On June 22, the fourth class of the CFDA Fashion Incubator program will travel together to Punta de Mita, Mexico and get acquainted for the first time at a brand new W Hotel resort. The current crop of designers took their first trip together in 2014 to Vieques, a small island off the coast of Puerto Rico. "You put them together for two days on the beach and they bond," said CFDA President Steven Kolb. The Starwood-owned hotel chain has been a CFDA partner since 2012, when W announced it would support the Incubator designers through inspiration trips, showcases and special events at its now 46 locations around the world.
W Hotels flew Fashionista to its Leicester Square, London location last week to cover one such showcase and the current Incubator class's final group trip. "This collaboration that we have with W is incredible, it's such a wonderful collaboration because it's totally authentic, totally relevant, totally not a PR effort," said CFDA Chairman Diane von Furstenberg. "Because W is completely global, it allows [designers] to get inspired, it allows them to have exposure... and then W gradually, over the years, becomes synonymous to a community for fashion and the young people who are here, they have nice souvenirs... it fits very well with their guests." It fits well for the CFDA, too, which will continue to the relationship for at least the next two-year Incubator cycle. "There are many partners that we could have that we don't want, because it doesn't fit who we are as an organization and what our mission is," said Kolb.
So how exactly does this partnership work? W Hotels pays the CFDA a fee. Then it asks the designers to choose from a series of programs it runs, which is explained in the first group trip that Kolb and other CFDA heads also attend. "We basically want it to be really, really clear up front how to best work together," said Anthony Ingham, W Hotels' global brand leader. "It's up to them, so they can choose an inspiration trip, they can choose to do a product collaboration, if they want to design something that goes for sale in a W environment. They can choose to use our hotels to host a media dinner or buyer event. They can choose to host runway shows or collective showcases like this one [in London]." W then mines those trips and events for content to disseminate through social media, its lifestyle site "The Angle," the hotel in-room TV channel and at the hotel shops.
The result is a wide range of collaborations. Katie Ermilio and Isa Tapia took inspiration trips to Barcelona, Misha Nonoo and Kara's Sarah Law went to Beijing, and Nomia's Yara Flinn went to Istanbul, among other individual designer trips. Orley and A Peace Treaty designed limited-edition pieces — a cashmere hat and scarf set and silk robe, respectively — that were available on the hotel's online shop. Isa Tapia, Misha Nonoo and Dezso's Sara Beltran collaborated on a capsule collection that launched at Miami Swim Week. Five designers participated in a showcase at the W San Francisco last year. These experiences and many more were artfully documented, usually by The Coveteur's photographers, and turned into valuable content for W.
"They choose a combination of activities and for each of those activities, we have a clear definition of what it involves, what W provides, what the parameters of cost are and what we expect in return," said Ingham. "We will send designers to any W in the world for a week but it's not a holiday where they can lounge by the pool and drink cocktails the whole time... We expect a certain amount of time dedicated to media in the local market, time dedicated to content for social media, a networking experience with local designers that we have a relationship with in that city and that the inspiration trip in some way or another influences their collection. We would never define how, [but] in some way or another."
In addition to free (albeit very busy) trips, the designers gain exposure to W's "urban, trend-savvy consumers for whom shopping is part of their normal routine," said Ingham. Von Furstenberg described the guests as millennials — "those young designers are millennials and they deal to millennials, so its very compatible" — which isn't exactly the core of of W's guests, although they are a younger group than the average luxury hotel guest. "We prefer not to say that we are a luxury brand because it has a whole load of connotations attached to it that aren't really what we want," said Ingham. "But we have luxury competitors and our consumers are buying luxury brands and they are paying a luxury price tag for W, so in the minds of the consumer there is a value proposition there that is worth the money. Within that market, we skew young." Ingham says that consumer is driven by authentic experiences and is interested in fashion, music and having an insider perspective on culture. The London location's ultra-modern design, dark sleek interiors and predilection for techno music was indicative of the kind of customer who regularly chooses W for both travel and its bars and restaurants.
From von Furstenberg's perspective, the fact that the partnership is long term ("it's not just one event") creates that valuable authentic feeling. "For two years we have joint interests in marking their brands and W's brand and traveling and getting inspiration content that people like to see," said Ingham, who said he still works with Jonathan Simkhai from the previous Incubator class. "From a business point of view, you become engrained for the long term."
Ingham says the hotel will reevaluate which initiatives were more successful than others before presenting options to the next class, but said they are interested in collaborating on more things "that will actually live on in the hotels," like beach towels and guest robes. It follows the idea that W's guests don't just want style inspiration, but a "stage" on which to enjoy it, he said. "There are spaces for people to dress up and have fun and mix and mingle and all that stuff." And now, thanks to CFDA's industry-approved emerging designers, those spaces have a fashionable reputation.
Disclosure: W Hotels paid for Fashionista's travel and accommodations.