Is paying celebrities to go to fashion shows really such a big deal?

Filed under: iDaily

This weekend Nicole Farhi spoke out against fashion houses that pay celebrities to sit on the front of their shows, calling the practice "abominable".

"What do they show you in the papers after a fashion show?" she asked in an interview with Stella magazine. "Not the clothes, but the celebrities being paid to sit at the show... I have never paid a celebrity and I will never do it."

She has a point. The front row is the raison d'etre of the modern catwalk show - and the bums on seats are as carefully curated as a blockbuster exhibition at the Tate Modern. This is the place where fashion power play is enacted and allegiances are declared. Heard rumours that the designer is about to get snapped up by another fashion house? Look to the f-row for the CEO of the rival brand and you'll get your answer. Want to know which magazines will feature the brand's advertising budgets next month? You'll see the editors paying grateful homage from their ringside seats. But the biggest deals are between designers and celebrity. If you suspect that Celebrity X has signed a cosmetics deal with the brand, you'll know your hunch is right if you spot them chatting to the designer's mum on the front row.

For a fashion brand, the right front row means phenomenal publicity. This means a subtle blend of the latest Bright Young Things (Azealia Banks was a fave in London this season) – and a tabloid-friendly sleb or two to guarantee column inches where even the most breathtaking collection would fail.

Although I understand Farhi's frustration, I think she misses the point. Take away the front row from the catwalk show, and what you're left with is a quaintly inefficient method of showing people clothes.

burberry-front-rowWill.I.Am, Alexa Chung, Eddie Redmayne and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley on the Burberry front-row. Photo: Getty Images

One of the most memorable events during fashion week came courtesy of Richard Nicoll, whose show/presentation hybrid shunned the modern celeb-fuelled catwalk spectacle. In a small room somewhere in the bowels of the ICA models on the catwalk stopped, even smiled, for journalists, buyers and bloggers to take photos and tweet. The designer - nursing a glass of Champagne - was on hand to answer questions and talk through the rails of the new collection on display. In this relaxed oasis you could touch, examine, taste and smell every garment – and you left with a much better understanding of the clothes than a brief glimpse at models on a conventional runway could ever allow.

By current standards it felt truly innovative, but it was also a throwback to a time before celebrity and fashion had been formerly introduced.

The problem that I have with Farhi's remarks is that celebrity and fashion are now so deeply integrated that it's impossible to see a front row appearance as anything more than a move within the larger game of fashion chess.

Although I don't doubt that in some quarters five figure sums are exchanged for sitting pretty on the f-row, by and large the power play is a lot subtler. Perhaps a celebrity is keen to wear one of the pieces to an event or on the cover of a magazine – or they're angling for an advertising contract and are happy to lend a little of their glitz in return. The Bright Young Thing might be gagging for the publicity guaranteed from getting snapped chatting animatedly to Kate Moss. Equally their presence allows the fashion house to show the world that they are on the bleeding edge – despite the fact that their clientele largely comprises middle aged socialites. In other words, it's about brand tit for tat.

The modern catwalk show is less about the clothes on the runway, and more about the designer making a statement about how they want their customers to feel six months from now. It's about a brand experience – a stylish State of the Union, if you will. This covers everything from the grand set designs to the superstar models to the next-big-thing soundtrack. And it extends to the front row. Designers will dress their favourite celebrities for the show, making them a 'real' embodiment of the brand. As if to acknowledge their part in catwalk theatre, these A-listers often only make their entrance when the rest of non-celebs have taken their seats.

I'm not suggesting that a celebrity on the front row always has an ulterior motive. Many of the celebrities have genuine interest in fashion and want to support up and coming designers, as well as the designers that they love. Alexa Chung reeled off about five burgeoning designers' shows that she was planning to attend during London Fashion Week when I spoke to her last month – none of whom could or would have paid to lure her there. But it's hard not to see this behavior as the exception and not the rule.

Whether money has been exchanged or not, it's impossible to deny that celebrity is now in the very fabric of the fashion industry. Farhi should know: Bill Nighy was at her recent London Fashion Week show and although I don't doubt that friendship, not money, facilitated his appearance, Farhi couldn't resist creating the perfect photo op by seating him next to Anna Wintour. The paps loved it.

Until the fashion industry renounces its brand tit for tat with celebrity, the business of the front row is just one facet of the infinite behind-closed-doors dealings between celebrity and fashion that stretches from advertising campaigns, to brand ambassadorships to red carpet dressing to the bag the star is photographed holding on the school run.

And once you take away the front row, it will spell the end of the catwalk show as we know it - and I'm not sure anyone's ready to give that up just yet.