BBC Culture

Front row: The politics of fashion’s most coveted seats

Front row at Schiaparelli at Paris Fashion Week Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2014.

(Getty Images)

It’s the place at a show where everyone wants to sit – and something of an obsession in the world of fashion. Harriet Quick examines the politics of the front row.

As fashion week opens in New York, revealing the new collections for Autumn/Winter 2014, another type of show will be played out on the front row. With an ever-increasing number of press, buyers and bloggers jostling for a limited number of seats, the politics of who is invited, who sits where and next to whom have never been more more fraught. Manhattan (then London, Milan and Paris) will soon be echoing with the shrills of “don’t you know who I am?” as egos are flattered and battered by the guardians of the best seats in the house.

Behind the scenes, PR people and show producers armed with iPads and lists will be plotting and replotting seating plans, endeavouring to accommodate thousands of invitation requests that will have been flooding in for the past month. A designer’s commercial team will be overseeing the placement of buyers while another team of VIP fixers will be finalising contracts with talent agencies to secure appearances by it-girls, actors and other celebrities. Magazine fashion co-ordinators will be hitting the inbox around the clock to ensure that staff at a title like Vogue get as many seats on the front row as competitor titles like Harper’s Bazaar. And freelancers will be battling it out alone, flagging up their affiliations and social media data to secure their own perch.

The front row show, which ends in Paris on 5 March, the day Nicolas Ghesquiere debuts his first collection for Louis Vuitton (the biggest, grandest and most expensive of all productions) is fraught with tension. “Demand stems from fashion’s increased industry exposure via various social media platforms. The industry has become democratised, bloggers validated. Those with talent, an artistic eye [and] a credible voice have been authenticated and have bred a whole generation of wannabes who fill up our inboxes,” says Sara Byworth, associate director of RMO Communications, which looks after press and publicity for designers like Preen and Giles in London and Tibi in New York. “It starts with the first request, sometimes two months before the shows, and ends when the very last person takes their seat at the show – which can be once the show has already started.”

Show business

The seating format will usually see countries banked in areas that are reserved for either buyers or press. The width and depth of that bank – which might be ten rows deep at large scale shows like Dior, Chanel and Marc Jacobs – is also an indicator of a country’s economic and media clout. Seven years ago, China was sidelined into a slither of space; now, it commands nearly as many seats as the US. In 2014, press from new titles in emerging markets such as Harper’s Bazaar Indonesia and Vogue Mexico will be in the mix.  

International fashion weeks are essentially, like a motor show or a hoteliers’ convention, a trade show for professionals, revealing new products and trends for the season ahead. It was in the early ‘90s with the advent of the supermodel and the blockbuster show that the mainstream media realised the entertainment and marketing potential of the catwalk. The front row has since grown in size, expense and theatrics in tandem with the globalisation of luxury fashion.

Byworth estimates that even a medium-sized show for a young designer or contemporary brand would cost in the region of £333 ($543) per "bum on seat." For powerhouse brands like Louis Vuitton and Chanel, where costs can reach  many millions of dollars for productions including calligraphed invitations, live performances, artistic installations and goodie bags, that ‘bum on seat’ price escalates dramatically.

The players on the front row can be as eclectic as the season’s trends. The trend now is to invite a mix that might suggest the depth and multi-faceted nature of your brand. “In recent seasons, there has been less emphasis on celebrity which is no bad thing. It's an expensive task getting a clutch of recognisable faces to sit at your show and I think brands are wisely putting funds elsewhere or simply cutting back,” says Sarah Harris, fashion features director at Vogue UK. “It's become a more interesting mix on the front row – not just magazine editors – but friends of the house, bloggers, European royalty and aristocratic types which keeps it a lot more interesting.”

Seats of power

Some designers have turned the tables on the fashion show’s traditions, which stretch back to Paul Poiret and his salon shows in Paris at the turn of the 20th Century. Then guest lists were simple: couturiers invited clients, would-be clients and society page reporters to leisurely affairs over tea and cocktails. The provocateur Alexander McQueen once created a catwalk surrounded by walls of mirrored glass for his show entitled Voss in 2001. Guests nervously twitched and whispered when faced with the spectacle of themselves. Other designers have tried to democratise the show by choosing large spaces and two-bench-deep seating arrangements that flank a flat rather than raised runway. Back in the 1990s, Imitation of Christ, a conceptual New York brand, flipped the coin and positioned models in the seats wearing the collection and invited press to walk down the catwalk.

There is an ongoing debate about the actual purpose of the shows given the advent of live streaming. Yet industry professionals agree that the networking and intelligence gathering that happens on those congested benches is invaluable – not to mention the chance to see the designs in motion.“Personally, I would not accept anything other than a front row seat,” confides a leading fashion stylist, who asked not to be named. “It does matter and I think I’ve earned it.” For her, the front row is also a valuable showcase for her own highly choreographed outfits that declare herself a leading image-maker.

There is also an unwritten front row etiquette.  As regards dress, says Vogue’s Sarah Harris,“Typically the bags get more expensive the closer to the front. The more expensive designer looks are spotted on the first two rows – and they're not always bought, but borrowed for the sole purpose of wearing it to the shows.” Shoes are given a lot of attention, ditto hair styles, and new season ‘trophy’ coats, jackets and dresses.  But the fewer items you carry, the more powerful you can seem. The leggy and beautiful Emmanuelle Alt, editor in chief of Paris Vogue carries little more than a device. No need: the rest is with the driver. Journalists work from iPads and portable keyboards propped on knees while bloggers like Susie Lau will be seen juggling cameras and smartphones. Hunched up in close proximity, you also need to be armed with mints, tittle-tattle to fill in the gaps and an eagle eye on the opposition.

But should a venue not be filling up – a designer might have fallen from grace or be hit by traffic delays and bad weather – those behind are invited to shuffle into the prime spots (discreetly). No matter how much has been spent, there is nothing worse for a designer than empty seats. Front row anxieties work every which way.

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