By Guy Trebay
The New York Times
NEW YORK -- What may turn out to have been the most significant runway show of New York Fashion Week had no celebrity front row, was created mostly by anonymous designers, generated little industry buzz and took place on a rooftop above Times Square before the official Olympus Fashion Week had even begun.
Defying the convention of showing next year's clothing now, Wal-Mart's Rock the Runway event on Thursday presented 27 outfits appropriate to the current season and with a top retail price of $98.94, for a leather jacket.
New York still makes legitimate claim to the title of fashion's capital, an assertion borne out by the 200 or more shows that will be staged here through Friday in warehouses, theaters, clubs, deconsecrated synagogues, boutiques and, of course, the Bryant Park tents.
But the realities of the marketplace increasingly suggest that the role the city plays in fashion may be quietly shifting from creative incubator to stage set for marketing hype.
Now that Seventh Avenue has effectively relocated to Sri Lanka or Romania and fashion information is communicated virally, the notion of runway shows pitched to what one industry executive calls "the elite 500" may soon come to seem archaic and quaint.
"Not everyone is in New York," said Karen Stuckey, a senior vice president of Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer. "Fashion is not just for a chosen few who have front-row seats in some elite tent somewhere."
Regardless of how rural or remote a consumer's habitat is, "fashion has become a common thread through music and television and Hollywood," Stuckey added. What a Wal-Mart show in Times Square signals, she said, is "the democratization of fashion," a shift away from the concerns of the 15 people for whom Olivier Theyskens is a household name to those of Americans like Joanna, the young pop singer hired by Wal-Mart to sing her current hit on the rooftop at Times Square Studios.
"I come from a blue-collar family," said Joanna, who grew up as Joanna Pacitti in a row house in Philadelphia, where her father owns a barbershop. Pausing for a moment after she had belted out "Let It Slide" against a backdrop of neon billboards advertising Coca-Cola, GMC and Geico, Pacitti said, "Wal-Mart clothes are relatable to me."
Is it surprising that they were also creditably fashionable? It is not.
Taking its cue from H&M, Zara and Topshop, European chains that boast of translating runway trends for a mass audience, with production times that are often shorter than 40 days, the Wal- Mart show offered striped hoodies, denim swing skirts, squashed boots, leggings, fitted skirts and cropped jackets that were highly reminiscent of clothes by editorial darlings like Proenza Schouler or Roland Mouret.
"Fashion no longer takes 9 months, 12 months to be picked up by the fashion embracer," Stuckey said.
It seems safe to predict that it will take far less when the fashion in question is offered at retail prices averaging $30.
The low cost of Wal-Mart's clothes reflects another telling dissonance between the extravagant stuff that tends to excite the press and buyers throughout Fashion Week and the essential truth of the American economy.
A giddy survey appearing in the Daily Mini, a glossy giveaway handed out at the Bryant Park tents, asks readers to check boxes indicating their favorite stores from among a list that runs almost exclusively to high-end retailers like Barneys New York, Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus. The base line for suggested home values, in the Daily Mini survey, is $500,000.
"Do you own any of the following luxury cars?" asks the questionnaire, which goes on to list Cadillacs, Jaguars, Hummers and even Ferraris. Needless to say, there is not a Ford Taurus in sight.
This is not to suggest that the Taurus customer has gone unnoticed by fashion, and not merely by the market populists at Wal-Mart.
"What we believe is that we have millions in our stores every day that have been underserved," Stuckey said.
What seems increasingly clear is that the industry overall is looking with a lot more affection at those underserved consumers: a third of all American households will receive a free copy of the one-off "Fashion Rocks" magazine that Condé Nast published to coincide with its big Fashion Week benefit concert, to be shown on CBS-TV and "curated" by Elton John.
Like Wal-Mart's modest presentation, the Miss Sixty show at the Guggenheim Museum on upper Fifth Avenue was pitched at a consumer whose cohort is more Hilary Duff than Hilary Swank.
Unlike the Wal-Mart show, the Miss Sixty presentation featured all the moment's top models and a stylist whose efforts are more typically put to use by houses like Prada.
But beneath the superficial cool of teen-girl braids and belts worn outside belt loops, the Miss Sixty show was much like Wal-Mart's, both in terms of design and intention. Founded in 1989 by Wichy Hassan and Renato Rossi, Sixty now operates 300 single-brand stores and is sold at 7,000 other stores in 90 countries.
"We look at what happens in the high end of the market," said Mario Pace, the marketing director for the Sixty group, which projects sales for its brands - which include Miss Sixty, Energie, Killah and RefrigiWear - of $1 billion dollars in the next two years.
"We all know the luxury story, but we're coming from a much more democratic world," he said. "There is this whole tier out there that's not being covered. We want to be in that tier, because it's huge."