By  on February 20, 2009

Broadway, movie premieres — and New York Fashion Week?

With the shows — even in the midst of a recession — as much about hype and hoopla as hemlines and hairdos, the concept isn’t so far-fetched. After all, there already are enough TV cameras cruising the shows in search of any celebrity — A, B, C or otherwise — to make a Cecil B. DeMille extravaganza. So it’s only a model’s stride-length to the idea that even more extras — and paying ones at that — could be invited, creating a new revenue stream for designers and even more publicity.

And there are plenty of eager customers. A recent, informal WWD poll of 105 women in New York stores and on the streets found they were willing to pay for the privilege of sitting in a tiny chair and watching expressionless models walk by.

How much? About $160 on average, with the most in-demand shows being Marc Jacobs, Oscar de la Renta, Betsey Johnson, Badgley Mischka, Vera Wang and Ralph Lauren. And Chanel, too, but that’s obviously not part of New York Fashion Week.

There are several hurdles to the idea, however. First of all, most designers and their public relations people aren’t too keen on it, believing inviting consumers to fashion weeks might confuse them (as if they already aren’t confused by having wool coats on sale in July but not February).

“I feel very strongly it is a very bad idea for consumers to see clothes that they won’t be able to buy for six or seven months,” said Diane von Furstenberg, president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

Michael Kors concurred. “No way, no how” was the official word from his spokesman, who said the company would never consider exploring such an undertaking.

In addition, IMG, which organizes the Bryant Park tents and, beginning in fall 2010, the tents at Lincoln Center, forbids designers from selling tickets to the general public, even though some people (including the occasional cash-strapped fashion journalist) have been known to do so. “Everybody is trying to make money one way or the other, but not always with our blessing,” IMG Fashion’s senior vice president Fern Mallis said. For now, IMG is content to limit its nonindustry attendees to sponsor seats, which are wedged near the photographers’ pit.

Still, TV and the Internet have created a heightened awareness of fashion weeks worldwide, further blurring any notion of seasonality in consumers’ minds. IMG has created the occasional consumer event around the Bryant Park shows, and toyed with the idea of establishing a full-blown series of shows for in-season collections, but Mallis said, “It’s ideological — it’s not on paper yet.”

This season, there is a QVC show featuring some of the designer collections sold on the home shopping channel, and American Express footed the bill for von Furstenberg to stage a second runway show for select cardholders to see her spring offerings at $150 a pop.

The designer said she will “absolutely look into” creating more such in-season fashion shows in the tents for consumers, perhaps with stores. Von Furstenberg agreed to Wednesday’s show on the condition it would spotlight the collection currently in stores, with only a glimpse of fall styles. She said, “I’m sure it will be great for business,” since each of the 800 guests left with a $100 gift certificate for her stores.

That may be one reason why beleaguered retailers are generally more bullish about consumers at fashion shows than designers. Saks Fifth Avenue’s senior vice president and general merchandise manager Joseph Boitano backs the prospect of earmarking some seats at shows for consumers. “It’s a terrific idea. Consumers are very interested in fashion and it would be an opportunity for them to see the collections,” he said.

Barneys New York’s creative director Simon Doonan has a more profit-minded view. “They would probably be better served giving tickets to their top customers, the people who actually walk into a store and buy their designs. YSL always had les clients at his shows,” he said. “In ‘recessionary’ times the customer should be king…and the rest of the time, too!”

Especially if a show lifts their spirits. A recent survey proved shoppers will crack their wallets for purchases that make them feel alive. Basically, it would be comparable to a fan seeing a favorite musician in concert for the first time, said the survey’s co-author, Ryan Howell, a San Francisco State University assistant professor of psychology.

“If you have a positive association with a brand, you intend to buy it again or to repeat the experience,” he said.

Straightforward enough, but what’s even more enticing about the tents is that “people want to be invited into this world,” said publicist Kelly Cutrone, a big believer in selling seats to shoppers. While she doesn’t expect the Oscar de la Rentas and Carolina Herreras of the world to be inclined to do so, she does think the concept would be a gift to young designers trying to save a few bucks. This season, 80 seats for Davidelfin, one of her clients, were sold to benefit a Nepalese orphanage — mostly to friends and friends-of-friends. “All the people who came make more than $75,000 and have a passion for fashion,” she said. “And when you look at rows four through seven, what are we really talking about?”

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