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Why Are Car Companies Fashion Weeks' Biggest Sponsors?

There's no Clorox Fashion Week for a reason.
Nick Wooster exits a Lexus vehicle outside Milk Studios in February. Photo: Ryan Kobane/BFA

Nick Wooster exits a Lexus vehicle outside Milk Studios in February. Photo: Ryan Kobane/BFA

Wherever there is a fashion week, there is an auto sponsor involved. For eight years, New York Fashion Week was known officially as Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week; the luxury car maker remains the title sponsor of fashion weeks in Moscow, Berlin, Sydney and Istanbul, as well as one of the leading sponsors of London, Milan and Paris fashion weeks, lending cars to ferry editors and VIPs between shows. When Mercedes-Benz withdrew its support of NYFW at the beginning of 2015 — coinciding with the event's departure from Lincoln Center — the question was not who would take over the title sponsorship, but which automaker IMG would find to replace Mercedes-Benz. (That would be Lexus, though it did not opt to insert its name in the event title.)

Mercedes-Benz and Lexus are not the only brands involved: Cadillac has thrown its weight behind the burgeoning menswear scene in New York in recent years, serving both as the presenting sponsor of New York Men's Day (a day dedicated to showcasing men's collections to the buyers and journalists in town for the womenswear collections) and sponsor of New York Fashion Week: Men's. It also helps fund the shows of many individual designers, including Public School,
J. Mendel and Jason Wu. Singapore's biannual fashion week is known as the Audi Fashion Festival. Rolls-Royce, Ford and Chevrolet have also taken part in fashion weeks around the world, in varying capacities.

All of which begs the question: Why are automotive companies so often the leading sponsors of fashion week? For one thing, they have enormous marketing budgets — several of the automakers mentioned above spend hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising each year, making them attractive potential sponsors for such a big event. But having cash to spend isn't the only reason these partnerships occur with such frequency, automakers and event organizers say: the two industries are exceptionally well-aligned in their brand values. "Fashion is a reflection of what's going on in our culture — people in fashion have an appreciation of art, design, culture — and a lot of auto brands reflect that in their own positioning," says Leslie Russo, senior vice president of fashion sales at IMG, which organizes fashion weeks around the world, including New York's. Andrea Lim, engagement marketing manager at Lexus, agrees. "Many luxury auto brands share a lot of same core principles [as fashion brands]. There's the same appreciation for luxury, design, craftsmanship, attention to detail; both are big-ticket purchases."

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Cadillac tapped several designers to create "wraps" for their latest SUV model at New York Men's Day. Photo: Leandro Justen/Cadillac

Cadillac tapped several designers to create "wraps" for their latest SUV model at New York Men's Day. Photo: Leandro Justen/Cadillac

There's also, of course, the opportunity to reach some of the industry's — and, for that matter, the world's — most influential people. "These people are movers and shakers, the arbiters of style," says Melody Lee, director of brand strategy and planning at Cadillac. And these companies aren't just getting their logos in front of show-goers; they're actually getting them to interact with their products in a meaningful way. You couldn't walk into a men's show in New York last week without seeing a Cadillac SUV, many of which sported colorful "wraps" created by the designers showing inside. Rows of chauffeured Lexus SUVs are currently idling outside each of the official venues at NYFW, offering editors rides to their next shows and a quick phone charge. While Lexus and Cadillac do hope that those who use its services ultimately become customers, that's not the main goal. "It's about building awareness with new audiences who may not know a lot about us just yet," says Lee. "Influence comes in a variety of ways," Lim adds. "If they talk positively about the brand, that is great for us."

Some auto companies sponsor individual shows in lieu of, or in addition to, the full event — giving them many of the same benefits, like brand association, but on a smaller scale. Lexus's sponsorship enabled Prabal Gurung to stage a powerful tribute to Nepal last season, complete with chanting monks. Cadillac has thrown a lot of weight behind Public School, sponsoring its men's and women's shows for several seasons now, and even bringing the designers to Dubai to show their pre-fall collection alongside the unveiling of Cadillac's latest SUV. Partnering with individual brands can be both risky and rewarding, "because you become so closely associated with that brand, or design aesthetic," says Lee.

Just as car companies see an advantage in aligning with fashion, so too do fashion week organizers recognize the unique appeal of auto sponsors, particularly those in the luxury category who are involved with fashion in several capacities. Before Alexander Shumsky, founder and president of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia, signed the automaker as the title sponsor in 2011, he had received offers from both a mobile network and a shampoo. "I was not keen to sign [those deals]," Shumsky recalls. "I considered Mercedes-Benz as the only option to title the event." For Shumsky, it was important that the event's headline sponsor have a long-term fashion strategy, lest it should feel "too commercial." By aligning with fashion weeks in some two dozen cities, including New York, Mercedes-Benz had already identified itself as a fashion player, and indeed "became a seal of quality for fashion events" because the company was so selective about its partners, Shumsky says. Indeed, joining the Mercedes-Benz network helped put the Moscow event on the map: International media requests tripled, and more designers outside of Russia began sending in applications. 

When Mercedes-Benz ended its relationship with NYFW after the September 2014 shows, Russo says IMG did consider non-auto sponsors to take its place. Ultimately Lexus made the most sense. The company was already a sponsor of Made Fashion Week, which IMG acquired around the same time, and was working directly with fashion designers on a number of other projects, including the CFDA + Lexus Fashion Initiative and sponsorship of individual shows through its Design Disrupted program. "Lexus understood where we wanted to go, how the industry is evolving." That it, too, was a luxury player must have helped. Unlike Mercedes-Benz, Lexus said it did not want to put its name in the event title. "Fashion week is about the business of fashion, not the business of automobiles," Lim says. "Our place is to support the industry at a time where there's a lot of focus of what's new and what's coming." May those partnerships live long and prosper.