Fashion shows: key elements in retail sales

By , Special to the Christian Science Monitor

Fall is the time of year when leading retailers across the country unpack and display ensembles and merchandise they've been spending months locating, evaluating, and buying.

It is one of the most important selling seasons, second only to Christmas time. Traditionally it opens with the fanfare of a gala event - often a black-tie fund-raiser for a worthy cause.

As a spectacle, the 40th annual Coty awards, or more correctly, the American Fashion Critics' Awards, was such an event. The show was held in September at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology. Proceeds from the $200 tickets went to the college's scholorship fund.

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The show offered priceless promotion for nominees as well as winners. It was like a dozen fashion shows rolled into one as contestants for the coveted Coty awards showed their designs. For winners like like Adri (women's fashions), Jeffrey Banks (men's wear), Bill Blass, and Norma Kamali, (women's fashion), it was clearly good showmanship. But how much business does a show like this generate for the designers?

According to Jack Rittenberg, at the Fashion Institute of Technology, it's difficult to measure the cost-effectiveness of fashion shows as merchandising promotion.

''You have to remember that the fashion business is like no other business. It thrives on intrigue and excitement. That's what makes the fashion show such a good selling tool for it. The fashion show matches the mood and captures this excitement. It may be hard to measure it's effectiveness on a tradional profit and loss statement, but the results are clear to see at the cash register.''

Marty Bronson, who staged the Coty awards this year, is a professional fashion-show producer who believes in the sales effectiveness of fashion shows. Over the past 10 years he has produced hundreds of shows in New York, Paris, and , starting this year, in Tokyo. He also produces four or five shows each winter aboard the Queen Elizabeth 2 while she's cruising.

''When you talk about fashion shows, you're talking about three different kinds of events,'' he said. The basic show is used by designers to introduce their new line to department store buyers and the fashion press. With this kind of show, choice of location adds to the glamour and excitement.

Mary McFadden, for example, uses the elegant old main branch of the New York Public Library at 42nd Street, while Issey Miyake favors the historic aircraft carrier Intrepid moored on Manhattan's West Side.

But no matter where it's held, this basic show is the one designers need to capture attention. It's the one way they have to package the fashion excitement they're trying to sell.

Beyond these are the promotional shows put on by department stores. These can be formal affairs costing a minimum of $12,000. Most cost a great deal more these days.

And finally, there are special shows - like the Coty awards. This year's show cost $70,000 for production alone. Other costs probably ran the Coty show to $ 100,000. But, how do you figure its true value? Coty gets a tax write-off in addition to all the publicity. The designers get promotion you can't put a price tag on. And the crowd gets (for $200) the excitement of an opening night extravaganza.

Each year designer Bill Blass criss-crosses the country with fashion shows promoting his latest creations, and there is no question how he feels about them. ''It's the one moment when a designer gets to make his complete statement - even an overstatement - because you can take advantage of show business to make your point. With a fashion show, the designer creates a certain mood - his fantasy of where he feels fashion is leading. He can create a mood that is elegant, casual, or soignee.

''Wherever I go around the country,'' Mr. Blass adds, ''people respond to fashion shows. They find them great entertainment and they love them. You bet I believe they're good for business.''

Bergdorf Goodman, one of New York's leading high fashion department stores, is noted for the excitement it creates with fashion shows and the glowing press coverage it garners. It was Bergdorf's that first introduced European designers such as Giorgio Armandi, Gianfranco Fere, and Claude Montana to its customers with fancy fashion shows. Recently the store presented Azzedine Alaia, the Paris-based designer, with his first fashion show anywhere.

''We find these shows indispensable to establishing the store as a fashion leader and promoting business,'' reports a Bergdorf spokesman.

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