Why American Express Is Banking on Fashion to Up its Cool Factor

The credit card company enlists sartorial tastemakers like "Harper's Bazaar" EIC Glenda Bailey and MADE's Jenné Lombardo to help create fashion 'experiences' for members.
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Céline Dion and Alessandro Michele celebrate 'Harper’s BAZAAR: 150 Years: The Greatest Moments' at the Carlyle in New York. Photo: courtesy American Express Platinum

Céline Dion and Alessandro Michele celebrate 'Harper’s BAZAAR: 150 Years: The Greatest Moments' at the Carlyle in New York. Photo: courtesy American Express Platinum

Not that long ago, when the bill would come at the end of a dinner out with friends, a hierarchal game of American Express credit cards would take place. First a starter Blue, next a couple of Golds, only to be one-upped by a Platinum and, once in awhile, some big timer would slap down a Black, and we'd all know our place in the world.

But these days, the process is so much more egalitarian because, instead of unspoken status via post-dinner payment method, credit card prestige is all about generous Uber credits and accruing the most points to use toward amazing "experiences" and ultimately being "interesting," as the New York Times pointed out in April. Especially since the seemingly now-ubiquitous, stainless steel Chase Sapphire Reserve reward card quickly captured the attention of the coveted, brand-fickle and not-so-credit-card-averse millennial market (and everyone I have dinner with these days).

So in March, Amex relaunched its upscale Platinum Card with a sleeker, stainless steel design (ahem) and revamped member perks. The experiential benefits, largely through the 25-year-old By Invitation Only program, cover a range of high-end categories, including, of course, travel, food and wine, arts, sports and, interestingly enough, fashion. 

"Today, we have about 80 to 100 unique experiences around the world for our Platinum Card members and about a quarter of those are fashion-focused," says Janey Whiteside, EVP & GM Global Charge Products, Benefits & Services, American Express. 

Glenda Bailey and Victoria Beckham at the American Express Platinum x Harper's Bazaar Q&A in London. Photo: courtesy of American Express Platinum

Glenda Bailey and Victoria Beckham at the American Express Platinum x Harper's Bazaar Q&A in London. Photo: courtesy of American Express Platinum

"The 'experience' thing is something that American Express has tried to emphasize to distinguish itself from a lot of the cards." explains Liz Weston, Personal Finance Columnist and CFP at NerdWallet. "They're trying to find ways to engage and get those high-spending, high income people using their cards — and using them consistently." 

But the level of experience has to be especially memorable — specifically "high-end experiences or experiences that others can't easily access that make you a cut above," she adds. So the inclusion of fashion kind of makes total sense considering it's an industry (or clique, let's be honest) full of invitation-only runway shows and FOMO-inducing parties with extremely tight (or impossible) guest lists.

But now Amex Platinum Card members have VIP access to their own VIP fashion events, but for a price on top of the $550 annual fee. For example, Amex partnered with Harper's Bazaar for a globe-trotting book tour to celebrate the book Harper's BAZAAR: 150 Years: The Greatest Moments. Platinum Card members could purchase one of a limited number of tickets ($200 each) to join intimate Hollywood and fashion celebrity-filled events hosted by Editor-in-Chief Glenda Bailey. The series kicked off in April with two fêtes in New York, including one at The Carlyle, where members rubbed shoulders with Tom Ford, Gucci's Alessandro Michele, Reese Witherspoon and Celine Dion. The celebration continued through June via very chic Q&As in London with Victoria Beckham, Milan with Giorgio Armani and Paris with Christian Louboutin.  

To ensure the experiences have that authentic exclusivity and distinctiveness that fashion people know so well, Amex enlisted industry insiders — and financial services outsiders — for their expertise, fresh perspective and ultimate cool factor. Dubbed "The Platinum Collective," the board of advisors includes jewelry designer Jennifer Fisher, Rebecca Minkoff, Thom Browne CEO Rodrigo Bazan, Saturdays NYC Co-Founder Morgan Collett, Glossier Founder Emily Weiss, and The Terminal Presents Founder and MADE Co-Founder Jenné Lombardo

Jenné Lombardo before an American Express Platinum x MADE LA dinner. Photo: courtesy American Express Platinum

Jenné Lombardo before an American Express Platinum x MADE LA dinner. Photo: courtesy American Express Platinum

"It's really a range of people who have created [their own] brand — or who are part of brands — which have relevance with the next generation of consumers," Whiteside explains. "And who we are using to help give us input and advice, if we seek to continue to be relevant moving forward to that next generation of card members."

Weston sees the benefit of the traditional credit card brand's association with the fashion-y It Crowd, too. "[American Express wants] their name associated with something that seems cutting edge and cool and changing — something that's not old and stuffy and static," she explains. "That part makes sense."

Amex has been sponsoring fashion-related events for years now, including the Lombardo-organized MADE shows during New York Fashion Week and the recent MADE LA shows, which included Opening Ceremony, Wiz Khalifa and... Snoop Dogg. Platinum Card VIP packages included "premium seating" at runway shows, access to fancy lounges and meet-and-greets with Khalifa and OC designers, Humberto Leon and Carol Lim. 

"Their currency is really access and providing people a peek underneath the lid, if you will," says Lombardo about the ongoing seven-year MADE x Amex partnership. "Being able to see things and experience things that you wouldn't necessarily be able to do if you had just purchased a ticket without your Platinum card." 

The Collective officially meets every quarter, while Whiteside and her team might reach out more often for sub-group meetings if questions come up. "What was important to me is to have a diverse mix of people around the table who challenge us and challenge each other," says Whiteside. "Jenné has a very different point of view than Rodrigo at Thom Browne. Rebecca [Minkoff] has a very different perspective than Jennifer [Fisher] on things. So they come at questions that we pose differently. But it's in that tension, that we really start to crack the code."

During the regular meetings Collective advisors pitch and brainstorm ideas for upcoming member perks, events and initiatives. (And, yes, they did provide input on the design of the new Platinum card.) "We have a lot of discussion more broadly around where we're going, messaging and positioning and how to be relevant," says Whiteside. "One example that was created and that did come to fruition was our presence at Coachella." 

Just chillin' at the 'chella AmEx Platinum House. Top: Bryanboy. Bottom row, L-R: Rocky Barnes, A Bikini A Day founder Natasha Oakley and Hannah Bronfman. Photo: Getty/courtesy American Express Platinum

Just chillin' at the 'chella AmEx Platinum House. Top: Bryanboy. Bottom row, L-R: Rocky Barnes, A Bikini A Day founder Natasha Oakley and Hannah Bronfman. Photo: Getty/courtesy American Express Platinum

While Coachella isn't technically a fashion event, the annual music festival has become a de facto fashion-branding extravaganza populated by free-spending and oft-Instagram-posting millennials. The Platinum presence at Coachella was two-fold. By Invitation Only offered a VIP package ($1,700 each) with perks including a VIP festival pass, entry to a private and, importantly, air-conditioned hospitality tent, gratis parking and a souvenir Jennifer Fisher-designed metal wristband, which mimicked the new Platinum Card. The Platinum House at the Parker Palm Springs was free and open to all members (and three guests) to hang by the pool, make a custom flower crown, Instagram some pics with Yara Shahidi and Bryanboy and sign up for complimentary SoulCycle classes taught by Master Instructor Stacey Griffith. 

"Most of the SoulCycle classes were sold out, kind of aggressive given that they started at 9 o'clock in the morning and we were outside in the desert heat," says Whiteside. "If you didn't have a card, you could sign up there, but that wasn't the intent. The intent was to give an oasis for our [Platinum] card members."

While Whiteside didn't have specific numbers to share — like, newly signed-on members since the re-launch — she does offer her own success criteria for the fashion-y events. "The most important metrics for me are a) Do the events sell out? Obviously, it's limited capacity and the answer to that is: yes," she says. "And b) do card members come back [for more events]? And the answer to that is: yes." A few deep-pocketed die-hards even followed Bailey and the Harper's Bazaar anniversary tour around Europe. 

Christian Louboutin and Glenda Bailey at an American Express Platinum x Harper's Bazaar Q&A in Paris. Photo: courtesy of American Express Platinum

Christian Louboutin and Glenda Bailey at an American Express Platinum x Harper's Bazaar Q&A in Paris. Photo: courtesy of American Express Platinum

But for a younger, more aspirational Platinum Card member whose salary and lifestyle justifies the annual fee, but maybe doesn't support the additional cost of being a Glenda Bailey groupie, the event fees could be daunting. "I might be interested in Men's Fashion Week [panel for $100 a ticket], if I went with someone fun," says Amex Platinum (and Chase Sapphire Reserve) member Charmaine Chan, a 34-year-old cybersecurity professional based in Washington, D.C (and based on her Instagram feed alone, her interests include "experiences" and fashion). "But I don't know people who would actually pay to go."

Based on the reported sold-out crowds and repeat customers, Amex has a steady pool of participants — and not just ones who are fashion obsessives. Whiteside notices that, for example, the foodies are "branching out" into the more sartorially focused events, just for kicks. And it might be because of the inclusivity, in terms of interests, of the fashion-y experiences on offer. For instance, the Bailey-hosted evening celebrating the "Diana: Her Fashion Story" exhibit at Kensington Palace, which also piqued Weston's interest. The June event appealed to a spectrum of high-end tastes and leanings, including a multicourse tasting dinner in the King's Gallery with fancy wine pairings suggested by a member of the Queen's "Royal Household Wine Committee," a meet-and-greet with Bailey and royal curators and a private viewing of the exhibit.

"If you can go into a place that's exclusive and have an experience that other people might not get, that could be pretty interesting, even if you're not somebody who follows fashion," says Weston. "So I think [Amex has] been smart about the events that they've picked that might have a broader appeal beyond just hardcore fashionistas."

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