Pay-to-Play Gets Redesigned in Fashion

10/17/2017 12:27 pm ET

By Becky Johnson, Writer at Advertising Week

Sitting in the second row of a packed FashioNXT Week event, I got to see 6 emerging designers take their opportunity to wow a crowd, get press, and tempt buyers. There were coastal-toned silk skirts with knife pleats paired with high volume boiled wool tops, pink leather harnesses on buff men, 1940s-esque silk hot pants with sailor tattoo-influenced embroidery wishing the viewer “Good Luck,” and the grand finale of thread-painted coats in cream colored cashmere.

On the surface, it seems not much has changed in the 15 years of attending fashion shows in the Pacific Northwest. It was still in a gussied-up warehouse in an industrial part of town, it was still carried a lot by word-of-mouth and a little local news coverage or between those already in-the-know, and it was still a packed house. The Pacific Northwest is famous for creatives and can boast, on average, at least one participant per season of Project Runway, with even a few winners.

How does one get from ambitious, budding designer to a show in front of buyers and media, and perhaps even auditioning for a wildly successful television series or building one’s own brand?

Upon a closer look, there’s much more to it. How does one get from ambitious, budding designer to a show in front of buyers and media, and perhaps even auditioning for a wildly successful television series or building one’s own brand? The same problem plagues all professions where the person is the product: musicians, painters, photographers, designers, writers, and more. It’s a Catch-22. How do you get notoriety when no one knows who you are?

There’s PR and advertising. For a “starving artist” that’s quite an ask. A designer, who has spent all their cash on skills, fabric, and construction tools, ponying up thousands for a campaign when fashions literally change with the season is not exactly feasible when starting out.

“Pay-to-Play” has gotten a bad rap lately because of the rampant preying on musicians at music festivals, but at its purest, there’s a good place for it. Painters and photographers will often agree to a hefty percentage of shared sales going to gallery owners for gallery shows to get their art in front of the right audience, meaning focused buyers, collectors, and press. Graphic designers will often submit designs to win a logo or design contest to put a big brand name on their portfolio. All creatives have had to weigh the “exposure” as a payment option, with its oft-low yield of return on investment.

FashioNXT Week auditions designers, so the applicants are curated based on ability, then the chosen designers also pay a small fee for their spot in the show to be in front of press, buyers, photographers, and collectors, although sponsors do provide the lion’s share of the show costs. As I spoke to the show Press Manager, Bonnie Knight, she explained that in addition to there being awards for Best Designer on opening night, and different themes for different nights, if a designer wasn’t chosen to be showcased on a given year, FashioNXT now provides the option of Fashion Incubator for budding designers to fine tune their brand, business, and be better prepared for applying the following year.

While still Pay-to-Play in the sense that the designer must be ready to invest in themselves, there’s an entire ecosystem built in the program to help support the designers, including building a social media brand, how to build a tech-kit for apparel production, what buyers are looking for, how to present to the media, and more. At only $350 for a designer, it’s a much more manageable start-up marketing price than a full-blown PR campaign, and an excellent starting point to get the notoriety a designer needs to move forward.

As a model for SMB and creatives, the Pay-to-Play option needs to be rethought.

As a model for SMB and creatives, the Pay-to-Play option needs to be rethought. The SMB, DIY, Makers, and Creatives of the world are growing stronger everyday with more market power than ever, eschewing the old corporate norms. Whether it be in an ala carte menu, or paired with workshops and DIY PR training, there’s a need for more scalable options, and fashion is already on the frontier.

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