View Slideshow

Broadway, movie premieres — and New York Fashion Week?

This story first appeared in the February 20, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

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?”


She first thought of the idea a few years back when a producer for a show she was working on accidentally ordered a transparent tent. While it “looked like a giant condom” outside the Bryant Park Grill, construction workers, professionals and other passersby were enthralled and stopped to see what was going on, she said.

“I’m not trying to disrespect the fashion industry. I’m not trying to put a show in the middle of a football field and make a spectacle of it,” Cutrone said. “But I see a lot of designers spending a lot of money — that frankly they don’t have — to put on a show and give free content to questionable media like Iloveearrings.com or whatever.”

Vanessa Bismarck, whose company Bismarck Phillips is producing 12 shows this season, isn’t opposed to the idea of emerging designers courting consumers in the tents. “I can totally understand and relate to young designers selling some tickets [not unlike sponsor seats] for whom show expenses are difficult to digest.”

Publicist Paul Wilmot is all for selling a limited number of tickets for a charity, especially if they are sold on Facebook or anywhere else that generates online buzz. “I’ve got news for you: If a show seats 500 people, you can spare 50 seats,” he said. But Wilmot isn’t championing selling seats for commercial purposes. “If you have got to sell seats for a fashion show, you shouldn’t be doing a fashion show. This isn’t a Yankees game.”

As for what actual consumers think of the idea, the 105 women stopped by WWD said they would buy a fashion show ticket if they were available. Many thought tickets were already up for grabs, but had presumed they couldn’t afford them.

Twenty-two others said they had no interest in spending money for fashion shows. Another 11 women were definite maybes, depending on the designer, the price, the location, the time, travel expenses, goodie bags and one even inquired if taxes were included. One passerby suggested organizers offer a three-show, one-day pass (presumably the fashion equivalent of a MetroCard) and another recommended magazine-sponsored shows with a host of labels.

Celeste Yee seemed to capture the get-all-you-can mentality: “I would only want to go if you get something. If you get a scarf that was designed exclusively for everyone there or they give you Champagne and chocolates while you are there. It doesn’t have to be expensive, but it has to be exclusive — only for the people who were there. You know, something that you could take back that would let you say, ‘This is what I once did and this is what I got.’”

While several respondents said they would pay just to see what they imagined was a circuslike experience, the majority of the affirmatives were specific about which designer they wanted to see. With six votes in his favor, Marc Jacobs was singled out as the most sought-after show. Next in line was Chanel.

The fact is, selling tickets to fashion shows might create a new kind of fashion Darwinism — in both a good and bad sense. What happens to those designers who don’t do boffo at the box office? After all, observers noticed many more empty seats at shows this season — even at some of the high-profile brands.

While a few of the women polled said they would pay anything to attend a show, most capped their investment around $50. Of those who pinpointed just how much they would pony up for a ticket, the average going rate was nearly $160. A few high rollers, like a young woman who said she would spend $1,000 to catch a Marc Jacobs show, helped drive up the average.

There were a few surprises along the way, such as the 60-ish self-described Eileen Fisher fan at Bergdorf Goodman who immediately pegged 3.1 Phillip Lim as the show to see. Or the teenage H&M shopper who questioned why someone would want to see clothes they can’t afford anyway.

And that might present another major hurdle to the concept, which has been tried before. Two years ago, IMG lost money when it launched Fashion Week Live, a consumer-oriented runway show that featured such models as Naomi Campbell, Gemma Ward and Tyson Beckford wearing looks from a bevy of American designers. Mallis declined to say how much of an investment the shows in Houston and San Francisco were, but emphasized that timing, staffing and a variety of other factors she declined to discuss came into play. However, the shows were “well-received in those markets,” she said.

The show’s producer, Kevin Krier, described the 30-minute event, which included a video component, as “a TV version of a fashion show,” with guests paying between $100 and $1,000 to attend the show, a VIP cocktail hour and-or after party. But despite each city’s enthusiastic 1,000-person crowd, he isn’t sold on the prospect of consumer-friendly shows. “These shows are really designed to allow designers to present their vision for the season to esteemed professionals who have an understanding of fashion,” he said. And truth be told, the general public might find some of the more sterile shows with somber models “a little boring,” Krier said.

That said, The Heart Truth’s annual Red Dress Collection is a big draw for its celebrity-studded catwalk, said Krier, who produces it. “It’s really interesting to know that thousands love to be there and we could sell tickets. The show is essentially celebrities walking in the best American designer clothes. It’s a lark, but it’s a wink to all sorts of entertainment,” he said. “We receive 2,000 requests to come to some of the shows we are doing. That is astonishing to me. What we do, and I mean that collectively as an industry, in this economic climate is so important. It is interesting to know there is such hunger for this knowledge.”


View Slideshow