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PARIS — Nice dresses. Pretty pictures. But where’s the beef?

That’s the lament of retailers, designers and advertising executives as they survey the evening dresses dominating the covers of September fashion magazines like Vogue, In Style, W, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, Glamour and Marie Claire, and pine instead for exciting day clothes that might actually incite women to shop.

This story first appeared in the September 6, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“One wonders what the fashion directors are thinking because what’s selling faster than anything is luxury sportswear,” quipped Janet Brown, a retailer in Port Washington, N.Y. “What could be more fabulous on the cover than a Marni ensemble or a fabulous Jil Sander shearling? Why put someone in evening clothes when we’re all hugely inventoried in daytime sportswear?”

“I’d like to see more day,” agreed Robert Burke, vice president and senior fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman. “You want something that says ‘fall.’ There are so many glamorous, beautiful day clothes and fabulous coats throughout the collections.”

He said “iconic” fall covers, like the September 1991 Vogue featuring Linda Evangelista in a Ralph Lauren plaid suit and black beret, are the sort that magazines should revisit.

Charles DeCaro, partner in New York ad agency Laspata/DeCaro, said the choice of eveningwear relates to the excessive use of ubiquitous celebrities.

“Where have all the models gone? Where is it written that red-carpet clothing and celebrity are mutually exclusive? Is there some heretofore, unreported star aversion to tweed?” he asked, summing up the crux of the issue in another question: “Are fashion magazines expected to herald the season or provide a promotional vehicle for a respective celebrity’s project du jour?”

“It’s a missed opportunity,” agreed designer Dana Buchman, long a champion of realistic fashions. “It’s the launch of the season. I’d rather see suits or day clothes — clothes that American women can see themselves in and aspire to.”

Brown said the eveningwear covers confound her since the category represents less than 5 percent of her business and the appetite this season for special-occasion dresses is exceptionally low. “The magazines seem to be more in a fantasy world,” she said. “During times of erratic business, it would be great to have the magazines behind us.”

At the very least, critics of the covers said September is too early to feature eveningwear, which tends to be delivered to stores later than suits and sweaters. Indeed, one eagle-eyed observer noted that the Donna Karan gown that actress Kate Hudson is wearing on the cover of Vogue is from that designer’s cruise collection, not her fall line.

Sally Singer, fashion news-features director at Vogue, defended the magazine’s cover choice as emblematic of fashion’s fall direction. “This season is really about shine and about glamour, for day and evening,” she said. “Our readers don’t see a difference between day and evening; they see a direction.”

Indeed, some observers cheered the glamour glut.

“I thought all the covers looked beautiful,” said Caryn Lerner, president and chief marketing officer of Escada USA. “Trying to create some excitement in our business is what’s important right now. In hindsight, it could be very good for our evening business.”

“It’s much more glamorous to see gowns,” agreed Sam Shahid, president and creative director of New York-based Shahid & Co. He characterized the trend as a post-Sept. 11 reaction. “It’s to say psychologically, ‘Let’s get a party going.’ I think we’re trying to rebuild,” he said. “People are down, and I think they’re trying to add some glamour to it, some fantasy, some imagination. It takes you back to another time.”

Julie Gilhart, vice president of merchandising at Barneys New York, said she understands why magazines opt for celebrities to sell their magazines and praised the covers as “pretty and glamorous.” But she allowed that more variety and surprise — not to mention a handbag or scarf — would be appreciated. She cited Vogue’s September 1988 cover of a Christian Lacroix jacket with jeans — Anna Wintour’s first as editor in chief — as memorable in this regard.

“It’d be interesting to see something mixed up rather than one designer head-to-toe,” she said. “Our customers definitely mix things — or even add a piece of vintage.”

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