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Fashion's Night Out: As Shopping Event Goes Global, Some Retailers Scale Back

When Fashion's Night Out launched in 2009, a number of department stores in New York held lavish events to entice shoppers. That included fashion designers Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen bartending for crowds of consumers.

Photo: David X. Prutting/PatrickMcMullan.com

Launched in 2009 as a New York-focused initiative curated by Vogue, the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and NYC & Company, Fashion's Night Out was conceived as an economic booster for the fashion industry, aiming to get people into stores following the recession-related drop in profits and consumer confidence. Four years later, what was once a giddy citywide promotion has snowballed into an enormous, international outing (affectionately referred to as F.N.O.), with big-name performers, appearances by elusive designers, and the participation of thousands of retailers. However, as retailers prepare for this year's iteration on Thursday, those that jumped on the initial bandwagon are at a crossroads: Are enough sales being generated to justify the expense of hosting a big fete?

“It’s a tough sell to clients—there's no PR angle, no sales angle. I've never talked to anyone that had a great sales night on F.N.O.,” says one influential event producer with an A-list roster of clients who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “There is so much competition for coverage. Unless you are hiring a major [celebrity] or doing a stunt, there is no substance to Fashion's Night Out. It's run its course, for sure.”

From a financial point of view, general opinion is that the night has evolved into being less about registers ringing. It's also an event that is difficult to quantify, as participating stores are not obliged to provide running tallies of their sales from the night.

Susan Portnoy, vice president of media relations and digital corporate communications strategy at Condé Nast, states that the publishing giant (the parent of Vogue) does not record such facts and figures. “We are not a governing body,” she says. “We judge the success by the continued interest of the stores to participate and its growth nationwide and internationally.” Indeed, more than 500 cities in the U.S. are now involved; and abroad, Fashion's Night Out has expanded from 13 to 19 countries this year. As for it originally being a one-off promotion? “After the first F.N.O., the demand to return was so high, we went forward,” says Portnoy. So Fashion's Night Out continues, but with some noticeable differences for the upcoming run.

In 2009, the year designers Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen bartended at Barneys New York, then creative director Simon Doonan told New York magazine the night was “not incredible from a business point of view, but just from an energy point of view it was fabulous.” Doonan alluded to change on the horizon when it came to Barneys' approach, with the need to monetize the experience. The retailer no longer stages the hoopla some of its fellow department stores still do (albeit on a scaled-back level). This year it will continue a philosophy where its flagships will stay open until 10 p.m., with 10 percent of sales being allocated directly to the Human Rights Campaign.

At Bergdorf Goodman, the retailer's tradition of going all out—who could forget the fantastical roadblocks and Mardi Gras-like atmosphere at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street?—has been curtailed ever so slightly, this year focusing almost entirely on a well-timed 111th anniversary celebration.

Neighboring Henri Bendel, however, is upping the ante this year, partnering with Cirque du Soleil's Zumanity for a live experience that the retailer expects will bring 1,000 people per hour through its doors. Although dazzling acrobats won’t be hanging from the ceiling, they will be getting prepped in the store windows and perform “wind art” via a custom platform, while other members of the show engage with passersby on Fifth Avenue. “This is the biggest undertaking we've done since [Fashion's Night Out's] inception,” confirms a store rep, adding that the Manhattan location's entire third floor will be converted into miniature food truck stations. “Whereas in the past it's been more celebrity-driven, this year it's about putting on a full-fledged show.”

Among the other highly anticipated events this year are Balenciaga's unveiling of a leather goods collaboration with Vogue creative director Grace Coddington; a special Azealia Banks performance and limited-edition lipstick launch at MAC's SoHo store; Kim Kardashian's personal appearance at Lord & Taylor; and Ferragamo's invite-only premiere performance by Russian New Wave pop band Tesla Boy.

Opening Ceremony, which has always been a lure for the style-setters and fashion hipsters, is, like Bergdorf's, also focusing on an anniversary—its 10th—for Fashion's Night Out, with a book signing at the Ace Hotel. Far from hosting a subdued gathering, the retailer has chosen Korea as its country of focus and will convert the hotel’s lobby into a noraebang, or a “private” karaoke room, where guests will be able to sing in the tradition of a favorite Korean pastime alongside a special host.

Alexander Wang is one designer thinking outside the box. His “cage installation” contest invited aspiring designers and fans alike to submit designs inspired by his fall collection. One winner, whose name will be announced on Fashion's Night Out, will have his or her work displayed in the cage structure of his SoHo flagship through the duration of New York Fashion Week.

But, truth be told, a majority of the highbrow designers who advertise in Vogue are simply hosting cocktail parties—both private and public—with passed hors d'oeuvres. Even a sales associate at the Chanel SoHo boutique, which has long offered its popular manicures alongside limited-edition nail polish for sale, says that, aside from extended hours, the store will not be offering any special services this year.

Nonetheless, for many the collaborative nature of Fashion's Night Out creates a sense of community. “It also gives the public access to fashion events, which they don't usually have, and makes them feel included,” says Laura Lachman, an independent event producer who has worked with clients ranging from Tory Burch and Escada to Cartier, Gucci, and Vogue.

Plus, brands outside the fashion sector are all eager to have access to the broad range of consumers the festivities attract. The Ford Fusion hybrid, which will be prominently featured at a pop-up shop being erected at Gansevoort Plaza in the meatpacking district, has been named Fashion's Night Out's official car, a move that Marisa Bradley, communications manager at Ford Motor Company, says had no tie-ins with ad buys or added incentives. “This is the customer we’re going to appeal to, so how do we connect with this consumer in a different way? It was important for us to reach an entirely new audience—this audience of style leaders,” says Bradley.

Through a partnership with the car service app Uber, the automotive company will also provide rides in the Fusion. “It’s all about accessible design. We're not necessarily out to sell a car that night; part of it is exposure to customers and influencers.” Ford's involvement lies in its belief that it will reach thousands of people in one night in “the most influential city that represents style,” Bradley says. “It was a no-brainer.”


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