NEW YORK — The Ladies are back.

After a few seasons when celebrities as superfluous as Tara Reid and Kelly Osbourne were landing front-row seats at the New York shows, this fall socialites are reclaiming them — and the attention of the paparazzi’s flashbulbs, too.

This story first appeared in the September 18, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The New York Times might think fashion has lost its cool, but the Ladies would argue otherwise. Yes, they’ve made their way back to favorite designers such as Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera, Michael Kors, Tuleh and Narciso Rodriguez, but also to those slowly building a socialite clientele, like Proenza Schouler, Behnaz Sarafpour, Douglas Hannant and Peter Som.

It seems even young designers these days are interested in creating the scenes of Bill Blass in his heyday, with all the swans in the front row. And it’s not just about the flashbulbs; clearly they realize it’s good business, too.

Not only that, while celebrities are content to accept truckloads of freebies and this season are demanding up to $25,000 for their front-row appearances, these Ladies actually buy what they wear, hire their own Town Cars and show up for free. After all, many of them aren’t just Ladies Who Lunch but have strong ties to the business side of the industry.

And they’re coming out in droves. At Klein’s show Tuesday night, for example, the socialites ran deep and wide: 10 across in the front row (Jennifer Creel, Anne Grauso and Gigi Mortimer among them), seven across in the second (such as Olivia Chantecaille, Hope Atherton and Fernanda Niven), and four in row three (Eliza Reed Bolen and Celerie Kemble included). Meanwhile, the only apparent celebrity in the front row was Sarah Wynter, who, let’s face it, is no Cynthia Nixon.

Part of the excitement for the Ladies is the curiosity factor. Muffie Potter Aston went along to Klein just to see what first-timer Francisco Costa could do. “Calvin Klein is a legend and that’s a really hard legacy to uphold,” said Aston, adding she tries to check out one new designer a season. (This season’s was Catherine Malandrino.) “I was interested to see what Costa could do.”

But more Ladies appeared this season than in quite some time because, they said, after the reverberations of 9/11, a bad economy and the war in Iraq, they’re looking for something sunnier than just the weather.

“I haven’t been to the shows in a couple of years,” said Blaine Trump, who sat front row at Badgley Mischka, Michael Kors and Narciso Rodriguez. “But, I think, now, people are feeling more optimistic. Everyone’s been so bummed out and we’re just clawing our way back to feeling good about New York.”

And Trump couldn’t be happier that she did — even though she called the Kors show “the most expensive hour of my life,” since she plans to put her order in imminently. “Besides the shopping factor, at Badgley Mischka I got to sit next to Beyoncé and Jay-Z. It’s the best theater in New York.”

Hannant, for one, avoids focusing on celebrities and devotes his energies to wrangling the socialites for his front row. This season he set aside between 60 and 70 seats for the Ladies Who Lunch. His tony friends even threw him an after show banquet at the Bryant Park Hotel, which drew, among others, Serena Boardman, Rena Sindi and Marisa Noel Brown.

“I like to put all my Ladies together and they get the best seats,” said Hannant. “It’s sort of become a club. They talk a lot and they want to know what the other one’s wearing. It all creates more buzz.”

“I think we’ve all caught on to the celebrity thing,” said Emilia Fanjul Pfeifler, a publicist and socialite.

“When I used to work on shows, in the end, the celebrity wasn’t worth what you went through and what it cost.”

Pfeifler thinks that photographs of socialites at fashion shows create more business for clients. “Women across the country think, ‘I’ve seen her picture in W or Vogue and I’d like to be like that. If she’s buying Peter Som, maybe I should take a look at Peter Som, too.’”

Of course, more than ever the socialites have a reason to dress up and get themselves to the tents. Just like celebrities who are launching their own brands, the Ladies’ ties to the business of fashion are growing ever stronger. Both Aerin and Jane Lauder, as well as Olivia Chantecaille, have their cosmetics companies to consider; Eliza Reed Bolen works at Oscar de la Renta with her stepfather; Anne Grauso, who was front and center at a handful of shows this week, is married to Mario Grauso, the president of Carolina Herrera Ltd.; Helen Schifter’s husband runs LeSportsac, which also produces the L.A.M.B. bag line for Gwen Stefani; Tiffany Dubin is a consultant to Henri Bendel; Eleanor Lembo works with Paper, Denim & Cloth; Fernanda Niven now has her own bag line, and Tory Burch is set to launch her bridge collection and open a store in NoLIta in February.

It keeps Samantha Gregory, Hogan’s vice president of public relations, on her toes. “When you return to the office, it’s nice to know which colors are important for the season, what the editors are wearing and what’s happening in the industry,” she said.

Not to mention the gossip factor: “It’s a total scene,” said Aston. “You can learn a lot sitting at the Michael Kors show.”

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