You read Us Weekly for the articles. You can't help but be interested in what Lindsay Lohan snorted, ran her car into or slept with this week. But, you went to college, you read the new Chabons and Lethems as soon as they come out! You're not a vapid person! Good news: Celebrity is not only a major driver of the economy, it's a subject worthy of academic scrutiny. University of Southern California professor Elizabeth Currid, PhD., explains the sociology of fame and pop culture.
New Yorkers have a love-hate relationship with the fashion industry, which culminates to quite a crescendo during these special ten days in September. As Guy Trebay notes, "fashion remains the most culturally potent force that everyone loves to deride." While proud of the global cosmopolitanism and attention that fashion brings to the city, New Yorkers still remain skeptical that all the fuss of Fashion Week may amount to nothing.
This sentiment is not unique to New York, and it's arguably worse once one is off the island. At least in New York many people actually know designers, models, and PR people who work in the fashion industry. For a majority of the country's population, fashion is regarded as frivolous and superficial, the icing on the cake that adds to the culture of global cities such as New York, Paris, London or Milan, but doesn't drive their economies. Then there's the general envy and resentment towards the models who strut down the runway wearing a real size two—not the size two in Banana Republic or Dress Barn. People hate the elitism of the fashion world itself, the members-only club that requires excessive skinniness and insouciance, all the while presciently knowing what's "in fashion," which means it's certainly not at any department store in the Midwest. Without a doubt, it's a member's only club you must be invited to join, not dissimilar to the Skull and Bones society.
Its elitism is what makes fashion simultaneously fascinating and annoying. As much as the naysayers like to say fashion doesn't matter, most wouldn't mind an invite to a runway show, but even better to the after party. And this is not irrational: Fashion Week looks really fun and everyone who's anyone gets to go. But more importantly - and this is why Fashion Week has real economic implications - the potential to access those who shape fashion and dole out jobs is extremely high.
All those who matter to fashion or in fashion are in attendance, bringing limitless possibilities. Aspiring young designers get the chance to meet top editors, while celebrities attend the shows and after parties dressed in designer X, which gets reported in US Weekly and Vogue, instantly increasing value and sales. Celebrities talk to fashion houses about establishing their own clothing line, while the music played on the runway of Marc Jacobs or Diane Von Furstenberg may become popular among the bohemian chic set. Fashion Week is far more than the clothes and celebrity reportage: It's where the business of fashion gets done, even if it's conducted with a cocktail in hand.
My colleague Gilad Ravid and I wanted to quantify the potential of important interactions that could emerge from Fashion Week. Using Getty Images data from September 2006 Fashion Week, we analyzed the network of people photographed during the course of the week attending fashion shows and related events. We looked at approximately 212 clustered events (meaning that some events included pictures of backstage, front row, runway and arrival of attendees) and 1318 people photographed at the events. What we found is that Fashion Week is easily one of the most critical nodes for mixing business and social. The most important people within the industry attend the events, along with many leading cultural gatekeepers in other industries. Further, the actual potential for one person to interact with many other attendees is extremely high (what social networkers call "diversity of network size").
An example: in analyzing the photographs, the director of Fashion Week, Fern Mallis and the socialite and hotel heiress Nicky Hilton lead with regard to network size. Each has the potential to shake 355 people's hands. Socialite Tinsley Mortimer isn't far behind at 329 potential handshakes, while the Queen Bee, Vogue editrix Anna Wintour, can shake 315 and Mischa Barton 279. Wintour and Mallis make sense—as fashion is their thing they will be attending the most events and interacting with the most people. Hilton and Mortimer can be chalked up to ladies who lunch and party an awful lot, and Fashion Week has plenty of that. Mischa Barton is, well, Mischa Barton. She's a darling of the fashion industry and the media (which means that Getty photographers would tend to photograph her more than most at any event she would attend).
While Hilton and Mortimer's ubiquitous presence at the shows and after parties can be expected (they are socialites after all), there are a few others that emerged out of the top ten that are surprising candidates. For example, 1995 Former Miss Massachusetts Teen USA and sometimes Today Show correspondent Maria Menounos is a bit of a random outlier with a network of 250, as is R&B superstar ("The Boy is Mine") Brandy at 245. These scenesters may be actively cultivating their popularity or media presence (in Brandy's case she may be gearing up for her soon-to-be released album), or they may have nothing better to do than go to runway shows all day.
But what's the point of potential if it doesn't actually happen? We used a measure called "density", to see how many people within one particular network end up interacting with one another. For example, Nicky Hilton is photographed at events with 355 people, of these 355 people density measures how many potential interactions between those in her network occur, including interactions at events at which Hilton doesn't even attend. In other words, density measure the ratio between the actual connections to the potential ones (which in Hilton's case would amount to hundreds of different possible interactions given that her network is so large) . We found that within the echelons of the "most connected", those with a network size of more than 100 people, the average density is 27%, which means that on average those within a most-connected network end up in photographs (e.g. meeting and interacting) with almost a third of those also in the network.
There are some people, however, that translate every potential encounter into an actual interaction: Fashion designer Oscar De La Renta and fashion publicist Kelly Cutrone have networks of over 100 people and a density of 100%, meaning that every possible connection between people within their network actually occurred, including events in which Cutrone and De La Renta weren't in attendence. The people at events De La Renta attends may just be social and gregarious, while Cutrone is clearly doing her job well. You don't become a top notch fashion publicist unless you're doing high level networking (Though it might be noted that one can do their job a little too well: Just last year, Gawker reported that Cutrone barred reporters from her clients' runway shows because she didn't like what they wrote).
Equally important, if you do want to meet (or be photographed) with any particular person attending the same event as you, it's as easy as pie: The average person attending a Fashion Week event is only one degree of separation away from others in their network. You just have to go talk to someone you do know and they will likely be able to introduce you to the person you actually want to talk to. It goes without saying that those with the highest density also have the least degrees of separation (or they maintain the highest "closeness"). Overall, all measures of connectivity correlate with one another: If you have a high closeness measure you also tend to also have short degrees of separation and high "eigenvector centrality" (an unnecessarily complicated term which means you are an important node in the network).
Elizabeth Currid is assistant professor at University of Southern California's School of Policy, Planning and Development and the author of The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art and Music Drive New York City, (Princeton University Press).
Gilad Ravid, a lecturer at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Israel, assisted with this column.
Previously: When The Art Bubble Bursts Into A Splash