In tune

Music and luxury fashion brands are a natural fit but there is a lot more that can be done to exploit the relationship

The relationship between music and luxury fashion is long and melodic. Music and its players are threaded through fashion, as integral as colours and cuts. For instance, when Burberry launched its Acoustic campaign in 2010, producing soft-focus videos of young, largely British, relatively unknown bands, performing dressed almost exclusively in Burberry, the move was both innovative and entirely natural.

In fact, music has often been the lynchpin of fashion’s big moments. A Nirvana-inspired grunge collection is lauded as having ‘made’ Marc Jacobs back in the 90s, even though it also reportedly got him fired; it was on Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour of 1990 that she wore the infamous conical Jean Paul Gaultier corset. More recently, Rihanna made fashion history by becoming Dior’s first black spokesperson and, at 71, Joni Mitchell has become one of the older musicians to be the face of a campaign for a luxury fashion house, in this case Yves Saint Laurent. Songs can inspire entire collections, retail spaces play carefully curated soundtracks, catwalk shows are accompanied by DJ sets conveying a collection’s references, and musicians can become zeitgeist-appropriate brand ambassadors.

It makes sense that music should play a central role in a fashion brand’s identity. Music and fashion both operate “in the area of seduction – especially at the luxury end,” says Ruth Simmons, CEO of music consultancy, Soundlounge. Where visuals might take a moment to sink in, music is “the only thing that will connect with you very, very fast”, and, if done right, it’s able to bring your guard down. In part, because it’s tough to quantify how much is sold because of an emotive tune, fashion brands have historically poured more energy into visuals. They “understand those parameters very clearly,” says Simmons. Now, with consumers using multiple platforms, brands have more opportunities for reaching them, more ways to drive their message home, but they have to do it fast because hopping from YouTube to Tumblr was never easier. If anything doesn’t immediately grab us we can, says Simmonds, “Sky Plus it out”.

It’s understandable, then, that in recent years luxury fashion brands have become increasingly serious about their use of music. With the music-obsessed Christopher Bailey at Burberry’s helm, the company now has a full-time music team. Raf Simons, now creative director of Dior, has woven many musical references into his work, from featuring members of Kraftwerk as models to taking Joy Division as inspiration for designs. His recent work with Dior has been infused with references to David Bowie. Hedi Slimane at YSL has kept up with the brand’s musical heritage via his Saint Laurent Music Project, in which musicians – such as Kim Gordon, Daft Punk and Courtney Love – wear their favourite YSL clothes to be photographed by the creative director.

While a lot of luxury fashion’s approach to music might be summed up, according to Simmons, by “I’ll know it when I hear it”, there is an inherent understanding that personalities need to match. “Music has values. The brand has values. That’s the first place to start,” says Nick Oakes, head of synch and creative licensing at Sony/ATV Music Publishing. For Oakes, the match “has to have a truth to it. The song and the brand have to fit, they have to complement one another. If it’s a forced thing with someone trying to be too cool, for example, no one will believe you.”

Catwalk shows are increasingly grandiose productions with music integral to the overall image. Jonjo Jury, a music consultant and DJ for catwalk shows, whose long-term clients include Holly Fulton and Marques Almeida, emphasises that references to a collection’s themes and inspirations must be subtle. “If you’ve got loads of metallics, for instance, you don’t want it to be so referencing glam rock that you’re like ‘oh my God they’re actually ripping off something that’s been done before’.” For past shows of Marques Almeida, where the collections referenced the 90s, he twisted Skunk Anansie over a modern beat, and early Björk over a “very underground techno guy”.

It’s perhaps in adverts, often cinematic in scope and budget, that luxury fashion brands turn the volume up the highest when it comes to musical branding. A song’s heritage can speak volumes in a couple of bars, so many use covers – a familiar song re-interpreted in an unexpected way can speak concisely but emotively about a brand’s back story, while also carving out a spot on the cutting edge. In Baz Luhrmann’s recent Chanel No 5 ad, for instance, Lo-Fang’s low-fi version of You’re the One That I Want provides an achingly yearning take on the Grease classic and alludes to youthful exuberance as well as sultriness. This is what Simmons calls the “Tarantino approach”, where the brand creates a relationship with the music that makes it work on many levels. By contrast, in Luhrmann’s previous min-film for Chanel, a take on Moulin Rouge shot nearly a decade ago, music very much plays second fiddle to dialogue.

Phil Morais, whose company Machine Management is responsible for many music/fashion collaborations, emphasises the importance of musical familiarity. It was his company that brought together Gucci and Friendly Fires, who covered Depeche Mode’s Strangelove for the Guilty fragrance spot. The inspiration came from Gucci’s then creative director, Frida Gianna: “she loved Depeche Mode, she loved British music and she wanted that to be the song…. She wanted a new, cool, fresh artist to take it and turn it into something different. Emotively,” he says, “I suppose it worked super well with what the fragrance was about.”

With these collaborations, it is a case of not only matching the song to the brand, but also making sure the individual’s personality fits. When it works, as with Liv Tyler’s high octane, black lipstick-infused cover of INXS’s Need You Tonight for Givenchy, or more recently Alexa Chung’s version of Stevie Nicks’s Blue Denim, produced by Dev Hynes for AG Denim, the power of a musical match is in the credibility boost, along with the different audience brought to a brand by a big name. When Machine Management first suggested that Mulberry collaborate with Lana Del Rey she didn’t bring the pull of a major name – Video Games hadn’t been released yet. It was clear, though, to the company that she was on the cusp of breaking through. Morais explains that the collaboration was based on an “understanding of [Mulberry’s] target audience… there is a bit of research and data but a lot of the time it is gut feel”.

This fight to stay fresh-faced has in part driven many of the more innovative approaches in recent years. And with this, musical marketing is reaching beyond catwalks, ads and music videos. Spotify is providing a space where brands such as Pierre Balmain, Hugo Boss and Rebecca Minkoff create and share playlists to keep consumers in tune with their brand identities. Following one Marques Almeida catwalk show, people took to Twitter to ask about the remixes, so the brand made them available online. “If the fashion is so instant [with some shows now live streamed], then moving in the direction of music [being instantly available] at the shows” makes sense to Jury.

Musician interviews, live sessions and sponsored pre-festival sets are all areas for development. Again, music and themes need to tie into brand personality. Mulberry’s interview with Metronomy founder Joseph Mount, is just such an instance – taking place on a croquet lawn at Coachella, the setting taps into rock and roll glamour but also the kind of upmarket Brits abroad vibe that the brand projects.

Burberry’s Acoustic campaign has moved things further than most. Using emerging bands to create singing, strumming mannequins of sorts, provides a potent way to progress the brand image. It’s a similar device to opening the show with the new up-and-coming model, and Jury thinks Burberry is good at spotting what’s coming next for music. “It opens up a new generation – they’re thinking about 10 years’ time, not now.”

This comes back to Simmons’ Tarantino approach: “young people who are fashion leaders and early adopters will be early adopters in music as well.” With this campaign, it’s as though Burberry is whispering in their ear: ‘look, I know these are bands that nobody else has heard of … but you guys have, because you’re listening to it’.” This is a musical strategy that seeks to embody brand characteristics rather than hammer consumers around the head with the clothes.

For Simmons, luxury fashion brands have a long way to go when it comes to their use of music, and a more in-depth, scientific understanding of this relationship should be the next step. She wants to promote ways to analyse why what works, works, and ensure the right note is hit every time. She thinks we consider sound as something very subjective but that it’s not, and by plugging into the big data that’s now available about consumers and by metatagging music, brands can assess how a given piece of music will impact on consumers. Maybe a different rhythm, a different number of beats per minute and a trumpet solo will hit the mark better. With testing, brands can find out.

The basics, though, must be strong. “Today,” thinks Simmons, “we’re so disconnected that we’re searching for honesty. The music itself is the last place where we can actually be honest.” That’s something consumers will want to buy into.

Ellie Violet Bramley is a freelance journalist based in London. She tweets from @ellsviolet


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