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NEW YORK — If a tree falls in Bryant Park this week, the entire world will hear it.

This story first appeared in the February 10, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The media descended on New York’s fashion week Friday like vultures to fresh road kill, ostensibly to capture all the thrills, chills and drama of the runways, the front-row gossip and, most importantly, to catch big celebrities in some faux pas. There’s one big problem: Virtually no A-listers are coming.

Of course, the waning trend of high-voltage celebrities at New York shows dates back a few seasons to when the cast of “Sex and the City” started becoming a permanent fixture beside the catwalks. But when it now takes a dozen photographers and three camera crews to document the arrival of Oksana Baiul at Kenneth Cole’s show, as it did Friday morning, it might be time to reconsider if there’s any real value in front-row flash.

Not yet scared? Well, half the publicists and celebrity wranglers in Manhattan are sweating bullets over the few notables who are said to be considering attendance, but have not yet confirmed — like Demi Moore and Claire Danes — and the other half say they’re over it and aren’t pursuing celebrities any longer. (Translation: They couldn’t find any.)

“You know when Angie Harmon’s not going, no one’s going,” said one Los Angeles-based celebrity handler, who advised several of his clients not to attend the shows. “The ‘Sex and the City’ girls ruined it for us. I mean, do you want to sit between Cynthia Nixon and Kristin Davis?”

Perhaps it’s a level of taste, but some designers still find value in exactly that type of telegenic personality who will gladly say for all the slathering press just how much they “looooove” wearing the clothes of the designer they are due to watch — and probably just met a few days earlier, if at all. This week, the New York shows are expected to draw in a cast of television stars from reality shows and syndicated programs like “Law & Order” and all its spinoffs. For example, Stephanie March, Elisabeth Rohm and Paula Abdul have confirmed attendance at Badgley Mischka. Call it “Law & Order: Fashion Victims Unit.”

Even the big designers, who typically draw at least one Gwyneth Paltrow-type during the week, haven’t yet nailed down a really buzzworthy bunch. At Marc Jacobs tonight, Claire Danes, the Dixie Chicks and Faith Hill are expected to attend (leading to a potential Clash of the Country Titans). But insiders said the most newsworthy Jacobs fan and star of his current ad campaign, Winona Ryder, was not available (maybe she’s starting her community service). Donna Karan might get Susan Sarandon; Calvin Klein thus far has Hilary Swank and Chad Lowe in his corner, and Ralph Lauren was said to be expecting Jennifer Garner and Scott Foley (who met on the set of “Felicity”), but since making a last-minute show date change, that’s back up in the air.

Last night, Diane Von Furstenberg was expecting Lauren Bush, Lorraine Bracco and several of the New York Rangers at her show, while Luca Luca planned to seat Rosario Dawson, Deborah Gibson and Esther Canadas. The rapper Eve plans to go to Carlos Miele’s show and actress Michael Michele to Carolina Herrera. Marc Ecko has Carmen Elektra, Barbara Bush, Kelis and Mya. And an agent from Kevin Krier & Associates, which produces several big shows, insisted Lenny Kravitz and Jon Bon Jovi are coming to Diesel’s show with Renzo Rossi.

“It’s not going to be a big celebrity week,” said Ali Taekman, director of public relations at RandM Productions, which is producing shows for Luella Bartley, Matthew Williamson, BCBG and Chaiken, among others. Among RandM’s expected guests are Mya, Mandy Moore, Aisha Taylor, T-Boz and Anna Paquin at Betsey Johnson; Helena Christensen and maybe Kristin Davis at Matthew Williamson; the Dixie Chicks (again!) at BCBG; and at Chaiken, it’s Kathryn Erbe from “Law & Order.”

“I know it’s great press and it’s worth it, but I am so against having a celebrity in the front row just to have a celebrity,” Taekman said. “It just takes seats away from the editors who need to see the clothes. And what’s happening more and more is that when you work to get an A-list celebrity, at the last minute their publicist says they can’t come, but their C-list client can — and they want the same treatment. When they don’t get it, they get mad and that’s annoying. It’s a waste of time.”

Given the increasingly intense and competitive media coverage of the New York shows, even the slightest model’s stumble, editor’s yawn or celebrity snit, which in normal circumstances would be ignored as trivia, suddenly becomes front-page news. No wonder publicists seize the opportunity to use fashion week as a vehicle to promote their new clients, films, shows and album releases, no matter how small — or fleeting — the star. Singers or TV stars who wouldn’t stand a chance of getting a story on “Access Hollywood,” “Entertainment Tonight” or any of the “E!” offerings can suddenly find themselves the subject of intense scrutiny over their choice in accessories or their favorite beauty regime.

In many cases today, it’s the publicists who approach the designers about bringing their clients to fashion shows, rather than the old routine of designers banging on celebrity doors, looking for a payback for dressing them for an awards show or movie premiere. The result, almost all of New York’s show producers said last week, was that they have been approached by handlers trying to get tickets for unknown actresses like Izabella Miko, whose pivotal role was in “Coyote Ugly,” a washed-out film that came out more than two years ago about an East Village bar where waitresses sing and gyrate for a slobbering horde of testosterone-surging male customers.

“It’s the celebrity who feeds off the energy of the whole fashion scene,” said Patrick McGregor, account supervisor for the fashion division of Laforce & Stevens, which is producing five shows this week. “Some people are not selective anymore and let anyone in their front rows. The coverage can detract from shows in ways that could hurt the designers.”

There’s still a big upside for the designers, said Paul Wilmot, whose eponymous public relations agency put on the $2 million Sean John show on Saturday night that drew Mary J. Blige and the Osbourne kids.

“Celebrities are more important elements of fashion shows than ever because it’s the currency of fashion in lifestyle magazines,” Wilmot said. “The magazines use the paparazzi shots for fashion trends, lifestyle stories, makeup and accessories trends to the point that you get continuing credits six months later for a mention that Lil’Kim was at the Sean John show. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”

But what’s in it for the stars? Most of the big leading ladies like Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman who used to come to the New York shows have been less willing in recent seasons — in some cases preferring the front rows of Paris or Milan. Some designers say their New York absence stems from the unruly press corps here, which is virtually unchecked on the runways, creating a safety hazard and snapping random pictures with whomever else is on hand, a situation over which they have little control.

“I’ve talked to a lot of stylists who have had a celebrity come and said they will never come again,” said Taekman.

In their place, fashion week has to make do with those willing and able to stand for just about any exposure offered to them. The Hilton sisters, Paris and Nicky, have turned their New York nightlife theatrics into a veritable industry of its own and are now corresponding on fashion for “Entertainment Tonight.” Asked if she ever thought a celebrity could go to too many fashion shows, Nicky Hilton, not surprisingly, said, “No.”

“I’m not doing every show,” she said. “If we don’t want to do it, then we don’t. We don’t have to.”

For some new stars, though, the shows offer a quick tutorial on the structure of New York society and who’s important in Manhattan, based on their placement in the audience. Others are just happy with any eye candy.

“At my first show, at Vera Wang, I’m looking across the runway, and there’s Oprah,” said Ali Landry, the former Miss USA who’s hosting “Full Frontal Fashion” this season. “I’m like, ‘Whoa! That’s her in person.’ And everything was more exciting. And celebrities do this for everyone watching at home, too.”

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