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Culture

Much ado about sitting at fashion week

While most of us are pulling out last year's sweater from the closet, the fashion world is critiquing next fall's styles on the catwalk. But often the faces in the front row are more important than the clothes.

Most eyes will be trained on the wispy forms gliding skilfully across the catwalk, rather than on the faces in the crowd.

We may live in the hyper-accelerated 21st century, but the front row of a runway show still serves as a reliable twice-a-year barometer of who's hot, who's not, and who's a rising star in the fashion and entertainment industries.

Anna Wintour

Vogue editor Anna Wintour has been a front-row staple for decades

"I definitely think in this day and age celebrity is a very important element of a front row," said Julia Che, president of Toronto-based Lotus Leaf Communications, which specializes in the fashion industry. "It can really raise the profile of any brand."

At the big shows - New York, London, Milan and Paris - getting a front-row seat is highly prestigious.

"The faces of the front row are role models for 'fashionistas,' and consist of the most important journalists, bloggers, buyers and 'it' girls," Kai Margrander, fashion director for Glamour Deutschland, told DW while attending Milan Fashion Week.

But getting that seat can be a battle worthy of a Homeric epic. Drama abounds.

"People go pretty nuts to get into the front row," said Che.

This season has been no exception. At New York Fashion Week, controversy ensued at a showing of Zac Posen's latest collection. Jennifer Eymere, editor of Paris-based fashion magazine Jalouse, and a group of three others were outraged when they learned they were not in a prime spot for the show, set to feature supermodels Karolina Kurkova and Naomi Campbell. A screaming match ensued, with Eymere slapping a public relations representative in the face. She's being sued for $1 million (770,000 euros).

The Zac Posen Spring 2012 collection

No one was sued over a front-row seat at Zac Posen's show last year

Generating buzz

But make no mistake; it's not the fashion editors but the celebrities in the front row that garner the most attention.

"Celebrities and high society have always been of great fascination to the general public," said Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, an Associate Professor at the University of Southern California, who specializes on the economic impact of art and culture and the making of celebrity. "Celebrities generate buzz and the public cares about the shows that their favorite celebrities attend."

According to Margrander, the presence of celebrities at a show can also influence buyers - boutique and other business representatives who order clothes from a designer or label to carry in their store and who often go unnoticed.

"The real customers thereby assess how popular a brand is," he said.

With money and fame at stake, deciding who merits a front-row seat is a lengthy process, according to Che.

Lady Gaga

Celebrities like Lady Gaga are sought-after by many brands

"It really has to do with suitability and relevance to the brand," she said. "There are certain brands that are more ready-to-wear, and then there are some that are more haute couture. There are those key celebrities and those key individuals, like the Madonnas, like the Lady Gagas, that almost anyone would want in their front row."

But while some celebrities are mainstays at certain shows - such as Sarah Jessica Parker at Diane von Furstenberg - they can be inappropriate at others.

In 2009, public relations maven Kelly Cutrone - a celebrity in her own right - and her firm People's Revolution arranged for Ashley Dupre to sit front row at a Yigal Azrouël showing. Dupre had gained notoriety as the sex worker hired by New York governor Eliot Spitzer, a scandal which led to his resignation. Azrouël was outraged, and fired Cutrone and her firm.

Increased access

The effect of celebrities on ordinary people, some say, is magnified by advances in technology, such as live streams of runway shows or constant Twitter updates from the events.

"The difference in contemporary society is that new media, technology and the 24/7 news cycle allows us to see them all the time and capture fashion shows in real time," explains Currid-Halkett. "We are more interested in celebrities today, but partially this is because we have more access to them."

And all that interest can lead to increased sales.

"A 'hot' celebrity brings PR and television, and the general public remembers the brand name," said Margrander.

Back to basics

But some designers scoff at the notion of having celebrities in the front row. For them, it comes down to a belief that their collections will stand on their own, without the extra publicity a celebrity might bring.

Models wear creations by designer Temperley London during London Fashion Week

Temperley believes paying celebrities is "barbaric"

British designer Alice Temperley - a favorite of Pippa Middleton and her sister, the Duchess of Cambridge - lashed out during London Fashion Week at designers who sometimes pay celebrities to sit in the front row.

"Paying celebrities? I think there is a lot more of that going on than people think goes on," she said in remarks first published in the Sunday Telegraph. "I think that paying somebody to come to the front row of your show is a kind of barbaric thing."

Temperley went on to state she doesn't believe celebrities should endorse a designer.

"Unfortunately, the world is sort of obsessed with celebrity and I don't think it should be like that," she said. "It's a waste - the clothes should speak for themselves; it should be about what is on the catwalk."

While Temperley's views are in the minority, she's not alone. In 2010, Spanish shoe designer Manolo Blahnik - known for his stilettos coveted by women the world over - famously told Vogue of his disdain for celebrities.

"I hate celebrities," he said. "All those pointless girls - I won't name names, but you know who I mean. They are 'famous.' Ridiculous."

Ridiculous or not, the stars have been out this season to do their job as usual.

In the closing days of London Fashion Week, guests in the front row for the Mulberry show included supermodel Kate Moss, actress Elizabeth McGovern, singer Lana Del Ray, Olympian Jessica Ennis, television personality Alexa Chung and Vogue editor Anna Wintour. It was one of the most talked about shows on Twitter.

Paris Fashion Week opens Tuesday, September 25, the same day Milan Fashion Week draws to a close.

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