Thursday, February 13, 2014

Editorial: Six Rows of Separation

Another New York fashion week has ended. The well oiled IMG machine cranked out yet another season of smoothly produced shows with cookie cutter precision and with the look and feel of an airline terminal.  Never mind more and more designers are voting with their feet and leaving the venue for other parts known and in some cases unknown. Meanwhile, New York fashion week becomes an ever growing spectacle, a circus of sorts, promoted by IMG in much the same ways as the Oscars, US Open, Emmy Awards and the Superbowl. What was once a trade event for the buyers, retailers and fashion press has more and more been taken over by paying sponsors and national celebrity press as a mass entertainment/marketing vehicle. The "official" fashion week is now part of the annual circuit of entertainment events that are heralded, promoted, cosponsored, hawked and branded. It is bigger than any one fashion designer's show. Is it any wonder that so many of the biggest designers choose no longer to show at the IMG venues?

There was a lot of talk among editors and retailers this past couple of weeks about who all is actually attending these shows. IMG has tried to make the shows more exclusive this season. Credentials to the shows have been parsed and sold to the press with little or no other value than something to be worn as a "fashion accessory" around one's neck. Security at the shows has been beefed up to keep the "rift raft" out. It sounds all very dramatic. Only those who actually have a serious connection need be invited - or so they say?

Several thousand people during fashion week get a seat or stand at one or more of the shows. Who are they and what do they all do? OK, I think we all know who are in the front rows - any F.I.T. student can come up with that list.  Then the next couple of rows up at the main "Tents" and at other venues around the city those seats are surely filled with other "A" and "B" list assistant editors, minor celebrities, investors, freelance writers, bloggers, stylists, minor retailers, retired ex-VIPs, important and unimportant out-of-town press, psychiatrists, favored friends and relatives, boy friends of the models, hairdressers, -- but what about the rest?

By the time you get to those beyond the "sixth row" (speaking metaphorically), who are they? Are we all in the industry connected somehow by six rows of separation? From one show to the next a never ending stream of people walk in through the main entrance at Lincoln Center and at other venues around the city. As a casual observer watching this parade, we are hard pressed to find many clues as to who some of these people are? How many of them have anything to do with the fashion industry at all? Our guess is many of them are brought in by the PR firm or publicist who is handling the front of house for each designer to fill in empty seats. Each publicist has his or her own group of people -- call them "fashion extras" who can be relied on to fill the house with friendly, attractive and eager faces.

And of course, PR firms are empowered to provide invites to their client's shows to children of  top editors, friends of the sponsors, vendors,  and on and on. This is natural to a point, the designer wants to thank those who support him or her with a ticket to their show. But what really goes on is something else. For example, a long standing NY fashion industry publisher routinely is given invites by a host of pr firms for her maid, her grand children, her accountant and friends she has lunch with. A top New York fashion pr firm will bar a publication from any of their clients' shows for no other reason than hubris. This firm is so thin skinned to criticism of how they perform their job as to give new meaning to the word transparent. It is not about their client's interests, but their own. They see themselves as bigger than who they serve. They confuse who they work for - with who they are. So what else is new?

So the next time you get a response back from a designer or publicist saying "sorry the list is closed" or "we are at capacity" weeks before the show - don't take it personal. After all, the maid worked hard all year and she deserves a seat far more than you do.

-Ernest Schmatolla

(The article was originally published in 2006 and has been updated)

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