I have to be honest–when traveling to Berlin last Friday after a week of holidays I was really skeptical. It’s not that I deliberately wanted to dislike the second installment of Zalando’s Bread & Butter interpretation, but I had some serious concerns. How would the seriously impressive announced line-up of international fashion and music high-end stars including M.I.A., FKA Twigs, Wyclef Jean, Virgil Abloh, Vivienne Westwood and Viktor & Rolf match a commercially oriented trade show concept starring mass-market fashion brands? Wouldn’t all the talks and panel discussions starring admirable activists and niche personalities in the end come out really corporate and with an artificial “Zalando” stamp on them? And, most importantly, would people, especially the desired target group of young and trend-oriented fashion consumers, actually pay for a ticket and come by?
They did. (More than 30,000 visitors in three days even led to short-term entrance stops on super busy Saturday.) And in my humble opinion, they shouldn’t regret it.
When entering the halls of Arena Berlin, visitors were really offered a lot. Each of the 40 participating brands took trouble in designing elaborate booths. In the most clever cases, these offered shareable experiences (dancing performances at Lee, dunking sessions at Kickz, a roller skate disco at Wrangler, a ball pit by Bikbok, celebrity appearances at Tommy Hilfiger) or product acquiring or customization options (you could have your pair of Nike Air Force 1s in an exclusive colorway–acquired on site–tattooed with a design of your choice, have patches or designs ironed onto a Levi’s shirt or jean jacket–acquired on site–or have your free Fila hip bag personalized with an individual stitching). But even if some booths simply displayed product (such as Converse’s One Star silhouette or the current Rvlt collection) visitors could at least make use of them as sort of their “real-life shopping basket.” After registration, they were able to scan the products of their interest with an RFID wristband so that they were saved in their virtual Zalando shopping list.
The mostly young attendants had multiple options to take part in dedicated workout sessions by Adidas, Asics, Reebok and Co., eat great food, attend concerts by in-demand bands and musicians, visit fashion shows and meet their (Instagram) idols and influencers in dedicated talks or simply because most of them (including Pamela Reif, Caro Daur and Stefanie Giesinger) were running around onsite anyway.
Of course, looking at limited capsule collections/super wearable current-season fashion shows or seeing some more or less famous faces from the industry might not sound very exciting for us fashion people, but for the end consumer it really is. Where else do they get the chance to?
Zalando really splashed out. Just for the three days of the event, it built “Europe’s biggest fashion tent“ to house the nine runways shows and several concerts from scratch, integrated new windows into the Festsaal location and completely refurbished the “Hoppetosse” boat. It booked more than a handful of costly A-Listers (who actually took their time at the event and didn’t appear like they were simply ticking off a money job) and paralyzed the whole staff of one of Berlin’s biggest PR agencies for the time of the event. Organization was on point with shows starting right on time and the best thing was that everything, including entrance policy, actually WAS democratic. With few exceptions, whoever wanted to see a fashion show, concert, talk or the Vivienne Westwood exhibition had to stand in one of the (often long) lines–following the good old “first come, first serve/be seated” concept. Still the crowd was polite and nice to each other and the general vibe on the show grounds was pleasant. Instead of talking things down (a common practice among the professional part of the industry), the crowd was enthusiastic. When British model and activist Adwoa Aboah and her super inspiring fellow speakers were holding their “Gurls Talk” on stage Saturday afternoon, the crowded audience stayed respectfully and silently transfixed and when young models Lottie Moss and Rafferty Law made an appearance at Hilfiger Denim, the booth was blocked for ages.
With all this in mind, Zalando’s “festival of style and culture” actually transported the original Bread & Butter spirit–which had always been about entertainment, music, inspiration and bold brand staging rather than the plain presentation of collections–pretty well. "We have decided to include the most important participant of the market at the end of the chain, which is the consumer"– those were Bread & Butter founder Karl-Heinz Müller’s words back in 2013. Now this inclusion has finally taken place–though not as part of a traditional industry trade show, but in context of a freestanding fashion and music festival.
At the end of the day, two big questions remain. How much **** money did the whole event cost and how the hell shall that ever give a good return to Zalando?
During the three days of the event, we have reached more than 26.5 million people in all over Europe and beyond via live streaming.
Of course, there is a tremendous social output. Instagram has more than 3,000 #breadandbutter17 hashtags and another 85,000 for the pure #breandandbutter. Said Carsten Hendrich, vice president of brand marketing at Zalando: “During the three days of the event, we have reached more than 26.5 million people in all over Europe and beyond via live streaming–that already is more than four times more than in 2016.” Additionally, a whole lot of new customer data could probably be collected (remember the RFID wristband). But in the end, most visitors might have left Arena Berlin this weekend feeling that they had a great time at the Bread & Butter festival with the organizer’s name (which was surprisingly offish on all billboards and marketing material) not really feeling directly connected to it. Zalando’s real benefit from the event and if it’s actually possible to overcome it in a third-year edition remains to be seen. But in the end, making your potential customers engage with the fashion brands you sell in a generally appealing mix of related cultural happenings might not be the worst move for Zalando on the long run–if its investors keep on holding their wallets open.
Yes, this edition of Bread & Butter offered a seemingly contradictory mix of super niche and super commercial, of an anti-consumption preaching Vivienne Westwood and some of the biggest fast fashion makers worldwide and of public appearances by the most opposite persona ranging from super sterile fitness influencer Pamela Reif to edgy Hamburg trap rapper Haiyti. But doesn’t that exactly reflect the (commercial) highs and lows of Zalando’s own assortment? And, more importantly, isn’t that just what the span of interest and mindset of today’s Gen Z and Y fashion customer is all about?