Fashion Gets Its First Official Airline

Forget the friendly skies: Welcome to the fashion skies. The industry is getting its first official airline.

Etihad Airways, the national airline of the United Arab Emirates, has signed on to sponsor 17 of the WME/IMG fashion events around the world, including fashion weeks in New York, London, Milan and Berlin, starting with Sydney Fashion Week on May 15.

It makes sense: After all, the fashion sector spends a lot of time aloft. When you think about it, it’s hard not to wonder why it took an airline so long to realize the opportunity.

Just flying the basic fashion circuit during the ready-to-wear women’s collections means country-jumping four times twice a year. Throw in men’s wear and couture, and maybe a trip to Havana and Rio for Cruise — and that’s even before you count jaunts to exotic locales for glossy magazine shoots, store openings or red-carpet premieres and so on — and the trips add up.

With editors, models, designers, hair and makeup people, photographers, producers, sound engineers and the like all getting aboard, well, you do the math. According to IMG, about 100,000 travelers head to New York for fashion week alone. And speaking from experience, most of the people involved dread getting on a plane. If you can change even a small fraction of that, the possible halo effect could be huge, as Etihad has realized.

Now the airline wants to be the default option when all those people going to all those fashion weeks need to book a flight — kind of like how Peter Marino has become the default option when a luxury brand wants to reimagine a flagship store, and how Christian Louboutin has become the default option for a high-heeled shoe. And it wants to attract everyone who wants a piece of that world, which if you go by the Instagram followings of, say, Gigi Hadid or Olivier Rousteing, is quite a lot.

All of which sounds pretty good, except that Etihad, as it is well aware, has not traditionally been the fashion fliers’ go-to airline (those tend to be the usual suspects like Air France, British Airways and Delta, and some travelers were partial to the Concorde, before it was retired). If you listen to Patrick Pierce, Etihad’s vice president of sponsorship,and Mark Shapiro, IMG’s chief content officer, the airline has a lot of ideas about how to change all that.

A special “fashion flight,” with special fashion perks, on the big travel days between New York and London, or London and Milan? Why not! Amenities bags by a New York or Mumbai Fashion Week designer? Sure! Presumably, flight attendant outfits, too. The IMG fashion channel, M2M, offered as part of the entertainment system? Definitely. Also on the system, maybe, live-streaming of runway shows, so if you missed them during the week, you could catch up with them on the flight home; premieres of fashion films; and possibly — someday, because why not, you can dream — the ability to watch a show from your seat, order a dress off the runway and have it at home when you land.

It helps that Abu Dhabi is a hub between East and West. Etihad also has code-share agreements with airlines such as Alitalia, all of which will be pulled into the fashion week deal. And it has cargo planes, so if a Paris-based designer needs to ship a collection to, say, Japan, for a special event, the airline can do that. To oil the relationship wheels and to demonstrate what the airline can bring to the catwalk, it is co- sponsoring the debut Oscar de la Renta show at Australian Fashion Week next month.

Beyond the obvious, however, that Etihad has seen the potential of fashion week involvement, the move reflects a trend in the Middle East toward investing not in fashion products, but in actual fashion brands. This month, Alabbar Enterprises, the Dubai-based owner of Emaar Properties, took a stake of 100 million euros, or $113 million, in the Yoox Net-a-Porter Group. The Qatar-based Mayhoola for Investments owns Valentino, Pal Zileri and a stake in Anya Hindmarch, and the Bahrain-based Investcorp owns Georg Jensen.

In any case, Etihad is going all in. It has signed a multiyear contract with WME/IMG. (The airline would not specify the cost, but Mr. Pierce did say it was among their biggest financial commitments.) So the two businesses have a while to see if their plan works. Air travel has been getting progressively less glamorous. It will be interesting to see if this deal can spur a broader course correction.

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