London Fashion Week: Brands on the catwalk

The fashion industry is attracting serious corporate sponsorship. Maja Pawinska reports on the growing trend.

Twice a year, the world's beautiful people descend on London for the British Fashion Council's Fashion Week, the most glamorous trade show in the country. It's not just about the eyebrow-raising designer garments, the models' endless legs, and the champagne-fuelled after-show parties, however. London Fashion Week in February and September every year is big business, and is supported by around £1.5m in corporate sponsorship.

'The benefits of sponsorship are enormous,' says British Fashion Council chief executive John Wilson.

'When I look at the tough time London Fashion Week was having in the early 1990s, and where we are now, with a reinvigorated design business and the low cost of exhibiting and catwalk shows, a lot of it is down to the support from sponsors.'

Media partners

For this season's event (19-23 September), the Evening Standard took over the role of headline sponsor from Proctor & Gamble's Vidal Sassoon brand, which had a long-running relationship with London Fashion Week.

A media partner is likely to prove beneficial for the event beyond the sponsorship cash in the long term, thanks to coverage in the newspaper and ES Magazine of the show. Fashion editor Laura Craik says: 'We are first with the news off the catwalk: shows taking place that morning would be in the paper the same evening.'

The 20-odd sub-headline sponsors, from Moet & Chandon to Hildon Natural Mineral Water, also added value to the event through their own PR and advertising campaigns to promote their involvement.

So corporate support is great for London Fashion Week and the designers exhibiting, but what do companies get out of sponsorship? Wilson believes that the fashion industry is now attracting serious corporate sponsorship for a variety of reasons, from the saturation of the sports sponsorship market to a desire to be associated with such a visual, glamorous event.

'Fashion is exciting and sexy, and it's something people can aspire to,' he says. 'It's about young people and a vibrant lifestyle - all the things that consumer brands want to be associated with.

'Because it's so visual, there are lots of opportunities to see logos, and there is a significant amount of PR coverage and column inches throughout the week,' he adds.

Waterman, the premium pen brand, was a first-time sponsor of London Fashion Week this season, and there are clear reasons why the brand is keen to be associated with the event.

Shelley Sofier, managing director of Waterman's agency, Grove PR Consultancy, says the event fits perfectly with a new strategy for the brand: 'We want to think of Waterman as an accessory to style and fashion,' she says.

'We had a fantastic response to our sponsorship of the first fashion illustration award at Graduate Fashion Week, and with London Fashion Week there are opportunities for the brand in the fashion media.'

At the event, new designs of Waterman pens were given to all journalists in the press office, which was covered with large pictures of the winning entries from the fashion illustration award.

Pens were provided for use by the opinion-forming exhibitors and catwalk designers with the intention of journalists seeing them 'out and about with a Waterman pen in their hand', says Sofier.

Unlike Waterman, Nokia is a veteran of London Fashion Week, having been the 'official mobile phone' of the event for the past 12 seasons. The brand has an on-site presence in the Nokia Communications Centre, where the media and exhibitors can make use of computers, email, internet access, printers, a photocopier, fax machine and laptop space.

There's also the Nokia 'Re-charge' area, where Fashion Week attendees can recharge their phone batteries while recharging themselves with a relaxing neck and shoulder massage, for a donation to the Terrence Higgins Trust.

From 1999 to 2002, London Fashion Week was the venue for the unveiling of the Nokia Designer Collection: an exclusive collection of mobile phone covers designed by the likes of Julien Macdonald, Clements Ribeiro, Louis Vuitton and Anya Hindmarch.

Fashion and technology

Another sponsorship exploitation activity was the Nokia News Service: a text message news service written by contributors, including the fashion editors of The Times, The Guardian, Vogue and the Evening Standard.

'We were one of the first technology firms to enter the fashion arena through our sponsorship of London Fashion Week,' explains Nokia Mobile Phones head of marketing Simon Lloyd. 'Associating Nokia with the UK's premier fashion event has been an important element in the process of shifting the perception of our products from purely functional items to style accessories.'

As well as being a sponsor of London Fashion Week as a whole, there are also opportunities for brands to have a presence at the parallel consumer event, London Fashion Weekend (23-26 September). This season, for example, Elizabeth Arden will be offering makeovers, Crabtree & Evelyn will be hosting a Hand Recovery Nail Bar, eve magazine will be sponsoring a series of live fashion shows, and the Evening Standard will be inviting visitors to chill out in the This is London Lounge.

A third form of sponsorship is support for the designers themselves, sponsoring specific catwalk shows. American Express, for example, was behind Alexander McQueen when he used to show at London Fashion Week, and now supports up-and-coming designer Boudicca.

American Express European director of consumer PR Doug Smith agrees with Waterman that Fashion Week sponsorship should be a natural extension of corporate strategy and values.

'We are a lifestyle brand, and fashion is something our customers are interested in and spend a lot of money on,' he says. 'By supporting fashion we are also supporting the retailers that take Amex. It's important that the brand is recognised as supporting innovative, creative British talent.'

To get the most out of London Fashion Week, Smith suggests that sponsors need to think beyond a presence at the show and a prominent logo, and form long-term relationships with designers.

'It's not just about corporate hospitality. We look to work on projects with McQueen and Boudicca as a partnership across the year, not just in February and September. We brainstorm ideas with them for the coming year, and will even get them in a room with our advertising agency to work on ideas.'

London Fashion Week sponsorship is about being associated with hip designers and glamorous opinion formers, but every sponsor must also be hoping to grab some media coverage. So what do the fashion editors really think of corporate commercialism muscling in on the creative vision of the designers they feature?

Emma Freemantle, assistant fashion director of the Mail on Sunday's You magazine, says she takes notice of the brands at the shows, even if they don't always get an editorial mention: 'It's a brilliant way for companies to promote themselves. In the goodie bags on the chairs at the catwalk shows, for instance, you have chocolate coming out of your ears. The sponsors make an impact because they are everywhere.'

There are no fixed sponsorship packages at London Fashion Week, as every deal is tailored to the budget and the ambitions of individual sponsors.

But whatever their level of involvement, if the brand fits the event as tightly as a show-stopping designer dress, it could be a model sponsorship.

SWISS DELICE

Premium chocolate brand Swiss Delice used its role as the 'official chocolate' of London Fashion Week in September 2003 and February 2004 as part of the launch of the product in the UK.

It hosted the Swiss Delice Cafe at the event, and offered chocolate and biscuit samples to cafe visitors. There were also branded sampling bowls on every one of the 100-plus stands in the designers' exhibition, and in corporate hospitality and catwalk after-show party goodie bags.

Samples were also given to designers backstage and, during London Fashion Weekend, they were included in the goodie bag given to consumers who had an Elizabeth Arden makeover.

Off-site, fashion boutiques along the King's Road offered a free bar of chocolate with purchases over £20, and featured the products in shop windows.

Derek Lowe, MD of Swiss Delice's PR agency Storm Communications, says : 'Women see chocolate as an indulgence and a treat, in the same way as fashion. Direct sampling means we can get the product into the hands of influencers and celebrities who experienced the brand in the context of a very enjoyable experience.'

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