Coachella: Never mind the music

Los Angeles Times Fashion Critic

More than 100,000 people are expected to descend on Indio next weekend for the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, and the fashion world will be watching. While Arcade Fire and Kings of Leon are jamming onstage, fashion and lifestyle companies will be vying for the attention of festivalgoers offstage, with branded cooling tents, beach balls, Coachella “survival kits” at the Empire Polo Club grounds, plus pool parties with bottomless cocktails and their own live music at hotels and estates offsite.

In 12 years, the three-day spring break for adults has become a branding juggernaut approaching Sundance Film Festival proportions. At Sundance, gift lounges dominate the freebie scene, but at Coachella, brands want to reach a wider audience of “influencers” with events such as the G by Guess Artist Retreat Pool Party and BBQ, the A|X + 944 Neon Carnival, the Mulberry BBQ & Pool Party and the fourth-annual Jeremy Scott + Adidas Shindig.

Brands send clothes to celebrities ahead of time in hopes they will be photographed wearing them, distribute promotional items, and sponsor social events with the goal of generating traditional and social media coverage, and, eventually, sales. At the same time, design teams are there, studying the way festival goers dress so they can turn ideas around and sell them next year.

All this has developed around a festival initially conceived as an alternative to corporatized live music experiences with high ticket prices. And it is the idea of that indie spirit that makes Coachella so attractive to fashion brands such as H&M, Lacoste, Levi’s, Havaianas and Ray-Ban. (Ironically, the festival itself has evolved into a rather pricey event where guests must pay $269 for three-day tickets — no more day passes — and they must move quickly; tickets sell out in a matter of hours.)


“Coachella is underground, not rebel, but less mainstream than a traditional concert format,” says Darin Skinner, Guess’ senior vice president of stores, including G by Guess, the Guess brand’s younger sibling. “That’s how we see G by Guess. The front side of the herd, not the herd.”

In one of the brand’s biggest marketing initiatives of the year, G by Guess will be sponsoring a party for 750 to 1,000 guests at an 81/2-acre estate in Indio, which boasts its own private lake and an airport. Skinner has also hired a “delta force” of models to ride around the festival on G by Guess-branded bikes, distributing 5,000 Coachella survival kit fanny packs.

More than celebrities, Skinner is targeting the 100,000 festival goers as potential customers. His measure of success? Tweets, texts, Facebook updates, and blog and YouTube mentions of the brand.

Guess is also sending 25 people from its design team to Coachella, to take notes on what folks in the crowd are wearing. (Kate Moss popularized the “festival chic” style of dressing at Glastonbury in Somerset, England, in 2005, when she singlehandedly kicked off the Hunter boot craze by wearing the wellies with sexy denim cutoffs.)

Festival chic, with its carefully calculated, just-rolled-out-of-the-tent look, has gained momentum with the growth of Coachella, and it continues to influence fashion.

Forever 21 is selling a “Coachella” tank top in a neon, Navajo-inspired print. The spring 2011 Diesel Black Gold collection (with lots of 1970s-tinged whip-stitched leather jackets and lace-front skirts) was inspired by Coachella, where the brand hosted a party last year. And the spring 2011 Armani A|X collection advertising campaign (“The A|X Style Festival”) was shot at the Empire Polo Club, where the festival is held. Armani AX is using its Neon Carnival event, now in its second year, to unveil its new neon, aviator-style Solar Remix sunglasses with interchangeable brow bars, to 1,500 guests.

Kate Bosworth, reality TV star Olivia Palermo and Kirsten Dunst are expected to attend the Mulberry BBQ and Pool Party, dressed in Mulberry styles, along with bloggers, stylists and editors from Teen Vogue, and other fashion media outlets. The British clothing and accessories brand also has a page on devoted to “festival fashion,” including flat sandals and the Edie bag with a guitar strap.

“People like to see celebrities being themselves, not just being photographed on an arrival board with logos in the back,” says Vanessa Lunt, communications director for Mulberry, which has had synergy with the music industry for some time, booking up-and-coming bands for store openings and fashion week parties, and enlisting DJ Alexa Chung to design the popular “Alexa” bag.

For celebrities, the freebies start flowing even before they pack their bags, as clothing labels “seed” their products, hoping celebrities will be photographed wearing them. “People are paying a lot more attention to street style. And there is a lot of it at music festivals,” says Ali Froley, a partner at the fashion public relations firm Bismarck Phillips in Los Angeles.

Before Coachella last year, she sent out blue-and-white tie-dye dresses from the up-and-coming New York label Suno to Bosworth, and a pair of Joie sandals to Rachel Bilson. They were photographed wearing the items, and those images continue to have an effect because they’re on the Web, Froley said.

“This year, we are reaching out to performers too,” Froley said. Bethany Cosentino, the lead singer of Best Coast, will be curating a selection of festival looks on the retail site, which is a Bismarck Phillips client. “We’re seeding our products from clients that make sense,” Froley added. “I’m not sending a Lanvin bag, but I am sending Current/Elliot shorts.”

The attraction for those watching is to see celebrities dressing themselves, Froley says. “I don’t think stylists are styling these girls. So it’s a chance for them to say, ‘This is who we are.’”

Who they are in free clothes, anyway.