Kids Clothier French Toast Pioneers a Pandemic-Era Necessity: The Socially Distanced Photo Shoot

How to shoot a fall apparel collection during the “new normal"

a student standing on a white background in the middle of a park
French Toast's back-to-school marketing for fall 2020 stripped everything down to its essentials. French Toast

Now that the United States has begun to reopen, apparel brands are hoping for the return of shoppers—and perhaps even permitting themselves to think optimistically about their autumn collections. After all, fall is just around the corner, and many shoppers start looking for chilly weather clothing as early as July.

But as with so many other facets of business, the pandemic hasn’t just changed shopping patterns but marketing, too.

Few brands are feeling that shift as acutely as French Toast. As a maker of accessibly priced school clothes for kids, the 35-year-old label stakes much of its vitality on back-to-school shopping. And since parents will start thinking about school clothes in just a few weeks, now’s the time to get the creative work done, since it’s all scheduled to go live on June 30.

The question was: Where do you even begin? Nobody’s sure when kids will be heading back to school, much less what school’s going to look like once they get there. And thanks to social-distancing mandates, creative directors can’t even set up shoots the way they used to.

Instead of appearing in school classrooms, models posed in or around their homes.
French Toast

The necessity to produce new assets, yet do it in a way that’s both thematically and epidemiologically appropriate to the times, led French Toast into wholly uncharted territory: the pandemic-appropriate photo shoot.

Matthew Buesing, vp of customer and digital marketing, said that as soon as America went into lockdown at the end of March, it was obvious that the traditional photo shoot wasn’t going to happen.

“When we got through that initial first phase of the quarantine, we said: ‘We have to throw the book out. Everything we’ve done in the past is now out the window,’” he said.

To maintain social distance, solo shots took the place of the more traditional group motifs.
French Toast

The first things to change were the theme and setting of the creative work. Traditionally, photo shoots for back-to-school collections feature groups of grinning kids clowning on the school bus, sitting in classrooms and frolicking on the playground.

“That’s exactly what we used to do—paint this idyllic picture of school,” Buesing said. “And that was good. That was fine for years. But these changes have accelerated our positioning.”

And so French Toast’s creative director switched out the venue. At locations in Longmeadow, Mass., the Bronx borough of New York City and the New Jersey suburb of West New York, kids sporting French Toast’s back-to-school looks would be shown not in classrooms or the school cafeteria, but in wide-open spaces like parks, sidewalks and even their own front yards.

Suburban driveways doubled as sets, where mom and dad became the stylists.
French Toast

But switching to nontraditional locations was relatively easy compared to the next hurdle: How do you run a professional shoot when nobody—models, stylists, photographers—can get within six feet of one another?

Pulling off a socially distanced photo session required several new protocols. Most of the young models appear by themselves and, in cases where group was needed, the kids clustered only with siblings who live under the same roof. Meanwhile, parents held down styling duties. Art direction took place via FaceTime and Zoom and, much of the time, it was mom taking the photos on her iPhone. Finally, since nobody’s sure if face masks will be compulsory once it’s time to go back to school, the kids donned masks for some shots and went mask-less for others.

Since back-to-school protocols remain uncertain, kids appeared both with and without masks.
French Toast

One unanticipated benefit of all of these makeshift procedures was that the creative work had an authenticity to it that’s rarely seen in catalog shots. Stripping away all of the layers of production yielded a product that looked more like the everyday pics you’d put on Instagram and felt like an outgrowth of the current times—since, in fact, that’s pretty much what all of it was.

In an attempt to capture some of that authenticity, the company even asked the participants to record video: Kids confessed their mixed feelings about returning to school, and parents talked about what it’s been like having to keep kids at home during the school year.

And, paradoxically enough, the marketing department learned that their target audience wasn’t just the parents who bought and paid for the clothes, but the kids who actually go to school in them.

The brand encouraged lots of behind-the-scenes pics, too, some of which it plans to use.
French Toast

“In the past, most children’s clothing companies were focused on mom,” Buesing said. “It’s different now. And the change in the world has made us reposition ourselves.

“This [approach] will have legs,” he added, “and change how we create content for the future.”

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.