By Shilpa Gopinath Posted March 12, 2009, 11:56 AM EDT
Fashion Week in Los Angeles has never been quite the cohesive entity it is in other international cities. For five years, a partnership between IMG and Smashbox Studios created a more organized program centered in Culver City, but the widely publicized dissolution of that agreement after last season left something of a void.
Independent marketing consultant Jennifer Üner has spent the last seven years overseeing the biannual calendar at FashionWeekLA.com, the most comprehensive and longest-running local calendar of the somewhat ragtag collection of events that has historically made up the week. For this season's Fashion Week—which begins Friday—Üner's calendar is taking on an even greater significance as the industry's unofficial scheduling clearinghouse in the vacuum left after the formal partnership ended. (Üner also manages events and created the Los Angeles Fashion Awards.) We talked to her about how this season's schedule has come together.
Tell us about Fashion Week Los Angeles’s first season since the Smashbox partnership ended.
With the crash of the economy, it was a timely departure for IMG, producers of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week at Smashbox Studios. Their departure, plus the economy, has created a season of uncertainty. As a result, we are seeing fewer of the more established brands showing on the runway. On the flip side, this leaves room for newcomers to grab some attention. We are seeing a rise in the number of new independent producers who wish to fill the void left by IMG. Usually it is individual designers producing shows in a variety of off-site venues. This year, we see producers determined to pioneer new venues and attract the designers to show with them.
Why do you think it’s been hard to make Fashion Week take hold in Los Angeles, where there are plenty of designers and fashion fans? First, I think it’s timing on the international Fashion Week calendar. L.A. is last, behind New York, London, Milan, and Paris. Brands with financial means and established recognition will have already shown somewhere else. There is no need to present to the same audience twice—it’s too expensive.
Second, everyone here waits until the last moment to get on to the calendar, often well after the New York and international press have checked the calendar and chosen not to go to L.A. At this point we're really only reaching local media. In New York, for instance, you have [a concentration of] print media and a long history.
And third, there is little extra cash to stage productions and hire professional publicists. Too often these young designers and venue producers are using interns and volunteers. There is little consistency in the experience across shows, seasons, and venues. They try to lean on sponsors, but for most sponsors to feel comfortable, they need to know they're getting into a professionally run situation.
Professionals will tell you that Fashion Week is, first and foremost, a business investment by apparel brands to generate attention from the press, stylists, retail store buyers, and V.I.P. clients. These [professional] audiences have a large and clear impact on the bottom line because they either place large wholesale orders for their stores or help generate awareness among hundreds of thousands of consumers with a single keystroke. Fashion fans are a wonderful audience, but they don’t have the same scope of impact on the bottom line that the retail store buyers and major media do. It all boils down to R.O.I.: If you, as a designer, are going to invest in a presentation, are you going to get out of it what you need? This is the question, and without the security of knowing you’re going to get out of it what you want, you’re less likely to support it in a timely fashion and in a meaningful way.
Might L.A. Fashion Week work better as something more diffuse, with shows in venues all over town? There seems to be a lot of this already.
This is indeed the heritage of L.A. Fashion Week. We were seeing amazing creative energy all over town—in alleys, subway stations, rooftops, garden restaurants, hotel bungalows, sound stages and airport hangars. A central point of communication was needed. The idea was also to help coordinate time slots, so that you avoid schedule conflicts and enable fashion journalists and retail store buyers to get to all the key shows they want to see. Unfortunately, respect for fellow man doesn't always reign, and you see people scheduling events on top of each other. This never leads to happiness, and in one instance—the case of Smashbox and IMG—it led to a merger. It does help improve attendance if shows can be concentrated geographically. Whipping across town is not exactly easy here. But that zone of geographic concentration needs to have a variety of spaces, with a variety of identities and personalities, with easy access to great restaurants, low-cost parking, and other amenities. These shows are about stimulating the senses, exciting writers, and motivating buyers. Repetitive shows in repetitive venues don't accomplish this. But overstimulation—[like] crowded peep shows [and] complicated admission procedures—are also damaging.
Has the economy posed challenges for wrangling sponsors?
Of course it has. In fact, we see the L.A. Fashion Awards on hold until a new title sponsor can be found. Though event marketing is one of the most immersing and engaging ways to build relationships with audiences, it isn't well understood by most ad agencies, often isn't central to a media strategy, and is therefore easy to cut.
What makes Fashion Week in L.A. unique from other global or U.S. events?
Everyone will point to our climate and our relationship to the entertainment industry. I would also posit that we have the largest fashion district in the country, with easy access to everything you need to create and market a collection. That creates a lot of energy around emerging talent, collections you can't find anywhere else, and [something] worth coming to see.
What do you see as the future of Fashion Week L.A.? Do you expect the Smashbox partnership will happen again, as Smashbox co-owner Davis Factor has implied?
I think we will see the Factors return when it is safe to get back in the water. When the stars align with the right partners [and] funding, with big brands back on board. In the meantime, I think we'll continue to see a lot of fresh new energy rally around Fashion Week, which is exciting. It is less edited—you have to accept the good with the bad.