"I was doing the budget and I kind of broke the budget," laughed Revolve CEO Michael Mente when I mentioned, poolside at "Hotel Revolve" in Palm Springs on Friday, how they ramped up the quantity and caliber of #RevolveFestival performers this year. He was in charge of overseeing the Los Angeles-based online retailer's annual Coachella activation on his own for a few weeks while Chief Brand Officer Raissa Gerona was out on maternity leave. "I don't look at the budget for two weeks and I look at it and I'm like, 'Oh my god what happened,'" she joked. "I can't argue with the CEO."
Gerona and Mente were among the first to capitalize on interest surrounding Coachella by renting a house with two blogger friends — Aimee Song and Julie Sariñana — in 2014. Revolve's presence at Coachella and its relationships with top-tier influencers has grown steadily ever since, and this past weekend, the company accommodated over 90 influencers from over 14 countries (and a handful of editors, including me) in a hotel that was four times larger than the one it took over last year. Plus, Revolve threw its own two-day mini-festival at the Merv Griffin estate in La Quinta, CA for thousands of guests with performers including Snoop Dogg, Rick Ross, A$AP Rocky and Chance the Rapper. Perhaps most importantly, the company styled over 450 influencers for the festival, in pieces pulled from its stable of in-house brands. "[Coachella] has become this global event that everyone knows about, so it's really played to our advantage; there are so many influencers from around the world that want to come and want this opportunity to be part of the brand," says Gerona.
Whether it's a Coachella blowout, a month-long Hamptons house, a fancy dinner in Paris or an influencer trip to Amangiri, it consistently appears that money is no object for Revolve, which plans these activations and works with influencers in lieu of investing in traditional advertising. While the company's financial investment in Coachella this year was clearly massive (VIP festival wristbands, valued at nearly $1000 each, were provided to most of their hosted guests, in addition to many Revolve employees), it's apparently all worth it. For Revolve, Coachella isn't just a season: it's the season. Whether or not they're actually attending music festivals, it's when people start looking for warm-weather clothes, and that's what Revolve is selling. It's also the biggest time of the year for social media engagement and site traffic: In 2017, the company generated 4.4 billion social impressions, and Mente confirmed sales in the week leading up to last weekend were huge. "This was our best week ever: Monday [before Coachella] beat our Cyber Monday," he said. "Holiday season, for a lot of people, is very discount/sale oriented and, for us, this is just, like, the best stuff — and everything's full price." He added that the company will continue to see a lift this week, with items worn by influencers throughout the weekend likely to sell exceptionally well.
If you follow any influencers at all, chances are you saw a photo (or 10) of them at Coachella over the weekend. There's also a decent chance that said influencer didn't even spend much, if any time at the festival itself, because in 2018, if you make a living by wearing clothes on Instagram and engaging in brand collaborations, the polo fields offer little more than another good photo backdrop, of which there are plenty throughout the desert. From Palm Springs to Indio, everywhere I looked, there were scantily-clad, fully made-up women engaging in full-on photoshoots surrounded by desert-y foliage. At #RevolveFestival, I couldn't stand in one spot longer than five minutes before some stranger asked me or whomever I was with to take a photo or video of them. There were lines of people waiting to take photos in front of various Insta-bait "moments" set up throughout the estate — the most monumental of which was the Wave Swinger, a ride from Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch, rented for the occasion. If someone were to set up a conference for influencers, this is what I would imagine it looking like.
For better or worse, the fact is that Coachella's much less about the music than it used to be and the event has become crowed with brands — from Levi's to Moschino to Fenty to American Express — blowing their marketing budgets on activations and parties. "It definitely has become more of a place to see and be seen," says Danielle Bernstein, the New York-based influencer behind We Wore What, who's been going to Coachella for the past seven years — the last four with Revolve. "The first year I came there were literally no events; now there's events all weekend, at every hour, at every hotel," echoes Rocky Barnes, who's also been going with Revolve for the past four years.
Despite that, interest in Coachella content appears to be as high as ever — a fact that the Revolve team is well aware of. As with its other trips and events, Revolve's goal is to capture influencers wearing its clothes in an aspirational context to inspire consumers to buy them, a strategy that presents some logistical challenges for both Revolve and the influencers who attend. "We work with our buying team and our merchandising team to figure out what's going be [immediately] available, and this year, as well as last year, we did a capsule collection; it's really aligning the best brands and making sure we have exclusive product on the site and we really just give the influencers free rein," explained Gerona. They provide influencers with site credits (upwards of $1,000 in some cases) and allow them to pull items from Revolve's in-house lines (produced by its subsidiary Alliance Apparel) like LPA, Tularosa, Lovers + Friends and Grlfrnd Denim, as well as brands like Nicole Richie's House of Harlow, for which the former reality TV star hosted a brunch at Hotel Revolve. While some influencers, like Bernstein, make sure to get their clothes early — she has hers delivered to New York three weeks in advance so she can begin planning her looks — others' orders were apparently being driven in from Revolve's Downtown LA warehouse as late as Friday. There was also a (usually chaotic) gifting suite in a room at the hotel all weekend.
At an event where you have over 100 influencers pulling clothes from the same company, "twinning" moments are also inevitable. At the House of Harlow brunch, for instance, I spotted at least two girls in the same head-to-toe look. "When it does happen, a lot of times the girls like to take photos together," said Gerona.
"It always happens, especially at Revolve, but I think being able to mix stuff and maybe not wear it in the expected combination or putting it with vintage pieces and other pieces you find...I'm really conscious of that because I typically don't like to wear the same things as someone else, especially at Coachella," says Barnes.
If you're an influencer working with multiple brands, the festival also requires multiple outfit changes throughout the day. Bernstein says she averages three to to six per day, Barnes two to four. And the churning out of content is constant. "Coachella is one of my highest engagement time periods; I think everyone that can't be here wants to feel like they're here so I try to give my audience the most in-depth experience that I can through my Instagram stories and through my feed," says Bernstein.
With its many outfit changes, street style photography, full schedule of events and rampant commercialization, both Barnes and Bernstein likened the festival to Fashion Week — something Revolve doesn't really participate in simply because it doesn't move the needle the way Coachella does. "It's on par with fashion week for me," says Bernstein in regards to the amount of money she's able to bring in during the festival through brand partnerships. "A lot of that I have to thank Revolve for; after seven years now I have a car sponsorship, I also have a fragrance one."
Bernstein and Barnes are hugely successful influencers with over 1 million followers each and no shortage of brands who want to work with them, meaning they don't necessarily have to attend Coachella with Revolve, but they both seem to feel a sense of loyalty to the company. "I love working with Revolve because I think, more so than other clients, they really respect our individual style and creativity — they give you so much freedom to really engage with your followers the way you want to and not try and micromanage, which is really important and I think always yields the best results," says Barnes. "Having that mutual respect makes me want to work with them."
For less established influencers, working with Revolve can even lead to a bump in followers and more opportunities. "The fact that you're kind of in their group of girls definitely gives you the upper hand," says Barnes. "Just having that relationship with them gives you that validation as an influencer." Gerona and Mente say they are inundated with requests from influencers who want to work with them to the point that they have to turn people away. "We had so many inquiries of people wanting to join and it's like, OK, where are they from, are there too many people from Spain? We have to really be methodical about who we bring because there's only so many rooms we can provide," said Gerona.
That leaves the question: Where is this whole ecosystem headed? Will Coachella become even more commercialized? Will Revolve take over an even larger hotel next year? Is a backlash imminent?
According to everyone I spoke with, Coachella is their biggest time for social media engagement and interest simply isn't waning, but that doesn't mean attendees aren't getting a little tired. "I think people will find the right balance between brand partnerships and actually going to the festival and enjoying it because that's what it's for," says Bernstein. "A lot of girls here I realized are not even going to end up going to the festival just because they're really just doing their work and that's it."
"I feel like it's a similar situation as Instagram: People love to hate it and yet they're on it every day. People love to hate Coachella, but then they're buying tickets last minute and it keeps getting bigger and bigger so obviously the interest is still there," says Barnes. "Nothing else has the aesthetic, nothing's as beautiful, so I think it's gonna be the biggest thing until they find something else thats still accessible and beautiful." For Barnes especially, Coachella will always just be very on-brand. "Business-wise, this is probably one of the most popular weekends for me; being from California and being kind of bohemian in general, this is my demographic, 100 percent," she says. "I kind of dress like it's Coachella every day."
As for how Gerona and Mente will top this year's blowout, they're not really sure, aside from the fact that they want to try and engage more with their customers and target more international markets. "The challenge will be, we know that we can grow it, but we're also protective of making sure that it's really intimate at the same time," said Mente. "Too big has its downsides as well."
Disclosure: Revolve provided my travel and accommodations to attend and cover the event.