NEW YORK — If Lizzie Grubman is the best they’ve got, who’s next — Kenneth Lay?

The first trend to come off the New York fall runways appears to be that A-list celebrities are few and far between. Shows that are normally fertile ground for people watching, like Sean John and Carolina Herrera, haven’t even come close to the star wattage of more recent seasons. Instead, it looks like just about anything passes for celebrity these days. After all, the best P. Diddy could manage was Tara Reid.

What’s happened? Are fashion shows tacky now? Perhaps the likes of Julia, Gwyneth and Madonna believe the New York Collections are passe and they would much rather be seen mingling with the stars in Paris or Milan — foreign towns always seem so much chicer.

What’s left in their wake in New York is a sea of less-stellar starlets, the kind that often require publicity handlers at their sides to tell the press corps just whose picture is being taken. In the first three days of women’s shows, the biggest draw beyond the actual fashion has been Broadway actors, has-been models, the leads from television programs that only air on the WB network, and even a random cast member from the HBO series “Oz,” who actually wore a gold chain that said “Oz,” in case there was any question. Who ARE these people?

Designers, editors and stores alike have been complaining for years that the sheer number of shows put on in each of the world’s fashion capitals threatens to take away from their credibility as bastions of exclusivity. It may have finally happened: When a show has to hype Al Sharpton’s attendance, as happened at Baby Phat on Saturday night, one has to ponder just who’s blowing the hot air.

“I was just thinking the same thing,” said Patricia Field, the costumer from “Sex and the City” who accompanied Sarah Jessica Parker to several shows one season, as she walked into Herrera’s presentation Monday afternoon, sans celebrity entourage. “Even at Kimora (Lee of Baby Phat)’s show, I didn’t see any of the girls. Where was Mary J. Blige? Maybe they’re too busy. Maybe it has to do with the mood right now, but I have noticed a change. There’s a lot of changes going on right now.”

It isn’t over, per se. It’s just become a lot more predictable. Susan Sarandon, a runway regular, came to Diane Von Furstenberg’s show on Sunday night, where Derek Jeter, Jessica Alba and Cheryl Tiegs also sat front row. Natasha Lyonne vamped at Imitation of Christ, holding up the proceedings while she posed for pictures with “Saturday Night Live’s” Jimmy Fallon, and Joan Jett created a minor stir at Cynthia Steffe.

But there’s also an alternative movement among designers that favors a dramatic downsizing of shows, including audience levels and the surrounding hoopla. A spokeswoman for Herrera, who hosted Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith to a runway spectacle a year ago, said the designer was inspired to move her show back into her showroom following the Sept. 11 tragedy. She had also hosted a group of small designers there for a collective spring show called “An American View” and was impressed by the warm reaction from editors and stores to the more intimate atmosphere.

“Sometimes people get more consumed on who’s there than what’s walking down the runway,” she said. “Sometimes in the tents, things get so far away and it becomes theatrical. Somehow it felt right for this just to be very intimate and not to have anything take away from the clothing.”

Oscar de la Renta, who shows on Wednesday, had a similar thought, saying, “It makes good copy on who you have in your front row, but it doesn’t really matter as much as the clothes.” But he doesn’t plan on turning any celebs away if they want to come.

Other designers think it’s business as usual and that a regular cast of celebrities will turn up throughout the week as bigger shows like Michael Kors, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren get under way. Guy Oseary, Anthony Kiedes and Kirsten Dunst are among the celebrities expected at Anna Sui on Wednesday, while a typically well-cast front row was planned for Marc Jacobs on Monday night. As of press time, Marisa Berenson was scheduled to appear in Helmut Lang’s show on Thursday and Kelis was due to walk in Matthew Williamson’s show on Wednesday.

And other designers and publicity agents said the sense of a less glamorous crowd at Fashion Week has more to do with hectic schedules than a jaded celebrity culture.

“I don’t think fashion shows have gotten tacky at all,” said one New York-based entertainment publicist. “As a matter of fact, I know that Renee Zellweger would be attending the Ralph Lauren show if she weren’t shooting ‘Chicago’ in Canada, and that Jennifer Connelly would be going to Narciso Rodriguez if she weren’t on the road promoting ‘A Beautiful Mind,’ and that Liv Tyler would be going to some if she weren’t in Europe promoting ‘Lord of the Rings.’ It’s a tough time of year to get celebrities to things. There are a million awards shows coming, it’s sweeps week in Los Angeles, it’s pilot season, and many actresses have been on the road promoting the awards season films, so they just don’t want to travel right now. It’s really a matter of timing.”

– Eric Wilson with contributions by Merle Ginsberg and Alison Oneacre

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