MARKET FOCUS: Fashion PR: Glitch in glamour

Can high-end events get fashion back on its feet?

Can high-end events get fashion back on its feet?

"Fashion has hit an all-time low - and we're not referring to the recession," wrote the Chicago Tribune on September 11, 2001, referring to the Britney Spears-driven craze for low-rise jeans, then on display at Fashion Week in New York. Little did the newspaper know how irrelevant the story would appear that day and in those to follow. Already suffering from the effects of a recession, the fashion industry came to a standstill last year when terrorists hit New York midway through its core event. Parties, shows, and collections were out. Hilfiger's red, white, and blue were in. "Fashion didn't seem right at the time," says Stephen Millikin, VP of FormulaPR's New York office. "But now, people are healing and moving on, and companies are also healing and moving on financially, and they're starting to invest in different programs and promotions again." So a year later, we're back to jeans and Britney Spears. Celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, Bono, Elizabeth Hurley, and, yes, Britney Spears eagerly welcomed all the fashion hoopla from the first rows of the Bryant Park tents this year, and top designers eagerly showed that they, too, were happy to be back. But many fashion pros have speculated that far from a visible recovery, what happened at London Fashion Week, and then in New York, Milan, and Paris, was simply wishful thinking taking over for grim reality. After all, fashion is the business of showing and showing off, isn't it? Designs on a comeback "Fashion Week is a way for everybody to see collections," says Sally Fischer of lifestyle specialist Sally Fischer PR. So at New York Fashion Week, "everyone was interested in pumping energy and new life into the show because they want to bring new life and energy into the industry, where it doesn't necessarily exist." Since 9/11, the number of fashion events has increased, says Fischer. "Department stores had a drop in business, and the way to bring people in has been by creating events, creating a reason to bring people in. You find creative ways to do business - give luncheons, throw smaller parties and trunk shows." But what's in the trunk? The fashion industry is still far from a full recovery. While consumers rushed to take advantage of 0% financing deals and major discounts at auto and furniture dealers, clothes hung idly on the racks. For example, major mass-market retailer Gap, which also owns the Banana Republic and Old Navy brands, has operated at a loss for nearly 30 months in a row. On the high end, Federated Department Stores - which operates Macy's, Bloomingdale's, and Lazarus - reported that same-store sales fell by 5.8% in August. Sales at May, the owner of Lord & Taylor, declined 8.6%, and sales at Saks fell 3.3%. On the other hand, discounters Wal-Mart, Target, and Costco reported gains, however sluggish. "The slowest to recover of all, we are beginning to see some signs of it," says Marshal Cohen, co-president of NPDFashionworld, a market research company for the fashion industry. "But a lot of the recovery will be based on promotion. All sales will be on preseason and clearance sales." Threatened by continuing layoffs and vanishing yearly bonuses, today's consumer is looking for value, Cohen explains, trading the department store for the mass merchant. "The same people who used to shop only at Bloomingdale's will now shop at Target also," Cohen says. At the same time, though, they still feel the need to pamper themselves with branded goods. How do they do it? Out goes full-wardrobe renovation. In come accessories. Focusing on trends "People are not buying as much clothing as in the past," says Charly Laura Rok, a media relations specialist at Magnet Communications. "Instead of buying something completely new, they will buy an underpinning, like an accessory, to freshen up." As a result, events dedicated solely to accessories, though rare in the past, are on the rise as well. Charlene Parsons, director of the fashion program at the International Fine Arts College in Miami, got a great response from a Bloomingdale's accessories presentation in one of the chain's Miami outlets. "It was really unbelievable, the message it brought," Parsons says. "It's been quite a long time since we have seen jewelry becoming a major trend." Ann Keating, SVP of public relations at Bloomingdale's in New York, confirms: "Accessories are very, very hot. People are buying a basic black suit or dress, realizing it's a staple in their wardrobe that they are able to change through an accessory. They are smart consumers. We really have to make sure we're staying on top of the trends," Keating says. In an alternative to accessories, consumers often choose one expensive, branded item to dominate their wardrobe and complement it with cheaper clothes from mass merchants. "People are either going to high-luxury clothing they can wear forever or fast-disposable fashion that's very inexpensive and that they can throw out after they wear it three times," says Roger Padilha, creative director at MAO Public Relations. Padilha represents young, emerging talents in fashion design, including Gary Graham, who he says "dresses Britney Spears all the time." This pattern has inspired reams of how-to features on getting more for less in the fashion magazines, and many PR pros are making good use of the trend. "This has been the foundation of our media relations efforts for Marshalls for the past two years," says Ronna Reich, VP of Magnet Communications. "Seasonally, we create 'look books,' which pair actual current-season runway photos from the top designers with similar, yet incredibly affordable, head-to-toe merchandise from Marshalls. With this service-oriented approach, we offer fashion solutions to the budget-savvy reader." Celebrities still run the show If you're the Gap or Ann Taylor, Marie Claire's Splurge Versus Steal section will do you good. But if you're a couture designer, explains Jennifer Faulkner of Faulkner & Associates, the celebrity angle is still the best way to get publicity for your clothes - other than a fashion show, of course. One of Faulkner's clients, San Francisco couturier Colleen Quen, recently received coverage for a one-of-a-kind gown she designed for Vivica Fox to wear at the Perrier-Jouet 100th Anniversary Ball during Fashion Week. "This coverage will help Quen secure retail accounts beyond San Francisco," Faulkner says. "It's as important to pitch stylists and celebrity publicists as it is journalists at the couture level. Just look at the attention stylist Phillip Bloch brought to couturier Elie Saab when he selected one of her one-of-a-kind gowns for Halle Berry to wear to the Oscars." The celebrity hook works with fashion shows, too, and this has been on full display this season. "For a while, I thought fashion was going to return to the way it was - very small," says Padilha. "This season, I have Hollywood coming to my shows!" People long for entertainment, adds Padilha, and fashion is an entertainment vehicle, which explains why celebrities wait in line to get into the latest, hippest show - show after show after show. "Why is Mary J. Blige sitting at a fashion show?" Padilha asks. "She has her own style that doesn't conform to the fashion world, but it's about entertainment, not about clothes." Hence all the media buzz. The first question Padilha used to get about a show was, "What length of skirts do you have?" Now reporters ask, "Who's coming to the show?" "We had a season off," Padilha concludes. "This season is just as strong, even stronger." Fashion Week Executive Director Fern Mallis, however, is cautiously optimistic: "From a Fashion Week perspective, the industry has recovered, but we have to see how that transfers to business and sales."

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