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Fashion Films: What Works and What Doesn't

Now that fashion films are no longer a novelty, it takes a strong narrative and a smart distribution strategy to make one a success. A recognizable face doesn't hurt, either.

It’s no secret that the Internet has changed the way fashion brands market themselves. While many continue to advertise in print, and occasionally on television, many now also dedicate a portion of their budgets to creating shareable content that lives online. Short narrative videos — or what brands like to call films — have been one of the most popular formats to emerge.

YouTube was founded in 2005, opening the path for easy video distribution online, and less than five years later, brands like Alexander McQueen, Armani Jeans (see below) and Kate Spade were launching videos that, for the first two, attracted upwards of a million views.

Today, fashion films are less of a novelty, and as many companies are learning, producing viral content is not always as easy as filming an attractive person wearing clothes. With more content being published every day than any one person can consume, only a few of those films get the engagement necessary to make it worth a brand’s investment.

Still, they end up in our inboxes frequently. And when done right, a fashion film can be a viable alternative or complement to, say, a print campaign, or, for a young designer with limited resources, a runway show. (Though its future is now uncertain, even hosted its own “Video Fashion Week” each season for brands who decided to put their resources into film instead of adding to the already overcrowded fashion week schedule.) We decided to look into what’s working and what isn’t when it comes to making a fashion film.

“Trying not to make a formulaic 'fashion film' is a good place to start” says Jack Robinson, head of video for i-D, which produces some of the cleverest fashion films on the web and has been investing heavily in video over the past year. “Films need a narrative or concept to keep people engaged, that should always be the focus.”

One recent success in the short fashion film genre is Kate Spade’s “#missadventure” series starring Anna Kendrick (see episode no. 2 above). The films — there will be four in total, each around three minutes — have a few things going for them right off the bat. As an established, publicly traded brand, Kate Spade can afford high-end production and a famous, well-liked star. Mary Beech, chief marketing officer of Kate Spade, tells us the investment in video followed a “major shift in ad budget," and says the amount the company spent on the video series is comparable to what it might have spent on a print campaign (which Kate Spade also did this season — the latest stars Iris Apfel and Karlie Kloss). Beech says it takes eight to 12 weeks to develop a video, from conceiving the storyline to finding the right director. In sum, the resources invested are significant; but luckily, the response has been significant as well. The #missadventure videos have been the brand’s most successful yet, with the most recent episode garnering 1.6 million views since its release on April 28.

Beech feels a big part of that success owes to the fact that each film tells a story — with a beginning, middle and end — and that it’s a series, so that when a new film comes out, people have a reference point for it and want to see what’s next. The decision to cast only one star was also intentional, to lend continuity.

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Another fashion brand that has become known for telling stories with its growing ouvre of fashion films is Rachel Antonoff. A young designer with limited resources, Antonoff made films instead of showing at fashion week for two seasons in a row. In past interviews, the designer has told me that her films have had a great reception and and are “easier to call in favors for” and thus cheaper than presentations to put together. It doesn’t hurt that Antonoff’s friends include people like Mae Whitman, Jenny Slate and Lena Dunham. As a lesser-known brand with fewer marketing resources than, say, Kate Spade, Antonoff’s videos don’t get quite as many views, but their reach is at least comparable to that of a fashion week presentation and those who do see her films remember them. Antonoff told me recently that people bring up her spring 2014 film “Crush” more than any other. Why? “It tugs at the heart strings.” (This is true — I just watched it for the third or fourth time and still cried.) Which brings us to another tenant of a good fashion film.

One of the biggest and most interesting fashion film success stories was Wren’s “First Kiss,” which debuted in March of 2014 as part of’s Video Fashion Week series and immediately went viral, garnering over 7 million views in its first two days online — currently, it has over 102 million. It showed 20 real (albeit physically attractive) strangers kissing for the first time in a raw, candid way that clearly resonated. At the time, Wren founder and Creative Director Melissa Coker told Fashionista that people told her it renewed their faith in love. "This has exceeded in my desire to have something that's interesting to people beyond a fashion angle," she said.

Sometimes, a fashion film can get lots of attention both in and out of the fashion world because it has a big name attached to it. Examples include Anna Kendrick in the Kate Spade film, Lena Dunham writing/directing a film for Rachel Antonoff and Roman Coppola and Wes Anderson making a short film for Prada. Of course, the bigger the brand, the more star power it can get. Remember when Martin Scorcese directed a Dolce & Gabbana commercial? Thus, when you look at the numbers, the majority of the most-viewed fashion videos on YouTube over the past year were created by luxury brands. Topping a list compiled by L2 is Dior's "The Future Is Gold" starring Charlize Theron, Chanel's "The One That I Want" starring Gisele Bundchen, Calvin Klein's underwear campaign starring Justin Bieber and Burberry's "From London With Love" starring Romeo Beckham. That said, "First Kiss" has surpassed all of them and cost a lot less money to produce.

When a brand incorporates an intriguing narrative or a big celebrity, it can appeal to people outside of the brand's existing fan base, sometimes to those who have no interest in fashion at all. One of i-D's most successful film projects was its "How to Learn Languages With Models" series. "It performed extremely well, as we knew we would be tapping into people interested in models but also people interested in language and culture," says Robinson.

"However, it's important you don't confuse your message or people wont know how to engage properly," he adds. Of course, from a brand or publisher's perspective, the goal of a fashion film isn't simply to entertain; it's to create brand awareness. That's where distribution comes in.

For Kate Spade, distribution was a major part of its video strategy from the very beginning with #missadventure. "It's incredibly important to put distribution at the forefront," explains Beech. "Our goal is to go where our customer is; we don't want to take her outside of her normal behavior. We want to be in her natural path of consumption." The strategy was, basically, to come at people from all angles. Specifically, she says the video got a lot of traction on Facebook's native video player and that an Instagram ad campaign was "incredibly successful." 

Another distribution option for a brand is to pay an editorial entity that already has a video audience. i-D recently partnered with Diesel on an episode of its existing video series, "The A-Z of Dance." This type of model is one we're likely to see more of as magazines like Nylon and Lucky have announced plans to beef up their video content — the former sees branded video as an important revenue stream moving forward.

While all of these factors may make for a new piece of entertaining content for consumers while we're bored at work, what does the brand actually get out of it? Based on views and engagement, many of the most successful films were the ones that weren’t really about the clothes, but told a story where people were wearing the clothes. The question is: Do films like that actually sell clothes? Brands are still trying to figure that out.

Beech claims that Kate Spade's #missadventure videos have increased traffic to its website, but conversions have not been significant. For the first episode of the series, Kate partnered with Cinematique, a tech startup that makes videos shoppable (you tap things you like while it's playing and once it's over, have the opportunity to shop those items or similar ones). The companies did not partner on the second video; Beech says she plans to experiment with different conversion tactics and see what works.

While "First Kiss" was undeniably a viral hit, there was almost no way of knowing that a fashion brand was behind it. And videos that are more identifiable as fashion films are still unlikely to generate significant sales in the short-term. It will be interesting to see, as video becomes an increasingly common medium for branded content, if there will be a bigger push to make them drives traffic and/or sales — something that will be difficult to do while maintaining the strong narratives that make people want to watch them in the first place.