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What Is SXSW Interactive and Why Is Fashion Suddenly All Over It?

South by Southwest can be two very different things. It can be a midnight show in a crowded bar by a band no one's ever heard but that blows the audience's collective mind and is signed to Vice Records by the weekend (honestly, I don't really know how record deals work in Our Streaming Age; just ride with me here).

SXSW can also be a daytime panel in a conference center with three nicely-paid white men discussing optimizing #content for messaging apps in order to #connect with Gen Z in a #native way.

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The former is Music, which is cool (bar shows, bands, Fader Fort!), and the latter is Interactive, which is...incredibly square (Austin Convention Center, panels, Facebook's Public Policy happy hour!). Somewhere in the middle is Film, completing the three prongs that make up the festival, which kicks off today, March 11.

It's likely that you, valued consumer of fashion media and most likely fashion products, will hear more about Interactive than ever before. But why would fashion brands and publications, entities deeply invested in all things cool, throw their weight behind Interactive instead of Music or Film?

This is what the panel rooms look like and, oh, there's Karlie Kloss. Photo: Michael Buckner/Getty Images for SXSW

"Music has always had an outsized influence on fashion, but technology has taken over as a source of inspiration," Marie Claire editor-in-chief Anne Fulenwider explains when I ask why the magazine doesn't funnel its efforts — dollars, talent, PR, etc. — into an event during Music. "We are proud to have been the first women's fashion magazine to have participated in SXSWi. The whole festival is filled with the creative, curious, entrepreneurial women Marie Claire speaks to."

Neiman Marcus was another visitor from Planet Fashion that honed in on the festival's female patrons early on. "We noticed [Interactive] attendees had become increasingly more sophisticated and more gender-diverse, yet fashion brands were not focused here," says Neiman's chief marketing officer Wanda Gierhart. The high-end department store began its relationship with Interactive in 2013, offering a space with refreshments, a beauty bar, and yoga classes. "We created a focal point for women of substance and style."

In 2015, fashion earned its very own official slice of SXSWi, called SXstyle. It's nestled within Interactive's "Convergence Track," which offers programming for industries like food (SouthBites), sports (SXsports), comedy, and more.

"SXstyle broadens the conversation overall at the event," Kelly Krause, SXSW's head of Interactive press, explains of the festival's interest in backing the three-day series. She tells me that the segment began as an informal fashion-tech meet-up back in 2010. "There was such a strong turn out, with so much excitement and curiosity," she recalls. This led to similar gatherings in the following years, and by summer 2014, "style and tech" was added as an official category for panel proposals.

Technology has taken over as a source of inspiration.

"It used to cater to a very niche audience," InStyle editorial director Ariel Foxman says of SXSWi. "But now, especially for fashion and retail, technology is a common mover." The magazine will host a discussion between Foxman and actress Kerry Washington on Sunday, centered around social media and personal branding. It's fashion, it's technology, but it's hardly what comes to mind when one hears "fashion-tech." Regardless, a presence at the technology portion of the festival has grown to communicate relevancy. "It's important for us to remain on the pulse of what's happening in our space," Foxman continues. "It's imperative for growth."

Events like InStyle's Kerry Washington chat and Marie Claire's conversation with the Broad City girls are easy bait for 'grams, Snaps, and live tweets that will reach an audience far beyond those in the room who shelled out $1,295 for an Interactive badge. "We'll build on content from my conversation with Kerry for digital and social after the panel," Foxman adds. Panels like "Self Sells: How Glossier Is Delivering Beauty IRL" with Glossier founder Emily Weiss and "Acceptance Revolution: Fashion's New Body" with model Ashley Graham and Yahoo Style editor-in-chief Joe Zee are similarly sharable.

That's not to discount the healthy dose of nitty-gritty biz talks — like "How Virtual Reality Will Change Fashion" or "The Inner Sanctum: Tech In the Fitting Room" — which are a little more "pure" Interactive.

"The gap between art, fashion, design and areas that some might consider 'nerdy,' such as computer engineering and coding, is swiftly narrowing," says Refinery29 co-founder and executive creative director Piera Gelardi. "I love seeing these once seemingly incongruous industries mesh together more and more." The panel she's moderating will bring together model Coco Rocha, Google's Kate Parker, and fashion technologist Madison Maxey to discuss the relationship between science and art.

But let's be real. Panels are what you do during the day. Then there are the parties.

Photo opps at the 2015 SXstyle Closing Party, presented by Nylon and Original Penguin. Photo: by Natalie Cass/Getty Images for NYLON

Refinery29 and Neiman Marcus are throwing one Friday night (DJed by Hannah Bronfman, no less). It's the opening of their "School of Self Expression," a temporary gallery space open to the public with events and activities geared toward "expressing" (ideally, on social media, with the correct hashtag attached).

"Creating live experiences is a huge part of how we express ourselves as a brand at Refinery29," explains Gelardi. "It allows us to interact with our audience in an immersive way, tell our and our partners' stories, and truly bring our mission to life IRL."

Neiman Marcus, the partner in this instance, benefits by having a direct line to an attractive audience — one that's young, female, and plugged-in. "SXSW helps us bring our brand to the next generation," Gierhart says. That next generation includes the "91 percent of R29 users who consider themselves early tech adopters," who according to Geraldi, "also agree they are on the cutting edge of fashion."

"Tech is dramatically changing the business of fashion. It's only natural that the industry has become more curious."

It's this confluence of interests that makes Interactive prime to blow up in the fashion space this year. "Tech" is no longer dorky and shunned, nor is it scary and overwhelming. It's "dramatically changing the business of fashion," says Fulenwider. "It's only natural that the industry has become more and more curious."

As it stands, SXSWi is the only place these two worlds naturally come together. It's still awkward when a tech company tries to infiltrate fashion week, and let me tell you from personal experience: the Consumer Electronics Show is in no fashion world magnet (also the parties aren't good, even though it's Vegas).

"SXstyle sparks conversation and energy," Krause says, "and people can truly network — not just rub elbows." Fulenwider agrees, emphasizing that "the importance of live events and the in-person exchange of ideas has only grown as the world grows more and more digital." Of course, it doesn't suck to exchange ideas in 70-degree Austin, Texas with brand-sponsored happy hours that start at 11 a.m. daily. "SXSW combines music, film, and tech, and this is a beyond fruitful combination," says Fulenwider. "Then there's the barbecue."


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