THE spotlight of L.A.'s red carpet is giving way to a new ego-stroking, status-bestowing institution: the fashion show front row.
Being seated closest to the runway is more than a thank you to supporters; it's also a reflection of the designer's pull and the collection's cool factor. "The audience can be as interesting as the show," said Margaret Schell, a partner with SPR, a fashion public relations firm in Hollywood that has staged Los Angeles shows for five years.
Indeed, a good 40 minutes before the first model strutted the Louis Verdad runway Sunday at Smashbox Studios, a group of head-turning guests assembled in the 89 front-row seats. A quick pan of the row skipped from the usual glitterati like Paris and Nicky Hilton to rock 'n' roll stars such as Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Gilby Clarke, the Guns 'N Roses guitarist, with his wife, Daniella, founder of Frankie B. jeans. Matthew Perry, talking up his new TV show, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," took along pal Randall Slavin, a celebrity photographer.
In a brightly colored grouping of Verdad-wearing beauties there were Carmen Electra; Rachael Leigh Cook and her high school friend, writer Jackie Honikman; and up-and-coming singer Katy Perry. Across the runway, costume designer Susan Matheson wore a bowler and a corset, though she swore she wasn't trying to mimic the show's corset theme.
Look left and Tropicana Bar proprietress Amanda Scheer Demme was shielding her eyes under an old-fashioned men's straw hat. Across the runway the bejeweled woman with flamingo-pink hair was accessory designer Tarina Tarantino. Looking annoyed near the photographer's pit sat an unsmiling blond matron ("Isn't she somebody?") holding a nervous Chihuahua that sniffed Steven Cojocaru, the former "Today" correspondent.
But how to get the A-listers to attend?
In other cities, organizers must lure celebrities with first-class plane tickets, professional hair and makeup services, free lodging and the designer's clothes. All it takes in L.A., where so many celebrities live, said Kelly Cutrone, founder of People's Revolution, a fashion public relations firm, is an invitation. Except when it doesn't.
In the land of the months-long red carpet season, celebrities are so accustomed to receiving free clothes in exchange for an appearance that designers have had to up the ante.
"A lot of times we'll send them pairs of customized jeans or an invitation to shop at the store," said Kenn Henman, a publicist with aLine Media. His agency arranged the seating this season for premium denim makers Antik Denim, Taverniti and Yanuk. To cement relationships with hoped-for stars, the company months ago brought Eva Longoria and Nicollette Sheridan to the Antik store on Melrose, and "they had a little shopping spree." The agency has also added a limo and stylist to the list of incentives. Paris Hilton said she had been promised Louis Verdad's entire line.
"From a celebrity perspective, L.A. is amazing," Cutrone said. "It is better than anywhere in the world. The potential of the front row is huge."
The front row as an institution is a relatively new phenomenon in L.A. But as fashion here gains in sophistication, its profile is rising.
"There's a who's who of celebrities and press and VIPs," said Sara Stein, co-founder of SPR. The modern front-row concept came to L.A. in November 2001, when she and Schell launched Audi Presents Designer Collections Los Angeles, for which sponsor JetBlue flew New York fashion editors to L.A. "At that time, there was a very small front row," Stein said. It's bigger and more badly behaved now.
Stories of seat crashers and front-row poseurs have grown common. But Cutrone applies a three-second rule, after which she gets tough.
"When someone has to start running down their CV to me, then it's, 'No. Good luck, hate me later and never come to anything I do again,' " Cutrone said. And if you're rude, consider yourself lucky if you don't get banished forever, or worse, stuck standing.
When the city's design legions joined with marketing giant IMG in 2004 to create the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week at Smashbox Studios, they also assumed the protocol that governs fashion shows around the world. The experimental, friendly and sometimes amateur presentations that once defined an L.A. fashion show have been replaced by professional, staged events that are structured, serious and slick marketing vehicles for the clothes, and in this town, the ever-changing audience.
The show producers are beginning to understand L.A. at about the same rate that L.A. is beginning to understand professional fashion, which is shaping the front row.