It takes 45 minutes to get to a secluded warehouse somewhere on the edge of the city. Heavy-handed security guards corral the crowd, grudgingly allowing entry into the raw space, where temperatures rarely fall between tropical and arctic. The path to one’s seat involves fighting through hyperactive paparazzi who have taken the runway hostage and will stomp on anything that gets between their lens and the ubiquitous Parises, Ashleys and Mandys. The assigned seat proves to be no more than a sliver on an overcrowded bench; the show won’t even kick off for another 40 minutes because Lindsay Lohan may or may not come, and there isn’t a restroom in sight.

Welcome to the 21st-century fashion show.

A particularly grueling international circuit this season left retailers and journalists questioning the overblown fashion-show system, which made for a lively debate. Fashion people, after all, are champion complainers, and they had plenty of reasons to gripe this time around, from the paparazzi frenzy in New York to Milan’s compressed schedule and Paris’ hard-to-reach venues. In the future, show weeks in Europe are likely to become longer still, creating even more challenges for organizers and attendees.

And really, what’s the point, given that the vast majority of collections are already presold? Where once a fashion show’s sole purpose was to present the coming season to buyers and editors, its meaning has shifted in recent years—a point that was driven home during the spring 2006 collections. “Each city had its own set of problems,” says Michael Fink, senior fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue. “Let’s turn it back into a professional event.”

That’s not as easy as it sounds. In New York, fashion shows have become a profit-seeking business enterprise, where actual clothing has taken a backseat to celebrity photo-ops, marketing initiatives and corporate sponsorships so blandly familiar that some venues resemble suburban shopping malls. In Europe, the celebrity onslaught hasn’t been as widespread, though houses such as Versace, Chanel, Valentino and Dior have always sprinkled their front row with a Nicole Kidman here, a Gwyneth Paltrow there.

In Milan, the concerns center on the schedule, clogged with shows for secondary lines and double-headers (a show each for press and buyers), all held helter-skelter throughout a city prone to gridlock.

“Fashion shows have really become a spectator sport, and people aren’t quite sure what the goals are anymore,” says Simon Doonan, creative director at Barneys New York. “Is it the dolce vita frenzy to generate hype, or is the point to [win] attention [from] buyers? The goals have become obscured by flashbulbs and celebrity attendance.”

French designer Isabel Marant, who chose to forgo a runway show in favor of a photographic exhibit this season, says, “If there’s no theater, it’s hard to get noticed. I will certainly show again, but only if the collection at that time corresponds better to the theatrical demands of a fashion show. The more your product is eccentric and closer to an artistic expression, the better it corresponds to what is expected of fashion shows.”

How things have changed. “The purpose is to get the designers out in front of the biggest media audience and buying community at one given moment,” says Fern Mallis, executive director of 7th on Sixth and vice president of IMG, the sports management and marketing agency that bought 7th on Sixth in 2001. But even she has to concede that celebrity frenzy has become a vital ingredient in the fashion system. “The quickest way designers are getting press is by who is sitting in their front row,” she notes. “As much as the press hates it, if [the celebrities] aren’t there, the press will write that the shows were lackluster.

“We all live in a fast, high-stakes, media-frenzy world,” Mallis adds. “This isn’t an orthopedic convention. It’s about selling what is glamorous, selling ideas and selling a lot of things people probably don’t need.”

Sue Patneaude, executive vice president of designer apparel at Nordstrom, says that runway shows, as vexing as they can be, are still a “clear and concise” way to get an overview of the designer market. What’s more, “it’s a terrific way for us to see the landscape and get exposed to a lot of stimulating ideas and out-of-the-box things.”

Still, the question remains: Does it all really matter? Pre-collections are increasingly important, and many designers admit that up to 80 percent of their sales have been booked before the first stiletto clicks its way down the runway. “A lot of the clothes have been bought, and our buyers sit at the shows and say, ‘We bought this, we bought that,'” Barneys’ Doonan says.

It only makes sense, then, that shows increasingly serve as a marketing excercise to generate hype—particularly for young designers with low or nonexistent advertising budgets.

Alexander McQueen, who has produced some of fashion’s most dramatic shows, calls them “the inner core” of his brand.

“I have barely advertised, which proves that the shows are a vital communication tool,” he says. “When I design a collection, I design it with the staging, music, casting, hair and makeup in mind—one complete vision, if you like.”

Still, McQueen says that his flair for theatricality can be a trap, and this season’s powerful, if perfunctory, parade of models on a concrete floor was no exception. “I don’t personally feel the pressure to deliver a complex set design every time. It’s the press that wants that big theatrical moment,” he says. “Historically, some [editors] have told me the theatrics overpower the clothes, but lately, when the clothes have been the focal point, they have criticized me for no theatrics! I am damned if I do and damned if I don’t.”

The fashion show still serves multiple purposes. Images from a show are used for look-books, mailers and sometimes even advertising campaigns, and they serve as a lingua franca in the fashion community for communication among designers, press and retailers.

The presence of celebrities in the front row, meanwhile, can tranlsate into immediate press: Their images—and the designer’s name—are beamed across the globe within minutes, and provide photographic fodder throughout the season. There’s always the chance that a relationship with a celebrity will pay off down the line with a red-carpet appearance, garnering further coverage as well as an instant association in the public’s mind. And magazine editors can exploit that association when planning celebrity coverage.

“Celebrities are the gods of our time, and women and men look up to and identify with and relate to them,” says Zac Posen, whose list of front-row guests always reads like a tabloid Who’s Who. “It’s important to a brand’s identity. Fashion shows have become fashion-tainment. The celebrities wear the clothing, and they are a powerful way to expose your brand to people.”

Behnaz Sarafpour, whose spring 2006 front row was visited by Mandy Moore, stresses that the celebrity guest has to fit in with the designer’s philosophy. “I am not trying to get Madonna to come to my show,” she says. “I get young women celebrities to come, so there is a balance there. The relationships have to make sense, so it doesn’t just seem you are doing it to get attention.”

That said, buzz can clearly help drive business. Suzy Menkes, fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune, finds shows increasingly becoming “image-making” vehicles for big houses to draw attention to themselves and, as a consequence, to sell handbags. “It gives great opportunity to those who are already soaring to show their fine feathers,” she says. “But it’s more difficult for young designers to break through and get attention….Almost every day, you have to make a choice what show you’re going to cut, which presentation you are going to miss.”

Menkes can understand why New York fashion week relies so heavily on the celebrity circus. She says that “in America, where it’s very much a Seventh Avenue business,” there are “not as many creative designers” as in the other fashion capitals, and organizers are simply trying to attract as much publicity as possible. Still, she questions how this “system” serves fashion.

The answer is simple.

In a word, hype, which often translates into more ka-chings at retail. But obviously a designer must also deliver the goods for long-term success.

Bill Blass designer Michael Vollbracht isn’t at all a fan of the frenzy, but admits, “I work for a huge conglomerate with multiple licensees, so we need the spectacle to promote the licenses. It’s a catch-22.”

Media attention can also help attract sponsors, which have become a crucial element to shows over the past few seasons. Besides the for-profit 7th on Sixth in New York, IMG launched a fashion week in Los Angeles and recently purchased the organization that produces shows in Australia. Every season in New York, the company seeks a variety of sponsors, from its title sponsor Olympus to, in recent seasons, Shu Uemura, Dr. Scholl, Silhouette Eyewear and Evian. In addition, designers often separately secure sponsors to cover the costs of a show, which, according to market sources, can set them back anywhere from $20,000 for a small presentation to $250,000 or even as much as $1 million or more for a J.Lo-style blowout. The more hyped the shows are, of course, the better the chances of attracting sponsors for both the designers and for IMG.

“We never could have done it without sponsors,” Mallis says. “For many years, this did not make a dime, and we just made ends meet between sponsor revenue and designer revenue. We are beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Donna Karan predicts that the frenzy associated with the show system is on the wane. “When anything is overstated, overexpressed, it’s hot in the beginning and it becomes the norm. Then it just becomes too much,” she says.

For her, timing has always been more of a systemic issue, one that has been amplified with the advent of digital technology and rapid communication, which exposes consumers to trends they won’t even get their hands on for another six months.

“Now that the consumer is getting the information as quickly as they are, it’s confusing,” Karan says. “Full Frontal Fashion is talking about spring, and [consumers] are going to stores and expecting to see what they’re seeing on television. The messages to the consumer are very convoluted. What they should be seeing should be in season for them, because in the end, the consumer is all that matters. And the consumer is confused. I have always said there should be a consumer fashion show.”

Barneys’ Doonan concurs. “There is so much media covering the shows, which gives the impression that the clothes are already in stores,” he says. “It would be magical and incredible if the energy went toward generating that hype when the clothes actually got to the stores. By the time clothes materialize, people are already saying, ‘What will everyone wear next season?’ When J.Lo performs at Rockefeller Center, you can buy the CD across the street. You don’t have to wait six months to remember to buy it. Eventually,” he adds, “someone will figure it out.”

For now, some designers and retailers see a return to more intimate settings. According to Lanvin designer Alber Elbaz, the Internet has a lot to do with that, noting that electronic media have completely changed fashion journalism. Since everyone in the world has access to an entire collection’s worth of images, there’s no real need for reporting, he argues. “The new journalism is not reporting or critiquing, but going into the houses and working more closely with the designers,” he says.

Elbaz is not necessarily advocating a “reality-show” approach to covering fashion, but he understands “the need of journalists to be closer to designers today. What intrigues me the most,” he says, “is working with people.”

—With contributions from Emilie Marsh, Paris

This article appeared in WWD The Magazine, a special publication to WWD available to subscribers.