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The Runway Spotlight: In Celeb Fashion Era, Do Designers Lose Out?

New York's designers better start working on their resumes, since they're facing tough competition from celebrities pushing into their turf.

NEW YORK — Wanted: Fashion’s next design talent.

Job requirements: A minimum of five platinum records, three Grammys and 150 magazine covers. Weekly intimate revelations in at least two gossip magazines preferred.

New York’s designers better start working on their résumés since they’re facing tough competition. When Jennifer Lopez takes the customary bow in the finale of her first fashion show tonight, she will close yet another New York Fashion Week filled with front-row celebrities (OK, many of the B class) and paparazzi mayhem. Lopez is expected to be joined on the show calendar next September by Beyoncé Knowles, who has plans to stage a show for her House of Deréon label, and perhaps even by P. Diddy, launching his long-awaited women’s collection.celebrities (OK, many of the B class) and paparazzi mayhem. Lopez is expected to be joined on the show calendar next September by Beyoncé Knowles, who has plans to stage a show for her House of Deréon label, and perhaps even by P. Diddy, launching his long-awaited women’s collection.

“Fashion is polarizing into the people who really are trying to keep the sense of the craft alive in its 20th-century sense, and the 21st-century version of fashion, which is inextricably linked to hype and celebrity,” said Simon Doonan, creative director at Barneys New York. “It’s confusing to people what fashion is anymore.”

If Lopez, Knowles, Sean John and Baby Phat manage to ignite the fashion crowd, they could potentially alter the landscape of fashion weeks to come by encouraging other fledgling celebrity designers such as Jessica Simpson, Nicky Hilton, Gwen Stefani, Eve and Macy Gray to follow their examples. As Nicky Hilton said at the Luca Luca show on Sunday, “Hopefully, in some way, [we impact fashion]. I am a designer.”

“New York fashion has now become the epicenter of the fashion-plus-hype movement,” Doonan said. “Europe is still relatively tranquil. People still consider it a very chic trade show. Here it’s become this explosive, deranged, hype-driven dolce vita, which can be amusing and brings a lot of energy to fashion in New York.”

But with the energy also comes new challenges for designers, particularly young emerging talents who have little or no advertising budgets. To them, a runway show is the most effective tool to reach editors, buyers and thereby consumers most effectively, but with Lopez and her ilk on the official calendar, they naturally will be hard-pressed to get a slice of the attention.

David Wolfe, a creative director at The Doneger Group, the trend and color forecasting company, noted, “Even the most creative, innovative kid will get lost in the star shuffle. I don’t even think the future consumer will get to a new name. And if Jennifer Lopez’s career should go in decline, then thank heaven there is a new star in the wings.”

Indeed, this presents a daunting prospect for young talents, who have to compete for media attention with celebrities who have graced hundreds of magazine covers. And it isn’t only the up-and-coming who are under pressure these days. Ralph, Calvin, Donna and Tommy might be household names, but in an age of insta-celebrity, even Hilfiger is getting his own reality TV show, which will help keep his name in front of the public.

“It’s another barrier of entry for young designers with talent,” said Andrew Jassin, managing partner of retail consulting firm Jassin O’Rourke Group. “The combination of media and entertainment boils down to the know-how to promote oneself. Face time is essential for a young designer.”

Wolfe at Doneger concurred. “If you want to be a successful designer today, you have to cut a record first,” he said, only half jokingly. “You have to have media presence. When you think about it, the designers who have handled the media well are the ones who have succeeded the most. I saw Tom Ford at an event in Los Angeles, and to see him in action was almost scary. He is such a media creation, a star personality. And Zac Posen hasn’t been around long enough, but he gets the same kind of treatment as Karl Lagerfeld. Let’s be honest, he looks so good in photographs.”

Posen only hit the fashion scene in 2001, but a combination of design talent, media-savviness and a high-profile business partnership with P. Diddy have given him the recognition of a veteran.

“It’s become fashion-tainment, and it puts a good challenge on us to step up to the plate,” admitted Posen, who is all for celebrity designers showing during fashion week. “There have always been all different kinds of shows, and I think celebrity designers are fine because they are new, and everything new is always good.”

Sue Patneaude, executive vice president of designer apparel for Nordstrom, also pointed to Posen’s success and explained that buzz can sometimes help prolong a designer’s testing phase by keeping the media interest alive — as long as the designer has the goods and business acumen to back it up.

“If I were a young designer, I’d try to figure out a way to get the buzz. If you can get it at first, you have a good chance, but you have to have something substantial coming out of the box,” she said.

Case in point: P. Diddy and his Sean John label. The music mogul surprised editors and buyers with polished men’s wear collections that earned him the Council of Fashion Designer’s Menswear Designer of the Year award last year. Combs is clearly serious about fashion, last fall opening his first freestanding store, on New York’s Fifth Avenue, and signing a fragrance deal with Estée Lauder Cos. Now he’s targeting women’s apparel.

“When Sean John jumped into this, everyone thought he wasn’t going to be paying a lot of attention to it, but he made amazing clothes,” said Patrick Robinson, the New York designer and creative director at Paris-based Paco Rabanne. “You have to step up to the plate, but at the end of the day, it comes down to quality.”

Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction at Bloomingdale’s, noted, “I am sure that if I were a young designer and I was competing against Beyoncé Knowles and Jennifer Lopez for space and impact in the stores, I would consider it an added pressure, but we at Bloomingdale’s are looking for quality and creativity, not the hype.”

Some executives maintained the explosion of celebrity lines in stores is a result of too much merchandise at retail, which makes shopping a challenge for consumers. Getting through the clutter is increasingly difficult for any brand, and one with a connection to a celebrity in the news almost weekly can help spur consumers to make a purchase.

“If the clothes are good, the celebrity status can enhance the sell-through,” Ruttenstein conceded.

“By wearing them, fans express allegiance to their heroines, and also to the lifestyles which these celebrities are actually projecting,” said Andrew Bolton, associate curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “These celebrity designers are molding fans into their image and value system.” And that’s not a new fashion phenomenon, he added. “Coco Chanel also tried to mold women into her own image and expressed her modernity through her allegiance to her lifestyle. Celebrities are doing the same thing.”

Heatherette co-designer Richie Rich — a celebrity in his own right as a club kid before launching his collection — noted, “If anything, celebrity designers help elevate us, as well, since we dressed pretty much all of them. They are known on such a mass level. The kids will say J.Lo wears this, but then they may make the connection and say that she also wears Heatherette and Marc Jacobs. If anything, I think it adds to the party.”

The jury remains out on whether celebrities can cut it in fashion — most of these businesses are only a few seasons old, too young to judge whether they have staying power beyond their latest record or movie — but they come at it with a clear advantage beyond worldwide fame. “Beyoncé is a young woman; she goes on tour and sees her target customer firsthand. That may help her and her team do market research,” said Robinson.

“As long as real designers are dumb enough to give Beyoncé a front-row seat, she’ll get plenty of ideas,” barked Wolfe.

Does New York Fashion Week need celebrity designers to compete against the creativity of Paris or the commercial behemoths in Milan? The general consensus among executives is that creativity will always succeed in the end.

“My advice to a young designer would be, focus on the craft, focus on the skill, focus on giving women what they need and tune into their lives and see what they need,” Barneys’ Doonan said. “All the fame and glamour should be a by-product of a magnificent talent. It shouldn’t be a result of how much money you spend on a publicist. If you focus on fame and glamour, you’ll end up some tragic freak and no one knows why you have become famous in first place.”

That said, a little bit of star wattage can’t hurt. “It’s sort of like the icing on the cake,” Jassin said. “Do you need the icing to have a great cake? The answer is, probably no. It’s still a good cake without the icing. But it’s nice to have some occasionally.”