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For Fashion Brands Flocking to SXSW, What’s the ROI?

Fashion and style brands staged a flurry of activations at this year’s South by Southwest Interactive, but breaking through the clutter of competing messages is increasingly challenging.
Marc Jacobs in conversation with Sally Singer at SXSW 2017 | Source: Getty Images
  • Lauren Sherman

AUSTIN, United States — On Monday, just before the taco truck lunchtime lines became too long to bother, attendees at South by Southwest Interactive waited patiently in another kind of queue.

No, they weren't lining up to watch a tech start-up launch a new potentially game-changing product. Instead, they were there for American fashion designer Marc Jacobs, who flew to Austin the day before on a private jet to talk about social media. Ever the provocateur, Jacobs declared himself a luddite and explained why he all-but-banned social media at his latest runway show. "Tech is a foreign language for me. I don't know how to engage with it," he told American Vogue creative digital director Sally Singer. "I'm a bit sarcastic about 'innovation' in fashion."

Jacobs' remarks were more than a little hyperbolic. After all, he is closely connected to fans via his personal Instagram account, driving the sort of engagement other designers envy. But if it was still surprising to see Jacobs on the featured speakers list at this year's SXSW conference — which is projected to attract close to 80,000 people across its interactive, film and music segments — that's because fashion brands have not historically targeted what is affectionately known as "South by." Jacobs' presence here at SXSW Interactive reflects a recent push by fashion companies, from Giorgio Armani to Saint Laurent, to embed themselves into the conference's programming.

On Saturday night, Giorgio Armani hosted an event to launch the third edition of its “Films by City Frames” initiative, debuting student films from universities across the globe. In previous years, the Italian fashion house chose the Toronto International Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival to showcase the programme. This year, however, it erected a space here in Austin — not dissimilar to those built by the likes of Fast Company and Twitter — to host a private event and conversation with the actor Dev Patel. Unsurprisingly, the wrap on Armani’s installation — which could be explored virtually by Facebook fans via a chatbot on the network’s Messenger app — was rendered in its signature grey.

“The festival is closely linked to new technologies, interactivity and cinema, and as it addresses a young audience, it can effectively showcase the works of the selected young talents to the world,” Mr. Armani told BoF regarding his decision to stage the latest Films by City Frames in Austin.

You have to be careful that you're not just talking to yourself. There are a ton of echo chambers that exist at SXSW.

Media companies such as Vanity Fair and Teen Vogue also threw parties at this year's SXSW, while a number of fashion and lifestyle-related pop-up conferences — including Create + Cultivate and Decoded Fashion — piggybacked on the main event. New media properties such as Who What Wear and Coveteur hosted events at private homes, while mid-market brands such as Lululemon and Kendra Scott hosted dinners for digital influencers.

On Saturday night, department store Neiman Marcus staged a 570-person celebration that included a fashion show and several musical performances touting its partnership with Gibson, known for its gloss guitars. And for the third year in a row, closely watched activewear label Outdoor Voices organised a Sunday run and brunch, this time in partnership with food publication The Infatuation.

Indeed, “Style” — a dedicated topic track featuring dozens of panels on everything from affiliate-marketing firm Reward Style’s social-shopping revolution to how artificial intelligence will change shopping habits — was as important as traditional “interactive” themed content at this year’s SXSW.

But 30 years after the first SXSW, which registered just 700 attendees in 1987, the noisy nature of the conference makes the value of having a presence there debatable. For one, many attendees never break out of the comfort zone of their own circle. The Style track, for instance, largely attracts fashion, beauty and luxury executives. "You have to be careful that you're not just talking to yourself," says Moj Mahdara, chief executive of Beautycon Media. "There are a ton of echo chambers that exist at SXSW."

The brands that seemed to benefit the most were those that sought to "activate" both the business-to-business and business-to-consumer crowds. For instance, Levi's chose SXSW to formally debut its Commuter Trucker jacket designed in partnership with Google's Jacquard division, which has developed a fabric that features conductive fibres woven into natural materials. The haptic technology allows the wearer to receive important alerts or program music right on the jacket's sleeve.

After Google’s Ivan Poupyrev, who leads the tech giant’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group, and Paul Dillinger, head of global product innovation at Levi’s, spoke on the SXSW stage to a thousand-person crowd, attendees were invited to visit the Levi’s house, where they could try the tech-infused jacket on for themselves. There, Poupyrev and Dillinger personally walked attendees through the space, explaining the hows and whys of the $350 jacket, which arrives in stores this September.

“The thing that can’t be understood from any discussion, any article, is that giggle when the jacket suddenly talks to you in the form of that little vibration,” Dillinger said. “The first time that you swipe out and your favourite song plays there is a sense of delight, which was why it was important to us to create an experiential activation.”

At a panel on the future of luxury, which featured “Super Size Me” director Morgan Spurlock, Jaguar Land Rovers’ Fiona Pargeter and Diageo's Syl Saller, the speakers argued that the value of SXSW is in the increased intermingling of these two still very disparate worlds. “I think the crossing of fashion and tech is really interesting to people,” Saller said. Spurlock added that it was all about context. “It depends on how the brands are involved,” he said. “It has to live up to expectations.”

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