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Decadence with the public in mind

Times Staff Writer

Even by Hollywood standards it was a blockbuster production: Dior’s 60th anniversary haute couture show, held Monday night in the majestic Orangerie of Versailles. The longest runway in history. A procession of the world’s top models wearing one-of-a-kind, decadent gowns. An A-list front row that included Charlize Theron, Kate Hudson, Harvey Weinstein, Sofia Coppola and Juliette Binoche. An after-party for 1,000 that transformed the gardens into a disco with roving musicians, tents with chandeliers and pans of paella the size of backyard trampolines.

It was an extravaganza the likes of which the fashion world has never seen. But before the first bottle of Veuve Clicquot had been popped, the pack was already buzzing about the next event in this season of escalating fashion fabulousness -- Valentino’s three-day couture event in Rome that kicks off Saturday with a party amid the ruins of the Imperial Forums.

A few days later, Versace will take over the grand La Scala opera house in Milan, Italy. And in the fall, Fendi will host a runway show to top them all, with models strutting down the Great Wall of China.

What’s next, Louis Vuitton on the moon?

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As the $100-billion luxury fashion industry becomes increasingly crowded, and fast fashion chains such as H&M; make competition for retail sales more fierce, fashion shows have become so elaborate, so ubiquitous, that to stand out at all you have to go to -- well, Versailles.

Fashion weeks were originally created for designers so they could hold runway shows displaying their wares for store buyers, or in the case of haute couture shows, private clients.

Now, the majority of the buying is done ahead of time, and fashion shows are about getting as much media coverage as possible to build brand-name cachet and drive sales of more accessible designer goods such as perfume, handbags and sunglasses.

So, as exclusive as the Dior show may have seemed, and as much as haute couture -- the made-to-order collections that are the pinnacle of fashion as high art -- appeals to the growing class of millionaires, it was really more about courting the little people. The same people Marie Antoinette might have told to eat cake.

“It’s about keeping the name elevated to drive the peripheral branding,” says Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for the NPD Group, a market research firm. “And how do you garner attention from the media? Have a show at the Great Wall of China.”

Although there are really only four fashion weeks that count in terms of influencing trends and attracting media attendance -- New York, London, Milan and Paris -- there are dozens of fashion weeks these days, in some of the most unlikely cities on the planet. The event marketing firm IMG, the world’s largest producer of runway shows, started with a single fashion week in New York just six years ago. Today it holds “fashion week” events in Los Angeles; Miami; Sydney and Melbourne, Australia; Mumbai, India; Ngee Ann City, Singapore; London; Berlin; Lahore, Pakistan; Houston; and San Francisco.

But any city looking for publicity can hold a fashion week (witness Fashion Week Cleveland). Because fashion shows have become commonplace, luxury houses have to work harder to set themselves apart and establish their prestige.

“A company is able to secure its brand even further when they celebrate with an over-the-top event,” says Ken Downing, senior vice president and fashion director of Neiman Marcus.

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With the cost of flying in celebrity guests, hiring top models and stocking hors d’oeuvres trays with foie gras, these swank events are in no way moneymakers. Dior will not recoup its investment from sales of designer John Galliano’s crystal-studded, bustle-back gowns shown at Versailles.

But it is not boutique and couture lines that make money. It’s cosmetics and accessories. And that’s where an over-the-top show can make a difference.

The rich may be getting richer, but it’s not the upper market that drives brands like Dior and Fendi, Cohen of the NPD Group says. “It’s the middle market reaching up to spend. And now the middle market is hanging in the middle.”

More fashion-minded consumers are buying from mass retailers instead of high-end stores because the offerings are so darn good. The past three years of designer collaborations with chain stores have made good design affordable. This fall, the offerings include top names such as Vera Wang at Kohl’s, Devi Kroell at Target and Roberto Cavalli at H&M.; No one need spend more than $39.99 to get a smartly tailored jacket or a nice purse.

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Retail consolidation has also upped the ante. With more designers competing for less selling space, it’s a buyers’ market. So luxury brands are fighting back by rolling out the red carpets and the runways, not only during the traditional fall and spring seasons, but year-round -- all in an effort to build prestige.

The three-day Valentino celebration in Rome will feature an haute couture show and a retrospective exhibit of the designer’s work debuting at Museo dell’Ara Pacis. There will be a dinner at the Imperial Forums, which date back to AD 135, where set designer Dante Ferretti has re-created the original structure of the Temple of Venus.

The space has never before been open to an event.

Among the guests expected for the weekend bacchanalia, which also includes parties for a book and fragrance launch, are Gwyneth Paltrow, Sarah Jessica Parker, Meryl Streep and the Trumps.

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Then the private jets head north to Milan for a memorial tribute to Gianni Versace on July 15. A new ballet will be presented at Teatro alla Scala titled “Grazie Gianni con Amore,” or “Thank You Gianni With Love,” followed by a dinner at the Piazza Reale, the former royal palace. The ballroom and its original statues, crumbling relics of the destruction of World War II, will be lighted with 2,000 candles, and organizers are hopeful Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie will come, since she’s filming a short flight away in Romania.

Just six weeks later, the fall season begins with New York Fashion Week and Ralph Lauren’s 40th anniversary celebration, which promises to be so dazzling, organizers won’t even talk about it yet.

This latest round of fashion theater began in Los Angeles in May, when Chanel brought two Challenger 601 jets to Santa Monica airport, transforming a hangar into a futuristic terminal lounge for a runway show for 600 guests, including Demi Moore, Victoria Beckham and Lindsay Lohan, and an international cadre of magazine editors.

That kind of fanfare isn’t unusual for a fall or spring runway show, but this event was orchestrated for its cruise collection, the line between fall and spring. Cruise collections, traditionally composed of bathing suits and warm-weather basics, were conceived in the late 1960s and until lately were shown quietly to retailers in designer showrooms. Now cruise collections, delivered in October, are complete with evening wear, designer appearances and runway shows.

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“Fashion is no stranger to the extravagant,” Downing says. “We will see more over-the-top events as companies continue to brand themselves. But these are also important milestones.”

Speaking of milestones, he says, Neiman Marcus has one in October: its 100th anniversary.

“We will be expecting many designers to travel to see us in Dallas, and celebs and models,” he says. “We’ve been planning it for some time.”

Yes, but can they top the Great Wall?

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booth.moore@latimes.com


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