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Fashion's Front-Row Show

Who sits closest to the runway? Design houses want stars, stars want their designs, and wannabe-seens have their designs on the high-profile seats.

February 09, 2001|BOOTH MOORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sofia Vergara may not be well known now, but the buxom 28-year-old Colombian actress is headed for Manhattan to become a gossip-column item. Her ticket? A front-row seat at the hottest runway shows during New York's fashion week.

Her escort will be the bereted Phillip Bloch, a stylist to the stars who is paid to connect celebrity clients with high-profile designers. He's arranged the best for Vergara, a former model who hosted a show on Univision for four years. "We have a saying in my office," Bloch said. "No front row, we don't go."

The duo will drop by the Sean John show "because it's cool," BCBG and Donna Karan "because they're generous and like to dress celebs," and Badgley Mischka "because you never know when you're going to need a beaded gown," Bloch said.

In this era of fame-driven fashion, getting to know designers can lead to free gowns and other gifts. So celebrities (even low-wattage ones such as Vergara) jockey for front-row seats at the invitation-only shows, which began Thursday.

Until the last few years, the shows, held biannually in New York--nearly 150 of them in total--were tradition-bound affairs. The front row was the turf of an elite group of a hundred or so magazine editors, store buyers and socialites.

The runway shows have evolved into almost performance art with DJs, dancers, films and often incredible special effects. Now the guest list reads more like a who's who of film, music and television because designers have discovered how valuable it can be to have celebrities at their shows. Crowding into the front row too are stylists such as Bloch, Jessica Pasteur and L'Wren Scott, power brokers between Hollywood and Seventh Avenue.

Celebs crave media exposure that appears less contrived than predictable new-movie and -album junkets. Vergara, for example, will get to meet a slew of fashion and other editors, thanks to Bloch. "She'll probably end up on [the New York Post's] Page 6," he said.

For designers, a star connection can lead to a windfall of publicity in mass magazines, such as InStyle or People, and on E! Entertainment Television. Many woo celebs to their shows, sometimes even offering free flights, hotel stays and wardrobes.

"It's basically a major bribe," said Mauricio Padilha, owner of MAO Public Relations, which is producing several shows this season. He, like other New York designer reps, is understandably reluctant to provide details.

For some, courting stars is deemed good for business. In past seasons in Europe, Chanel bankrolled a Concorde trip for Julianne Moore to fly to Paris for a show. Giorgio Armani flew Ricky Martin to sit in his front row, and Donatella Versace paid Salma Hayek's travel expenses to ensure she would be runway-side.

Other designers stop short of paying celeb travel expenses, choosing to gift them instead. Women's wear fashion house Luca Luca, for example, sent cashmere sweaters with its show invitations to "friends and family," including Mary J. Blige, who wore the line during the Super Bowl halftime show last month.

The sweaters are not bribes, but thank-yous, said public relations director Sia Shin. "We love for people to be wearing Luca Luca to our show, kind of like fans wear team colors to a sporting event." But the fashion house would never send things to people who didn't already have Luca Luca in their closet, she added.

Once guests are secured, the politics of seating can make Washington's look like child's play. To accommodate the swell of VIPs, designers have taken to creating serpentine arrangements to lengthen their front rows.

Those invited to this season's hottest ticket--Saturday's Sean John show--run the gamut from Kennedy family members to singer D'Angelo to the cast of "Saturday Night Live" to Katie Couric, so deciding which 110 will get to sit in the front row is tricky.

"There will definitely be celebs in the second, third and even fourth rows," said Hampton Carney of Paul Wilmot Communications, who is handling the seating.

Some stars will no doubt throw attitude, he said, but when rock group Stone Temple Pilots wound up in the third row at the last Sean John show, "they were so cool about it."

After a seating chart is devised, organizers still have to be ready for last-minute guests. When Howard Stern showed up uninvited to last season's Luca Luca show, "there was a lot of shuffling," Shin said. "We have chairs that materialize that can be shoved at the end of rows, or squeezed in between others. . . . We haven't had people sit on laps yet."

Ultimately, the shows are supposed to be about what's on the runway, not who's sitting on the sidelines. "At the end of the day, what sells clothes is the critical evaluation," said a publicist who asked not to be named. "You run the risk of irritating an editor when their fashion director is in the second row to make room for Foxy Brown, who's not that big of a deal."

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