Fashion Meets Music Festival hopes new look means it's dressed for success

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

Fashion Meets Music Festival hopes new look means it's dressed for success

Kevin Joy

The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio

In its second year, the Fashion Meets Music Festival has undergone more than a simple makeover.

Organizers essentially threw out the entire wardrobe and started from scratch, toning down expectations but pumping up resources.

When it returns to the Arena District this weekend, the privately funded event will be smaller in size and scope -- a response to an unprofitable debut in August 2014 that was bruised by low turnout, a lack of focus and controversy.

"We knew we made mistakes," festival spokeswoman Melissa Dickson said. "We had huge aspirations. We just went way too big."

Nonetheless, she and a staff of 13 are going all-in: Despite expecting two-thirds fewer guests than in 2014 (about 10,000 each on Saturday and Sunday this time), the music budget has been nearly tripled -- to just shy of $1 million.

The result is a lineup of higher-profile entertainers, including electronic rockers Awolnation, avant-garde chanteuse St. Vincent, Fight Song upstart Rachel Platten and rapper Ludacris.

"It's a big financial step up," said festival founder Bret Adams, a Columbus lawyer who, beyond some corporate sponsorship, is again funding the affair out of pocket.

"The acts are much bigger and much more expensive."

Also planned are moves intended to give fashion designers and exhibitors more of the festival spotlight, changes that observers say might be necessary for long-term survival.

By most accounts, the inaugural three-day event -- which, the organizer says, drew about 60,000 people total -- flopped.

The disappointing turnout was rooted in some planning glitches in 2014, beginning in June with the booking of R. Kelly as the festival headliner.

The outcry over the R&B singer's inclusion -- Kelly in 2008 was acquitted on 14 child-pornography charges tied to a graphic sex tape allegedly depicting him with an underage girl -- prompted some Columbus-area bands and sponsors to withdraw from the festival.

Tickets for Kelly's show at Nationwide Arena had been selling poorly already, then organizers decided a month before the Aug. 29 concert to cancel it.

A public-relations firm was hired to help stem the backlash, which made headlines in Rolling Stone magazine and USA Today.

Some in the central Ohio music community weren't satisfied.

"I'm glad he was pulled, but I don't think the intentions were necessarily aboveboard," said Leighanna DeRouen, one of several organizers of FemmeFest -- a grassroots, female-friendly music festival that arose last year in response to the Kelly fallout. (It will return to several area venues Thursday through Sunday.)

"I think (the Fashion Meets Music Festival) was tired of hearing people bitch about it."

Other criticisms of the inaugural event included the lack of involvement of national fashion brands, a mix of free and ticketed events whose logistics proved confusing, and an "urban camping" site that attracted only a few patrons willing to pitch tents in a field next to I-670.

PromoWest Productions, which owns and operates the Lifestyle Communities Pavilion and other midsize music venues, was brought on by festival organizers to book several outdoor acts last year at McFerson Commons -- plus three more related gigs in the LC Pavilion (one of which was ultimately canceled because of low ticket sales).

President Scott Stienecker, who with his PromoWest company severed ties with the festival in February, declined to comment for this story.

In the end, the festival lost substantial money, said Adams, although he declined to provide even a ballpark figure.

Adams doesn't expect to turn a profit this year, either, he said, but he remains optimistic about the event's future.

"I wouldn't risk everything I've worked for my entire life if I didn't believe in the potential," said Adams, who isn't currently practicing law. "It's going to have year 20."

Which explains why he and others went back to the drawing board for the 2015 festival in the hope of bouncing back and redesigning its image.

Among the changes:

--Instead of three days, the show will run for two. Rather than playing out on Arena District streets, at the LC Pavilion and at the Greater Columbus Convention Center, the 2015 festival will be contained to three stages, all within McFerson Commons and a portion of W. Nationwide Boulevard.

--Entry will be ticketed, with one- and two-day passes (priced at $60 and $100, respectively) sold. A Groupon discount, however, remained available as of Sunday .

--A fashion tent with a capacity of 400 will be erected on McFerson Commons. About 20 collections will be featured throughout the weekend, with some of the runway shows hosting live music. One, by San Francisco retailer ModCloth, will use a few festival-goers as models.

--The carnival rides and fair-food stands will give way to local food trucks, set up on the same strip where clothiers hawk their wares.

--A new partnership with the Columbus College of Art & Design has birthed a design competition and an "art on the park" installation showcasing student work.

--Instead of dozens of after-party music shows spread across town, late-night acts will be confined to the Park Street Complex -- a four-club compound across from the North Market.

--Camping won't be offered.

Going forward, Adams said, "I really, truly believe that this will be a nationally recognized festival."

The concerted effort to bring fashion more closely into the fold represents a positive step forward, said Columbus designer (and Abercrombie & Fitch veteran) Horacio Nieto, who this year is producing the festival's fashion component.

"It's a complete 180," said Nieto, who in 2014 showed and sold his goods in the convention center, a location that drew limited traffic for many festival exhibitors.

"Our goal was to make sure fashion is in the footprint."

And there's room to grow.

As was the case in 2014, none of the major central Ohio retail giants -- such as Abercrombie, Express and Victoria's Secret -- is a participant or sponsor.

Adams declined to share specifics but said he has talked to some companies that said they are taking a wait-and-see approach and might get involved in future years.

Festival organizers actively pursued a more diverse slate of fashion-forward musical talent (among those pitched: Janelle Monae, Tove Lo and Haim). In the end, the 40-act lineup is smaller than 2014's slate of 60 featured artists.

Jerry DiPizzo, the Worthington-based saxophonist for the jam-rock band O.A.R., which will perform on Saturday at the festival, stepped in as an adviser.

One of his suggestions: Have designers offer clothes on racks backstage for bands to peruse (and possibly wear) before a set -- an "organic" exchange DiPizzo encountered at the Bonnaroo and Austin City Limits festivals.

DiPizzo didn't fault the Columbus festival organizers for overreaching last year.

"Sometimes you've got to dress the part to get the part," he said.

A targeted yet flexible strategy going forward is key, said Philip Blaine, a Los Angeles-based event producer who for eight years served as director for the famed Coachella music festival near Palm Springs, Calif.

Many festivals, he said, lose money in the early years.

The long-term plans and branding are what can turn fledging events into destination hot spots. A notable example is Chicago's annual Lollapalooza, founded in 1991 as a touring festival that now sells tens of thousands of tickets before even releasing its entertainment lineup.

"A true festival is not a series of concerts on a series of stages -- there's so much nuance," said Blaine, who this year met with the Fashion Meets Music Festival organizers. "Survival is the key, but it's not formulaic.

"You have to make sure you're innovating and evolving and learning."



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