LOS ANGELES — Producers envisioned a classic Hollywood script for Los Angeles Fashion Week — financial and critical success and anointing the upstart as a major industry player.
It didn’t happen that way. Even in the movie capital, reality can get messy.
The end of the five-year partnership between event producer IMG and Smashbox Studios, the main venue for shows, was the result of several key factors, retailers, designers and other industry figures said. Many West Coast designers were unable to consistently produce distinguished work and those who did moved on to New York. Even in the entertainment mecca, the collections failed to generate celebrity buzz as well as attract heavyweight buyers and editors; Los Angeles suffered because it followed prestigious runway shows in the fashion capitals and IMG might have raised unrealistic expectations.
Another element: fashion shows in locales such as Mumbai and Berlin may be more profitable for IMG. Sources said Los Angeles Fashion Week didn’t make enough money for IMG to continue the partnership with Smashbox. The event’s future is uncertain.
The Mercedes-Benz-sponsored shows that ended Thursday at Smashbox Studios didn’t get traction even though California is the biggest retail market and clothing production center in the U.S., locations such as Melrose Place, Melrose Avenue and Robertson Boulevard are attracting designers and brands still covet Hollywood trend-setters.
“At the beginning, people were more excited, so some of the serious L.A. designers participated then,” said Sue Wong, who until last season showed her collection at every Los Angeles Fashion Week organized by Smashbox and IMG. She opted out last season in favor of showing at her home, and this season at the California Market Center.
“Gradually, it became more peripheral,” Wong said. “They brought in people like Jenna Jamison and the Pussycat Dolls. It kind of got to be a joke toward the end. I pulled out because I didn’t want that association with my brand.”
Referring to IMG, Wong said, “I don’t really feel like they have had their energy in it for a while.”
Monique Lhuillier, who has presented her ready-to-wear collection in New York since February 2003 and her bridal collection since October 2002, never showed in her hometown for practical reasons.
“The dates don’t work for me,” Lhuillier said. “I have my bridal show at the same time. The exposure I get in New York, you can’t beat it. It is the fashion capital of America. Also, the L.A. dates are after everything else around the world. To add another city presents a challenge….There is always some red carpet event going on here, and the photos are so relevant and really tell a thousand words. Fashion week is not as important because there’s always an event.”
Emerging talents like Jenni Kayne and Juan Carlos Obando, who started out showing in Los Angeles, eventually moved on to New York. Major West Coast-based designers like Lhuillier and Max Azria chose to show in New York, and others, such as Gregory Parkinson and Trovata, got their own sponsors and presented collections off-site.
But as recently as last year, Fern Mallis, senior vice president of IMG Fashion, told WWD: “L.A. is a world-class city; like New York, it’s a crossroads for a lot of people and cultures and having the movie industry in the backyard opens up a lot of opportunities. It’s a very global world now. Whenever I’m overseas, people ask me, ‘What about L.A.?’’’
However, this season and last, Mallis has been in India, rather than Los Angeles, organizing Mumbai Fashion Week. She was not available for comment.
Jeff Orloff, senior vice president of IMG Fashion, said, “Five years was a natural point to evaluate the partnership and make some decisions.”
In addition to New York, Mumbai and Los Angeles, IMG stages shows in Miami, Berlin, Hong Kong and Sydney, and has business ties in Moscow and Milan.
“Event ownership is not always the best business for us,” said Zach Eichman, director of communications at IMG Fashion. “Certain business models make more sense, like commercial representation and consulting. We have expanded so quickly around the world and we were spreading ourselves too thin…[fashion week] has always been unfairly compared to its older siblings rather than just allowed to exist on its own.”
The end of the IMG-Smashbox Studio partnership leaves the future of fashion week, even in a diminished form, in limbo. The event, combined with market week, which overlaps it, generated an estimated $50 million for the local economy, according to the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp., a not insignificant number as California struggles under the burden of tight credit, rising unemployment, falling home values and myriad financial woes.
“We all think there’s a lot more we can be doing,” said Davis Factor, who with his brother Dean Factor, owns Smashbox Studios in Culver City, Calif. “We will continue to do a fashion week and do our best to maintain the level of quality. It can’t compete with New York. It has to be its own thing.”
In the wake of the breakup, there are no firm blueprints on how to stage fashion week or pay for it.
“To me, it’s about putting on a fashion week that says ‘L.A. To incorporate what we are known for here, be it denim, surf or sportswear,” Factor said. “We are not afraid to try.”
Fred Levine, owner of the 10-store M. Fredric chain, said, “It’s just tragic that [fashion week] has been such a joke for so long. I think manufacturers, designers and retailers should put together a committee that’s big and can do it right.”
Representatives of major retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Barneys New York and Nordstrom did not comment.
Kevan Hall, who has shown in Los Angeles for five years, believes designers here will find a way to showcase their collections as they did before IMG — and as designers such as Kayne and Wren still do — by having events in galleries, hotels or private homes.
“If a designer wants to put on a presentation in a store, a gallery or elsewhere, there are options,” he said. “The world knows there is a lot of talent in L.A. I don’t think people will think that we are any less just because IMG is not involved.”
Hall acknowledged that he has been approached by IMG about showing in New York, but he said he would continue to show in Los Angeles to market to celebrities and promote his soon-to-open atelier-retail store here.
Designer Corey Lynn Calter, a regular at Smashbox, agreed with Wong that fashion week suffered as the runways filled with subpar collections. “The caliber of designer that started showing was really less and less appealing to me personally,” she said.
Designers like Calter who could have imbued fashion week with credibility have put their money and labor toward smaller events catering to select groups of customers and buyers.
Although most contend showing with IMG-Smashbox increased their exposure, several designers stressed that the press coverage and sales weren’t enough to make the effort worthwhile.
“There has been no bang for your buck,” Calter said. “You are spinning your wheels to do something for fashion week, and the buyers aren’t here and the press isn’t coming out in the capacity that we need it to come out to warrant the cost.”
Nony Tochterman, creator of Petro Zillia, said, “In the last six years, Anna Wintour has been here once. That doesn’t send a great message to young designers. That sends the message that if you [can] afford it, you should show in New York.”
Perhaps most galling has been the event’s inability to lure A-list celebrities as well as the top stylists who have them as clients.
Los Angeles-based Rachel Zoe, possibly the highest-profile stylist, had never been to fashion week, though she is a regular at shows elsewhere. “I have always been out of town…or just totally slammed on shoots while it’s happening,” she said. “It is sad to see it go.”
Jessica Paster was one of the only stylists to turn out this season — at Lauren Conrad’s Tuesday show — but she almost didn’t stay.
“They had no idea who I was and had me seated in the fourth row,” she said. “I get treated with more respect in Europe than I do in my own hometown. Three-quarters of the people there are wannabes, nightlife weirdos and people without jobs. If they targeted the people in the industry and did their homework, we would have been a little more successful.
“Why was there no one wrangling Rachel Zoe or key publicists? People who actually have an impact on fashion? They value front-row pictures of Penthouse Pets and ‘The Girls Next Door’ [the E! Network show about Playboy bunnies] more,” Paster said.
Fraser Ross, owner of the Kitson boutiques, criticized the bold-faced names who shunned fashion week.
“This is a town infested with celebrities, but they were never behind it,” he said. “They didn’t turn out to the events, and I don’t understand it. In the economic situation that this country is in, celebrities should be supporting our local fashion economies much more. The stars make their money here, so why wouldn’t they use fashion week to boost the economy from which they make their money?”
But Craig Schneider, president of Pinnacle Public Relations, said there was little to entice them. “The rigmarole of the before and after is frequently extremely chaotic, which can sometimes be a deterrent,” he said. When Schneider attended the Lauren Conrad show, he said the long waiting line was “horrible, a joke. I didn’t recognize 90 percent of the people there. I can’t afford to put myself nor my clients in that position. Why would Leelee Sobieski want to go through that to support a line by a reality television star?”
He contrasted that experience with New York Fashion Week, “where the minute your client sets foot on the curb, they are escorted to their seats. Not to mention more New York designers are in the position to offer cash incentives, which can make it more enticing.”
Dov Charney, president and chief executive officer of Los Angeles-based American Apparel, which operates more than 225 stores in 19 countries, isn’t wringing his hands about fashion week, in which American Apparel chose not to participate.
“The ingenuity and creativity of L.A. will sustain with or without a fashion week.…The quality of products is far more important than the venue,” he said.
“What’s more important is that we have the infrastructure here, we have sewers and pattern makers and dyers,” Charney said. “There’s a functioning apparel production community. We still have a flag standing. That’s more important than a marketing venue.”