Doyennes of yore kept their thick vellum invitations to society galas neatly stacked on their antique secretaries. These days, however, a filing cabinet barely has enough space to hold them all as the number of random invites flooding in has reached Dagwood-sandwich proportions. Charity-circuit regulars must now vet requests to everything from extravagant perfume launches to movie screenings, designer dinners to after parties.
The social swing is now the social blur. A lifestyle that used to hinge upon one or two events a week has revved up to one or two—or even five—a night.
Fashion week long has required a temporary leave of absence from one’s family and other personal obligations, but this season’s party schedule in New York was exceptionally packed. Fetes varied from a Narciso Rodriguez dinner at Mario Batali’s behemoth new Del Posto to the perennially packed Marc Jacobs’ after party. Donatella Versace corralled pals Halle Berry, Jennifer Lopez, Kate Hudson and dozens of her closest television crew and reporter friends into the Versace boutique uptown before heading to dinner in a private penthouse. And that’s just to name a few.
“I felt sort of sick afterward; I got a head cold,” active gal-about-town Tinsley Mortimer says of her fashion week nights out, which seemed to stretch into the following seven days with the subsequent Museum of the City of New York and American Museum of Natural History galas. “I haven’t gotten my mail lately,” Mortimer says. “I’m afraid to see the invitations.”
But where once the party mania was pretty much restricted to eight weeks in the spring and fall, now the other 44 weeks of the year are just as swamped, leaving little rest for the weary.
“I think there’s sort of an avalanche of parties,” says John Demsey, global president of the Estée Lauder and MAC Cosmetics brands, which have hosted their fair share of soirées in the past year.
“Without a doubt, there are now more than ever,” agrees fashion and luxury consultant Robert Burke. “When I finished my third dinner last Thursday night, it became apparent that people need to [throw parties] to keep moving forward.”
The increasingly crowded market has altered the retail landscape, for one. Parties have become as useful in moving product as trunk shows and semiannual sales. “In the last two years, we have definitely had more than before,” notes Graziano de Boni, president and chief executive officer of Valentino. “Retailing now involves an interactive relationship, of which events are a part.”
This year, the house hosted more than half a dozen fetes and sponsored a black-tie gala to benefit the Boys Club of New York. Of course, Valentino is hardly the only fashion brand—not even the only European luxury fashion brand—to host star-studded events at ultra trendy venues in the past six months. In November, Gucci staged a fashion show at Michael and Eva Chow’s Bel-Air mansion for Charlize Theron, Jessica Simpson and Steven Spielberg. Christian Dior coaxed Los Angeles’ Getty Center to open its doors the following month for an evening celebration in honor of the Dior Christal watch. Then, in January, Chanel launched a single lipstick with a dinner at Lever House for more than 100 New York boldface names, including Rena Sindi, Shoshanna Gruss, Lisa Airan and, in the fish-out-of-water category, Syriana director Stephen Gaghan.
Because parties are now the norm, each must be bigger than the last to stand out. Take, for instance, Louis Vuitton’s gilded extravaganza for its refurbished Champs-Elysées flagship, held in October. The Petit Palais, where the runway show and after party were held, was lit up like a Vegas casino. Sharon Stone and Salma Hayek perused an installation featuring nude women by artist Vanessa Beecroft while Dita Von Teese performed a sexy striptease in an oversize champagne coupe. LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton chairman Bernard Arnault recently told analysts that the resulting press from the bash directly affected the store’s sales.
A similar scenario occurred in New York just over a year ago, though on a much smaller scale, after Pucci hosted a dinner in the Magic Room of LVMH headquarters for select clients and charity-circuit regulars. “Of course, I knew about Pucci, but I never thought it was me,” social fixture Helen Schifter says. “But after that, I went to the boutique and got a gift for someone and a scarf for myself.”
Of course, not everyone has to buy the cow; at a lot of these functions, the milk is free. In December, Ferragamo invited 20 or so city chics to an intimate lunch with James Ferragamo, the head of women’s leather goods. In addition to meeting the handsome Italian, each guest left with the latest spring shoulder bag and a pair of custom T-strap, open-toe sandals. Ferragamo’s social involvement is normally promoting the arts or benefiting charity, so this largesse was definitely an exception, and yet it signaled the house’s awareness that to stay competitive, it’s important to keep the Ladies Who Lunch happy—and toting its products when they’re out and about.
“It was great for us to get exposure, and the intention is that eventually they become a customer,” says Dana Gers, senior vice president of marketing, adding that many women returned to the store to buy holiday gifts. “Yes, there are a lot of parties, but it’s New York. No one’s forcing anyone to go anywhere.”
Well, no, but for some people, carousing around town is as much a duty as a pleasure. Consider Patrick McMullan, whose photography agency thrives on the booming business. “I used to be able to go to party A, party B and party C in one night. Now, I have 10 people working with me,” McMullan says. “There’s no way I could do all of them. It starts to get the feeling of Lucy and Ethel in the candy factory with the chocolates going down the conveyor belt.”
The photographer knows the power of the party so well that he had not one but four to promote his new book, Kiss Kiss. “It’s not good enough to have just one anymore,” he says, adding that the quartet of events allowed him to reach an uptown crowd, the downtown kids and everyone in between.
McMullan and the hordes of media outlets covering these displays are certainly a part of the equation. “There’s a certain fixation on fashion now,” Burke says by way of explanation. “The amount of people who want to be associated with fashion and luxury is vast.”
It certainly has made for some odd bedfellows. This season, Zac Posen held his raucous post-show party at auction house Christie’s. Last May, rapper Nelly posed with product at the Judith Leiber store, and both Narciso Rodriguez and Proenza Schouler held fetes in September underwritten by tequila companies. “If Capote had his Black and White Ball now, it’d be sponsored by Chanel with drinks by Absolut,” McMullan quips.
And, without a doubt, it would be covered by any one of the broadcast, online and print outlets devoted to “culture,” especially the ubiquitous celebrity tabloids. But when did it become beneficial for a storied luxury brand like Chanel to see itself in the pages of Us Weekly?
“Since Us Weekly started selling clothes,” answers public relations veteran Paul Wilmot. “All the young girls are reading celebrity coverage.”
“Everybody loves to see Jessica Simpson in Valentino and Jennifer Lopez in Versace,” adds David Caplan, New York bureau chief for Star. But it’s fairly rare that an A-lister like Lopez or a scandal-plagued starlet like Simpson will venture out into the klieg lights. Most of the time, it’s the latest reality-show star who’s clogging up the red carpet.
“There are a lot more celebrities now because of the celebrity weeklies, and people are more willing to show up at the opening of an envelope,” says Us Weekly news director Lara Cohen.
Burke offers his own explanation. “There are so many events that the actual celebrities and socialites physically can’t get to all of them, so they’ve almost created this subculture of wannabes,” he says. Certainly, few people can name anything Michelle Trachtenberg has appeared in recently, and yet she was photographed at Chanel’s fine jewelry launch, an Escada perfume event and a PlayStation bash, all within three months.
This article appeared in WWD Scoop, a special publication to WWD available to subscribers.