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NEW YORK — Getting a front-row seat during New York Fashion Week offers attendees the chance to be photographed by paparazzi before the show begins, to actually see the clothes on the models as they strut by, and to exchange a self-congratulatory glance with Anna Wintour (even if that glance goes unacknowledged by the Vogue editor).
But is it worth starting a brawl over?
Last September, just before designer Zac Posen was to show his spring 2013 collection at Avery Fisher Hall, a public relations executive working the show said fire marshals had ordered more than 60 seats removed from the space as a safety precaution. She quickly began moving some attendees from their front-row spots.
Some grumbled about the change of location as they moved to their new, less prestigious seats — but not the executive of a French publishing house and her two companions.
The three refused to give up their front-row spots, with one of them reportedly slapping the public relations executive, who insisted that they move.
The next thing you know, the incident was all over Twitter, big news in Women's Wear Daily and the basis of a lawsuit filed by Lynn Tesoro, a partner in the HL Group, the public relations firm hired by Posen to handle the front of the house, in which she charged assault, battery, libel and slander and asked for $1 million in damages.
And all because a second-row seat apparently wasn't good enough.
According to published reports, Marie-Jose Susskind-Jalou, president of Jalou publishing house, and her daughters, Jennifer Eymere, of Jalouse magazine, and Vanessa Bellugeon, believed that they had been treated disrespectfully when Tesoro told them they had to move.
As Eymere told WWD, in an article published two days after the incident, she confronted Tesoro. "I said: 'Don't speak to my mom like this. You have to stop to speak like that.' I said, 'Be careful, I am going to slap you,' and she kept doing it, and it just happened.
''It was a small slap. It was not strong," Eymere told the paper. "I didn't hurt her, it was just to humiliate her. She humiliated my mom, and I humiliated her in front of her crew."
Six months later, none of the principals or their lawyers will discuss the continuing litigation.
But as another New York Fashion Week is about to begin, designers are still trying to figure out how to maximize front-row seating at their shows — and exploring ever more creative ways to squeeze people in — without offending clients or running afoul of the law.
Though many publicists and producers seem to be siding with Tesoro in this dispute ("It's so offensive that could have happened," said Gayle Dizon, who produces runway shows for Proenza Schouler, Thakoon and Creatures of the Wind), most agree that the pressure to find as many front-row seats as possible is increasing from season to season.
''It's all so global now, you have journalists coming in from all over the world," said Paul Wilmot, managing partner of the company that bears his name. (His fashion clients include Christian Siriano and Reem Acra.) "And unfortunately, many times people review the show based on the seat that they are in."
Some attendees demand that either they get the front row or they are not coming at all.
''It's like playing Monopoly," Aliza Licht, senior vice president for communications for Donna Karan, said of seating configurations. "But instead, you're just moving around egos."
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And as the demand for front-row seating increases, the traditional presentation format — a long, straight runway splitting the audience, with rows of attendees facing each other as the models strut by — is becoming increasingly anachronistic.
In recent years, what has been called a "serpentine" runway has become popular. Last season, several high-profile shows featured this S-formation, including Donna Karan, Rodarte and Marchesa. The route requires models to snake through an audience usually no more than two or three rows deep.
It's a close cousin to the popular U-shaped runway deployed at Diane von Furstenberg and Michael Kors at Lincoln Center, which essentially adds middle rows of seats to the runway, thereby doubling the number of front-row spots.
There are other variations. For the coming fall 2013 season, Megan Maguire Steele, the publicist and show producer for designer Billy Reid, has devised a W-shaped runway to suit the Eyebeam Art and Technology Center in West Chelsea. "Billy wanted to try something different, a whole staging effect," Steele said. "So the W shape is less about adding seats than preserving the number of front-row spots that the U would have given us."
But if new layouts seem a crafty solution to an old problem, there are downsides as well. Sometimes the clothes, especially those with back detail, get short shrift.
''You do maximize space with snake formations, but then you're only seeing the clothes in one pass," said the fashion publicist Libby Haan, founder of Haan Projects, who works with Dizon on shows for Thakoon, Creatures of the Wind and Monique Lhuillier. "You also want the clothes to be able to have room for movement, which is important for some designers."
For example, Shane Gabier and Chris Peters of Creatures of the Wind put a lot of thought into their innovative box-shaped route at Milk Studios, Haan said. It was their first runway show for New York Fashion Week, and the designers wanted a sense of openness but enough time to see the clothes. The setup eventually afforded 100 front-row, 95 second-row and 26 third-row seats, but there were internal building columns that blocked certain views.
''I'm waiting for the day where there's a venue large enough where you can have 800 seats in a circle," Haan said. "With the circle, you still have the elegance and openness, which gives clothes the ease, and everybody can see."
New York real estate is often the real limitation. Several publicists wistfully pointed to European venues where staging can be carried out on grander scales.
''In Europe you have those super long, winding pathways where it's only something like two rows deep and you can have so many guests seated," Steele said. "Here, there are more limitations. There are many venues that can accommodate 250 seated, but not 500 seated."
But with large spaces, intimacy or lagging energy can be a problem. "Some designers are using gigundo venues now, but then it's all this stalking around," Wilmot said, referring to runways that can run nearly the length of a football field. "The models have a long ways to walk and then have to come back for the finale. They don't need to do cardio that way. They've done it."
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Dizon says she has broken down seating configurations to a near science. "The thing is, chairs are cheaper, but benches seat more people," she said. Because chairs are discrete units, there's less flexibility for the PR representative to squeeze in another last-minute seat, if needed, often at the end of a bench, she explained. "We really go down to the inch and then do the cost-benefit calculation," Dizon added. (The chairs used for fashion shows typically have seats that are 17 to 18 inches wide, which is perhaps why everyone always seems to be on a diet.)
Working with designers, Dizon also goes over the venue's blueprint with a fine-toothed comb. The Proenza Schouler show last season, held at 5 Beekman St., was particularly tricky because the long-vacant building had recently changed hands and construction was beginning. Along with maximizing the number of seats, there are egress requirements to conform to. "The fire department shows up at almost every show," Dizon said. "As long as your papers are in order, you're fine."
To save some of the headaches, Lincoln Center, the official home of Mercedes-Benz New York Fashion Week, runs a tight ship but one with less flexibility. "You have in-house production and there aren't many mishaps," said Lalena Luba, vice president of public relations at BCBG Max Azria Group, which stages U-shape runways for the BCBG Max Azria and Herve Leger shows. "You only have about three hours to build out the space, so you are mostly limited to a U or a straight runway," she said. "But you know what you're getting as opposed to off-sites."
Steele's client Richard Chai also shows "on-site" and uses a linear walkway. In fact, Chai opts to have one row on each side removed, because he likes to give the clothes a "sweeping effect," Steele said. A wider runway also makes for better photos, she pointed out.
Likewise, Wilmot's client Reem Acra, who shows at Lincoln Center, sticks to simple, straight runways with about 100 front-row seats. If that gives Wilmot fewer prime spots than a U-formation, he's pragmatic about it. "People should just get a grip," he said. "Everybody has to realize that if they're in the second or third row, it's not personal. We look at the magazines and publications, and we try to balance things out by masthead. We go by RHIP, or Rank Has Its Privilege."
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That Lincoln Center during Fashion Week is usually a well-oiled machine makes the seating clash at Posen's spring 2013 show more confounding to fashion regulars. "I've worked at Avery Fisher Hall before, and there are ample exits," Dizon said. "It's built for audiences coming in and out. I'm not sure what happened."
In her civil suit filed in New York State Supreme Court, and in her complaint, filed on Nov. 8, Tesoro said that she was trying to find the three editors new places after the fire marshals insisted the seating be reduced, but that the defendants "refused to listen to reason." The complaint also alleges it was Susskind-Jalou, not Eymere, who slapped her. Additionally, the plaintiff said, "it was not a small slap, but a hard one." Eymere's comments to WWD also formed the basis of Tesoro's libel and slander claims.
On Nov. 28, the defendants, through their joint lawyers Jeffrey Udell and Renee Zaytsev, filed a notice to move the case to U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. A pretrial conference has been set for March 6. (Executives for CS Global, which produced the Posen show, and will do so again this week, also declined to be interviewed by phone, instead issuing answers by email, including this statement: "CS Global removed no front row seats.")
Wilmot has a theory about what may have happened at that show, coming as it did at the end of a long weekend with nearly 100 shows held back to back, and each evening ending with a party that stretched well into the morning: "Maybe it's a combo of too much coffee and a hangover."