For some, it’s more coveted real estate than a penthouse on New York’s ritzy Park Avenue or an oceanfront mansion in Malibu. If you’re a style insider, and it’s New York Fashion Week, a front row seat is literally everything.
Still considered the fashion event to end all fashion events, the nine days of NYFW are prime time for industry A-listers—from designers to magazine editors to buyers and models—to schmooze, flaunt, prove their worth and sometimes even make a mint. Once reserved for top magazine editors and only the crème de la crème of celebrities, the front row has evolved in the past decade as Instagram influencers and style bloggers have unseated the fashion establishment, and reality stars have elbowed out Hollywood boldfacers.
“The front row today is filled with Instagram stars with big followings, not the old school fashion editor,” explains Lucy Sykes, the longtime fashion editor and co-author of the fashion world satire “The Knockoff.” (Full disclosure: I wrote it with her.) “Five years ago no one would dare have their phone out during a show. Now most of the front row is live streaming it.”
Still, despite the growing influence of this new fashion digirati, a handful of old school fashion editors still lord over the proceedings, their presence looming large even in this social media-driven era. Among the legendaries with automatic front row status: Anna Wintour, Vogue’s storied editor in chief for almost thirty years; former New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn, now an editor-at-large for New York magazine’s The Cut; and Suzy Menkes, formerly of the “International Herald Tribune,” now the editor for the international editions of Vogue.
For everyone else, front row is never a sure thing. Though few will admit it on the record, receiving that thick vellum invitation in the mail—yes, the A-list invites are still sent via snail mail— with a prime seat assignment still elicits sighs of relief from editors who use the front row as a benchmark for their continued relevance, and that of their publication. It was less than a decade ago that style bloggers like Man Repeller’s Leandra Medine and Bryan Boy (real name: Byran Grey Yambao) began getting their due at Fashion Week. Before that, they were largely dismissed by fashion’s gatekeepers, relegated to dreaded SRO (standing room only) status if they were invited into the main event at all. No more.
Tensions between mag editors and bloggers came to a head last year when Vogue published a story online that called out bloggers covering shows as “pathetic” and “desperate.” Bryan Boy fought back, referring to the comments as “school yard bullying.”
Despite all the industry shakeups between the style stars and fashion’s old guard, one fact remains as true today as a decade ago: celebrity still matters. “Designers want press for their fashion shows, and an image of celebrity sitting front row in a new design could go world-wide versus a shot of a model wearing that same outfit walking down the runway,” says Lori Levine van Arsdale, the founder of the celebrity marketing firm Flying Television. “Photographs of celebrities help drive sales.”
But the meaning of the word celebrity has undergone a seismic shift. It used to mean A-list movie and television stars and a few high-profile musicians. But these days the definition of a celebrity has been stretched thinner than than the cellophane that covers the runway before the show and has grown to include Instagram stars, YouTube stars and even very famous Snap Chatters.
If you believe the critics, NYFW is always one season away from being “so over,” “uncool” and irrelevant. This year is no exception.
“The shows are not cool anymore,” Teri Agins, the author of the 2014 book “Hijacking the Runway: How Celebrities Are Stealing the Spotlight From Fashion Designers,” recently told the New York Times in a story that reported on the decline of NYFW star power in just the last couple of seasons. The NYT lamented the replacement of front row A-listers like Katie Holmes, Jennifer Hudson and Lucy Liu by the likes of Malin Akerman and Kelly Bensimon for last September’s shows.
We’ll have to wait and see if that is the case this week.
But who do the designers want in their front rows this season?
Among the biggest gets right now are model and social media star Gigi Hadid, “Fifty Shades” star Dakota Johnson, actress and singer Janelle Monae who simply killed it in Oscar darling “Hidden Figures,” and, of course, reality superstar Kim Kardashian, who is said to top all invite lists. Hard to believe, but there was a time when she was shunned by the haute couture community. Not anymore. A longtime fashion publicist recently complained to me that she would be in the dog house if she didn’t have at least one Kardashian walking in the show or sitting in the front row. As of December she didn’t have a single family member confirmed. “Right now I’d even take a Jenner,” she said. “It’s better than nothing.”
The dirty secret about front row celebs is that many of them don’t even want to be there—they’re actually paid by the designers to attend. While in the past, stars may have been compensated with clothes for their fashion show cameos, today most are paid up to six figures to make an appearance. And as marketing budgets decline and are spread across new channels, like social and digital marketing, there is often less leftover for a big celebrity spend.
At any runway show, there are between 300 and 800 seats, depending on which theater the presentation is in. As many of 150 of those are earmarked as front row. The majority of those aren’t taken up by magazine editors, celebrities or even wildly popular bloggers and fashion Instagrammers.
Who are the unknown faces occupying roughly 70 percent of the front row seats? They’re the money. Make no mistake, fashion is still big business, and a fashion show is a lot like a board meeting. Sponsors and big buyers from department stores and ecommerce websites make up the majority of the front row seats, though no one talks about that much because they’re not well known or recognizable.
But perhaps the most influential players in all of Fashion Week never score a front row seat themselves: the PR and marketing agencies, who act as gatekeepers. It takes at least a few weeks to design a seating plan that accounts for the egos, turf battles and personality clashes housed under the roof of Fashion Week. “Some editors hate one another worse than most in-laws. And the celebs either need to be clustered or kept completely on their own with a space for a bodyguard on either side because certain celebs don’t like to talk to other humans,” one frazzled publicist explained. “It’s both an art and a science.”
I’ve covered 22 New York fashion weeks over the course of my career, and while I’ve made it backstage and to every after party and after-after party, I’ve never scored a front row invitation. Not once. I pushed my co-author Sykes about why it rankles so much, even now. Why do people care so much about the front row?
“Status, darling,” she explained with a wave of her hand to indicate my question was absurd. “Third row is not cool. Front row means you have arrived.”