A story about cars and fashion
The automotive and fashion industries have always been intertwined, if even gently; from the subtle exchange of ideas to straight forward collaborations. Where there is high fashion, there are luxury cars.
New York Fashion Week, newly sponsored by Lexus (though they chose not to put their name in the title of the event) is one of the most palpable examples of this relationship, but they are far from the the only one. The list is long, varied, and to be exhaustive would be an article all its own.
To name a few examples, though:
- In addition to NYFW, Lexus has launched two fashion programs, the CFDA + Lexus Fashion Initiative and Design Disrupted
- Victoria Beckham was the creative director for a special edition of the 2013 Range Rover Evoque
- Cadillac has been a prominent supporter of the menswear scene in New York, sponsoring New York Menswear Day and individual shows by J. Mendel, Jason Wu, and Public School.
- The Audi R8 had a Karl Lagerfeld shot calendar, exclusive to customers of the 2007 models.
- Jaguar collaborated with Stella McCartney for the release of their XE model
- Rolls–Royce’s Wraith coupe, with silk interior lining and a seamless leather steering wheel, said to be inspired by the fashion industry
- Mercedes-Benz strategically uses their cars to shuttle VIPs to and from shows at NYFW – which they sponsored until 2015
- And most recently, Tesla in partnership with Neiman Marcus is releasing “Tesla Talks,” featuring fashion celebrities—like Wes Gordon.
Ken Downing of Neiman Marcus got to drive around in the Model X during this year’s NYFW, which ends on the 19th. From Women’s Wear Daily, Downing said of the experience, “I’m stopped by everyone inside and outside the Tesla X wanting to know where I got it, and how to get one.”
It’s not hard to see what motivates these partnerships.
It’s interesting to note that these relationships exist between high fashion and luxury cars though, with only a lone few exceptions, like the collaboration between Italian sportswear designer Fila and the 1984 Ford Thunderbird, with its “special Fila grain” leather interior, Gucci’s Fiat 500, or the 2009 Ford Flex crossover SUV with black leather quilted seats that were designed to suggest high-end purses.
Fashion weeks worldwide—New York Fashion Week in particular, which is vital to would-be movers-and-shakers across industries in a way that no other fashion week is—are an opportunity for automotive companies to interact with potential buyers in a more exclusive, personalized way. For Bentley, their presence at NYFW allows them to interact with current customers, but in revving up their involvement in fashion, they’re also trying to appeal more to women who make up only 12% of their customer base.
While the intersections between fashion and luxury car brands do exist on an ideological level—alignment of brand values, the quality of build material, specification of design—as much as they do on a pragmatic level—luxury car brands often have marketing budgets in the millions, which make sponsoring large-scale events realistic—at the end of the day, if you’re both able and willing to drop $22,000 on a cocktail coat replete with hand-beaded embellishment, you’re (hopefully) not going to be a hard sell on a six-figure luxury car.
There’s also a certain amount of cultural currency that comes with attending a fashion show that luxury car brands are looking to cash in on (it’s widely speculated that the Toyota Corporation stepped in to sponsor NYFW in Mercedes-Benz’s stead to bolster Lexus’s image as a luxury brand and better compete with BMW and other European manufacturers). New York Fashion Week is integral to brand building and sales, but unlike other heavyweight networking events like Sundance or SXSW, you can’t buy your way in. There’s no badge, there’s no listserv you can pay your way onto to learn about exclusive parties, you’re either invited or you aren’t. It’s true that fashion P.R. would like a full house, but the house has to be full with folks whose appearances invite certain connotations. For designers looking to showcase their work? It’s estimated that a runway show at NYFW costs something like half a million dollars to organize.
Where industries like technology are beginning to pride themselves on a real or imagined dismantling of traditional forms of gate keeping, fashion, for all its many leaps forward, is not. The likes of Tech Crunch Disrupt San Francisco might frown upon blatant expressions of luxury—New York Fashion Week will not.
The automotive industry’s role in fashion goes beyond sponsorships and collaborations though. In the past decade, car companies have begun to produce their own apparel and accessories as well. Porsche has a fully-fledged fashion line complete with brick-and-mortar stores; Bugatti released a blue crocodile-skin purse whose shape was inspired by Bugatti’s grille; Bentley sells a $5,500 handbag; Tesla, more modestly, offers a $400 leather jacket for women and inexplicably, several winter coats in the low hundreds. At first glance, you might wonder why Porsche would want to design clothing, but the answer is clear: these moves strengthen luxury car brands’ positions as lifestyle brands. With Porsche apparel — or Bugatti or Tesla — the marketing strategy is in full-swing.
For names that might not be institutions in the way that Bentley is, fashion is the perfect in-road. The luxury car becomes more than an accessory to signal certain qualities of your person, it’s instead a fully integrated part of that persona.
After all, as Leslie Kendall, the curator of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles says, “Cars and clothing are two of the most revealing things about a person. […] cars are almost like another layer of clothing you wear when you go out into the world.”