Source: Rolls-Royce via Bloomberg
Fashion

Why Can’t New York Fashion Week Find Another Automotive Sponsor?

Once considered a top cultural sponsorship opportunity, the spot remains surprisingly vacant

September’s Spring/Summer 2016 New York Fashion Week will be the first in years to run without an automotive sponsor in its name. Mercedes-Benz, a title backer since 2009, has dropped out, the partnership fallen victim to a change in the way automobiles are marketed, and a general waning in the coolness level of the fashion event.

Once regarded a crown jewel of sponsorship opportunities because of its close affiliation with cutting-edge design, high-net-worth buyers, and trendy creativity, New York Fashion Week and its parent company, IMG, are having trouble filling the role. High-end automakers including Cadillac, among at least two others that quietly considered the opportunity, won’t touch it.

“We believe in a thriving New York Fashion Week,” says Melody Lee, Cadillac’s director of brand and reputation strategy. “But through a unique lens of individual designers who are at the cutting edge or in the process of reinvention.” 

September’s Winter/Spring 2016 New York Fashion Week will be the first in seven years to run without an automotive sponsor as Mercedes-Benz, a title backer since 2009, has dropped out.

September’s Winter/Spring 2016 New York Fashion Week will be the first in years to run without an automotive sponsor as Mercedes-Benz, a title backer since 2009, has dropped out.

Photographer: Joshua Woods/Bloomberg Business

In other words, not through big-name, mass brands such as Diane von Furstenberg, Michael Kors, and Carolina Herrera, who make news with their shows at the main tents.

“Cadillac wants to nurture those who embrace a mindset of individualism, risk-taking, and entrepreneurial daring,” Lee says. 

So that particular brand is looking to smaller, emerging designers like Public School and Jason Wu. Those younger companies spend their time and resources on smaller, more exclusive fashion presentations at scattered loft and warehouse spaces rather than under the glitzy banner of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. And more brands than just Cadillac are following along for the ride: Lexus has sponsored Made Fashion Week since 2011, which happens concurrently with NYFW but focuses on up-and-coming designers. Keith Baptista, Mazdack Rassi, and Jenné Lombardo founded the event at Milk Studios in 2009.

In general, New York Fashion Week is suffering from a deficit of cool, which makes it hard to lure a sponsor. Since the event moved to Lincoln Center from Bryant Park in Manhattan, participants have claimed the new Upper West Side location is inconvenient and difficult to work with. The carpeting is frequently soggy, the port-a-potty bathrooms are unpopular, and the vast plaza in front of Lincoln Center has become thronged with hoards of street-style bloggers and blogger wannabes.

“I don’t think Lincoln Center ever captured the magic of Bryant Park,” says Lauren Sherman, editor-at-large of Fashionista.com. “It felt cold and unwelcoming. There are certainly some designers who have romantic feelings about it and might have showed there for a season or two, but no one was thrilled to be in that particular location.”

That problem will ostensibly be fixed next season, when Fashion Week opens with shows at Skylight Clarkson Square on Washington Street in Tribeca and Skylight Moynihan Station on West 34th Street. In fact, culturally the industry had already moved downtown before the change of venue.

But it may be too late to land a major car advertiser; many brands are now focused on more targeted audiences that share similar beliefs about design.

“We both care about giving innovators a chance to showcase their talents,” says Dennis Thornhill, corporate manager of Lexus marketing, planning, and communications. “The disruptive nature of Made appeals to Lexus’s commitment to thinking outside of the box.”

Last season, Cadillac hosted the final runway show thrown by Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow of Public School before the two were named creative directors of DKNY.

Last season, Cadillac hosted the final runway show thrown by Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow of Public School before the two were named creative directors of DKNY.

Photographer: Albert Urso/Getty Images

IMG indicates this is not a cause for undue stress.

“It’s a matter of different brand positioning rather than them having any less interest in fashion,” one IMG insider told me, though officials declined to give formal comment. “We are just seeing automakers reallocate dollars to other areas.”

Quite. Including many not directly related to IMG. Audi is the “official automotive partner” of the new Whitney Museum in the trendy Meatpacking District in downtown New York.

Last season, during NYFW’s “Men’s Day,” Cadillac sponsored hipster brands like David Hart and Cadet. It also hosted the last runway show Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow of Public School threw before being named creative directors of DKNY this month. And Rolls-Royce last week unveiled its “Inspired by Fashion” Wraith coupe with silk interior lining and detailing that includes a seamless leather steering wheel.

Plenty of other car brands, if they decide not to go with sponsoring an entire indie brand effort, still continue to align themselves with the major design houses for one-off projects (Land Rover and Victoria Beckham; Jaguar and Stella McCartney; Maserati and Zegna) instead of trying to buy up runway show real estate. This strategy is more about linking the design of a particular car model to a fashion ideal.

Such proximity benefits both parties: Auto brands get to associate with the pretty people, and the designers get lumps of cash. There’s also something to be said for the cross-pollination of ideas among designers that is inevitable when they work together. And of course, there’s the simple fact that a lady who can afford to buy, say, a $15,000 bag can certainly afford to spend six figures on a car.

Executives at Mercedes, at least, say as much. They consider the shift away from New York Fashion Week a good thing—it’s an evolution in the marriage between cars and fashion, not a divorce.

“Fashion and design are still key brand pillars for us,” says one spokesman, who asked not to be named. “We plan on supporting fashion well into the future.”

It’s just that these days, they’re more particular about it.

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