By  on October 23, 2007

Reporters for, People and In Style frantically scanned the front row at the Heatherette show in Los Angeles last week looking for major stars to interview. This being the center of the film world, was there an Uma? A Nicole? A Julia Roberts?

No. But there was Cat Deeley, the host of "So You Think You Can Dance" — or they always could have grabbed heiress Lydia Hearst, daughter of Patricia, and reformed porn starlet Jenna Jameson after they walked the runway in between grease-stained male models clad in swimsuits or denim.

Then there was "The Hoff" himself: David Hasselhoff made the show rounds during the week, leading one Web commentator to say he was "almost a daily fixture" after he was photographed clowning around with Steve-O, best known for appearing on "Jackass."

Welcome to Los Angeles Fashion Week which, after four years at Smashbox Studios in Culver City, Calif., seemed to be a maelstrom of the once-was, might-be and never-will-be. The week was one where Jaime Pressly was treated as a major designer (and she showed off-site), and even local retailers — let alone major national ones — couldn't be lured to the shows.

"I couldn't sit through another show if you paid me," said John Eshaya, vice president of women's wear at Ron Herman, which is renowned for fostering local talent.

"My team just got back from Europe and we've been seeing shows since the second week in September," said Ron Frasch, president and chief merchandising officer of Saks Fifth Avenue. "It's now the end of October. To pick up and go to's not going to happen. We have a business to run."

Frasch was even in town, as was Pete Nordstrom, executive vice president and president of merchandising at Nordstrom. But neither attended any fashion shows — the Saks executive was the host at a cocktail party for Christian Louboutin at S Bar in Hollywood and returned to New York the next day. Nordstrom appeared at a party in Venice, Calif., on Oct. 16 to celebrate the launch of a T-shirt designed by Edun's Rogan Gregory and Ali Hewson for the One campaign. Soon after, he flew to Denver for the opening of the company's third store there.When it came to the designers, the runway parade seemed to be one little-known name after another. Top Los Angeles-based designers such as Max Azria, Monique Lhuillier, Jenni Kayne, Trina Turk, Rodarte, Magda Berliner and Michelle Mason either show in New York or not at all.

"We don't show in Los Angeles because of the timing," Azria said. "It's almost a month after the New York shows. But I think [fashion week] is relevant to the industry — California has a fashion culture all its own."

Turk staged her first runway show in Los Angeles in 2003, and the next year created an installation in her shop on Third Street in Los Angeles but hasn't done anything since. "As much as I think it's fun to put on a show, it's incredibly time-consuming....from a business standpoint, it's never seemed to be worth the time involved," she said.

Sue Wong, who has shown at Smashbox every season since the beginning in fall 2003, said she might have reached the end of the road. "It seems like the quality of people that are showing has gone down. I don't recognize names. I might break off to my own separate venue. I might have gone as far as I can go with IMG [the fashion week's producer]."

While Bloomingdale's sent a team of buyers to the L.A. shows, industry sources close to IMG said profits for the event are marginal, at best. The marketing company declined to discuss financial details.

Besides, Fern Mallis, IMG Fashion's senior vice president, said, the shows are mainly about generating press.

"Some buyers are very happy to go to market showrooms and see clothes on a hanger, others like to see and understand a designer's vision and complete aesthetic, which only comes together on the runway with their music, hair and makeup and accessories," she said. "It often helps retailers to better sell a collection when they've seen it fully developed on the runway....Buyers are guests invited by the designers. It is not the organizers who cultivate the buyers."

But if free p.r. was the goal, there were few national or international media at the shows to generate it. No wonder: Most of the collections appeared to be derivative of what was already shown on the hundreds of runways in Paris, Milan, London and New York, and there were no emerging trends. Looks were often sent down the runway with trailing threads, missing buttons and unfinished seams.As for the front row: the biggest names, including Ashley Olsen, Diane Kruger, Rose McGowan, Rachel Bilson and Joy Bryant attended private events during the week hosted by major brands such as Elie Tahari, Cartier, Paul Smith, Christian Louboutin and Consuelo Castiglioni, with the press close behind. "Access Hollywood" skipped Smashbox this year, opting to air a segment on Emmy Award-winning actress and designer Pressly, who drew her "My Name Is Earl" co-stars to her off-site show.

The press looking for stars to ambush found little to report on. A German television crew captured Hasselhoff's arrival at Christian Audigier's show. Ross Mathews, aka "Ross the Intern," taped an interview for "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" with designer and biker Jesse James at the Heatherette show, but James admitted it was only because he had lost a bet with Mathews. And Mathews said the segment was "more about getting a reaction...not about fashion."

Questions about the impact of Los Angeles Fashion Week have intensified this season, admitted Davis Factor, co-founder of Smashbox, who suggested the comparisons to New York and the other collection venues were unfair. He said fashion week provided an affordable venue for a variety of designers — from red-carpet specialists such as Randolph Duke and Kevan Hall to lifestyle mavens in the vein of Audigier.

"We have a good group of designers this season," he said. "We have a little bit of everything. I feel that the buzz is good."

But Smashbox underwrote the Heatherette, Petro Zillia and Jeremy Scott shows, which Factor said costs $6,000 to $7,000 for each show, and Scott and Heatherette already showed in Paris and New York, respectively.

Duke, who last staged a runway show at New York Fashion Week in 2001, decided to present his couture collection at Smashbox instead of at his Los Angeles home just four weeks before the event. Duke has a small couture business and is closing a deal to produce a bridge line in addition to the lower-priced wares he sells on Home Shopping Network.

"Over cocktails, I agreed rather impulsively," he said. "I think they gave me too many martinis. I woke up and said, 'What have I done?' But I pulled it together and didn't think too much about expectations. It was intended purely as a press show. I did it so people would realize I wasn't dead."Duke continued, "I do think a tremendous effort has been made to up the ante, but one of the things prohibiting that is constantly talking about how it's not good enough. You can't compare it to Milan or New York. For anything to be creative you have to stop talking about it and become it."

For those seeking more buzz than sales, "L.A. gets you on the radar in a way that you can't in New York," said public relations executive Kelly Cutrone, although there was less press in Los Angeles. Cutrone's public relations firm, People's Revolution, was hired by IMG this season to help boost the designer roster at Smashbox.

Although some designers, such as Duke, got to show gratis because of sponsorships, prices for the runway at Smashbox range from $3,500 to $5,500, compared with the $25,000 to $47,500 fees for a spot at New York's Bryant Park. Those fees are still out of reach for most fledgling designers. That's not the case for a designer like Sue Wong, who has a $60 million business. She estimated she spends $45,000 to $50,000 for models, materials, the venue, gifts and a post-party. "That is probably a fraction of what anybody would really spend in New York," she said. "In New York, it would be $150,000 to $250,000."

Money is an issue for others.

"I think a lot of great talents here in L.A. are restricted due to lack of funding," said designer Louis Verdad, who has shown at Gen Art, Smashbox and this year at BoxEight, an alternative art and fashion event downtown that also gave designers a free venue at the Cathedral of St. Vibiana.

"If buyers were actually here that would be one thing, but that's just not the case," said jewelry designer Tarina Tarantino. "I'm sorry that designers who would help anchor L.A. Fashion Week like Trina Turk, Cynthia Vincent and Robert Rodriguez, who are seriously selling, choose not to show because they don't need to."

Verdad added, "The question is, 'Is this real fashion? Are the people behind this event supporting the real fashion of L.A.?' The platform here is to go crazy and create buzz. And to do that well you've got to mix the ready-to-wear with the runway. But if you're too creative you don't sell, if you're too basic you get bad reviews."Several designers said the standardized runway format at Smashbox Studios limits their ability to express themselves.

"There are a lot of artistic people coming out of L.A.," said Shannon Nataf, co-designer of Suh-Tahn, a year-old line that made its runway debut at Gen Art on Oct. 12. "But we need our own environment to showcase it."

A designer's dream might be a retailer's nightmare, however. Eshaya of Ron Herman said the designer's fantasy that is conveyed on the runway could give him the wrong impression about the collection. "I'd rather buy clothes [in a showroom] than sit through people's concepts," he said.

Instead of attending fashion week, Eshaya said he looks forward to going to the contemporary fashion market that starts Friday. "If you go to the showroom, there are tons [of labels] to buy," he said.

Annemarie Dillard, who scouts contemporary trends for Dillard's, her family's Little Rock, Ark.-based department store chain, agreed with Eshaya. "The contemporary market is the most important thing we do because that's where the orders are written," she said.

Although Dillard works out of an office in Los Angeles' downtown fashion district, she said it was difficult to get to Culver City because of the traffic nightmare. It's even harder for buyers from out of town. "This is a very important season for retailers to build up fourth quarter," she said. "Maybe skipping a week [to attend Los Angeles Fashion Week] would be tough."

And despite all the criticisms, both designers and retailers concurred on one point: The City of Angels, home of fast-trend contemporary and premium denim, deserves a fashion week.

Fred Levine, owner of the M. Fredric chain, who sat front row at Monarchy and Christian Audigier, said, "I think we're the center of the fashion universe, but I really don't think fashion week has amounted to what it could if done right."

Among the emerging talents is Juan Carlos Obando, who presented at an off-site installation this year. "I've shown in L.A. since the beginning of my company three years ago," he said. "It's a launchpad. It has allowed me to perfect my craft and it gives you enough exposure and feedback from the market. It's no good to show in New York if no one comes to your show. So I'm gathering my believers here."Duke suggested innovation is needed.

"We could be on the verge of an entirely new format, but we're not seeing it because we are so crippled by the comparisons," he said. "I'd love to show at a studio soundstage. I see L.A. that way, not on a stark runway. It's about glamour, illusion. It's Hollywood, so why not take advantage of that?"

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