You Can’t Sit with Us: Demystifying the Drama Around Fashion Week’s Front Row

By Jonathan Lee

As someone who’s wielded the power of gatekeeper at a few fashion shows, I’ve witnessed firsthand the ambition and desperation to secure a coveted front-row seat at New York Fashion Week.

Armed with the sacred guest list, I’ve seen the faces of social climbers fall, tears welling up in their eyes, as I handed them their second-row, third-row or standing-room tickets. Some guests became hostile, as if I created the seating chart myself and personally set out to spite them. Others would try to plead their cases (“But I’m a friend of the designer!”), while others have outright tried to con me. (“There must be a mistake. I was told I’m supposed to be in the front row.”)

“One of the things that fashion likes to do is keep things exclusive,” fashion writer, journalist and academic Colin McDowell told CNN Style. “This is why we have this mystical thing called the front row.”

So what is the front row? Who sits there? Who decides who sits there? And why is it apparently so important?

To be seen in the front row at Fashion Week is to be somebody — not only in the fashion world, but also in our culture in general.

“Every seat is determined by seniority, and one’s relationship with the brand,” according to Business Insider. “If you hope to go from standing room to sitting front-row and center, it’s going to take a lot of coverage of the brand, and maybe even befriending [the designer].”

Naturally, the front row is the most practical place to seat industry professionals so they can get a clear view of the show while jotting down notes. The top fashion journalists, such as Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour and Harper’s Bazaar Editor-in-Chief Glenda Bailey, always sit in the front row. On the other side of the runway are the top buyers.

With the rise of online publishing and social media, fashion bloggers have also managed to score more and more front-row seats.

Additionally, A-list movie stars have long been regular fixtures in the front row. For example, designer Valentino always made sure to have actress Sophia Loren front and center at his shows to attract the attention of the paparazzi.

In recent times, the front row has become somewhat of a fashion show in itself, with all sorts of celebrities from pop stars to famous athletes to reality TV stars framing the catwalk to see the models, as well as to be seen themselves. To be seen in the front row at Fashion Week is to be somebody — not only in the fashion world, but also in our culture in general.

“The PR people are brilliantly attuned to just who’s going up, just who’s going down,” McDowell said.

For those unfortunate enough to find themselves in the second row, tantrums are not uncommon. If certain high-profile celebrities don’t have front-row seats, don’t expect them to show up at all. McDowell admitted he’s been known to storm out of a show over the seating arrangement when he was younger.

“If they put me in a seat that I did not think was right, I used to walk out, to the great delight of all my colleagues, of course,” he said.

Today, the seasoned fashion expert takes all the politics surrounding the front row at Fashion Week with a sense of humor, though he understands why others still take it very seriously.

“I love it, all the politics,” McDowell said. “Huge politics. … It’s all terribly silly, really, but at the time, it’s very important.”

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