Secret Runway Playbook: Who Sits Where at New York Fashion Week Can be Tricky Business

By Sara Bauknecht
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

If New York Fashion Week is the Super Bowl of style, then the process of picking who gets in, and who sits where, is like a secret playbook.

Sometimes it can be a feat for media, retail buyers, celebrities and fashion fans just to get their names on the guest list.

Scoring a seat instead of a standing space is even better. Manage to secure a spot in the front row, touchdown!

For many designers and public relations firms, it’s a hush-hush practice that is largely veiled from the public. (A handful of brands contacted for this story declined to comment on how their Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week guests are selected and seated.)

“It’s an amazing, bizarre process,” says Jimmy Lepore Hagan, director of digital media for New York-based designer and Youngstown, Ohio, native Nanette Lepore.

And things could get even trickier. When the week of runway shows and presentations concentrated at tents outside Lincoln Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side begins Thursday, some of the makeshift venues will have fewer seats, making access even more limited.

More generous seating and media passes in recent seasons led some designers to lament that the atmosphere at the tents had grown too pedestrian.

“The redesigned venue offerings will enable designers to better control and reduce audience capacities, making invitations once again an exclusive pass for true fashion insiders,” said a statement from IMG Fashion, a global leader in producing fashion shows.

More than 100 seats have been cut from Lepore’s runway show Feb. 12 at Lincoln Center, Hagan says.

Some people pull out all the stops to try to make an impression.

“I’ve seen some crazy stuff,” says Erin Hawker, owner and founder of Agentry PR. She has worked in the fashion industry for 20 years, and her firm is helping several designers orchestrate shows this month, including season four “Project Runway” winner Christian Siriano.

“People come up with these crazy sob stories. … You kind of hear it all,” she says, noting that one reporter even sends a big jar of candy each year.

“The requests that we get a lot are somewhere along the line of “‘If you act like you’re supposed to be there, someone will let you in,'” Hagan says. “I just feel there’s a lot of very arrogant writing that doesn’t defend itself and assumes its place. The (requests) that are successful are the ones that are short, honest and express a genuine admiration for the brand.”

Social media, celebrities and reality TV shows, such as “Project Runway” and “America’s Next Top Model,” have elevated pop culture’s interest in runway shows as entertainment. But, in the end, these shows are about boosting business for a brand.

A guest list should be those who are “appropriate and relevant to the brand to get the best exposure and publicity … and hopefully lots of orders from stores,” New York-based designer Betsey Johnson says in an email.

On Feb. 12 at Lincoln Center, she will present her new collection inspired by “American Hustle” and Rihanna.

Many brands begin planning their guest lists months in advance for a show that will likely last only about 15 or 20 minutes.

Lepore works with a third-party agency that helps organize the show and compile a list of potential guests. People with the brand go through the list to make sure information is accurate and to learn more about the names on it.

For bloggers, a group whose presence has swelled at New York Fashion Week in recent years, staff members research their websites’ reach, visual design, quality of work and presence on social media.

“What we started to do this year is put less of a focus on numbers and more of a focus on aesthetic,” Hagan says.

They also try to learn more about people’s positions. For instance, if one person is an editor-in-chief of a startup blog with little readership and another is a writer for a major fashion website, the writer will take precedence over the editor, he says.

Despite the fluctuating digital media scene, magazines, metropolitan newspapers and business partners remain significant influencers of public opinion and, as a result, remain a large part of a runway show’s audience.

It’s about who’s been loyal to you, Hawker says. “That doesn’t really change.”

Once a list has been finalized, the seating showdown begins. Usually, a certain number of chairs are allocated to media and bloggers, retailers, business contacts, celebrities and friends and relatives.

“You should seat people where you get the most bang for your buck,” Johnson says. “It’s a hierarchy of celebrities, press, buyers and influential people in the industry.”

A three-dimensional rendering of the venue is shown on a monitor and seats are filled one by one.

“When I first learned this trade, I guess (this process) was one of the more intimidating things. They go at 100 miles per hour,” Hagan says. “I really wish people who had a seat knew they got that because someone else didn’t.”

The front row is the destination for VIP guests and top media outlets. If a couple people from the same prominent publication attend, those who are reviewing the show typically will get the closer seat so they can see the fashions better, even if they don’t necessarily have the more prestigious title, Hawker says.

With hundreds of events happening simultaneously across the city, it can be tough for brands to attract all of their desired guests.

Some designers are now teaming up to do group presentations so media and buyers can view multiple collections at the same time and place.

Hawker is planning an event in the West Village featuring a handful of menswear designers for this reason, she says.

Shows also have standing sections on hand to accommodate extra media and brand supporters once seats are filled.

It’s not uncommon for 200 or 300 people to show up at the door the day of the show and say they’re friends of the designer or personally invited, Hawker says.

“We save the standing room area for the people who show up at the door.”

And then there are the celebrities, the show before the show even begins. Paparazzi swarm the front row when a familiar face is spotted.

Each Fashion Week there are stories of brands that dish out large sums of money to get attendance from A-list actresses or even one-hit-wonder reality personalities to create a buzz.

But many brands frown upon this behavior, reserving their seats for their strongest, sincerest supporters.

“Our relationships are organic. We don’t pay people to sit in the front row,” Hagan says. “We have to show people what we can give them, and what we can give them is our genuine admiration of their work … by going to bat for them and giving them a seat.”

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