On Friday, roughly 100,000 20- and 30-somethings in cutoff denim shorts, fringed booties, flower crowns and flash tattoos will descend upon Indio, Calif., for the first day of Coachella, one of the biggest — and highest-grossing — music festivals in the world. The two-weekend-long event has attracted a number of big-name talents this year, including Guns N' Roses, Calvin Harris, Ellie Goulding, Sia and Grimes — and an enthusiastic, style-conscious gaggle of Millennials eager to see them.
Where music is, fashion is not far behind, and in recent years a bevy of cool designer brands — including Alexander Wang, Jeremy Scott, Phillip Lim, Mulberry and Jimmy Choo — have come to Coachella to dress celebrities and throw a party or two. But increasingly, these kinds of names are disappearing from the host lists, supplanted more often by, in the fashion category, low and mid-priced mass brands like Levi's, H&M and first-timer Calvin Klein (which is not hosting a simple pool party, but rather a three-day series of events on opening weekend, involving such high-profile DJs as Alesso and Virgil Abloh).
To understand the shift, one only need to look to Coachella itself, which has broadened considerably in size and scope since it was relaunched in 2001, with daily attendance doubling in the past seven years alone. Once a destination for indie/alt bands, it has in recent years welcomed the likes of Justin Bieber and Beyoncé to its stages, as well as a portfolio of major corporate sponsors like Heineken, American Express and T-Mobile eager to interact with the social media-savvy Millennials that make up more than half of the audience.
The addition of chart-topping pop artists, and the increasingly commercial feel of the event, have led many to proclaim that the festival has "gone mainstream" (and The Washington Post to proclaim last year that Coachella is, in fact, "dead."). Not coincidentally, visitors seeking a more insider experience (or at least the appearance of one) have opted out of the main event altogether, posting a succession of tweets and Instagrams from invitation-only parties with the hashtag #nochella.
For brands that aim to be perceived as exclusive and trendsetting, then, Coachella may no longer seem like the right fit. "Big, established brands are always looking for ways to be relevant to hipsters and Millennials, and to them, Coachella allows them to borrow some 'cool equity,'" says Mary Zalla, global president of consumer brands at brand consultancy Landor. "The less established brands, like Alexander Wang and Mulberry, don't need the borrowed equity so much. As Coachella grows and becomes more broad and more commercialized and mainstream, these brands think, I've got to be a trendsetter and find the next up and coming thing. They're concerned about creating trends — not responding to them."
Coachella's evolution — and the influx of major corporate sponsors — has also made it difficult for brands with smaller budgets to compete. "[Coachella] is way oversaturated," says Sydney Reising, New York-based publicist and founder of Sydney Reising Creative. "Unless I had a million billion dollars, I wouldn't mess with anything on-site."
That's not to say it can't be done: In fact, many smaller brands are finding success by hosting events off-site and on non-festival days, and/or by keeping them purposefully small. Reising's client Alice + Olivia, for example, opted to host a Coachella-themed runway show in Los Angeles three days before the festival kicked off. Meanwhile, Rebecca Minkoff — who, knowing that her company "couldn't compete with big brands and their events," has for years gone to the festival to capture content for social channels — is hosting her first official soiree: a lunch for 40 influencers in conjunction with Smashbox. Attendees will be given leather jackets to personalize with graffiti (a New York artist will be on hand to emblazon their names or Instagram handles) and Coachella-themed pins; they can also get their makeup done, have their photos taken and compete in a scratch-off ticket contest, among other activities.
For Minkoff, the lunch is not only a more affordable alternative to a large party, but also, she expects, a more effective one. "If you're a big brand and throw a party, I don't know what the ROI is there," she says. "We're very ROI-focused, we're trying to have people go to Snapchat, go to Instagram. We're trying to be thoughtful about the people we're targeting and whether they fit the brand. [We're] not just throwing a party, but creating something that lives online for all of our customers who can't be at Coachella." Minkoff is hoping the event will generate the same number of social media impressions — a whopping 18 million — her store opening in October produced.
Minkoff says that smaller designers who want to take part in Coachella shouldn't be completely deterred by the presence of big brands. There are plenty of opportunities to create content for social, and "for the price of general admission, you could run around handing out online gift cards to people whose style you like, or pull up a truck or RV to a parking lot and have an activation." Good ideas, both.
"It's still an important music festival," says CFDA CEO Steven Kolb, who will be co-hosting a brunch on Saturday with fashion and beauty site PopSugar and designer Jonathan Simkhai. "I think as things mature and get older, they become different things than they were than when they were young and new. But I still think [Coachella] has the talent, the pull, the attendance, the credibility in terms of music and I think the fashion integration into that still works for brands."