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Special Issue
WWD Music issue 09/04/2008

As Fashion Rocks enters its fifth year, the splashy multimedia event faces its toughest challenge yet. How to top the last four shows, which have featured the likes of icons David Bowie, Elton John and Carlos Santana sharing a stage with hot young artists like Christina Aguilera, Alicia Keys and Fergie?

This year’s concert, hosted by Denis Leary and benefiting Step Up to Cancer, also promises not to disappoint in the talent department with a mix of show veterans like Beyoncé, Rihanna and the Black Eyed Peas; Fashion Rocks magazine cover boy Justin Timberlake, and newcomers Lil Wayne, Chris Brown and Duffy, to name just a few of the artists who will participate.

This story first appeared in the September 4, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

With such star power and high-production values, securing talent now is “a lot less difficult,” says Richard Beckman, president of the Condé Nast Media Group, chief marketing officer of Condé Nast Publications and executive producer of Fashion Rocks. And performers often return. Beyoncé, for example, will make her third appearance in the show. “She has been the personification of fashion and music,” Beckman says. “She’s always very excited. We’re excited to have her.”

But excitement alone won’t assure you a spot in the lineup these days. “There have been many artists that would astonish you in terms of how famous they are that we just didn’t think were right for the show,” says Beckman. And there are the ones he thinks are right, but have remained out of reach, like U2, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones and Madonna.

“One day, she’ll do it,” he insists of Madge, who may be swayed by this year’s purported opening number, Rihanna’s version of “Vogue,” which might include a live runway show produced by Jan Kroeze from OBO Productions.

“It’s not so much about color as it is about glamour and elegance and drama,” says Kroeze, who has reached out to dozens of designers for the show, including Versace and Rodarte. Ultimately, he will settle on pieces from six to nine fall-winter 2008 collections that capture that Nineties look.

Kroeze will curate another live fashion show for a Motown medley segment during the production, which will feature skinny ties, tuxes and dresses from this season’s collections. “I think the fashion is more integrated than it was last year. There’s more of it,” says Kroeze, who will also produce several 30-second lead-in videos that will tie in style with musical genres, like the British Invasion, punk, disco and hip-hop, as a mix of classic and contemporary songs plays.

Beckman promises more moments like last year’s Maroon 5’s cover of “Be My Baby,” which featured a runway show of American fashion designers curated by Tommy Hilfiger. “The fashion was emblematic of the Fifties, but it was all contemporary fashion. That drives the point home,” says Beckman, who adds that he hopes to one day get Oasis to do a Beatles tribute.

“That’s the story we’re trying to tell: how those eras of music still are influencing today’s fashions,” Kroeze says.

But they know better than to try to control the performers’ attire. “If Fergie wants to wear a certain designer I’m not going to have much luck changing her mind,” Beckman concedes. Instead, personal stylists help artists create their signature looks. So how do they coordinate to make sure nobody wears the same color or designer?

“They kind of don’t, and it’s kind of shocking that it always works out well,” says costume designer Paula Elins, who will rely on “power shopping” at cheap-chic stores like H&M to dress dancers for the Motown medley and Fergie’s performance. “We definitely don’t want to go back to the past and rent clothes.”

Elins plans on incorporating some Eighties flavor into the show with still-popular leggings and tights. “You look at everything in rehearsals so if it was a disaster you would have one day to fix it. You always have to have an option because you never know what the talent’s going to feel like at the last minute,” he says.

Lor-e Phillips, stylist for the Black Eyed Peas’, only slightly exaggerating, says, “He doesn’t know what he’s going to wear until he steps out on the stage!” Music director Steve Jordan, who received an Emmy nomination for Movies Rock, Beckman’s other televised special, would like to put in his wardrobe request early: Paul Smith suits. “That’s what I would love to do. We gotta look good, right?” But more importantly, Jordan wants to make sure they sound good, especially since this is the first time the show will use a house band.

Co-executive producer Don Mischer, also Emmy-nominated for his work on Movies Rock, knew he had to get a musical dream team together in order to convince artists to forgo using their own bands, which take a long time to set up and strike. And Jordan delivered, assembling bassist Willie Weeks, who has played with everybody from the Rolling Stones to Stevie Wonder; guitarist Ray Parker Jr., whose Motown experience will come in handy; keyboardist Clifford Carter, a James Taylor collaborator; “Saturday Night Live” co-musical directors Leon Pendarvis on keyboards and Lenny Pickett on bass, and their new guitar player Jared Scharff, who can help Fergie and Blondie rock out on a duet of “Call Me.”

Jordan, who previously worked with Beyoncé on Fashion Rocks and the upcoming film “Cadillac Records,” credits the performer with getting other top talent to agree to use the band. “She trusts me….Other artists will see if Beyoncé’s doing it, then it must be cool.”

And while Brown cut his own track at Movies Rock, for his Fashion Rocks debut he handed the reins over to Jordan. “He’s a hot artist and he didn’t know what we were capable of I guess, but now he’s more at ease with letting us do it,” Jordan says. “We’re looking forward to doing that for him. He’s got great ideas, a wonderful imagination and he’s a great artist.”

Mischer adds, “[Brown] always wants the dramatic entrance [and] to come up with something special. It makes your job as a producer and a director a lot more fun when you have an artist who cares that much.”

To prevent performances from falling flat, Mischer, producing and directing this show for the first time, wants to create momentum by running through the 15 or 16 performances without stopping for mistakes. Afterward, the artists can re-tape their performances if needed. In the past, artists like Martina McBride have performed two completely separate songs, even s topping in between for applause. This year, there will be no pauses until the end.

“It creates a certain kind of electricity in the audience, and when they have that electricity they feed it back to the performers onstage,” Mischer says.

Although the show does not air until four days after it tapes, Jack Sussman, executive vice president of specials, music and live events at CBS, agrees, saying, “If you can keep everybody engaged in the theater, it’ll always create a better television experience.”

Also helping move the show along: production designer Anne Brahic, who recommended placing the band on a 44-inch turntable already installed at the venue, so they can “seamlessly” enter and exit with a simple spin, and choreographer Fatima Robinson, who provides high-energy transitions. For example, during the Motown medley, Robinson suggested creating vignettes, such as four guys dressed up as the Four Tops and three girls decked out as The Supremes, complete with the era’s wigs and wares, and then cutting back and forth between the artists and dancers for a “fast-paced” vibe.

“It’s almost like the opening of ‘Dreamgirls,’” says Robinson, who choreographed the film.

But of course, this idea may never come to pass, as everything is subject to change. “It’s always something at the last moment. It’s ‘so-and-so canceled, but we have so-and-so, and they want 10 dancers,’” says Robinson.

Kroeze echoes that down-to-the-wire feeling, explaining that he has to wait to see what each fashion house sends before he can pick the right combination of “cutting edge” and “glamorous” pieces for the show, which happens to take place right at the start of New York Fashion Week.

And song selection is always a long, collaborative process. “Richard and I as producers cannot just say to an artist, ‘You’re going to do this.’ It’s got to be worked out to the satisfaction of the artist,” says Mischer. That means going back and forth between each performer’s team before settling on the final mix of old and current songs. Mischer, who has won 13 Emmys for his work on televised events including the Tony Awards, adds, “A lot of this does not fall into place until the last 10 days.”

And even if they know what elements will be included in the show more in advance, don’t expect them to share. Bet on big-name celebrity presenters, hush-hush tributes and “surprise duet partners that will be water cooler talk the next day,” says Sussman.

But when the curtain falls at the end of the night, the CBS executive divulged exactly what will happen: “The first thing we do is turn to each other and go, ‘Now what are we going to do next year?’”

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