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Serious Fashion

Q&A

By Mark Ellwood

Teri Agins is an outlier among fashion editors. She’s spent a career charting the rise and fall of stock prices rather than hemlines, as the pre-eminent fashion-business reporter in the world. We became friends when I wrote to her gushing about her last book, “The End of Fashion,” which charted the seismic changes in the clothing business in the 1990s. Her new book from Gotham looks at changes over the last decade in that same industry. The title says it all: “Hijacking the Runway: How Celebrities Are Stealing the Spotlight from Fashion Designers.”

I know you’ve been working on this book for a few years; what sparked the idea?
I was working on a story for The Wall Street Journal about Jessica Simpson’s first fashion line. I’d been watching celebrities take over magazine covers and red carpets—clearly they were having more influence—but it was the Jessica Simpson piece that galvanized my idea. One of my favorite insights from the book was about the fashion show’s front row—that until recently, it was considered the worst seat in the house.

When I first started covering the industry, I was going to all those shows at The Pierre hotel in NYC, where the seated rows were on the same level and the runway was quite elevated; the photographers surrounded it like a moat. They were bopping up and down all the time, so the one place you did not want to sit was the front row—you couldn’t see!

Bryant Park Tent, Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week.

Then the shows converged on Bryant Park in a more organized way, creating the very idea of front-row celebrities.
Fashion Week became an international event, and they redesigned the runways to be on the ground to try and pack people in. Instead of 40 photographers around the runway, they had 300 in that pit at the end. Former Fashion Week czarina Fern Mallis told me that 20 to 30 percent of those photographers weren’t there to take pictures of the show; they wanted scenes of what was going on in the front row.

The seating hierarchy is so potent at fashion shows today. I always say it’s like a performance review in front of your peers.
When I first started, I got bad seats everywhere because The Wall Street Journal had never done much coverage of the fashion industry. So we all did the seat switcheroo: sneaking into shows, changing numbers on seats. Bleacher seating was my favorite—you can always squeeze another set of hips in there.

Teri Agins with Andre Leon Talley.

Who gave you your first front-row seat?
Isaac Mizrahi. We all liked his show because there were really long runways and, in effect, plenty of front-row seats. I also didn’t know that most celebrities return the red-carpet gowns they borrow, since they can only wear them once. There’s one major exception, though… Cate Blanchett. She is into the art of fashion, with a real sense of scholarship. She doesn’t return the key gowns she wears at certain events; she keeps them and archives them in acid-free paper. I’d compare her to some of the socialites from the 1960s or ’70s like Nan Kempner or Jacqueline de Ribes. She is a fashion connoisseur.

Cate Blanchett wearing Armani Privé at the 2014 Oscars.

So what happens now that celebrities have crept onto the runway?
Does the industry push back? Many designers are trying to heighten their profiles so that they become celebrities themselves and make their brands more exciting to shoppers. They will be finding ways to tap-dance their way into prime time, doing a lot more outside the design studio. I see them endorsing hotels and restaurants. It’s the same way that Isaac Mizrahi was blessed because he was a singer and piano player; let me tell you, he did club gigs. Seeing a designer in so many venues—on the Food Network, sharing photos on Instagram—it’s all about getting to know them as a personality, as celebrity as well as a fashion designer. It’s part of how designers are now showing where they vacation or putting their homes in magazines. You get more of a sense of who they are, their personal taste. It’s a cumulative thing.

Tom Ford and Teri Agins at the 9th Annual ACE Awards Hosted by The Accessories Council.

Who’s at the forefront of that?
Tom Ford is the perfect storm of celebrity and designer. He will soon be at top of the heap—he’ll get a best-director nomination at the Oscars for his next movie. He’s so handsome and dapper that he even looks like a movie star.

He makes it all seem so effortless. He would get up at 3 a.m. to do an interview and be on the phone for an hour, and you’d get great, detailed dish. When I won the American Accessories Council award in 2005, he presented it to me—he was my date for the evening. I told him, ‘You are the perfect date. I’m used to going to parties and working the room, but we can just sit still and everybody comes to us.’

What other designers have that same combination of charm and talent?
Michael Kors. He’s brilliant. He always has a great quip ready and he’s so genuine. Of course, he was always a ham—he was a child star and did commercials for Charmin and Lucky Charms—so he’s used to being in front of the camera. But, when he was asked to do “Project Runway,” he initially didn’t want to. He thought it was going to be a cheesy reality show. But at that time, his company was expanding into accessories and needed a footprint with the masses.

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