Hey, Quick Question: Why Is the Auto Industry So Obsessed with Fashion?

Simply put, aligning your product — whether it's a car or a handbag — with a glamorous lifestyle is just good marketing.
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A look from the Fall 2019 Versace Men's runway show. Photo: Imaxtree

A look from the Fall 2019 Versace Men's runway show. Photo: Imaxtree

When Michael Kors purchased Versace to become Capri Holdings back in September, there was a reasonable assumption that Versace would nod to its new American parent company in its most recent runway shows — in fact, the Pre-Fall 2019 collection made its debut on the runway in New York, under the shadow of a replica of the Statue of Liberty's torch.

In mid-January, Versace paid tribute to the U.S.A. once again in what is arguably the most American way possible at its Fall 2019 Men's show: With a partnership with Ford Motor Company, a Dearborn, Michigan-based automaker that represents the bedrock of our country's capitalism and innovation. 

Additionally, Porsche Design just announced a Spring 2019 collaboration with PUMA for a line of sportswear and accessories. "Both brands are rooted in the world of motorsport and bring complementary traits to this newly established partnership," reads a company press release. "Porsche Design brings its unique design philosophy, its engineering mind-set and strong expertise in the premium segment to this collaboration, while PUMA's sports expertise can be seen in advanced cushioning systems, seam-sealing knits and lightweight fabrics."

The concurrent announcements shed new light on the ongoing relationship between cars and fashion. Are the two strange bedfellows, or do they make perfect sense together?

Both the fashion and automotive worlds are playing the same hand: It's all about selling people on the idea that there's always a product out there that's newer and better, a product to elevate your everyday life and help you be the person you always saw yourself as — whether that's a pair of shoes or a car. It's the same strategy that luxury resorts are using when they cover all expenses for influencers to stay in $2,000 a night rooms, despite the fact that many of their followers won't be able to afford such lavish vacations until years down the road. Simply put, aligning your product with a glamorous lifestyle is just good marketing.

It's important to realize just how far back the relationship between automakers and fashion brands goes. Working backwards from the now: Lexus is a chief sponsor of New York Fashion Week (and a title sponsor of the CFDA Lexus business innovation program). Before Lexus, it was Mercedes-Benz that sponsored NYFW, and the German automaker continues to sponsor fashion weeks in Russia, Tbilisi, Mexico City, Istanbul, Berlin and more. And this isn't exactly in the realm of partnerships, but remember when Elon Musk went to the Met Gala? (Apparently he also wants to send a Japanese fashion billionaire into space.)

Sponsored fashion weeks aren't the only way automotive companies promote their businesses alongside fashion, as the shows themselves are fair game for plugged promos. For example, Kia ditched the traditional auto show calendar (sound familiar?) to debut its newest model, the Telluride 2020, at Brandon Maxwell's Spring 2019 runway show in September, at which guests sat in the beds of pickup trucks, Texas tailgate-style. Similarly, Cadillac debuted its 2017 XT5 luxury SUV in Dubai for the first time at Public School's Pre-Fall 2016 show, in addition to a limited edition collection of #CADILLACxPSNY merch.

Bella Hadid and Brandon Maxwell in a Kia at the designer's Spring 2019 show. Photo: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for IMG

Bella Hadid and Brandon Maxwell in a Kia at the designer's Spring 2019 show. Photo: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for IMG

For Fall 2017, Balenciaga Creative Director Demna Gvasalia designed a collection that included "car couture," namely a handful of structured leather skirts that mimicked a car's interior. That same season, Ralph Lauren showed his Fall 2017 range inside of his luxury car garage in Bedford, New York. At his America-themed Collection 1 show in June 2018, Alexander Wang showed accessories closely inspired by automobiles, including car grill belts and racing gloves.

As for big-name product collaborations, Louis Vuitton and BMW partnered in 2014 to create a capsule of suitcases and bags, the "ideal travel companions" for BMW's i8 hybrid. Rewind to 2011, and then-Creative Director Frida Giannini helped bring to life a collaborative Gucci-stamped Fiat. (One of the earliest examples of a fashion-automotive partnership dates back to when Gucci created its own special-edition Cadillac Seville in the 1970s.)

The constant merging of the fashion and automotive industries is all about "aligning the [car] brand with something bigger than your daily driver," says Tara Trompeter, managing editor of AutoTrader. "It's more of a lifestyle indication ... if you think about it, a car is the most expensive accessory most people own, so it makes sense from the fashion brand [perspective] that they would want to capitalize on that. I think it's a win-win for both sides."

It's logical when you think about the ways automotive companies market their proximity to the lifestyle world — and often, it's much more explicit than just slapping a car logo on a leather jacket. Maserati recently partnered with The Sartorialist's Scott Schuman (who has over a million Instagram followers) and Jenny Walton for a tag team ad deal. In 2017, Volvo partnered with Aimee Song for an Instagram advertising campaign, creating over $5 million worth of exposure to target millennial consumers for the Swedish car company. (The brand partnered with WeWoreWhat's Danielle Bernstein the same year.) Before that, "Damsel in Dior" Jacey Duprie posted sponsored content for Jaguar, and these are just a few of the deals you've surely seen in your feed in recent years.

Other marketing techniques are more subversive, however: In 2018, Mercedes-Benz debuted its #WeWonder manifesto, tapping visionaries from creative industries to "dream about the potentiality of the future." Participants included Carol Lim and Humberto Leon of Opening Ceremony, as well as Slick Woods, who hosted an activation at Coachella. In November 2018, Hyundai launched its own lifestyle platform to bridge the art-fashion-automotive space, with a kickoff fashion event hosted by Ty Hunter of Beyonce-styling fame in Los Angeles. Cadillac House, a fashion and lifestyle event space on Manhattan's west side which hosts events during fashion week and beyond, ditches the sleazy car salesman cliché in favor of a more subliminal approach to selling the brand (though it keeps Cadillac staff on-hand to answer questions).

"Our challenge is to make it so that someone can actually see themselves in a Cadillac. To do that, they have to find the brand relevant to their lifestyle," Melody Lee, Cadillac's director of brand marketing, told AdWeek. "Being relevant means being culturally relevant. Customers already are interested in art and film and fashion, and this is intended to make it easier for them to have their interests intersect with the Cadillac brand."

Even if automotive companies are partnering with influencers to post car photos in aspirational travel destinations, or hosting events with brands in New York City where the average millennial isn't driving, the publicity that comes with those fashion and lifestyle partnerships reaches people in places where driving is a part of everyday life. And if you see yourself as the type of person who wants to wear Versace, maybe you're the type of person who wants to drive a Ford, too.

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