys in February. Designer Emily Adams Bode had a longstanding relationship with the singer and his stylist, Mac Huelster, and created a suit that featured illustrations of the symbols and places of his life and career, including his music and childhood in Texas.
“It wasn’t something you think should be or would be red carpet but it was fully personalised to his own narrative,” said Werbowsky. “Seeing Bode on a true red carpet was a big turning point [for the brand].”