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Fashion Week’s Latest Experiment: Charging for Admission

Historically, exclusivity has been baked into all aspects of fashion week. But this season New York- and London-based designers are opening their shows up to the general public — for a price.
Source: Shutterstock
By
  • Tamison O'Connor

NEW YORK, United States — After 10 years in business, Chromat designer Becca McCharen-Tran is celebrating with a runway show designed to spark buzz. Buyers and editors can expect the regular hallmarks, including a hot collaboration (Reebok) and a musical performance (Rico Nasty). But what they might not be expecting is a seat next to a member of the general public.

McCharen-Tran is one of several New York designers opening their shows to consumers this season — for a price. Endeavor Experiences, an arm of entertainment conglomerate Endeavor, which also owns New York Fashion Week-producer IMG, is selling about 200 tickets, split between McCharen-Tran’s show, as well as Rag & Bone and The Blonds.

Prices range from $550 for a seat at Chromat to $2,000 for a closer-up seat at Rag & Bone’s show, plus access to the after party and a meet-and-greet with the brand’s founder. Endeavor and the brands will share the proceeds. Only the premium Rag & Bone tickets had sold out by Thursday afternoon.

Brands are no strangers to hosting consumers at their shows — often designers will invite a select pool of their highest-spending, most loyal customers to preview the looks they'll be purchasing next season. Pyer Moss' Kerby Jean-Raymond gave away tickets to his September 8 show in Brooklyn, and Vfiles routinely gives away seats to its shows. Endeavor's proposal goes a step further by selling tickets to the general public.

Historically, exclusivity has been baked into all aspects of fashion week. Only a curated list of press, buyers and VIPs receive invites to shows and parties. But brands have been staging shows with consumers in mind for a while now, hoping elaborate sets and A-list attendance will capture consumer attention on social media. Indeed, thanks to social media, access to fashion week is more open than ever, with brands streaming shows live on Facebook and celebrities on the front row Instagramming their favourite looks for their millions of followers to see as they come down the catwalk. But it’s becoming harder for premium and luxury brands to cut through the noise and engage directly with their consumers.

Consumers want to buy into brands that they feel reflect their personality, and events are a perfect opportunity to showcase a brand's personality.

Of course, pitching fashion shows to the public has trade-offs. In many ways, the exclusivity of fashion week is what makes it so alluring, and democratising the shows risks damaging their public appeal. For luxury brands like Chanel or Dior, exclusivity is baked into their DNA, and selling tickets to shows would work against that.

But other brands are finding limited-edition products are a better way than roped-off events to maintain cachet with customers, said Samantha Dover, senior fashion and beauty analyst at Mintel.

“Consumers want to buy into brands that they feel reflect their personality, and events are a perfect opportunity to showcase a brand’s personality,” she said.

For the designers, ticket revenue helps offset the cost of putting on a show. It also gives brands a chance to establish relationships with potential clients who are interested in fashion and have cash to splash.

“At the level that we’re offering the tickets, it would potentially be clients [attending],” said David Blond, one half of design duo The Blonds, which makes custom designs for celebrities and wealthy private clients. “We’re looking at this as an opportunity to invite newcomers to see what the brand is about, to get to know us a little bit better.”

Even so, though numerous brands held discussions with Endeavor about selling tickets, only three signed on. Mahmoud Youssef, president of Endeavor Experiences, said the short timeline was a factor, as many brands only finalised their plans for fashion week in the last few weeks. He said the agency plans to use this season as a pilot to convince more designers to participate down the line.

Across the pond, London Fashion Week is also inviting consumers inside the tent, with Self-Portrait, Alexachung and House of Holland staging fashion shows for ticket buyers at 180 Strand, the official British Fashion Council show space. Attendees can also watch talks from industry insiders such as Eva Chen and Laura Brown and access previously off-limits areas of the venue. The shows will be the first held for the public during fashion week, the BFC said.

This gives [brands] an opportunity to reach individuals that maybe aren't customers already.

Unlike IMG’s New York Fashion Week initiative, the BFC’s fashion shows are solely for public consumption — no editors or buyers in sight — and the models coming down the catwalk will be wearing pieces available to buy immediately. Tickets are priced lower, at £135 ($165.53) to £250 ($306.53), with proceeds going toward production of the events.

"This gives them an opportunity to reach individuals that maybe aren't customers already, or are customers that they're not as engaged with," said BFC Chief Executive Caroline Rush. "By us doing it, it de-risks it for them, it makes it an easy opportunity to do it without solving the cost."

Han Chong, the designer behind Self-Portrait, said the public show is a way "to reach new audiences and build their awareness and interest."

Anya Hindmarch has been hosting consumer-facing experiences in lieu of a traditional catwalk show during London Fashion Week for three seasons. Tickets to these events are always priced under £20 ($24.55).

Going direct-to-consumer during fashion week made sense for her business, said Hindmarch, who pitches her brand as an inclusive one and questioned whether it was right to spend its marketing budget on a small industry and VIP audience.

“The trade and the industry, they’re professional buyers, they don’t need all the marketing savvy around it, they’re used to seeing product and understanding it,” she said. “I’d rather move the marketing element to my customer.”

The new approach appears to be working: its first two fashion week events sold out, attracting 3,000 and 4,000 guests respectively. The Neeson bag, which launched at last season’s event, has been one of the brand’s best-performing new styles in years.

Mario Ortelli, managing partner of luxury advisors Ortelli & Co., expects more brands will start to stage consumer-facing fashion week experiences in the future. But whether fashion week is the right forum for this is debatable.

“Does it make sense to schedule them during fashion week? Or is it better to schedule them in a different time of the year when, from one side you’ve got less traffic of people of the fashion industry and less spotlight on a specific city, but from the other you’ve also got less noise to overcome with your event,” he said.

For the British Fashion Council’s Rush, fashion week is still, first and foremost, about the industry itself. Finding ways to make consumers feel involved is a bonus.

“Fashion week for a long time will be valid showcases to trade audiences, because it’s still, for the right kind of brand, a really good return for them to be able to reach media and create an appetite for their new collections from retailers,” she said. “Finding new ways to engage consumers and give them experiences that hopefully will translate into some brand loyalty for the businesses that we work with is just added value.”

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