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NEW YORK — Imagine receiving a fashion show invite featuring a “No Celebrities” disclaimer.

It is increasingly looking like a fantasy. By Tuesday, halfway through fashion week, the scene inside the tents and in off-site venues had struck a note too familiar. Show after show, celebrity appearances have triggered a frenzy with photographers shouting “Eva, look back!”, “Lindsay, this way!” or simply “Paris, Paris, Paris!”

Add to them a bevy of hangers-on who push into the mix to get a celebrity snap and autograph, and the shows have become a ruckus worthy of the World Wrestling Federation.

“It’s absolutely fascinating,” Simon Doonan, Barneys New York’s creative director, said Tuesday. “It generates excitement, but it’s obscuring the need to design and produce amazing product. So many shows are now judged on how many celebrities a designer can get.”

In other words, more than ever, it’s all about the photo op.

And why shouldn’t it be? After all, even designers admit that up to 80 percent of their sales have been booked long before fashion week, via their increasingly important pre-collections. It makes the shows the cherry on the icing on the cake.

No wonder designers are spending more effort — and money — to lure celebrities. Rumors of celebrity payments keep on appearing each season, and are subsequently killed by designer publicists. Not one person is willing to go on the record about payment, but word has it that some New York designers pay celebrities $10,000 and up for front-row appearances in addition to first-class flights into New York and top-notch accommodations. It would almost seem more lucrative to pack up the tents and set them up somewhere in Hollywood.

Luca Luca’s Luca Orlandi on Sunday tapped Mary J. Blige; Brandy; Ashanti; Venus and Serena Williams; Paris Hilton; Kelly Osbourne; Anne Hathaway; Carmen Electra; Amerie; Damon Dash and his wife, Rachel Roy, and Cam’ron for his front row. Oscar de la Renta’s was also graced by the Williams sisters, as well as Donald and Melania Trump, Kerry Washington of “Boston Legal” and Eva Longoria of “Desperate Housewives” (interestingly, there’s been no sign of the show’s fashion plate Teri Hatcher). Scarlett Johansson not only appeared at Narciso Rodriguez on Tuesday night, she even walked the runway for Tara Subkoff at Imitation of Christ. Rachel Weisz, riding raves for her performance in “The Constant Gardener,” set the room alight Tuesday at Rodriguez, who also drew Claire Danes and Erika Christensen.

This story first appeared in the September 14, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

So far, it has been up to Marc Jacobs to produce the most impressive lineup, though. His front row had Lil’ Kim, Lindsay Lohan, Uma Thurman, Selma Blair, Diddy, Blige, Maria Sharapova, and, again, Longoria.

Even some celebrities seem to be getting fed up with the hoopla (although they’re not skipping any events). After the Luca Luca show, Blige said, “The worst part [about the shows] is people don’t have any manners. It’s push, push, push and no one says, ‘Excuse me.'”

Amerie agreed, “Sometimes people tend to forget decorum.”

Speaking of decorum, throughout the week, Paris Hilton — who is beginning to seem as ubiquitous as Fern Mallis — has been seen at shows twirling her gigantic engagement ring as if bored, using her purse as a mirror to touch up her mascara, texting messages and even speaking on her cell phone as models stride by.

Which raises a question: is it as important for Paris to be photographed at shows as it is for the designers to have her there? After all, she has her own products to hawk now, too.

“It’s a way for celebrities to feel like they augmented their profile in a meaningful way,” Doonan noted. “Interestingly, the ones that get the most attention are the ones where you think, ‘Wait, what did she do?’ Paris and Lindsay are the biggest paparazzi draw but their list of accomplishments is infinitesimally small. My dog is more accomplished.”

The week already has resulted in some odd front-row couplings. Kenneth Cole, for instance, seated “American Idol” winner Clay Aiken beside country star Lee Ann Womack, and observers noted they barely spoke.

A spokeswoman for Cole said of the Womack-Aiken pairing, “We placed them together because they were both singers. Clay is so young and she is so established that we felt he would love sitting next to her and talk shop.

“It does heighten the press coverage,” the spokeswoman conceded. “In a public relations sense, I would be happier to have a celebrity shot in our clothing. That’s the best p.r. you can get. When Britney Spears wore one of our spring handbags, we could not keep the bag in the stores.”

How important is the front-row celebrity in fashion? Very, according to those who created the current celeb-anom — the editors of the tabloids.

Janice Min, editor in chief of Us Weekly, said, “More and more people are consuming fashion through the lens of celebrity. You can ask any woman who’s 16 or 26 or 40 what the trends are right now and they’ll probably define those trends through what celebrities are wearing. By seeing who’s going to these shows you can tell what designers are hot, and who they might be dressing in awards season.”

About 20 percent of Us Weekly’s pages are devoted to fashion, but even Min conceded that covering runway looks straight up would “probably be a little too inside fashion. Our readers love fashion but, we’re a weekly. We have to satisfy their immediate needs. They want to know what to buy now. They’re not yet quite planning their spring wardrobe.”

That, of course, doesn’t bother celebrities, who can get their hands on most looks as soon as the last model stepped off the runway. Longoria, for instance, was overheard at Oscar de la Renta saying she hadn’t yet picked her outfit for the Emmys, which will take place on Sunday.

Bonnie Fuller, editorial director of American Media, said, “It is twofold because we cover fashion…our fashion editorials are there to see the clothes. We’re very interested in both [runway fashion and celebrity fashion]…I don’t agree [that the center of gravity has shifted from runway to front row]. I think what you’ve done is created two centers of gravity.”

In Hollywood stylist circles, accompanying their clients to runway shows is important, but the job can be done in other ways, too.

Stylist Jessica Paster, who racks up the A-listers and nominees come awards time like no one else, had been slated to accompany client Jessica Simpson to Michael Kors, Oscar de la Renta, Narciso Rodriguez and BCBG. But with Simpson in the recording studio and Paster’s roster filled with Ashlee Simpson and Mariah Carey, plus a half dozen Emmy-goers, including Marcia Cross and Ellen Pompeo, she stayed put in Los Angeles. “I think fashion week is amazing and if you have the time and energy to go, great. It’s really more a weeklong, huge party.” So much for the clothes.

In fact, Paster said it’s possible to skip the shows completely and still get the job done. She’s already lining up looks recently unveiled on the New York runway for this Sunday’s Emmys. “That’s still very important. But you have your relationships with designers. You have”

Going online has become a primary source of instant gratification for the industry at large — and an increasingly quick and easy reference point for Hollywood’s busiest stylists.

“I don’t have to go to shows any more because of Wireimage,” conceded Estee Stanley. “But fashion week is such a great experience to be there and see the clothes up close, the fits and fabric.”

Despite the way many celebrities have flocked to the shows for all the attention it affords them, the madness that has ensued has actually scared away many stars, including her clients, Stanley noted. “It’s a paparazzi circus. They don’t feel comfortable going,” she said. Um, could she tell that to Longoria, Hilton and Lohan?

Not surprisingly, some editors and buyers are already contemplating an end to the celebrity front-row craze.

“I’ve been in it and around it long enough to see that there are cycles,” said Martha Nelson, managing editor at People. “There are periods of great excitement around having celebrities at collections. And then there was a moment of ‘we want to return to our roots and be fashion for fashion people.'”

Doonan at Barneys has a piece of advice for the fashion contingent strongly opposed to celebrities in the front row. “I always say, don’t moan and winge about it since it may not last forever,” he said. “Maybe the celebs will move on to something else, like rocket science.”

Nice try.

With contributions from Jeff Bercovici and Rosemary Feitelberg, New York, and Rose Apodaca, Los Angeles

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