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Photo by Driely S. for Racked
Photo by Driely S. for Racked

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The Music Festival Explosion and How Fashion Is Cashing In

So-called "festival style" is ubiquitous and brands are reaping the benefits.

Girls in crocheted crop tops, cut-off jean shorts, and suede boots. A flower crown Instagrammed against a desert sunset. Fringe. Lots and lots of fringe. So-called "festival style" is ubiquitous—and it's how fashion is capitalizing on the fact that large-scale music events have earned a dress code all their own.

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"The ensembles favored by Coachella attendees are almost exact replicas of what their parents wore at Woodstock (in some cases—do the math—this could actually be their grandparents)," Lynn Yaeger wrote for Vogue this time last year. "These facsimiles are donned without irony."

Editor inboxes are stuffed with pitches for "Coachella essentials" and "festival must-haves," a monotonous parade of the aforementioned fringe and denim. Everyone wants in: Victoria's Secret Pink has a racerback bra for "your most stylish festival season," while Burton Snowboards is aiming to position its "brand new camping collection" for festivals, with an offering that includes a $600 "after party tent."

The scene at Coachella 2014. Photo by Driely S. for Racked

Claire's has Katy Perry’s Forever Festival collection at the ready and Net-a-Porter has a Coachella Cool hub, where an $11,190 Saint Laurent crocheted minidress is available. How did what one wears to see bands outdoors—often for multiple days, sometimes with a camping component, almost never with indoor plumbing—become a bona fide fashion season? The answer begins with the explosion of festivals themselves.

Over the last decade, music festivals have, under no uncertain terms, blown up. In the US, the rush kicks off in March with South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. The fever pitch, as far as both hype and retail are concerned, comes a month later with Coachella, a splashy two-weekend affair in Indio, California that's known for fashion brand-sponsored parties (Lacoste and H&M are biggies), desert weather that actually calls for very little clothing (last year's look was "underbutt"), and a cost of entry, travel, and lodging that tends to weed out the normals and allow for a high concentration of wealthy, good looking people (that includes celebrities—lots of celebrities).

The calendar ticks on to include Washington's Sasquatch in late May, New York's Governors Ball in early June, Tennessee's Bonnaroo in mid-June, Chicago's Lollapalooza in late July, and San Francisco's Outside Lands in early August. And these are just the biggest in the contiguous 48—there are dozens of other festivals across the country, and even more around the world.

Photos by Driely S. for Racked

Coachella began as a single-day affair in 1999 with Beck and Rage Against the Machine among the headliners (this was also the same year as the disastrous Woodstock reboot). By 2012, it had grown to encompass two three-day weekends. Last year, the event saw its third consecutive all-time record for gross ticket sales, selling 579,000 for a total of $78.3 million. AC/DC, Jack White, and Drake are on 2015's catch-all bill, and it's fairly safe to say this will be the mega-festival's biggest year yet.

Bonnaroo, another early ur-festival, was co-founded in 2002 by Jonathan Mayers, whose company Superfly also puts on Outside Lands. "It was us, Coachella, Austin City Limits—this new wave of large-scale music festivals that coincided with Napster coming out, the release of the iPod, and people and artists engaging with the internet to connect," he explains.

While the modern music festival may have gotten its jumpstart thanks to the connectedness of the internet, Mayers credits its growth, particularly in the last five years, to the desire to escape screen saturation. "People are seeking these authentic experiences of coming together in a physical sense that can’t be replicated," he says. "Meeting new people, having your mind blown, anticipation, discovery. Festivals embody that."

Last year was Coachella's biggest event to date. Photo by Driely S. for Racked

Festivals have also grown to involve a lot more than just bands on stages. Lollapalooza offers a farmers' market and a dedicated kids' area, Bonnaroo has comedy performers and a 40-foot water slide, and Coachella has its own boutique, as well as an event-specific app for reserving VIP dining at the festival. "It’s about the whole presentation," Mayers explains. "From the venue and the atmosphere to the bands and the sequence they're presented in. It's about visual design, what you eat, what you drink."

Despite Mayers's screen saturation theory, social media—Instagram in particular—has played a huge role in the rise of festivals. "People are constantly documenting not just what’s on stage, but also what their friends are doing," says Noisey style editor Kim Taylor Bennett, who's been covering the music industry for nearly a decade and a half. "They’re not as concerned with the experience as much as they are with what they’re going to project later on social media."

As she puts it, "Coachella is almost as big a thing as what after-party you get into." Half a million tickets sold doesn't translate to half a million people watching sets for days on end.

Instagram time at New York City's Full Moon Fest. Photo by Driely S. for Racked

"People are going to pool parties that are in the middle of the day to have free booze and get photographed and then end up on the style blogs," Taylor Bennett continues. "It’s ideal for brands because there are all of these really hot people in one place. They can leverage those people’s cool and spread the word about whatever it is that they’re promoting. It isn't really about hardcore music fans going to see bands, it's about people going to get fucked up and party with their friends and, oh, if Arcade Fire is on, that's cool."

If you're going to parties and getting photographed—or just going to sets and photographing yourself—you're going to need some carefully crafted looks, right? This is where the oft-maligned festival style comes into play.

"People really think about what they’re going to wear now," posits Vanessa Spence, design director of British e-tailer ASOS. "The viewpoint on festival as a season has changed. People want to dress up and plan their outfits." Taylor Bennett agrees: "People now think when they pack, 'How will this photograph?'"

An image from the ASOS festival look book. Photo: ASOS

For much of the country, winter coats and boots are still in rotation when festivals begin in mid-March, so if brands want to seize the shopping opportunity, they have no choice but to stock between-season offerings (shorts, dresses, linen-blends) fit for festivals.

ASOS has a notably international customer base and aims to stock some kind of festival offering nearly year-round, with the bulk of product rolling in weekly between February and August. They tailor each delivery to the quirks of the concert schedule. For example, they push rainwear in their festival shop to coincide with the notoriously wet and muddy UK festivals; for the US and Australian festivals, where bad weather isn't a concern, they focus on summery pieces.

Then there's Forever 21, which starts rolling out festival merchandise in March specifically for SXSW. Most of the pieces sell in early spring, though vice president of merchandising Linda Chang notes that, "You'll see more festival this fall as well, since boho is such a big trend." Shopbop centers its festival hub page around Coachella, in terms of timing (early April) and aesthetic. "From an editorial position, we like to give it a more fun, shiny point of view, compared to, say, a wet disaster like Glastonbury," explains fashion director Elle Strauss.

Free People is a brand that looks festival-friendly no matter the season thanks to its bohemian aesthetic. However, it does put up a dedicated festival shop on its site in late March, strategically adding pieces through August. In fact, the team keeps a big calendar filled with all of the festival dates. "We didn’t want to just go, 'Okay, it’s Coachella, done,'" explains creative merchandising director Sophie Brierley. "Bonnaroo, Lollapolooza, then going out to the European festivals—the Spanish festivals are amazing. There’s definitely a girl who wants to travel that circuit. We felt like we should stock product to keep her interest."

Free People's festival offerings include a tent. Photo: Free People

When Free People first began marketing specifically to festival-goers a few years ago, it sent out an email newsletter alerting customers that if they were going to Coachella, the brand had festival-appropriate options they might like.

"Then it grew into a lookbook, then it was on the home page, and in the last year we've thought about all of these additional products she could take with her," Brierly says of the lifestyle and home offerings that have now filtered into Free People's festival shop. "It's an escape from your normal life. If that means taking a tent, why wouldn’t you want to take a beautiful Free People tent with you?"

Spence also reports a steady growth in the festival business over the seven years she's worked at ASOS. "It’s almost like the new twentysomething’s holiday destination," she says. "They save up to go to festivals. It's a massive trend and with our customer, one that's really important. In the UK, we’ve got one of our big festivals coming up, Glastonbury, and Kanye West is going to headline. It shows just how mainstream and accessible those festivals are."

Free People is going for a "toughened-up" festival style. Photo: Free People

Mainstream is a word Taylor Bennett uses to describe festivals too, specifically the formulaic, vaguely bohemian style favored by attendees. "Everybody’s wearing fringe, everybody's got flowers in their hair, wearing Ray-Bans and high-waisted shorts with their asses hanging out the bottom," she says. "Everybody looks the same. It’s just a mass of generic festival-bots. That's what mainstream is—everyone wearing slight variations of what everyone else is wearing."

Savvy retailers are keen on pushing the festival look forward, albeit ever so slightly. "Every year we want to have a different vibe," says Brierley. Bohemian is the Free People constant, she explains, and "there are the classics, the true festival looks, like flower crowns," which she says they won't abandon, despite them feeling a bit stale. This year, they're banking on a toughened-up look, pairing maxi dresses with sneakers and vintage band tees with chokers.

"Last season we did a slightly more glam spin," says Spence, noting that the ASOS shopper has an appetite for embellished dresses for evening parties during festival season. "This year we’re doing more of a '70s feel." Shopbop has "seen a huge rise in the power of fringe," Strauss notes, a trend Forever 21 will be latching on to as well. "Fringe is definitely going to be huge for us," Chang says, "and we have loads of it."

Festival as a fashion season has interesting parallels with resort, also known as cruise, which hits stores in late December and consists of warm-weather clothes for wealthy people jetting off to the tropics post-holidays. (This concept has been a dated notion for some time: A 1989 New York Times article noted that "significant numbers of women do not go on midwinter cruises; resorts can be for skiing as well as for sunning.")

Photos by Driely S. for Racked

Similarly, we see desert-climate clothes in stores across the county as early as February, aimed at the pre-planning Millennial looking forward to a festival trip. These shoppers want to pack a suitcase for another self, a vacation self, someone who's easy-going like jean shorts at a concert, but sexy like a crocheted top at an afternoon pool party.

"When I think back to when I first started going to festivals, I was thinking, 'How practical can I be?'" Taylor Bennett recalls, citing boots to protect toes in late-'90s mosh pits and hoodies for chillier evenings at the UK's Reading Festival. That era is over. As for the dressed-up girls peacocking for street style photographers at today's brand-sponsored parties, she muses, "Is that really going to be an outfit you can reasonably get out of to pee in a Porta Potty?"

Editor: Julia Rubin


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