At Marc Jacobs’ spring 2005 collection, A-list celebrities seated on metal high-school bleachers at Pier 54 put on a show to rival the production that would soon come down the catwalk. Then-power couple Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony held hands. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen — at the height of their NYU-student boho phase — huddled chummily with Mandy Moore, who would also cuddle Natalie Portman in her lap. Kate Hudson rubbed pregnant BFF Liv Tyler’s belly as her dad Steven mingled nearby.
The scene last February at Philipp Plein’s show at the New York Public Library was a distinct contrast. It was arguably the season’s most buzzed-about spectacle, but the front row wasn’t exactly spectacular: A garishly dressed Madonna sat coolly next to Kylie Jenner and Tyga, not far from Tiffany Trump and rapper Fat Joe.
“It was totally different [back in the day],” says Louise Roe, a social-media influencer who has been going to Fashion Week for years.
Catwalk front rows were once a place for A-list celebs to unself-consciously mix and mingle while taking in designs from a label they genuinely liked. Then the top seats became highly orchestrated corporate affairs, overrun with social media stars and reality TV mainstays desperate for fame and, often, getting paid tens of thousands of dollars to be there. This season, some designers are saying “enough” with the catwalk-side circus and shifting the spotlight back to the runway.
“It’s not about inviting a crazy amount of wacky celebrities,” says a publicist for a major label. “Our focus has been on editors, buyers and friends of the brand.”
Even designers known for spending millions on extravagant productions say they refuse to pay for appearances.
“We pay performers but not people to attend the show in [the] front row,” says Maddalena B. Tedeschi, the global public relations manager for Phillipp Plein who had Nicki Minaj perform at his show in September — and sit in his front row before she took the stage. “Agents often ask for a fee or [hair and makeup], [but] we decline.”
When it comes to paying big to pack the house with star wattage, insiders say it’s just not worth it.
“I don’t think there is [a return on investment] anymore,” says a veteran publicist who oversaw fashion show production for household-name designers for over a decade.
That’s a marked difference from industry trends in recent years.
In 2011, front-row “casting” ballooned into a big business. Companies launched by Hollywood publicists, such as Cogent Entertainment Marketing and Sho+Co (which opened in 2011), were founded with the specific mission of “celebrity procurement” and “celebrity and influencer casting and integration for global brands,” respectively.
“There’s just a lot of drama behind the scenes that no one knows about. Stars get paid an enormous amount of money — more than $80,000 for an A-lister — to come and sit front row. The same celebrities’ agents or p.r. people send out an e-mail at the beginning of the month. They’re like, ‘So-and-so will be in town’ … Olivia Culpo … Katie Holmes. There’s just a bunch who get paid to go,” says the veteran publicist. “And it’s not just to the loser fashion shows. I’ve heard Calvin Klein and Michael Kors pay.”
Reps for Holmes, Culpo, Michael Kors and Calvin Klein all did not respond to requests for comment.
Rihanna reportedly made nearly $100,000 for attending Karl Lagerfeld’s fall 2012 show in Paris, while Beyoncé is said to have commanded similar sums. Meanwhile, D-list celebrities will net a few grand — although they can rack up cash by attending multiple shows. Reality stars in the Bethenny Frankel mold reportedly make $5,000 per show.
‘There’s just a lot of drama behind the scenes that no one knows about.’
Even if A-listers aren’t getting paid big bucks, they don’t show up for free.
“No celebrity comes to Fashion Week without all their stuff paid for,” says the veteran publicist. “Sometimes they get one designer to pay for their flight, one to pay for their hotel and then another to pay for their car service all around the city. They all kind of split it up.”
But in recent years, with fashion-house budgets shrinking and consumers turning to social media stars for style inspiration, it’s become clear that packing front rows with boldfacers isn’t sustainable.
Says Alice Ryan, former public relations director at Oscar de la Renta: “That formula failed.”
The orchestrated photo ops didn’t convince consumers.
“Everybody knows what a front row looks like when it’s been cast and paid for,” Ryan says.
But a few labels actually have organic followings.
“Proenza Schouler, Altuzarra, Rodarte — some brands are just so good that it’s an honor to even be there,” says the veteran publicist. “They never pay.”
Some designers are refusing to play the game altogether. Celeb-fave Alexander Wang doesn’t plan to be part of Fashion Week after this season. Rag & Bone, whose front rows were once filled with the likes of Charlize Theron, has abandoned shows and is instead releasing short films to showcase its clothes.
Other brands are still participating, but looking to return to the glory days.
“We want to keep the focus on the new collection,” says the major label rep. “It’s old-school fashion-show style.”
With additional reporting by Catherine Kast
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