March 1, 2013 1:49 pm

Producers call the shots on the catwalk

Shows are a global marketing opportunity for brands, and three power-players create them

Once upon a time fashion shows were seen by a small group of people in a tiny room. Today, however, live streaming, social networking and digital media have transformed the experience into a global marketing opportunity and, as a result, a new business sector – “show production” – has arisen to help brands optimise their moment.

It’s understandable: even small shows cost about €100,000 each, and the average spend per runway is between €500,000 and €1m, with a handful of brands choosing to budget a few million (or more) – for just eight minutes. Return on investment is crucial.

What few people realise, however, is that behind the scenes of roughly 85 shows and events this season, spanning New York, London, Milan and Paris, are only three little-known industry power-players: Etienne Russo from Villa Eugénie; Alexandre de Betak of Bureau Betak; and Julie Mannion of KCD (which also has a communications department). In their hands is most of what the rest of the world sees.

They act as producer, art director, scenographer or choreographer. They can create an entire show concept or merely execute it; search and book venues; get sets, seating, lighting rigs, sound systems and backstage areas built; produce seating plans, satisfy security and fire regulations; instruct the models on how to walk in the “right” way; co-ordinate music and make sure the cameras get the money shots.

Russo, whose 35 shows this season include Chanel, Hermès, Céline and Dries Van Noten, has a permanent team of about 10, which swells to 40 during fashion weeks, moving from city to city. He has constructed an amphitheatre in a real forest under the dome of the Grand Palais (for Chanel), filled Manhattan’s Gotham Hall 360 degrees round with an army of 385 models dressed in ski jackets (for Moncler Grenoble) and translated the wishes of Véronique Nichanian, artistic director for Hermès Mens Universe, for 15 years.

Similarly, de Betak says his role is “plurodisciplinary” and can include the four-day logistical challenge of hanging 1m fresh flowers on 300,000 stems on the walls of the salons of a Paris hôtel particulier with florist Mark Colle for Raf Simons’ Dior couture debut. Bureau Betak, which has worked with Dior for 15 years, has offices in New York, Paris and Shanghai (where fashion shows, events and exhibitions are now a growing concern), a permanent team of 30 with 20 freelance fixtures, and is working on 15 shows this season including Dior, Michael Kors and Mary Katrantzou.

As for Mannion, now president, creative services at KCD, this season she and her full-time team of 11, as well as 30 freelance associates, will have orchestrated 32 events for clients such as Louis Vuitton, Chloé, Marc Jacobs and Versace from the KCD offices in New York, London and Paris. As Donatella Versace, who has worked with Mannion for more than 20 years, says: “During the fashion show, Julie is my boss.”

In return for all this, Mannion and her peers command substantial fees of between €30,000 and €60,000 for a mid-range show, with success quantifiable via coverage in traditional, digital and social media.

A show can directly generate 10-12 per cent of a brand’s seasonal magazine editorials, according to Visual Box, a Milan-based company that monitors 1,800 print publications across 25 countries for the luxury goods industry. However, it can also indirectly account for much more value. In the case of Chanel’s fashion editorials last season, for example, assessed by Visual Box at €54m, a large percentage were made up of show “looks”: clothing from the catwalk borrowed from the brand and photographed by magazines. In addition, the show generated 2.85 million page views on one website, style.com, within two days.

Which raises the question: who is really pulling the strings?

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