A few years ago, Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour, the CFDA and NYC & Company, the city’s official marketing, tourism and partnership organization, put together a brilliant event intended to create a little spark in a dim economy, one that would give struggling designers and retailers a boost, and also create some industry buzz in New York City. Fast-forward to 2011 and behold: Fashion’s Night Out, aka FNO, has grown into a global movement for the masses with events scheduled in 18 countries for September 8. But does bigger necessarily mean better? On the eve of FNO number three, some retailers wonder if their once-little industry event has now lost its cachet or perhaps its raison d’être.

FNO was designed to “drive people in to see the cool fashion that’s there,” says Ron Robinson, founder of Ron Robinson at Fred Segal in Los Angeles. It was not designed “as a sales incentive, but as something creative that turns you on and is special.”

Yet with retailers participating in 250 cities nationwide, ranging from independent shops in New York City to entire shopping centers in the suburbs, some outfits are beginning to turn on their promotional selling machines. At the gargantuan King of Prussia Mall in Pennsylvania, for instance, Ann Taylor, Gap, Juicy Couture, Lacoste and White House Black Market are all promoting special FNO-related discounts.

The night is “not meant to have a sale,” says Robinson, “boy, did they really miss the point.

“Obviously it’s called Fashion’s Night Out, it’s not called ‘Mass America Come Out and Take a Look at Commodities,’ ” he continues, noting that the night should be about driving customers to see new, unique and edgy “fashion with a big ‘F.’”

For FNO, Robinson is rewarding consumers who purchase merchandise that night with tickets to an exclusive after-party at Bar Marmont in Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont, featuring a custom FNO cocktail. In-store, Jeffrey Sebelia of Project Runway fame will premiere his La Miniatura collection and Kimora Lee Simmons, who personally called Robinson to ask if she could be involved in FNO, will offer styling tips and customer introductions to designer labels.

In New York City, nearly every department store will pack in the star power — and presumably the crowds — with special celebrity appearances.  At Bergdorf Goodman, for instance, Zac Posen is slated to paint dresses in the Fifth Avenue windows while guest bartenders Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen will mix cocktails. At Barneys New York, Isabel and Ruben Toledo, Alexander Wang and the Rodarte girls are all joining the FNO festivities. And that’s just for starters. The trick though is “not just getting people to come to see the celebrity,” says Jon Harari, co-founder of Misha Nicole, located on the burgeoning Bowery, in Manhattan, but to showcase your brand.

Harari is using FNO to build awareness for his three-month old shop, which integrates global fashion with art and social consciousness. Harari has planned a special in-store installation to premiere that evening, which he will announce to select customers. FNO is not a night that “necessarily links to sales”, he says, but it “helps the [fashion] industry put itself out there” and aids in reinforcing Misha Nicole’s positioning.

Frank Pizzuro, owner of Brooklyn Denim Co., in Williamsburg, sees FNO as the “un-official kickoff to fall shopping.” It’s “more of a chance to thank our customers and introduce them to some of the new fall product,” he says. The store will have jewelry designer Nettie Kent on hand showing her new collection, which emphasizes sustainable design and recycled materials.

LimoLand’s Marie Gloria plans to “focus back on the product and shopping more than entertainment” for FNO 2011. The store’s prime Meatpacking District location in Manhattan already garners a lot of foot traffic, which the shop plans to capitalize on. LimoLand expects “a sales increase this year” as a result of FNO.

According to Susan Portnoy, a spokesperson for FNO in NYC, many consumers conduct their own “shop crawl” that night, visiting seven-to-ten new stores. Some use it as a girl’s night out, she says, combining shopping with other ventures, including hotel stays. The Loews Regency Hotel on Park Avenue in NYC, for instance, has a special “Night on the Town” package for FNO, which includes plenty of perks, such as a grand king room, 10% discount at Louis Licari salon and VIP access to Tenjune nightclub.

Still, with liquor, celebrities, goodie bags and a lot of hoopla, sometimes FNO comes down to being just one “Big Party, not a shopping event,” says Eric Goldstein, owner of Jean Shop, in the Meatpacking District and Soho. “People are dressed to party, not try on clothing,” he continues. So this year, Goldstein is making the night an invitation-only, special evening for customers and potential customers with refreshments and music by the Jake Clemons Band.

Goldstein “would love” for the night “to be about sales,” he said, “but I don’t think that will happen. I don’t think (FNO) turned into what they expected it to be.”

IMPROVD, a Meatpacking District newcomer, specializing in affordable avant-garde womenswear, is also donning its party hat. DJ Cash will spin, sparkling rosé, courtesy of Moët & Chandon, will be served and shoppers will receive a free gift with purchases of over $200. Valentino Vettori, designer and co-founder of IMPROVD, echoes Goldstein’s belief that it’s more about the celebration than the registers ringing, but he still sees that as a positive. “People get to know the brand and the store and even if they’re not shopping that night, they’re more likely to come back to the store,” he says.

And he believes that FNO is a winning concept, with legs. “It works because it’s something that that everybody participates in and it builds energy around the fashion community, plus it’s growing more every year, so clearly it’s a success,” he adds.
As to the fact that FNO has now gone global, he says, “I always like seeing things evolving and becoming larger and larger. All I can say is ‘Brava, Anna [Wintour]!’ “

—Suzanne Blecher

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