In the high stakes business of celebrity dressing, what makes for a perfect match between a star and a fashion brand?
Louis Vuitton womenswear designer Nicolas Ghesquière and actress Jennifer Connelly have developed a close friendship over the years; he’s dressed her for dozens of red carpets and other appearances in dazzling, if sometimes polarising, custom designs.
But the relationship really paid off at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, when she wore his textured-metallic gown to the premiere of “Top Gun: Maverick.”
Connelly, with her hair pulled back, looked regal in the armour-like bodice, a can’t-forget moment that will forever be associated with a film that could prove to be her biggest hit ever. In its first weekend, the “Top Gun” sequel, starring Tom Cruise, took home an estimated $151 million at the box office in North America, blowing predictions out of the water.
To be sure, there are big names in Louis Vuitton’s celebrity mix. But while Dior goes for shock and awe (Jennifer Lawrence, Rihanna) and Chanel leans heavily on the ingénue (Margaret Qualley, Lily-Rose Depp), since Ghesquière’s arrival in 2013, Vuitton has favoured thinking person’s stars in line with the designer’s mission to elevate the brand, like “La La Land” star Emma Stone, Léa Seydoux — a Bond girl with indie film cred — and Alicia Vikander, who won an Oscar in 2016 for her performance in “The Danish Girl,” but is just as believable in a genre film like the “The Green Knight.”
As a result, Vuitton’s red carpet strategy has driven fewer mentions on social media, where the success of celebrity tie-ups are typically measured, than its two biggest competitors. Since 2013, the brand has earned 86,500 mentions around the Academy Awards, compared to 168,000 for Chanel and 241,000 for Dior, according to tracking firm Brandwatch, mostly because Chanel and Dior’s stars tend to be bigger and are nominated for — and win — more Oscars.
And yet, despite the relative subtlety of its approach, Vuitton has managed to ramp up the conversation around its red-carpet appearances over the past four years. Its best Academy Awards performance happened back in 2016 when Vikander won for Best Supporting Actress in a Ghesquière design. But even without a Vuitton-dressed star landing on the stage in recent years, chatter has steadily grown (with a slight drop-off in 2022), whereas Chanel and Dior’s spikes are higher, but growth is not as steady.
However, as the influence of the American film industry wanes, with fewer people going to the movies and watching Hollywood awards shows, Vuitton appears to be shifting its strategy.
The brand now dresses a wider range of celebrities, from TikTok star Charli D’Amelio to Julia Roberts. In April, it signed 18-year-old “Stranger Things” star Millie Bobby Brown as an ambassador. At Cannes, it wasn’t Connelly but Bollywood superstar Deepika Padukone — who became Vuitton’s first Indian ambassador earlier this year — who generated a whopping seven out of the top 10 posts mentioning the brand, helping the LVMH-owned juggernaut earn more than $20 million in media value, according to tracking firm Launchmetrics.
What’s behind Vuitton’s celebrity success? And will its new approach prove as effective?
While many brands deny that they pay celebrities to wear their wares, they often do. For the biggest stars, this typically takes the form of brand ambassadorships, which often include advertising campaigns as well as contractual commitments to wear a brand’s looks publicly. That’s on top of striking deals with stylists, who frequently charge brands fees of several thousand dollars a day to ensure their dresses make it onto the red carpet.
Big marketing budgets certainly help. And Louis Vuitton, which generates more revenue a year than any other luxury label, can simply afford to outspend most of its competitors. (That’s on a playing field where in the US alone, Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Dior spent a combined $44 million on print and online advertising in the first quarter of 2022, according to research firm MediaRadar.)
How much of Vuitton’s marketing budget goes to celebrities each year? That depends on who’s on the current roster. If a major star suddenly becomes available, the budget can be found.
But big budgets aren’t everything.
Lots of Bets on Rising Stars
Louis Vuitton has a robust scouting system. This means it’s poised to jump on new talent quickly, placing plenty of bets on stars it believes are set to rise. (At the 2022 Met Gala, the brand dressed 11 people. At the 2022 Oscars, it dressed eight.)
“They do a good job of collecting ambassadors,” said Heather Cocks, red carpet commentator and co-author of the celebrity fashion blog Go Fug Yourself. “They roll the dice more frequently.”
Often, these early bets evolve into something bigger. (Millie Bobby Brown wore Vuitton several times before officially signing with them this year.) However, it doesn’t always work. Jennifer Lawrence look-a-like Haley Bennett was positioned as the next big thing in the mid-2010s, with Louis Vuitton dressing her even before any of her high-profile films were released. While she has appeared in films since, she is not yet a bonafide star.
Connelly, Vikander and Stone are super-famous, but as their careers have ebbed and flowed, Vuitton has continued to work with them, even when they weren’t in the headlines. That continuity has a lot to do with Ghesquière’s personal relationships with each actress.
Top brands like Vuitton work with their biggest stars for five or 10 years, sometimes longer — fragrance advertisements may run for decades — but industry sources say that Ghesquière in particular pounds the pavement to ensure these partnerships feel genuine, not only building friendships with the stars but also their stylists by spending time in Los Angeles, where most of them live. (The designer has such strong ties to the city that he recently bought an $11 million John Lautner house in the Hollywood Hills.)
He does this through private, one-on-one meetings, but also by staging events that garner media coverage, like the recent pre-Oscars party at hotspot Gigi’s that was hosted by W magazine and sponsored by Vuitton.
Brand Over Dress
Vuitton’s heritage as an accessories brand, not a couture house, is a weakness when it comes to celebrity dressing. Unlike Chanel, for example, Vuitton’s red carpet look lacks a clear signature: most consumers can’t easily spot a Vuitton gown. And on the red carpet, the brand oscillates between Ghesquière’s adventurous, space-age aesthetic and stars’ frequent preference for classically glamorous and sexy silhouettes. But Vuitton makes up for this by wrapping its celebrities in a bigger brand package that goes beyond a mere dress.
While longtime ambassadors Connelly and Vikander tend to wear runway or runway-inspired looks, at this year’s Oscars, Alana Haim’s white-beaded Vuitton gown was almost unidentifiable. And yet, the “Licorice Pizza” actress had been wearing (and talking about) Vuitton so much on her promotional tour for the film that the association stuck. The glossy advertisements featuring many of the brand’s top ambassadors are also extremely memorable, which helps to further cement the association. It’s less about a specific look and more about the whole package.
“There are very few brands that have such a strong identification between actress and product and brand,” said Stefano Tonchi, the former editor of W magazine. “They become a part of Louis Vuitton.”
A Strategy Shift
After years of steady success, Louis Vuitton appears to be broadening its approach to celebrity dressing with an eye on new geographies and the next generation.
In May, at its cruise show at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, about 100 miles south of Hollywood, the more than 20 notables included mainstays Seydoux and Chloë Grace Moretz, but also newly minted model Eve Jobs (daughter of the late Apple founder Steve Jobs), Thai actress Urassaya Sperbund, director Ava DuVernay and South Korean star Bae Doona. At the Met Gala, the brand made noise for dressing YouTube star Emma Chamberlain.
At this year’s Oscars, actor Timothée Chalamet’s sequined black suit, pulled from Ghesquière’s Spring 2022 womenswear collection and worn shirtless, was one of the most talked-about looks of the evening, suggesting that the brand has scope to go younger and more “pop” while maintaining its exclusivity.
Vuitton’s recent bets on a broader range of celebrity partners could create confusion for the consumer. Who is the Louis Vuitton archetype? Is it Connelly in a space-age sheath, Padukone in a classic ball gown or Chalamet in a shirtless tux?
With Ghesquière’s brand elevation mission broadly accomplished after nine years at the house, growing attention in new markets and with Gen-Z may increasingly be the name of the game.
“If attention and discussion is a goal, give the people something to talk about,” said Kellan Terry of Brandwatch, referring to Chalamet’s Oscars-night look. “It also didn’t hurt that he is a massive star and the face of a huge blockbuster.”
However, more people to dress also means more outfits to produce. At the Met Gala, the brand positioned its “no new dresses” policy as a sustainability statement, but not making new garments also meant saving hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Meanwhile, Connelly’s recent string of appearances — she wore Louis Vuitton twice on the red carpet at Cannes, then again for late-night television spots — are more representative of the failsafe strategies Vuitton has been using for years, suggesting that the brand is betting on a blend of the old and the new to keep its celebrity strategy competitive.
Disclosure: LVMH is part of a group of investors who, together, hold a minority interest in The Business of Fashion. All investors have signed shareholders’ documentation guaranteeing BoF’s complete editorial independence.