Byline: Miles Socha / Janet Ozzard

NEW YORK — Dressing Hilary Swank isn’t the only game in town.
More and more, fashion firms are quietly sneaking next season’s designs onto less-famous types — editors, stylists, artists and deejays — people who have the power to influence others by word of mouth and subtle osmosis.
The marketing tactic, often called seeding, has yielded some spectacular results recently, prompting some firms to step up their efforts, which are considered an extremely cost-effective way to build buzz and win credible endorsements.
Prada recently scored a major coup when The New York Times ran a half-page Bill Cunningham photo-essay of women on the streets of Paris and New York carrying its new bowling bag. While it seemed a natural occurrence, it wasn’t. Key editors attending the Milan shows in February received the colorful canvas and leather style as a gift from the company and toted them proudly en masse. Oops.
Trip Gabriel, the Times’ fashion news editor, said he was not aware that most of the bags photographed by Cunningham in his “On the Street” feature that ran April 2 were given to editors as gifts. The bags will retail for about $700 when they become available to the public in June. He noted that the Times’ employees are not allowed to receive gifts valued at more than $25 and so neither he nor Cunningham were aware of the giveaway practice.
“I don’t think we were duped, but we were the unwitting participants in a merchandising and marketing effort by this company,” he said.
Would Gabriel have spiked the story if he had had knowledge of Prada’s ploy? No, but he said he would have included in the text the fact that the bags were gifts, so readers would have had full knowledge. But he defended the feature, noting that the stylish-looking women on the page all “chose to carry it.”
Indeed, Gabriel hit on a crucial reality about product seeding: that the recipients ultimately do wear or carry the product by choice, which gives the “influencer,” and thus the marketer, extra credibility.
“It provides an endorsement that you just can’t achieve through advertising,” said Danny Kraus, marketing communications manager for Levi’s, which has been planting its latest jeans and khaki styles on movers and shakers for years. “If they’re putting it on their body it’s because they like it, and that’s the strongest endorsement.”
Last year, eager to up the hip factor of its Dockers brand, Levi’s sent out hundreds of pairs of its wide-legged K-1 khakis to editors, artists, Internet entrepreneurs, writers and other creative types months in advance of any shipments to retailers. That the style was ultimately spotted on hipsters in Manhattan’s bohemian East Village was proof enough that the giveaway accomplished its mission.
“There’s no formal measurement tool,” Kraus said. “How do you measure buzz? But the word-of-mouth factor is critical. It begins to build+. Year after year, it’s proving itself as a very important tool.”
To build anticipation for its ergonomically designed “Engineered Jeans” with curving seams, which will hit stores in a big way this fall, Levi’s plans to hand out pairs to cool-looking teens on the streets. Kraus noted that it’s also a way for Levi’s to get “great feedback for the brand.”
Not everyone seeds on purpose. With its no-advertising, low-key stance, Kiehl’s Since 1851 is practically the un-beauty company. The company shuns promotion, has very low-tech packaging, gives samples away like candy and spends hours consulting with customers. Nevertheless, Kiehl’s has a very devoted cult following that has only grown in the last 10 years, via word of mouth.
“We have always paid a lot of attention to the professionals in the community,” said Jami Morse von Heidegger, chief executive officer of Kiehl’s, whose grandfather founded the company. The slow-growing buzz around Kiehl’s picked up steam as the hair and makeup artists who used Kiehl’s became more well-known to the general public via the media. Nevertheless, von Heidegger said her main concern for Kiehl’s now is that “we not get ahead of ourselves. It’s important not to be overexposed and start doing coffee mugs and aprons.”
Kiehl’s is an anomaly, though. Often buzz builds up in a matter of weeks. Accessories company Stella Pace took off last year when its semiprecious power bead bracelets ended up on hundreds of trendsetting wrists, according to Nicola Parish, who runs the business.
“We’ve never paid for advertising, but we have a huge press book,” she said. It didn’t hurt that the beads were mentioned in Self magazine and photographed on Madonna, but Parish said the business got started by women asking each other, “Where did you get that bracelet?”
It even works internationally. “I gave some to my sisters when I was home in Ireland not long ago,” she said. “One of my sisters works for Chanel, and they had a sales meeting that week in London. A lot of women asked her, ‘Where did you get your bracelet?’ At the time, we had just opened an account with Selfridge’s, so she told them to go there. The next week, all those women were wearing power beads.”
Polo Jeans Co. also sends advance products to editors, artists, musicians and personalities, giving them a chance to “test-drive” the product and, of course, tell two friends, and so on and so on. By the time the product reaches the store, there’s pent-up demand, said Ross Klein, senior vice president of marketing and advertising at Polo Jeans. He said seeding is an an inexpensive way to yield potentially big returns.
This summer, as part of a major co-branding initiative with Sprite, Polo Jeans plans to dress some 400 deejays that are part of a Sprite squad. Klein said each of the deejays has a strong following in their community and the potential to influence.
“Absolutely, we’re doing more of it,” said Andy Hilfiger, vice president of public relations at Tommy Jeans, which just dispatched 75 pairs of its stretch flared jeans for fall to “trendsetting people who go out at night.”
Hilfiger said he’s planning to get his footwear partners on board and expand his seeding campaign to other product categories. “I said, ‘You’ve got to get me your hottest style — not 12 styles — in multiple sizes early.’ It’s definitely the way of the future in product placement and creating a buzz.”
Companies know that if a certain person wears a look, it’s more likely to be adopted. Nike, for example, sends “its wildest, weirdest colors and styles” to Jimmy Hanrahan, a stylist who works regularly with network and cable TV shows. He started the relationship with them when he was wardrobing MTV veejays in the Nineties. Most recently, he brought several styles to actress Julianne Moore, who is in training for her role as Clarice Starling in the sequel to “Silence of the Lambs.”
“Julianne said, ‘I love these! When did Nike get cool again?”‘ Hanrahan said.
“The weird thing about trends is that it’s not necessarily about an item, it’s about how somebody puts a look together,” he said. “It only takes one person to start the dominoes falling. That’s what starts a look. The old days of a designer putting something out on the runway and that becoming ‘the look’ are over.”