Has Sponsoring Fashion Week Lost Its Style?

Fashion Week has long been recognized as a hub for the hottest trends. But with the retail sector getting pounded by the economy, has sponsoring the event gone out of style?

Photo by Oliver Quillia for CNBC.com

Although host IMG Fashion has maintained its usual number of 12 to 15 major partnerships, it hasn't been easy, said Zach Eichman, IMG director of public relations.

Despite Tuesday's spike in retail sales, the economy has shifted many people's focus from premium to affordable luxury — causing some unexpected names to join the event's sponsor list.

Luxury car maker Mercedes Benz is back as the event's title sponsor, but mass market makeup manufacturer Maybelline replaced its high-end rival MAC Cosmetics as the official makeup. McDonald's returned for its second season, pushing its McCafe beverages. Sharpie emerged as a first time-sponsor, while Evian's logo was nowhere to be seen.

"The reality of the economy we are in right now means people are watching what they spend and asking more questions, as they should," Eichman said.

Darci Forrest, senior director of US Marketing for McDonald's, said the fast-food giant saw Fashion Week as a way to extend its reach into a new, trendsetting client base. From a booth in the main tent in Bryant Park, it offered its full line of McCafe coffees and hot chocolate, which it has marketed as a form of affordable luxury.

While the mass appeal of McDonald's doesn't traditionally jibe with stick-thin models and high fashion, Eichman said he thinks people are able to see the partnership at face value.

"That's a natural fit for an event that needs free coffee and a partner that has that to give," he said. "It offsets the cost for designers, which would be quadruple if not more."

MAC left the Mercedes Benz tents to team up with Milk Studios for a separate Fashion Week event, MAC & Milk, at a venue downtown in the Meatpacking District. This allowed lower-priced Maybelline to sign a two-year contract as the event's official makeup.

"I think that Maybelline, like many other brands, will find that this economy has opened up an opportunity for us to be exposed to even more consumers," said Carolyn Holba, senior vice president of marketing for Maybelline New York and Garnier.

Still, the event continued to boast some big names traditionally associated with high fashion. Mercedes Benz brought some upscale prestige, while Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide's W Hotels returned for its 12th season, offering celebrities, designers and models a private lounge equipped with a bar, flat-screen TVs and a DJ.

W Global Brand Leader Eva Ziegler said Fashion Week is the perfect place to target VIPs, which is "exactly the audience that the W is aiming to attract."

Financial firms were criticized for doling out sponsorship cash at the height of the financial crisis, but credit-card company American Express returned for its third year, aiming to connect wealthy card holders with high fashion.

As one of the perks associated with membership, AmEx offered several of its premium clients $250 and $750 packages that allowed them to watch shows at the two larger runway venues in a private, elevated lounge. They then participated in behind-the-scenes exclusives, such as pre-ordering new designs, going backstage and watching up-close interviews with designers.

"This is not about branding for us. This is really about our customers," said Jessica Igoe, director of global sponsorship marketing.

But with W Hotels and AmEx limiting their reach to only a very exclusive segment of event participants, is Fashion Week getting enough out of its sponsors? To be sure, there has been plenty of criticism heaped at the event for taking on the mass market brands.

"Sponsors come and go, as with any platform," Eichman emphasized. "It's important for us to work with people who want to engage in the industry in an engage in a meaningful way."

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