Is It Worth It for Designers to Give Freebies to Celebrities?

Publicity doesn't always translate to cash.

“Nothing is great publicity when it doesn’t pay.” That’s according to shoe whisperer Christian Louboutin, a self-made legend in the fashion world who has, by his own admission, never gifted his red-soled gems to celebrities in the hopes of landing in the pages of People and sparking a storm of sales.

Fern Mallis, the founder of New York Fashion Week, pulled the revelation out of Louboutin during an interview at 92Y in New York in which they discussed the Louboutin brand’s regular appearance on HBO’s hit show Sex In The City. Louboutin confirmed that he did not gift Sarah Jessica Parker or HBO even one pair while she was sashaying around New York City on set as Carrie Bradshaw, and he made it clear the practice of gifting celebrities just doesn’t make sense to him.

But, wait a second here, nothing is great publicity when it doesn’t pay? (Don’t tell the detox tea companies!) On the more serious side, the practice of gifting celebrities a free dress or pair of sunnies or even going so far as to pay them to wear gifted product—is a Hollywood marketing tactic that many publicists employ, as it’s one more way to get a designer’s name in front of a mass of eyeballs and grow the brand accordingly. It’s surprising to hear that Louboutin does not engage in this form of marketing, and it begs the question: is celebrity gifting actually worth it?

“If given an opportunity, most brands want high profile people wearing their clothing as long as it's not damaging to the brand,” says Nancy Vaughn, the public relations and marketing director for White Book Agency, a boutique firm that specializes in strategic PR, marketing, and special events for a number of fashion brands. “But ultimately, all fashion and accessories brands want people purchasing their clothing because they genuinely like the garments —whether that is a celebrity or not.”

It makes sense that when a designer is recognized around the globe for a brand, said designer can afford to be more choosy when it comes down to deciding whether or not to gift celebrities. Louboutin isn’t the only one who believes that nothing is great publicity when it doesn’t pay: Louis Vuitton reportedly doesn’t gift celebrities either, and who can forget the Karl Lagerfeld/Meryl Streep dress disaster that preceded the 2017 Oscars?

But what about younger designers? When a brand is just getting off the ground, it stands to reason that giving products away isn’t as financially feasible. Vaughn recognizes that the younger the brand, the more challenging this marketing tactic can be.

“Gifting isn't the only way to build a fashion brand though,” Vaughn says. “When you have a quality product and an audience who wants to wear your brand, you can build your business. There are some celebrities who shop brands on their own, and the brand can't use that information because that celebrity is a customer and you don't want to violate their privacy or overstep any boundaries. Some brands pay for celebrity endorsers, and that includes product as well as payment. So it really depends on how a person or company wants to grow their brand.” (Superstar stylists Brad Goreski and Jessica Pastor have divulged in the past that celebrity clients can get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to wear a certain designer to high-profile events like the Oscars.)

In the past, younger designers have spoken out against the practice of celebrity gifting. A decade ago, Malcolm Harris of Mal Sirrah wrote what Robin Givhan of The Washington Post described as “the fashion industry’s version of a ‘Jerry Maguire’ manifesto” in which the designer publicly decided that he would no longer allow celebrities free access to his designs. "I'd really like to take a count of every dress that has appeared in Peopleand find out what's the revenue actually generated,” Harris told Givhan at the time. “Is that enough to sustain a business? Not an ego, but a business? I might be wrong. I'm willing to be wrong. But I doubt that I am."

Still, there’s two sides to that argument. And for some, the gifting is worth the loss in sales on the garment as it’s seen as more of an investment in future sales (hopefully). “A celebrity placement can help to generate sales, so gifting outfits to the right person can translate well if you're reaching your target. But, it's always a gamble,” says Vaughn. “And it has shifted over the years as brands have looked to bloggers and influencers instead to reach their audience and that has been beneficial. Even so, there aren't many brands who wouldn't want Beyoncé or Selena Gomez to give them a shout-out.”

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