Battle fiercest on the front line

Getting the seating right is a tricky balancing act, writes Glynis Traill-Nash.

All in a row ... fashion power hitters take their places front and centre at the Zimmerman show this week.

They are tightly held seats, won through hard work, experience and respect - and they can be lost overnight with a scandal or slack performance. They are seats that bring out the best and worst in those campaigning to claim them. No, not Parliament. This is the front row at Australian Fashion Week.

Anyone who has attended a fashion show, or even watched The September Issue, is aware that a front-row seat is highly prized and reserved for the heavy hitters in the industry, such as the buyers and the editors.

Getting the right mix of people is crucial and is something like a cross between a game of Tetris and a test of logic. This political puzzle, sorted out by the fashion PRs and their clients, is one of the first issues to be addressed before Fashion Week and often the last to be finalised.

Models backstage ahead of the Lisa Ho show.

'There is no higher judgment of where you sit in the hierarchy [of the industry] than where you sit in the front row,'' says Marie-Claude Mallat, who owns MCMPR and has been overseeing seating plans for clients since Fashion Week began. ''We're always playing that balancing act, particularly in placing opposing publishing houses on equal footing.

''Internationally, the way it's done is the more influence and power and the greater the circulation, the higher the ranking. Whereas in Australia it's slightly different - it's not necessarily the highest circulation that sits in the best position, the more prestige [title] takes the top spot. The whole balancing act is about placing the industry style arbiters - editors, reviewers and stylists - with the power hitters such as buyers, the celebrity supporters and now sponsors.''

It's not just about putting everyone literally in their place but about number crunching.

''Every one of those seats equals dollars,'' says Adam Worling of Adam Worling PR, who has also worked on Fashion Week since its inception. ''Just as David Jones or Myer might place actual dollars with a client, magazines place dollars in the sense that if you run a full-page editorial of the right product in the right magazine, your client will have sell-through - that means dollars also.''

Even for those in the front row, some seats are better than others.

''The first few seats closest to the media pit are supposedly the most valuable seats,'' Worling says. These seats offer the best view in terms of seeing the garments face-on for the longest time as a model walks down the catwalk. Only occasionally at AFW are there what Worling calls the ''royalty seats'' - those placed in front of the media pit of photographers and looking straight down the catwalk.

He says: ''Everyone wants to be in the front row because it's a positioning thing and if not there, then the second row. But sometimes the second row is flat on the ground and you're looking into the back of somebody's head, whereas the third row is incredible because it's elevated and you're out of the glare of all those stage lights. There's a reason some of those editors wear sunglasses in the front row.''

And while dollar signs hover over every front-row seat, prompting Worling to say you need to ''remove all personal and emotional decisions out of the equation'', he does concede a few seats should be allocated for these reasons. ''The designer needs to acknowledge the husband, the wife, the mother or father who actually goes through that stressful stage leading up to the show.''

As with any live performance, there are always last-minute problems: people not showing up, others running late, celebrities turning up who haven't responded to their RSVP. And while the PR people are on hand, it is the seating director who rules. He keeps things running smoothly, presides over the front row and sends seating offenders to the bleachers.

Miro Kubicek has been the seating director at Australian Fashion Week for five years and has the power to fill empty seats or move people who don't belong out of the front row.

''I'd rather have an empty seat than have somebody that absolutely doesn't belong there,'' Kubicek says. ''If you just go around grabbing people from the back rows you can end up with a faux pas - perhaps a general manager in the second row and some good-looking girl in the front row who is just an intern. It gets very political.''

His modus operandi is simple: ''I concentrate on people I know. During Fashion Week the players are known in terms of the front row.''

And what of the inflated egos and bad behaviour that people assume go hand-in-hand with front-row jostling for power? ''More often than not it's the people with the least clout or influence who get themselves in the biggest frenzy about it,'' Mallat says. Worling agrees: ''I tend to find it's the people who are not experienced in going to shows that create the problems.''

John Flower, the inaugural seating director at AFW, who handed the reins to Kubicek after 11 years, says: ''The thing is that there is a pecking order and that pecking order has to be observed. People who complained were usually people who had no right to be up the front and had an inflated sense of self-importance and, quite frankly, they bored me to sobs.''

There is one way to make it to the front row if you don't belong, something that might not work so well in the political arena, he says.

''Politeness gets you everywhere. Belligerence and aggression gets you nowhere.''