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Welcome to New York Fashion Week — sort of

The fashion industry hopes that you'll embrace fashion week, get excited about the styles on the runways and, at last, go shopping. Just don't try to get into the actual runway shows, though: They are still invitation-only.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The fashion industry wants to invite you to New York Fashion Week — sort of.

An enormous tent is up in Midtown for the kickoff on Thursday, fashion flags line the streets and designer Cynthia Rowley is going to share your ride in the back of a taxi via video.

Celebrities, designers and industry glitterati will mingle with shoppers at stores all over New York for the first-ever Fashion's Night Out (Vogue's Anna Wintour will be at a Queens Macy's!) Baby Phat will broadcast its runway show live in Times Square.

The fashion industry wants you to embrace fashion week, so that you'll get excited about the styles on the runways and, at last, go shopping.

Just don't try to get into the actual runway shows: They are still invitation-only.

And that's the dilemma for the fashion industry. Fashion is everywhere nowadays, yet shoppers are barely a part of the main event.

That, coupled with the economic meltdown and consumer confusion about seeing runway styles that won't be in stores for up to six months has led to some soul-searching by industry insiders.

Still relevant?The Council of Fashion Designers of America recently held a round-table to discuss whether the big, pricey fashion shows were still relevant. The runway schedule — previewing fall clothes in spring, and spring clothes in fall — has always made perfect sense for designers who needed time to produce their full line; retailers who needed time to plan their buys and editors who put magazines to bed many months in advance.

But now that runway shows can be seen online almost instantly, consumers are more interested — and ready to buy clothes that aren't yet available.

"The consumer interest has evolved over time because the media has changed so drastically," said Fern Mallis, senior vice president of IMG Fashion, which organizes Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week at Bryant Park, hosting more than 60 designers including Isaac Mizrahi, Michael Kors and Narciso Rodriguez.

The shows' roots as a trade event are important, but designers know that there now need to be events for the public, too, said Steven Kolb, CFDA executive director.

It's a very different landscape than when the tents went up in 1993. As celebrities started coming, so did more cameras and now it seems everyone at the shows is putting reviews, photos and backstage soundbites online in real time.

"Everyone in this world now is a critic and reporter and commentator of sorts, and that's what's created a different consumer demand," Mallis said. "Everyone sees fashion all the time. It's something that's easy to talk about, dish about, make fun of or celebrate."

But, she added, "We still make it clear that our shows are by invitation only. ... I can't get upset about consumers being interested because at the end of the day, they have to put their hand in their pocket, pull out the credit card and buy the clothes."

The retail reality that is the backdrop to Fashion Week is harsh, with August retail sales declining for the 12th straight month. Some lower-priced retailers saw some signs of improvement, but the designers on the runways most often fall into the hard-hit luxury market.

Wait-for-the-sale mentalityMallis said timing contributes to the disconnect between shoppers and the runway. Designers at the CFDA forum complained that retailers push them too hard on deliveries, ending up with fall merchandise on selling floors in July that are already discounted, devaluing their product and contributing to a wait-for-the-sale mentality.

That could be why so many retailers and designers are on board with Fashion's Night Out, the brainchild of Wintour in an effort to spur sales of in-season clothes, accessories and cosmetics.

"Fashion's Night Out is really about the public. There are incredible shows and events, appearances and activities geared for consumers so the consumer can feed off the excitement that is around Fashion Week," said Kolb.

He said he could envision the event becoming a permanent part of Fashion Week, and Mallis said that other public events are being considered for next year's move from Bryant Park to Lincoln Center.

Some stores don't want to wait that long. Ann Taylor, for example, is staging its own flashy catwalk to debut fall and holiday clothes that go along with a rebranding, and, farther away, in malls in at least a half-dozen other markets, Simon Property Group is partnering with its tenants for joint-store fashion shows.

"The main thing is accessibility," said Shari Simon, senior vice president of Simon's corporate marketing. "I can't go buy the things on the runway at Fashion Week in Bryant Park. This stuff you can have in an hour."