"Fashion's Night Out" Turns City into Frenzied, Celeb-Filled Carnival

Introduced as a way to boost retail apparel sales, "Fashion's Night Out" turned into a citywide shopping festival with street fairs, live performances, and other gimmicks.

By Anna Sekula with additional reporting by Jesse North September 11, 2009, 5:22 PM EDT

Sarah Jessica Parker, Barbara Walters, and Bette Midler's musical appearance for Oscar de la Renta's Fashion's Night Out festivities

Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Oscar de la Renta

In what may be considered the biggest citywide event since the economic downturn, more than 800 retailers in Manhattan and the outer boroughs banded together for yesterday's “Fashion's Night Out” event. Launched by Vogue, the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and NYC & Company, the attempt to boost flagging sales and build consumer confidence blossomed into one of the fashion trade's largest efforts to target the public at large. 

“The participation of over 800 retailers in New York City combined with incredible buzz surrounding the evening far exceeded our wildest dreams,” George Fertitta, C.E.O. of NYC & Company, said this morning. “The objectives for Fashion’s Night Out were to celebrate fashion, promote the retail apparel industry, restore consumer confidence, and get consumers excited about shopping again and paying retail prices for merchandise. We are also using Fashion’s Night Out as a way to give back to the New York City community through our charitable efforts on behalf of the September 11 Memorial & Museum and the NYC AIDS Fund.”

Vogue trotted out a number of its staff, including editor Anna Wintour, who kicked off the night at Macy's in Queens with Michael Kors, creative director Grace Coddington, and editor-at-large André Leon Talley, while designers big and small found new and inventive ways to draw attention. Beyond the boundaries of New York City, other retail hubs also joined the marketing push with outings and promotions in Los Angeles, Miami, and Chicago as well as London, Milan, and Paris.

Most telling was how often a label's approach seemed more animated than the plans for its official spring 2010 presentations. For those without shows this season, the occasion was even more advantageous. For instance, Diesel, which typically hosts a show at the tents in Bryant Park for its Diesel Black Gold line, opted to forgo Fashion Week due to the recent appointment of creative director Sophia Kokosalaki. “Sophia will debut her first collection for us for fall/winter 2010, and in that interim time period we just didn't think it was appropriate to have a show after we'd announced that we have a new creative genius running the business,” explained Steve Birkhold, C.E.O. of Diesel U.S., who added that the plans for Fashion's Night Out focused on getting people into the stores to try on the new denim line.

For many it was also an opportunity to put elusive designers directly in front of consumers. “This is the first personal appearance that Elie has ever done in our New York boutique, and we thought [Fashion's Night Out] was the perfect forum,” said Elie Tahari marketing manager Sara Droz, who put together a night that included a performance by Alexa Ray Joel and a gift with purchase. Others flaunted their roots and connections with musicians, artists, and social causes. Tibi offered tickets to its runway show on September 15 to those who purchased $1,000 worth of full-priced merchandise.

With so much going on simultaneously, it's difficult to estimate the number of people who joined the fray, but if Twitter is anything to go by, consumers were out in force, with hundreds of public users tweeting with the “FNO09” hash tag. “Fashion's Night Out is a massive success, I would say. SoHo is rammed with people,” read one post. A few even compared the free-for-all to Mardi Gras and other festivals, tweeting comments such as “It's like Halloween except everyone's dressed as a Vogue editor and going trick or treating for martinis and passed hors d'oeuvres!”

While it appeared that a large portion of twenty- and thirtysomethings knew of the festivities, some just stumbled across it. “I just walked in here and I saw all this—I didn't know about it,” said 18-year-old Alex Moe, an H&M shopper and high school student from Coney Island.

Roni Borenstein, a 23-year-old student from Manhattan who learned of the initiative ahead of time, found the scene at Bergdorf Goodman a little disorganized. “I brought clothes because there's supposed to be a clothing drive, but I asked around and no one knew where I could drop them off,” she said. Regardless, Borenstein and her friend Nicole Esposito, a 24-year-old Long Island resident, planned to hit a number of stores before the end of the day, including Tracy Reese and Barneys.

Although it was clear that Fashion's Night Out created buzz, the question for stores, marketers, economists, and even politicians is whether it successfully energized the fashion and retail communities.

“In order to not only determine whether we achieved our objectives for Fashion’s Night Out, but also whether this is an initiative worth repeating in the future, NYC & Company will be collecting data from retailers and consumers who participated, inquiring, among other things, how retailers think the event impacted their business and the fashion world, as well as their suggestions for the future in order to aggregate information for planning future ventures,” said Fertitta.

Most stores were wary about providing actual figures from the night, but according to the official Fashion's Night Out Twitter account, sales at Sephora jumped 20 percent during an appearance by model Bar Rafaeli, and Mulberry sold out of an $895 handbag by 9 p.m. At Neiman Marcus in Chicago, public relations manager Tina Koegel said, “A lot of people left with shopping bags, I can tell you that. People really did shop.” Diesel, which turned to liquor sponsors Ty Ku and Asahi beer to provide drinks in its stores, said it saw hundreds of attendees and a definite increase in sales.

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