Add Festival Season to the Fashion Calendar

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Barbie Ferreira is 20 — not too young, it would seem, to feel nostalgia for a time when Coachella, the California music festival that for many marks the advent of spring, seemed rife with possibilities, not least the chance for sartorial self-invention.

“The last time I went, about two years ago,” Ms. Ferreira, a model, said wistfully, “you’d see a lot of people wearing these craziest looks: allover fishnet, braided scarves, flowering head gear, tattoos and zigzagging body art and all kinds of mismatched chains.

“The point was to be wild, to not look like everybody else.”

She was describing a way of dressing, and a state of mind, that rising numbers of retailers are scrambling to distill, a make-it-up-as-you-go fashion moment massed under the rubric “festival style.”

Indeed, a look alternately known in past seasons as gypset, vagabond chic or haute hippie — all feathers and roughed-up denim, suede and fringe — has now become a recurrent part of the yearly fashion cycle, something akin to “back to school,” the late-summer selling period focused on the backpacks, flares and logo tees embraced by the high school set.

Festival has parallels as well with the retail season billed as resort or cruise, the antiquated concept once aimed at older, affluent consumers planning their late-winter getaways.

“It’s become the new cruise,” said Marybeth Schmitt, the H & M communications director for North America. “It sets up a fantasy, a younger person’s vision of a holiday that’s set not in the tropics but the desert.”

Among those exploiting the trend is Bloomingdale’s, with embroidered denims, flouncy cross-stitched peasant shirts and festival-oriented collaborations with Beltaine, 7 for All Mankind and other brands. That selection, which goes on display next week in an in-store boutique, is supplemented by an online “festival edit” and by an entire bank of zanily exuberant Lexington Avenue windows.

“Festival — it’s sort of its own fashion season, much like prom is,” said Liz Jones, a vice president and divisional merchandise manager at Bloomingdale’s. “Consumers see it as a destination, a happening, something that millennials are planning on and imagining as part of their lives.”

Forgoing a store-within-a-store, Neiman Marcus is operating an online-only festival edit to lure younger customers. Other predominantly youth-oriented merchants and fast fashion outposts include Zara, with its daisy-embroidered tops, frayed denim minis and floral kimonos; Urban Outfitters, with a web-based festival edit encompassing tube tops, cropped T-shirts and leopard-print shorts; and Topshop, offering sequined jumpsuits, crocheted bra tops and tasseled sundresses.

Nor are cosmetics and accessories left out of the mix. Net-a-Porter and Forever 21 are promoting wares that include pearly foundation, glow-in-the dark sneakers and fringed Saint Laurent sandals.

These days merchants, and designers, acknowledge the trend as a cultural bellwether, as was perhaps inevitable. The scene each year is densely populated by so-called influencers: Zoë Kravitz, Emily Ratajkowski and Jaden Smith and their ubiquitous like, their media-savvy followers inclined to copy every well-placed ruff and frill on Instagram feeds of their own.

“Festival has become one of our most important seasons,” said Linda Chang, the vice president for retail and store operations at Forever 21. “It’s anticipated by our customer. Starting in March, they come in specifically asking for a festival look.”

Among college-age shoppers, the season has supplanted “spring break,” a subcategory that, in the phrase of Jaclyn Johnson, a trend watcher and the chief executive of Create & Cultivate, an online platform and conference series geared to digital entrepreneurs, “has become too cheesy and uncontrollable.”

Festival fashion has taken over the market, she said, getting the 18-to-21 demographic that luxury marketers tend to miss. Neiman Marcus, for one, is not about to take that chance.

“Now that so many people are shopping online, the ability to editorialize is what attracts customers,” said Ken Downing, the store’s fashion director and senior vice president. Its website’s magazinelike display type and photography aim to sell a concept, the idea of a look.

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“Festival season has its own sensibility,” Mr. Downing said. Whether or not one actually decamps for the desert, a festival edit is a road map for young customers. It becomes their runway, one that is, he said, “less esoteric and arguably more relevant to the way they live.”

Still, there are skeptics who deplore the codification and rampant exploitation of a style that originated in 1960s counterculture. Rachel Zoe, who sells her own festival-inflected fashions on her website, some with subtle references to Woodstock, remarked that today the granddaddy of festivals lives on primarily as a fantasy.

As may be only fitting. “‘Festival,’ I call it karaoke culture,” said Elisa Goodkind, a stylist turned author and social media entrepreneur. “It’s a fake version of the real thing, commodified to the point that it’s frozen.”

Yet the fantasy persists, with some timely modifications, with stores now tossing updated blends of street wear and athletic inspirations into the seasonal Cuisinart.

“The trends are very different this year,” Ms. Chang of Forever 21 said. “There is a lot more that’s ’90s-inspired, a lot of sport, and also a mix between street and futuristic looks.” At Forever 21, that is reflected in chain-mail bralettes worn with track pants, miniature backpacks, glow-in-the dark headbands and beauty accessories that include face glitter and assorted lip tattoos.

The marketers at H & M are striving for similar currency. An LED billboard over Times Square promotes its exclusive alliance with Coachella, which kicks off next week. To raise the chain’s hipness quotient, a video and marketing campaign includes the rock-surf band the Atomics (Lucky Blue Smith and siblings).

The stores themselves segregate items — pink tulle maxiskirts, a metallic anorak, denim shorts, hoodies and slip dresses among them — which are generally stripped of frills for added versatility.

“We’ve homed in on a lot of cleaner things,” said Joshua Kalipeni, a spokesman for the chain. “A lot of these things are meant to have a life beyond festivals. After all, once the season is over and done, where are you going to wear a fringed maxiskirt?”

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