The catwalk, um,so last year

It is no exaggeration whatsoever to say that the front row, not the catwalk, is the raison d’etre of the modern fashion show. If the only thing to watch at a fashion show were the models, catwalks would have died out long ago.

The front row is what keeps the catwalk alive. In 2009, the bumbling way in which the fashion industry operates—with thousands of buyers, journalists, stylists and PR people perching on endless identical rows of chairs to watch the same group of young women walk past them, wearing different clothes and different makeup each time—well, it is either sweetly quaint or plain ridiculous, depending on who you ask.
It is a vintage carousel in the age of the videogame a steamer passage in the era of Skype. The catwalk is a museum piece, a tourist attraction. If the purpose were simply to display clothes, the video and photographs could go straight on to the internet—where they are already freely available within hours of the event.

But the difference between a webpage of fashion stills and a catwalk show is the difference between hearing a song on the car radio and hearing it at a live show between watching Match of the Day on TV and actually being in the stadium. In this case, however, the real action doesn’t happen on the stage: rather, the beautiful but usually rather solemn and wooden models form the backdrop to the more interesting business of who is in the front row, wearing what, talking to whom. The front row is what makes catwalk shows matter as a live event.

The genius of the catwalk seating system, with its strict hierarchy, is that the choreography is so compellingly brutal. The cliché of a catfight is wide of the mark, for in the battle of the egos this is bareknuckle stuff. The prettiest, the richest, the luckiest and the most popular get to sit at the front, while everyone else sits behind staring at the back of their heads, pretending not to care, smarting at the injustice of it all, and plotting their revenge. For a fashion designer, the right front row means phenomenal publicity.

In the front row, as at a dinner party, guest list and placement is a fine art. One celebrity is not enough, for interaction is all. The first ingredient on a perfect front-row smorgasbord is a classic A-list beauty who can be relied upon to look amazing in your clothes and to be flawlessly turned out: see Claudia Schiffer at Chanel, Thandie Newton at Stella McCartney. Then you need someone “hot” to give that so-next-season feel: Freida Pinto, fresh from Oscar triumph, or Beth Ditto, pop star and nude cover star of new magazine Love, are the go-to girls right now. You also want someone who will go out partying in high-profile hotel bars later in the evening, still looking glamorous in your clothes but ideally tipsy enough to get the tabloids in a frenzy. (Moss is first choice, and how about Kate Hudson fulfilling this role by spending the night before the show drinking in the Principe hotel bar with David Beckham?) A fashion “grown-up”—Mario Testino, or Gucci group boss Francois-Henri Pinault—lends gravitas. To satisfy the appetite for celeb-on-celeb interaction, guests are only allowed to have their partner sit with them in the front row if that partner is also famous. The key faces are placed in threes, as a triple portrait tends to work well in the papers.

It is a badly kept secret that many fashion labels do pay celebrities to sit in their front row. A few years ago, at the height of the financial boom, five-figure sums were regularly changing hands, and even the perks (suites at the Ritz, frocks, first-class travel) are not to be sniffed at.

It is perfectly acceptable for a celebrity to talk to a neighbour all through the show, although animated pointing and gasping in delight at the clothes on the catwalk score extra brownie points.

Our obsession with the front row may seem ludicrous, but it is perfectly logical. The fashion up on the catwalk is all icy, clinical aesthetic perfection.

The models wearing it bear almost no resemblance to the average woman so, beside them, Lily Allen and Catherine Deneuve, beautiful as they are, look marvellously normal. Fashion is not about being dressed by someone else and walking up and down a wooden stage; it is about wearing something that hooks you into the world, makes you relevant. Clothes turn you from the watcher into the watched. The catwalk show is so last year; long live the front row.—

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