In 2009, Anna Wintour had the idea throw a mass shopping event where, at the start of New York Fashion Week, stores in New York City would stay open late and adopt a party atmosphere. The hope was to get customers into struggling stores in the middle of the recession and, perhaps to a lesser degree, make the public feel welcome in the exclusive world of fashion. Four years in, FNO now takes place in 19 countries, but may draw the biggest crowds in New York, where it's becoming an increasingly frightening drunken mob scene, with much of the chaos fueled by hysteric attempts to view celebrities appearing at various stores.
In Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood on Thursday night, just after the stores closed their doors at 11 p.m., several hundred people — many of them young, and likely feeling the effects of all the free champagne — crowded into the streets. Cars could not pass, so people started jumping on top of them and dancing. An Audi had its windshield busted in, according to Gothamist. At first, it seemed like a riot, or a planned flash mob when I happened to pass by. About ten separate onlookers couldn't explain what was going on. When the cops finally showed up, a policewoman told me that it was caused by crowds who had been enjoying Fashion's Night Out converging in the streets. (Contacted for comment on Friday, the NYPD did not offer further information about the situation.)
All within a few square blocks, the following lead up to the near-riot in the streets: Azealia Banks performed at the MAC store; Pharrell signed autographs at Billionaire Boys Club; Rachel Zoe and model Karlie Kloss made appearances; and dozens of other popular DJs, stylists, and well-known models were out and about luring revelers into stores. And that was just one neighborhood — in the city's other top shopping areas, like the Meatpacking District and Midtown — you could wait in line to meet Victoria Beckham, model Kate Upton, Glee's Darren Kriss, basketball player Dwyane Wade, and a slew of Kardashians.
Adding to the madness — and appeal — is the ease with which free drinks are obtained at most stores. When I walked into Scoop on 14th Street, which was hosting a massive block party, I was promptly offered a vodka drink without being asked for ID to verify my age (and I look like I could be a teenager). Free drinks and underage drinking are very common in New York, but when they're institutionalized en masse, it can really get out of hand.
The evening is really not the best time to shop: stores are discouraged from hosting sales in favor of selling items full-price. And aside from the occasional FNO-related freebie, the stuff will be on the racks tomorrow for anyone who wants to shop and hear themselves think. And if you're hopping from one crowded store to the next with friends, drinking and hearing DJs, do you really want to tote around a bunch of shopping bags? In other words, it's become a night for free drinks, free music, and free celebrity sightings.
Last year, New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn wrote that, "F.N.O. was a good idea when it began, back in the depths of the recession when stores were virtually empty. But now it’s become a party, an institutionalized kickoff to Fashion Week, and though it apparently raises money for some causes, I have to believe that the costs of security, crowd control and entertainment, not to mention the traffic headaches, outweigh the actual benefits."
If last night were any indication, she's correct.
Although Vogue puts energy and resources into the event, they remain hands off when it comes to security and crowd issues. Participating stores are required to apply for special event permits directly from the city, which are required for any store that plans to have a red carpet, alcohol, and loud music. The stores are required to hire their own security guards, and if 4000 people show up demanding to see their favorite celebrity, the onus falls on them and the police.
Accordingly, Fashion's Night Out organizers seem to think everything is going swimmingly. Susan Portnoy, VP of Media Relations at Vogue publisher Condé Nast said of the event: "With thousands of stores participating nationwide and with this only being a few hours after completion of the event, we can only go by the enthusiasm for the initiative displayed by shoppers via their social media, the news coverage and from the feedback we've received from some of the stores thus far. From what we know now we are very happy with the outcome."
And even out of the spotlight, the event is reportedly a headache even for Vogue. Last year, The New York Post incorrectly speculated that 2011 would be the last Fashion's Night Out, saying that magazine staffers and clothing brands alike complained that the event no longer paid off.
That doesn't seem to be stopping the organizers. "To date, it has grown every year with more stores in more cities taking part. We expect that trend would continue but we are not driving stores or cities to get involved, we feel that growth should be organic," Portnoy added.