NEW YORK Since last February's announcement of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week's relocation from Bryant Park to Lincoln Center, the change has been the cause of much speculation, from how producer IMG Fashion will configure the site to which components will be added or upgraded. The iconic biannual event’s first official show in the new digs will take place this Thursday, and the fashion flock is just days away from seeing the 100,000-square-foot site and the revisions made to its look, layout, and technology.
Most noticeable will be the absence of the colorful, kitschy themes once featured on the exterior of the Bryant Park tent. At Lincoln Center, a cantilevered 50-foot structure designed by Diller, Scofidio & Renfro and wrapped in travertine-patterned vinyl will form an elegant facade, complementing the nearby David H. Koch Theatre. Signage will remain spare, with only “Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week” stamped across the front and names of designers running along the entrance walls at eye level.
Inside, a significantly larger lobby will house the pods or “partner areas” for sponsors, delineated by knee-wall planters and surrounded by boxwood hedges. A second lobby overlooks a courtyard populated by red maple trees—the outdoor, glassed-walled section will host events like designer presentations and intimate lunches and dinners. And, unlike in seasons past, there will be no branded hotel-sponsored lounges backstage.
“There is a grace and culture about Lincoln Center that, if not simply by osmosis, lends elegance to the event,” said Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, who earlier this year was appointed Lincoln Center's first-ever director of fashion. “I'm an obvious proponent of what Lincoln Center offers Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week as a destination, but truly, I think the raw spaces that Lincoln Center affords are of a standard that doesn't require much extra embellishment.”
In her role, Winston Wolkoff, formerly director of special events at Vogue, will be responsible for all year-round activities on the arts campus, while IMG Fashion's jurisdiction remains solely limited to the tents. Fern Mallis, who played an integral role in the move to Lincoln Center, left her post as senior vice president of IMG Fashion to start her own eponymous consulting firm but remains an “ambassador of sorts” for IMG. She will work with the company on the New York event as well as those in India. “People who come to me with issues and problems, I will point them in the right direction or help them out if I can,” she noted. “But I’m not going to be there with the same amount of stress or anxiety of being directly hands on and responsible for everything that works or doesn’t work.”
For Christina Neault, IMG Fashion’s executive producer overseeing the logistics of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, there were fewer challenges to the physical relocation. This year, Karl’s Event Rental, the longstanding vendor charged with erecting the series of interconnected tents, has roughly 75 to 80 workers on site each day. The flooring base is a build-out system and elevates the tents three-and-a-half feet above ground level in front and almost eight feet in the rear.
Neault noted that constructing the floor (approximately 448 feet by 272 feet) for the massive venue went a lot quicker because the structure frame, despite having to be built over existing planters, did not have to take into account the lawn and the “sinking into grass” effect experienced at Bryant Park. “I think anything, after you’ve been doing it for 18 years, is always a challenge, but it’s been a pretty good build, actually,” she said. “There’s no mud, there’s no grass—that part is actually great.”
While Neault declined to comment on any budget increase as a result of the move, she confirmed that all the vendors formerly involved at Bryant Park are working with IMG at Lincoln Center.
IMG Fashion allowed 18 days for the set up—more than a week longer than at Bryant Park—to account for unforeseen issues. “We seem to be right on track and I’m sure we’ll manage [a faster set up] in the future,” Neault said in late August. An early hiccup with Local One of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees over outsourcing labor at Lincoln Center was recently settled with an agreement ensuring union labor is employed at Fashion Week through February 2013.
Winston Wolkoff remains cautiously confident. “I know last-minute factors come into play—I’m not naïve. But I expect the best, and I’ve done everything humanly possible to ensure that my expectations are met,” she said. “I can only compare the measures that I’ve put in place to avoid any major fiascoes to a network of proverbial circuit-breakers that would impress even Con-Ed.”
From a technology standpoint, one of the most prominent additions to the event is the implementation of FashionGPS, a Web-based program that electronically tracks and manages designers' guest lists and invitations in real time. According to Eddie Mullon, founder and C.E.O. of FashionGPS, the company will be responsible for 184 shows and presentations during the week—72 of which are at Lincoln Center—marking a 45 percent increase over the previous season. “It’s been a reaction from the industry,” said Mullon, who estimated his company will be responsible for more than one million invites this season. “The timing with Lincoln Center [as Fashion Week's new venue] really allowed us to bring in the efficiency that we’ve been providing for years.” The partnership was about a year in the making.
Guests will experience a more streamlined process too, responding to invitations online and receiving email confirmations embedded with unique bar codes. Attendees can then bring print outs of these bar codes to scan on-site at kiosks in the tents or have a staffer print out a ticket from one of 10 computer terminals. “What we’re doing is helping capture who attended in an efficient manner to make the process of seating guests a lot easier,” Mullon said. Multiple servers and multiple Internet links at Lincoln Center, not to mention dedicated tech staffers, will ensure that technical glitches, if they do arise, are kept to a minimum.
FashionGPS, while new at the tents, is already a seasoned concept. In fact, KCD, which is handling production for four shows and doing front of house for six at the tents, has enlisted Mullon’s company to create an interactive seating-chart app for iPads that will alleviate the need for paper-laden clipboards. With all users connected, as the front-of-house staff notes arrivals, those working inside will be informed instantly.
Convenience aside, there are other advantages to the move to digital. According to HL Group principal Lynn Tesoro, one client saved $7,000 by switching from paper invites to FashionGPS.
New high-tech elements in the Theatre, the largest runway venue at the tents, are a welcome addition for Alex de Betak, whose firm Bureau Betak will produce the Michael Kors, Lacoste, and Diane von Furstenberg shows in the 969-seat space. New lighting systems include an LED wall and an enhanced light board, designed to provide specific light cuing. “The technology has been improved, but in an invisible manner,” Betak explained. “I hope the spaces remain as blank as possible so producers and designers can bring in the look and feel and image that represents them well. Novelty is good; fashion is the last industry that should be anchored in habit.”
Despite all the upgrades, costs of renting the tent venues remain unchanged from Bryant Park, as do the seating charts—with the exception of the Studio space (formerly the Salon), which now offers an additional 50 seats. What is markedly different is the location, a worry some have spoken out about since the move was announced. “It’s a little more tucked away now, and there’s not going to be the easy convenience of just walking up to Bryant Park,” said Mallis, admitting she’ll miss the sense of excitement brought by the park’s Midtown position and crowded sidewalks.
“What I am concerned about is, guest-wise, they’re not sure where they’re going yet,” said Dina Wise, whose event firm, Wise & Company, will handle front of house for Lacoste for the 12th season this month. “I’m hoping they will leave their homes a little earlier to figure things out. The one thing you can’t control is your guests and how they rally.” That said, she has learned to look on the bright side. “Regardless of if IMG does everything right, I’m less nervous knowing that they’re not just building it in an abandoned parking lot somewhere.”
Julie Mannion, president of creative services at KCD, sees the less central location as a minor issue and expects everything will transition smoothly. “IMG has done a great job elevating and upgrading various components as possible, and I anticipate it being as seamless a process as it can be,” she said. “Change brings a new set of standards and expectations. It’ll be a learning experience.”
And what if show attendees inadvertently turn up at Bryant Park? “The fashion industry moves quickly,” Winston Wolkoff quipped. “Keep up.”
Disclosure: The writer once worked at IMG Fashion with some of the folks mentioned in this article.