image: Apple

image: Apple

As indicated by the fashion press and documented by the many social media accounts and websites dedicated to charting the sartorial choices of Harry Styles, the ex-One Direction frontman has been wearing quite a bit of Gucci as of late. Alessandro Michele’s garments for Gucci, to be specific. Even for those who do are not fanatically abreast of Styles’s outings and corresponding wardrobe choices, the singer’s appearance at the American Music Awards last month was noteworthy.

The 24-year old heartthrob and the recipient of the British Fashion Council’s 2013 Fashion Icon Award stepped out in a floral suit from the Florentine brand’s Spring/Summer 2016 menswear collection. Later in the evening, he changed into an all black Gucci suit with a flower tie from the house’s S/S 2015 collection. Following the AMAs, it became clear that Styles either has a penchant for Gucci, a brand ambassador-type contract with the brand or a little something of both. Here is what we know …

Celebrity endorsements and brand ambassadorships are big business. They are hardly a novel practice, but they have certainly evolved quite significantly over the past decade, in particular, as millenials have taken hold of a huge portion of the market (there are 80 million in the U.S. alone). The resulting increase in fluency in terms of online and mobile platforms – for use in shopping and engaging in social media – and the fact that they’ve become more accustomed to traditional forms of advertising has forced brands to adapt accordingly, as such models become less novel and thereby, less effective.

Harvard Business Review stated earlier this year, “For brands to seduce the millennial consumer, they’ll need to differentiate themselves from the traditional advertising methods [that] millennials typically ignore.” Steve Bender, Executive VP of Strategy for GreenLight Media, a branded-content agency and studio, which recently teamed up with Under Armour for a branded video series, in lieu of the average campaign, echoed this sentiment, saying: “It’s really hard to get people to notice advertising anymore.” And he is right.

The result is that traditional ad campaigns and brand spokesmodel arrangements simply don’t cut it anymore. Such evolution can be seen in the once very effective advertising model of television commercials. Now, a huge segment of television watchers are either able to fast forward through commercials, or if watching television on a Netflix or Hulu-type platform, skip them altogether. With this in mind, advertising is becoming more integrated into the content itself. Hence, the rise of native advertising, product placements, social media ads, and the like, instead.

Such integrated advertising is not only being published by brand owners or advertising agencies. Each time we post a source identifying photo on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook or Snapchat – whether it be a Gucci bag, a picture of the Yeezy sneakers or a BluePrint juice – we are doing that brand’s job for it and the vast majority of people are not being compensated to do so (a big coup for the brands). Yet, our modern pastimes (namely, our engagement with others by way of an array of apps) have situated us to step into the shoes of advertisers, ourselves. We collectively have proven to be quite adept and also to come across as authentic (because most of us are not being paid) – which plays a truly key role in effective advertising.

As brands are forced to consistently evolve in terms of how they are reaching both existing and potential new consumers in terms of actual ad formats, celebrities (whether they are bona fide movie stars, musicians, or just influential bloggers or editors) are almost always in fashion for advertising purposes. They bring with them massive followings, which serve as attractive sources of press, revenue, and growth for brands. However, clicks, likes, and retweets are simply not enough. In order for advertising to be effective, consumers, especially now, need to gain some sense of authenticity from the campaign.

“Only 1% of millennials surveyed said that a compelling advertisement would make them trust a brand more. They believe that advertising is all spin and not authentic,” a Forbes columnist noted recently. As such, millennial consumers need to believe that the endorsement is real; that the garment, for instance, is one that the celebrity or “it” blogger actually wears, and is not just wearing in exchange for a paycheck.

Enter: the current form of the celebrity brand ambassadorship. While many brands – particularly sportswear and watch companies – employ traditional brand ambassadors, in the way that Nike sponsors Cristiano Ronaldo or the way that Kerry Washington fronts Movado, there are similarly many and maybe more brands that rely on a slightly different model. The modern version may take the form of an updated traditional brand ambassadorship (think: a celebrity appears in an ad campaign plus commits to attending its fashion shows and/or other brand events, wearing so many of its garments to other events, and promoting it on social media, etc).

It may also come in the form of gifting, which makes a lot of sense. In lieu of signing an expensive and often complex deal with a celebrity or paying to have that celebrity styled and photographed, etc. for a campaign, a brand can gift him/her some garments and accessories, instead. By doing so, the brand lets the celebrity and the paparazzi and/or street style photographers do the work. And with the celebrity wearing the garments in his or her daily life and presumably styling them himself, it feels more real, and consumers are more likely to be influenced.

So, enter: Harry Styles. If we consider Styles’s wardrobe for a moment, there has been an array of Gucci garments in it recently. There was the Gucci floral print shirt he wore to an event in June; the Fall/Winter 2015 geometric patterned suit in September. More recently, he wore a blue shirt from Michele’s Spring/Summer 2016 collection on the Late Late Show, one of the blooms print shirts in concert in San Jose, and a tiger-print tee while performing last month.

Don’t forget the red eagle print bowling shirt from Gucci’s 2016 cruise collection, the flora print Duke shirt, the Fall/Winter 2015 suit he wore in one of the group’s music videos, the damask print silk shirt with bow, the matte silk shirt with grosgrain bow that he wore in an album cover photo, and a number of other garments. The frequency with which he wears Gucci garments to public appearances, concerts and in official photos, suggests that the two may have a relationship of sorts and that Styles may be compensated for repping the house.

While we do not know if such a deal exists, it seems unlikely given the number of garments he wears from Gucci’s most direct rivals. Consider all of the Saint Laurent looks he has worn over the past year or so – and continues to wear. The number is quite staggering – from the array of ready-to-wear, outerwear, boots, even a duffle or two. The fashion press has picked up on this. Glamour recently noted: “Harry often opts for Saint Laurent.”

MTV wrote: “Since late 2013, Harry has been fond of Saint Laurent boots.” Vogue took on his sartorial choices, writing: “Harry Styles is known for his fashion-forward approach to men’s style most notably, rocker-inspired looks by Hedi Slimane for Saint Laurent.” A year ago, Details dedicated an entire article to Styles’s penchant for Saint Laurent. In short, he has become known for the frequency with which he wears Hedi Slimane’s clothes – which would likely be viewed as problematic investment for Gucci or any brand other than Saint Laurent (even though it is worth noting that Gucci and Saint Laurent share a parent company, Kering, and so, this may pose much less of a potential conflict).

As for whether a Saint Laurent deal is in effect: That is also unlikely (and frankly, it doesn’t much matter. Saint Laurent, like Gucci, is certainly reaping benefits each time Styles steps out in one of their garments, regardless of whether a formal deal has been penned). However, for conversation’s sake, as we have seen in the past, Saint Laurent is generally very up front and vocal about its partnerships with musicians. So, we can likely rule out anything between the two aside from some gifting, which is standard industry practice for brands as a way to increase press, and something for which YSL was known, at least prior to Slimane’s arrival.

Lily Allen famously admitted in 2007 that in exchange for attending a Saint Laurent show she was allowed to help herself to whatever she wanted in the brand’s flagship store. Under Slimane’s watch, the brand’s PR team also utilizes a gifting practice. As K-pop star, G-Dragon, who does a lot of Saint Laurent shopping (and was a supporter of Slimane when he was heading up Dior Homme in the 2000’s), said, Slimane give him first dibs on his entire first menswear collection. (It is worth noting that G-Dragon is also an international star and style icon in his own right).  

There is very likely some shopping by Styles going on, as well. He has, after all, been spotted in Saint Laurent stores all over the globe over the past couple of years, and he has to spend his One Direction paychecks some way.

This is probably the extent of the relationship – at least between Styles and both Saint Laurent and Gucci at this point.  

As for Gucci and whether the budding fashion romance between Styles and Gucci creative Alessandro Michele will materialize into a formal brand ambassadorship or ad campaign for Styles, we will have to wait and see. Unlike Saint Laurent, which regularly features musicians in its campaigns, that is not exactly Gucci’s cup of tea. However, as we learned this weekend, actor/musician Jared Leto has landed Gucci’s Guilty fragrance campaign, replacing actors Chris Evans and Evan Rachel Wood. This seems like something Styles could be positioning himself for in the coming seasons. Thoughts?

* This article was initially published in December 2015.