The designers who dress Britain's leading brands

From cars to chocolate bars, fashion houses are branching out
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The Independent Online

Fashionistas were unsure if they were sitting by the catwalk or in a sweet shop at London Fashion Week as Nestlé used Sadie Frost and Jemima French's new collection to promote their latest chocolate bar. Vauxhall Motors utilised last week's show by hot young designer Giles Deacon to launch their new Tigra and American Express aligned itself with Alexander McQueen.

Nestlé, Vauxhall and Amex are at the forefront of a trend that is seeing brands cuddling up to fashion designers to make their products seem more sexy and cutting edge.

The benefits to both parties are clear: the designer receives a welcome injection of cash to put on a dazzling show, while the brand gets the kudos of being associated with the glamorous world of fashion.

Nestlé has teamed up with FrostFrench to promote its premium chocolate bar Double Cream. But it hasn't simply sponsored the duo's show; FrostFrench has also created a limited edition wrapper for the bar.

The design, in collaboration with the illustrator Jonathan Schofield, features a character called Baby Brown, a personification of the FrostFrench clothing range for spring 2005. Five thousand limited edition bars will go on sale next February and, in the style of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, five will have a golden label that can be exchanged for an outfit from the new collection. So expect to see London fashion victims swapping Silk Cut and salads for creamy, calorie-laden chocolate.

Claire Hebron, the somewhat indulgently titled indulgence brand manager at Nestlé, comments: "We felt that FrostFrench shared the Double Cream bar's characteristics. The girls' friendship is a successful double act which is a great match for our 'double' brand, so we wanted to do clever things together. This is much more than a badge sponsorship: we want to create a long-term partnership."

Vauxhall launched its new Tigra model at London Fashion Week with a car decorated by Giles Deacon, who was described in headlines last week as "the new king of fashion". Deacon also designed a gift for the highly coveted goodie bags: a beauty bag-cum- handbag for the car's glove compartment. The bag features discreet Vauxhall branding - including its griffin mascot - and Simon Ewart, manage, consumer communications at Vauxhall, believes that subtlety is paramount: "If you have a Giles item, people aren't going to use it if it's overtly branded."

The tie-up between Deacon and the motor manufacturer is part of a concept called the VX Collective, which was launched at the end of May and involves highlighting talent from the worlds of fashion, art, sport, design and club culture. The partnership between designer and car brand began last November when Vauxhall was celebrating its centenary. "Giles appealed to us because we wanted someone up-and-coming," says Ewart.

Fashion's raison d'être is an obsession with the new, so it's no surprise to learn that Giles Deacon has been dubbed the "new" Alexander McQueen. But this preoccupation with the hot names of tomorrow can present a risk for brands, according to Sanjay Nazerali, managing director of fashion brand consultancy The Depot: "How long is the life cycle of a brand? And how long is the life cycle of a new designer? You can sponsor a designer this year, but what are the chances of that person existing in three years time?"

The relationship between Alexander McQueen and American Express, however, can be traced back seven years. Today the alliance is still going strong and Amex has just renewed a commitment to back a separate design outfit Boudicca (comprised of Zowie Broach and Brian Kirby). Douglas Smith, a director at American Express, explains the logic of the strategy. "Firstly, we wanted to attract more women. Secondly, fashion was obviously something our customers were interested in. Thirdly, it's about lifestyle and image. Fashion is much broader today than it was ten years ago and we realised that aligning industry with fashion was good for our brands."

Smith emphasises that the only way for such relationships to work is to treat them as partnerships. "It's not about putting logos on catwalks, it's about having a presence. We want people to know that we are supporting these British designers."

McQueen has been involved with corporate events in the Amex calendar to which he brings his creative flair. For instance, when Amex celebrated the fifth anniversary of its prestigious Centurion card in June, McQueen was not only involved with a black-themed fashion show and an art auction, he also designed a limited edition of the card itself.

"That sponsorship brings us something different and unique," says Smith. "It helps us to stand out from the crowd because it is becoming so much more difficult to cut through the clutter with traditional advertising."

Nicola Mendelsohn, deputy chairman at Grey London, thinks that these associations can be advantageous because they encourage designers and brands to investigate previous unexplored territory: "These partnerships work best when both sides can benefit. They provide an opportunity for brands to appear somewhere that's not necessarily the most obvious place for them. Putting these new associations in people's heads can make interesting, creative things happen. For instance, designers now work with car manufacturers and Top Shop now sells sweets."

Perhaps more than car or fmcg (fast moving consumer goods) marques, drinks brands have always had a strong relationship with fashion. The British designer Matthew Williamson decorated a Coca-Cola bottle that has already become a collector's item on eBay and led to a second collaboration this year. And even lager had a place at London Fashion Week: Carlsberg Export worked with the designer Jens Laugesen to show off all things Danish. The show took place at the Danish Embassy and the catwalk was dressed in Carlsberg Export colours.

The collection itself wasn't in Carlsberg Export colours, but Nazerali sounds a note of caution about the extent to which young designers could find themselves pushed into a corner: "If someone said to an up-and-coming designer 'we want to back you but we want your entire collection to be in red', would a designer agree? You could start pushing fashion in a direction it wouldn't otherwise be going."

He adds: "There are lots of desperate designers who are hungry for cash and exposure, and brands which think 'hey, let's do fashion.' There ought to be really clear guidelines about where sponsorship begins and ends when it comes to fashion designers because brands can be bullies."