Will Nicole save the day?

As the fashion season enters it’s final furlong, the one common denominator across all the major cities has been the dearth of A-list celebrities in the front rows. Sure, J.Lo and JenniferConnolly popped by shows in New York, but the few and far between megastars competed with the Us Weekly and Star set of Jessica Simpson, the Olsen twins and Paris Hilton.

Even in Milan, where Giorgio Armani and Versace once seemed to guarantee Oscar-winning spectators, there was nary a modern star in sight. Armani mustered Duran Duran and, as always, Sophia Loren, and Dolce & Gabbana got Victoria Beckham and the Presley clan — Priscilla, Lisa Marie and her daughter, Riley Keough. But the new, more focused Versace skipped the celebrities in the hope the lenses would concentrate on the clothes.

So far in Paris, there haven’t been any major global stars, either. At Dior on Tuesday, the front row included French A-lister Isabelle Adjani, but she was about the only big celeb seen throughout the day.

Nicole Kidman remains the primary hope for the season, since she’s expected to attend the Chanel show on Saturday.But there’s a commercial reason for her appearance — she’s the new face of Chanel No.5.

And that seems to be the answer these days. While in the past, stars went to fashion shows because they were, um, fun, now there tends to be a business reason. J.Lo made the rounds of New York shows this time because she’s becoming more involved in her fashion company, Sweetface Fashions, while Paris Hilton is signing licenses left and right for everything from jewelry to a fragrance.

So it could be a conflict between interests. The fashion houses, on the one hand, want the publicity a megastar attracts by sitting in the front row. Remember Julia Roberts and Gwyneth Paltrow at Armani? Or the publicity Donatella Versace received from making over Chelsea Clinton during her White House years? Those celebrities cost money, though — stars don’t fly coach or stay in bed-and-breakfasts, and they often demand free clothes and holidays in exchange for showing up.Those freebies are becoming scarcer in these penny-pinching times. And, from the fashion houses’ viewpoint, is it worth the investment if the star is then going to go out and promote her own fashion or accessories line, which is often competing with theirs? The answer increasingly appears to be “no.”

As Dan Caten designer of DSquared, said, “We’re relatively new to the world of fashion shows, but for us, a celebrity is the link between the fashion world and the real world. If Madonna wears a pair of DSquared jeans, that’s a huge vehicle that brings us closer to our consumer. We’re flattered if a star comes to us, as long as she pays for everything, including the clothes. We’resmall and we certainly can’t afford to pay for hotels, meals or plane tickets. And then it wouldn’t be fair for the kid who saves up to buy our clothes.”

A spokeswoman for Chloé said the house prefers to dress stars than to have them at the show. Vuitton said that, while having stars at the show increases the brand’s visibility, the house refuses to pay celebrities to attend. “Sometimes we miss opportunities for this reason,” said a spokeswoman. “Of course, we try to be generous with our supporters with gifts that we like seeing them wearing.”

Of course, the Europeans always have had a different attitude. The one place where celebrity madness still seems to reign is New York, where, during New York Fashion Week, a show wasn’t a show without some B- or C-list celebrity pushing her way through and plopping down in the front row. Marc Jacobs drew a star-studded crowd that included J.Lo, Liv Tyler, Kate Hudson, Winona Ryder and Natalie Portman. But the rest of the week was decidedly the In Touch set, to the point where one wayward socialite, after being pushed and pushed for several minutes at the Oscar de la Renta show, blurted out, “Jessica Simpson is a fire hazard!” over and over.

It’s been the trend of New York Fashion Week in the past few years: celebrities pushing socialite clients — not to mention retailers, fashion editors and stylists — out of the front row. It’s not rocket science to decipher that in our culture, even a C-list celebrity trumps all. But for this round of shows, the celebrity brouhaha reached fever pitch. The most obvious reason is that stars shuttle regularly between New York and L.A. Manhattan is ground zero for promoting their projects. And for many celebrities, as soon as you roll out the red carpet, they’ll be in line to tread on it.“At this point, if Ruth Buzzi showed up at a fashion show, I wouldn’t be surprised,” said Simon Doonan, the director of merchandising at Barneys New York. “Nobody quite understands what it’s got to do with next season’s clothes.”

Though Doonan groused that the whole scene is the fashion industry’s punishment for lionizing even the most B-list star — say Elisabeth Rohm — he thinks it distinguishes New York’s fashion culture, which is generally considered to be less creative than Paris and Milan. What’s more, the attention encourages new designers (good and bad) to join the fray. “New York Fashion Week used to be the stepsister,” he explained. “But maybe this is the role New York is going to occupy. We may not have the most original talent, but we have the biggest circus.”

And the New York shows were often as much about relationships, or relations, as they were about fashion. Some are more obvious, like Jack Nicholson, who stood on the runway for photographers at his daughter Jennifer’s, presentation. Claire Danes hits Zac Posen’s show whenever she’s in town. They have been friends for years, though it didn’t hurt that she has two movies out this fall, “Stage Beauty” and “Shopgirl.” Michael Vollbracht has designed gowns for Patricia Clarkson, so she attended Bill Blass. Lopez has been featured in ads for Vuitton, also designed by Jacobs, while Coty produces fragrances for both of them. As Robert Duffy, president of Marc Jacobs, said, “She’s in the family.”

Other links seemed more tenuous, like Tori Spelling at J.Mendel, Jennifer Connelly at Vera Wang, Amanda Peet at Peter Som or Stephen Dorff at Luella.

What many of these stars — or their publicists — will say is that their clients love fashion or they’re attending to support their designer friends. And undoubtedly, a few pictures of a celebrity can get a designer’s name out there. It certainly helped with Jeffrey Chow, who had Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps sitting with Lenny Krayzelburg and Ian Crocke.

“I really didn’t know what to expect, other than I was interested to see some new fashion,” said Phelps.When asked how the Olympians made it to his show, Chow admitted, “I’m not 100 percent sure. I think my p.r. people pulled it off.”

But a celeb is often just gravy. The clothes that are on the runway are considerably more important. Who cares if Christina Ricci goes to Benjamin Cho if nobody buys his gowns? Lest we forget, a fashion show is, at its core, a trade presentation for retailers and journalists.

“I do not think that celebrities understand that shows can make or break the season for a designer,” said one fashion publicist. “They’re out to promote themselves.”

For some, though, the overexposure issue is a problem. As a result, one publicist, who declined to be named, said it’s his job to step in to prevent it. “Sure, I’ve told my clients, ‘Don’t go.’ I think it can diminish you as an actress. You don’t see Meryl Streep sitting next to Paris Hilton.” On the other hand, he has at times encouraged clients without much visibility to attend.

“I have one client whom everyone thought was just this L.A. girl, and I said, ‘Put your hair back and go to Calvin Klein.’ And it was really good for her.”

Most, though, especially the major A-listers, have learned the lesson, that it’s not worth all the trouble despite the free flight, hotel, holiday and wardrobe. Even Rose McGowan, who’s not known to stay home a lot, has had enough. “Mostly because I find it intimidating,” she said.

“I don’t think it helps your career, but I think it can help you get free clothes,” McGowan added. “A very fair trade, but sometimes I’d rather pay and not be a whore.”

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