Fashion Week: What Really Goes on Inside the Tents

Celebrities (Solange! Beyoncé!). Massive crowds. Black models missing in action. Free chocolate -- and free hand massages. The Root shows you what it's really like behind the scenes at New York Fashion Week.

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Do you remember the Eddie Murphy skit years ago on Saturday Night Live when he posed the question, What happens on a bus when all the black people get off? His skit featured all the white passengers having the only party while the driver transported the behind-the-velvet-ropes bus down the street. Well, that's Fashion Week. Not the black-white part. The exclusivity part. There's a lure to what lives on the other side of the entrance to the tents, and it remains of tremendous interest to the millions who never get a chance to take a peek inside.

The crazy thing is that New York Fashion Week, now known as Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, is essentially the fanciest of trade shows. Vendors come from far and wide to present their wares to retailers and the press in hopes of piquing interest in their particular goods. Companies with the most imagination and/or resources go the extra mile to create extravagant productions to lure in potential customers. Except that this is a strictly invite-only affair.

This time around, for the Spring/Summer 2011 ready-to-wear collections, the shows have been moved from Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan to the grandeur of Lincoln Center, which houses the Metropolitan Opera, American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, Jazz at Lincoln Center and other iconic cultural activities. The space is different. Where to go has changed. Signage isn't necessarily as clear. So all of us are figuring out our internal GPS systems as well as asking Fashion Week volunteers and staff, the amazing guards who have worked Fashion Week for years, or cops for guidance.

Getting In

First, let's talk about how to get into Fashion Week. In short: You need credentials. (At least, almost everybody does, except super-hot fashionistas who are such a draw that the red carpet instantly gets rolled out!) Thanks to new technology this year, the process is almost fully automated and almost completely impersonal. You'll need to prove that you are "legitimate" with video or print clips; you'll also need to defend the reach of your media or retail outlet. Gone are the benefits of personal relationships, or so it seemed when we were registering. Either you've got the goods or you don't.

Once you are approved, your name and affiliation are put on a master list that is then sent to all of the designers' representatives, who contemplate whether they consider you and/or your outlet worthy of viewing their show. So many politics go into this seemingly simple process. All of the designers are trying to sell their product to as many people as possible. Yet the venues are limited -- from a couple hundred in the smallest space to a couple thousand in the largest one. So they get permission to engage snob appeal along with honestly trying to do math to figure out who represents an audience that may actually go to the store and buy their clothes. Which is why, over the years, there has been a smattering of protests about who is of value, especially when it comes to the African-American consumer. (I can tell you firsthand that I worked hard at Essence and Ebony during my tenure at each to get us invited and then up to front-row status, which both publications now happily enjoy.)

This season, the invitation process has been somewhat sterile. You request invitations. If you receive one, you then get another e-mail with a bar code that you can scan (if you have a smart phone) at a kiosk upon arrival inside the tents. Efficient, right? Until Day 3, when "the system went down" while hundreds of fashion veterans, a swarm of newbie bloggers and a sprinkling of fortunate wannabes waited in a crush to get in. Not cute.

The Perks

Literally from the moment you walk past the guards, who absolutely deserve a smile and a hello, though many attendees scowl and attempt to slip past them (dumb idea), you step into a luxurious venue. The space, as always, is populated by sponsors of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. Two of the newest, sleekest Benz rides sit near the entrance perfectly lit with JumboTrons behind them showcasing the Mercedes-Benz experience. (Whatever that is.)

*Australian winemaker Kim Crawford serves pinot noir and sauvignon blanc every afternoon while proffering hand massages using a yummy Australian hand cream in the early hours.