13-Dec, 16:25

05:26, February 08 381 0

2017-02-08 05:26:10
At Fashion Week, the Disappearing Front Row

Was it just a year ago that Katie Holmes, Jennifer Hudson and Lucy Liu snatched up most of the light and much of the air at Zac Posen’s fall show? A scant six months later, Mr. Posen was host to a somewhat less lustrous contingent, one that included Malin Akerman, Kelly Bensimon and Olivia Culpo. (Who?)

Last February, Claire Danes, Laura Linney and Amy Schumer lent their aggregate star power to Narciso Rodriguez’s show. By September, the designer’s paparazzi bait was confined to a lineup highlighted by Jessica Alba and Jessica Seinfeld.

So it went. And now, on the eve of another round of New York shows, it seems safe to predict a similar thinning of celebrity ranks, as top film and music personalities disappear from their gilded front-row perches, their dwindling presence matched only, some say, by their diminishing impact.

“You can still expect to see certain celebrities in the front row,” said Tommy Hilfiger, who began trumpeting his alignment with entertainment world players as far back as the 1980s. But these days, Mr. Hilfiger suggested, designers and major Seventh Avenue brands need to rethink their marketing strategies.

In itself, he said, “a star’s presence does nothing to move the needle.”

That realization, somewhat slow to dawn in fashion circles, accounts in part for a perceptible drop in celebrity attendance.

“In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the shows were really celebrity-driven,” said Billy Farrell, who heads BFA, an events photography agency. “As a house photographer, I used to get a long list of faces. Now at any given show, one or a maximum of five celebrities are guaranteed to go backstage or sit in the front row wearing the designer clothes.”

That paucity of A-list personalities is ascribed to a string of factors: celebrity overexposure, a generalized fashion fatigue and, chief among them, shrinking fashion budgets.

“People don’t have as much money as they used to, and they’re scared,” said Kelly Cutrone, a fashion publicist.

Aware that the payoff may be negligible, many designers are reluctant to part with the thousands, or tens of thousands, of dollars in an effort to ensure the presence of, say, a Jessica Chastain, a Julianne Moore or, for that matter, a Lady Gaga, pop culture luminaries who, once they arrive, may or may not deign to speak to the press.

For designers, the topic is a touchy one. Among those who declined to comment were Georgina Chapman and Keren Craig of Marchesa, Carolina Herrera, Marc Jacobs, Mr. Rodriguez, Jeremy Scott, Diane von Furstenberg, Alexander Wang and Vera Wang.

But publicists and others strategizing behind the scenes were more voluble, citing, among other causes, a certain jadedness among consumers. “People can tell it’s a paid front row,” Ms. Cutrone said. “Does anyone really believe that Drew Barrymore and Diane Kruger are going to Seven jeans because they like Seven jeans?”

More troubling, still, is the widening view that fashion itself is losing much of its vaunted cachet.

“The shows are not cool anymore,” said Teri Agins, the author of the 2014 book “Hijacking the Runway: How Celebrities Are Stealing the Spotlight From Fashion Designers,” which chronicles the evolution of the celebrity front row. European houses may still attract stars of a certain caliber, Ms. Agins noted, some drawn by Europe’s cachet, others compelled by high-paying cosmetic and marketing contracts. But in New York, she said, “the novelty is gone.”

Oversaturation has played a role. In recent years, invitations were issued, vetted and approved by teams of publicists, Hollywood agents, high-powered stylists and, as often as not, the stars themselves, many of whom are snapped each season hopscotching from show to show, their influence diluted by their ubiquity.

“We sort of cooked our golden goose,” said James LaForce, a veteran fashion publicist. “At the end of the day, all their pictures seemed to run together.”

“We’re at the end of that cycle now,” he added. “It feels old-fashioned, something from another era.”

By most accounts, that era dawned in the early to mid-1990s, when the shows, once scattered in showrooms, galleries and ballrooms all over town, were brought together under the tents at Bryant Park. At the time designer front rows were judiciously seeded with “friends of the house,” among them society figures, and the occasional television personality, Broadway ingénue or authentic megastar.

“They were people we dressed, people I often had dinner with, people whose children we knew and sometimes dressed,” the designer Dennis Basso said. At Mr. Basso’s fashion extravaganzas over the years, Diane Sawyer might have been seen rubbing shoulders with Ivana Trump, Martha Stewart spied sitting flank to flank alongside Mary J. Blige.

“The celebrity front row was a form of preshow entertainment,” Mr. Basso recalled. It generated the kind of frisson that a parade of clothes might not in itself provide.

In that seemingly innocent era, shows were high-flown trade events, largely the province of store buyers, journalists and a smattering of well-heeled ladies who lunched. That picture altered in the mid-1990s, when Uma Thurman wore a lilac-colored Prada dress to the Oscars.

“It was a sort of milestone,” said Simon Doonan, the creative ambassador for Barneys New York, “a sign that it was groovy for a designer to dress a celebrity.”

So groovy, in fact, that before long the celebrity front row went from a mildly provocative attraction to fashion’s main event, transforming, as Ms. Agins writes, “what was once a clubby ritual for fashion insiders into a multiplatform extravaganza showcased in print, on TV and everywhere on the internet.” In those heady days, she observed, the front row itself became part of the content of fashion show.

Today, some argue, that content is debased. “What constitutes a celebrity now has changed,” said Fern Mallis, a fashion consultant and the former executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. “It’s no longer necessarily that drop-dead Hollywood diva.”

The diva, it seems, has ceded her power to models and social media megastars like Gigi Hadid, Kylie Jenner and Irina Shayk, pop idols who bring to the table a large internet following but lack the gravitas of Ms. Chastain and her rarefied peers.

“The rise of celebrity bloggers, reality stars and others who are famous simply for being famous turns a lot of people off,” said Leslie Sloane, a prominent Hollywood publicist. “Those girls may be lovely, but they’re not fashion.”

Just as off-putting is the tendency of those who do turn up to stay mum. Lady Gaga appeared last season at the show of Brandon Maxwell, her stylist-turned-designer, posing gamely for photographers but turning away reporters. Also taking no interviews were Ms. Holmes at Zac Posen, and Zoê Kravitz and Ms. Jenner at Alexander Wang, whose show in September was one of the few that attracted marquee names like Madonna and her daughter Lourdes.

That kind of drawing power does not come cheap. Hard figures are elusive, but insiders estimate that fees for attendance can range from $25,000 to more than $100,000. In the long-accepted practice known industrywide as pay-for-pose, an A-list attraction like Angelina Jolie could command close to $1 million, Mr. Hilfiger said.

Such sums, which vary according to a celebrity’s clout, are expected to cover the cost of first-class airfare and hotel accommodations, as well as wardrobe, hair, makeup and other amenities. They are eye-popping numbers, for sure. But just two or three years ago, they were routinely factored into many designers’ marketing budgets.

In distributing funds, Mr. LaForce said, “we would game the situation.” It was a little like a commodities market, sums parceled out “based on who was available and who would take what,” he said, adding, “Still, in the end we would say it was absolutely worth it.”

For some designers, it still is. “To have celebrities appear in our clothes adds a sense of heightened reality,” said Michael Kors, whose celebrity turnout last season included Emily Blunt; Cynthia Erivo, the Tony-Award winning Broadway star; and Sienna Miller. “You see the clothes on the runway, then you see our clothes from the last show on the celebrities in the front row, and you get it. The message has come full circle.”

No one would argue that the fame game is entirely played out. But for some designers, attention has shifted from actors and musicians to other kinds of pop stars.

“A handful of supermodels out there have enormous social media followings, Gigi Hadid being the leader,” Mr. Hilfiger said. “She’s the girl next door with an exotic twist.” (Ms. Hadid’s mother is Dutch; her father is Palestinian.)

Mr. Hilfiger was prompt to exploit Ms. Hadid’s growing global appeal, enlisting her to walk his runway, appear in his advertising campaigns and design a capsule collection of her own. The success of those moves was measurable, he said, in 2.2 million social media impressions, a 900 percent increase in total e-commerce over the previous year, and tens of millions in sales of the Hadid line.

Plenty of people were impressed, among them designers of an altogether different ilk. “We understand the power involved in that alignment; we won’t pretend that we don’t,” said Ryan Lobo, who, with Ramon Martin, designs Tome, a collection aimed largely at a haute bohemian clientele.

Mr. Lobo and Mr. Martin, however, prefer a nuanced approach that takes celebrity marketing back to its roots. At their shows they tend to seat loyalists, prominent clients like the artists Shirin Neshat and Kara Walker, alongside such left-of-center personalities as Sandra Bernhard. “We aim to make the mix intriguing,” Mr. Lobo said, “like a dinner party with people who don’t normally have access to each other.”

Picking up the analogy, Mr. Martin added: “These people are our personal icons, and there will be others. You know we’re always going to add a chair to the end of the table.”