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.
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.
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.
*DHL wins the award for most unlikely product placement. It has a booth showcasing two garments created by a German fashion designer completely out of DHL packing materials — really.
*TRESemmé is offering free photo shoots for attendees as well as dry hairstyling — oh, yes, and hair-product giveaways.
*Sunglass Hut is luring bloggers to make videos to win big. The winner will become the company's official blogger for a year, with a salary of $100,000, an apartment in Manhattan, trips to every major Fashion Week worldwide and more.
Then there's an outdoor atrium where you can sit and relax and, if you're lucky, you might be treated to a plate of delicious healthy food — for free. One day's fare included perfectly cooked Atlantic salmon or sautéed chicken breast with either lightly sautéed greens or brussels sprouts. (Don't turn up your nose; they were great.)
The Gift Bag
Every season, there is an official bag crammed with goodies from Fashion Week sponsors. (Makeup, nail polish, chocolate, Fiji water, etc., etc.) Theoretically, only editors and retailers are supposed to get the goodies. Theoretically. But of course, there's a process to obtaining them. You have to go to a motor home that serves as the credentials office, a block away from the tents (murder for some of the crazy heels this season has been sporting), and hope that you are there at the right time to get a ticket, which you then bring back to the tents, to the room where three lovely and patient women stand guard, able only to give you a bag at particular times of day if you have the beloved ticket. Needless to say, hardly anybody gets one (me included, at least so far).
Another reality of Fashion Week is that there's not enough time in the eight days for all the designers who intend to show to present in the tents. Never mind; showing there is also very expensive. Mounting a show usually costs at least six figures. For a range of reasons, designers from Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan (veterans who have long been doing their thing) to other companies use alternative venues. Top of the list is Milk/MAC down on 15th Street in the Meatpacking District, where jewelry and fashion designer Pamela Love and fashion designer Richard Chai showed their collections.
And then there are the majestic stairs leading into Lincoln Center. A number of designers have staged unofficial shows there, including a young black woman, Shavonne Cooper, who showcased her clothing line by posing several striking black models (there they are!) as mannequins standing at the foot of the stairs.
Hurry up and wait is the definition of Show Week. You wait to get into a venue. Once you get into a venue, you wait to find your seat. Once said seat is found, you wait some more. To while away the time, you gawk (or pretend not to gawk) at the smattering of celebrities who are usually paid to show up.
There is, of course, a pecking order: Celebrities and top-tier fashion editors (think Vogue's Anna Wintour and the Washington Post's Robin Givhan) can be found in the front row; those sitting further back quickly learn how important — or not — the designer thinks they are. (Vengeful fashion designers, unhappy with a particular review of their show from a previous season, have been known to banish the offending fashion journalist to the back row — or even ban them from their show altogether.)
Hundreds of attendees get the "privilege" of receiving a "standing" ticket. This entails standing behind all the seats, straining for a glimpse of the runway, keeping an eye trained on any straggler seats left open moments before show time. (Then you pounce.)
Where you sit matters, beyond the ego-stroking you get from a coveted first-row seat. If you are in row one, two or three, usually you can see everything, including the shoes — the biggest, talked-about accessory these days. If you're in rows four or above, forget about the shoes. Instead, you study everything from the knees up — and pray that you can find a recap of the show online later.
If you're "us," when you're not craning your neck looking for a glimpse of footwear, you're searching for black models. At times, spotting a black model on the runway can be harder than getting a clear view of footwear from the fifth row. When it comes to black model counting, the one-drop rule is still in effect. If it looks like her great-great-great-great-grandmother might've been black, we're claiming her.
After all that waiting, within five minutes, the last in a long procession of tall, lean beauties wearing straight faces struts down the runway. Poof, there it is.
The unwritten agreement is that the audience is to watch quietly, clap at the end and keep their comments to themselves unless something so breathtaking comes across the runway that a gasp or two just slips out. Hey, it's fashion.
And so it is.
It's a whole lot of fun: the promise of smarting feet by day's end and the guaranteed frenzy of the landscape of see and be seen that defines this quirky fashion world.
Harriette Cole is the president and creative director of Harriette Cole Media. She is a life stylist, a best-selling author and a nationally syndicated advice columnist. She has also served as the editor-in-chief of Ebony magazine, the founding editorial director of Uptown magazine and the fashion editor of Essence magazine.