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A Look at the Strategy behind New York Fashion Week Gifting

Here's how companies decide which street style stars get free swag.
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A well-dressed show-goer at New York Fashion Week. Photo: Imaxtree

A well-dressed show-goer at New York Fashion Week. Photo: Imaxtree

It feels almost quaint to think back to when Fashion Week revolved exclusively around the designer collections on the runways. But thanks to the steady rise of the street style phenomenon, the clothes we see on the catwalks have nearly become overshadowed by the outfits, editors, bloggers, celebrities and "peacocking" fashion fans wear en route to the shows. 

Although the term didn't exist within the industry lexicon until about a decade ago, it's emerged as an industry in and of itself. Street style photographers and their widely circulated images have become a booming, respected sector within the industry, and prominent photogs like Tommy Ton and Phil Oh have gained fame beyond insular fashion circles. Magazines and mass retailers alike have cashed in on the appeal of recognizable fashion folk, and designers' publicists have picked up on the lucrative results that a street style placement can yield. The key lies in a mutually understood arrangement between the PR firm doing the gifting, and the editor or blogger who gets the goods.

Thanks to New York Fashion Week's more inclusive model, show invites are easier to come by. As the guest lists increase in size, brands are using attendees as a bona fide marketing tool. Street style photographers are out en force, #OOTDs have become more abundant — the crazier, the better for Insta-bait — and more eyes than ever are curious to see who's wearing what. Public relations agencies have risen to the occasion, gifting and lending out clients' items before NYFW begins in hopes that their pieces will be snapped — either by a street style photographer or the wearer herself on Instagram, a symbiotic act that's been proven to translate into sales.

But who gets gifted? According to the PR reps we polled, it's not always the top editor on the glossy print magazine masthead. A not-so-surprising truth: Instagram numbers carry more weight than job title. In many cases, gifting to an attendee with a high social following is the most effective way to move product.

According to Vicki Ho, senior account executive at Turner PR (which handles lifestyle brands like Alpha Industries and Fjällräven), the gifting strategy varies depending on timing. For much of the year, the free product is distributed to both old media power players and social media stars. "It's usually a tiered system," she explained. "We would have a mix of our top editors in the director and senior-level positions and then it would be the market editors and assistants who publicists have more of a day-to-day interaction with." But when NYFW rolls around, additional focus is placed upon potential street style exposure. "For Fashion Week specifically, we also look to editors who get photographed and then editors who have a strong social following. There's also a substantial amount of social stalking as well — we try to pair items with editors who will actually wear what we give them or fits into their personal style.” 

Another PR rep, who asked to remain anonymous, explained that bloggers are priority for seeding (an industry term for product gifting) over editors. "If an editor requests something to wear to a certain event, we will likely help them and are happy to do so. In terms of bloggers and influencers, we strategically seed those that have a significant following and engagement."

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Street style bait at New York Fashion Week. Photo: Imaxtree

Street style bait at New York Fashion Week. Photo: Imaxtree

Even though social following is most important, PR staffers also consider whether or not the particular brand or item fits into the wearer's personal style. Liz Anthony of Mariposa Communications Inc., explained, "We select editors and bloggers with an engaged, loyal following on social media whom we love working with and really believe in the brand." In addition to showcasing the brand in a positive light, the gifts should reflect the influencer's personal aesthetic. "We aim to inspire the blogger or editor to help passionately promote the brand in their own style," she said. 

In some cases, the brand's aesthetic alignment with a particular blogger carries more weight than following alone. "There are bloggers with a more boutique-sized followship, a more targeted fan base, that make them perfect for a particular client or initiative, if we can align a key message to a niche audience," Katie Goldsmith, East Coast Director at Bollare, explained. The bicoastal PR firm's past and present clients have included Timberland, Shopbop, and Nanette Lepore, and Goldsmith stressed that the company's policy expands beyond bloggers. "We also look at the term 'influencer' in the broader sense and love to work with photographers, DJs and industry cool-kids that will create the right kind of buzz for a brand," she said. "It is all about aligning the message with the medium."

In other words, sending an influencer a random item in hopes for promotion likely won't do the trick; the key lies in recognizing when an influencer's style correlates with a brand's. Because authenticity is the goal, having an organic-feeling placement tends to be the most effective when it comes to gifting. As one PR executive noted, "There's nothing better for us than when an influencer truly loves one of our products. The hope is to secure the organic placements and that these individuals become fans of the brand." Having a relationship with the influencer leads not only to more exposure, but to future collaborations down the line.

Everyone we polled said there were no hard-and-fast requirements for most forms of blogger gifting, though many said that some sort of reciprocal publicity was appreciated. Social sharing is "highly encouraged," one of the PR reps we talked to explained, but it's impossible to formally secure coverage without payment or trade. As for magazine editors, the possible benefit lies in press coverage down the line. "With editors, we are always pleased if and when they post on their social channels, but we never require it in exchange," she said. "Certainly, with editors who pay the favor back, we are much more open to giving exclusives or going out of our way to get special samples and gifts."

Another brand rep agreed, adding, "It's kind of like an unspoken agreement that if something is gifted they would wear it, tag it or at the very least, send a quick thank you and acknowledge their gift." The PR staffers we talked with agreed that asking for a tag outright is a "bad look;" however, they mentioned that they provide editors with the Instagram handle and brand hashtag if they want to make use of it. A digital editor at a fashion publication, who wished to remain anonymous, admits that she generally will reciprocate with a social media shoutout. "I wouldn't say that I feel pressure to post about gifted or borrowed items, but as a general rule of thumb, if a brand is kind enough to send me something and I genuinely like it and plan to wear it, I almost always will include it in an Instagram and tag the company," she said. "For better or for worse, I almost feel like the 'gifted product Instagram' has replaced the traditional handwritten thank-you note amongst editors."

Standing out in a sea of brands is tough, so sometimes the most effective thing is a grassroots effort — starting with a well-placed gift. And with the recent overlap between content and advertising, it's the perfect time to utilize the strategy. As Ho put it, "At the end of the day, all the gifting we do is in hopes that editors will look at a brand in a different light and see firsthand why they should be fans, too. There's so many brands out there, so it really comes down to brand awareness and personal support to nab a spot in the next roundup or fashion spread.”