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Fashion's Night Out Year 2: Stores again lure customers to get registers ringing

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 10, 2010; C01

On Friday evening, the fashion industry unleashes its formal plea to the world's consumers to shop like it's 1985 . . . or thereabout. Your underwater mortgage and the rickety job market be damned!

Fashion's Night Out, born last year out of the depths of the recession when retailers were just one unnerving consumer-confidence report away from public wailing and rending of garments, has exploded into a multi-day gorge-fest of special guest appearances in boutiques large and small, celebrity bingo, hipster DJs, indie bands, a mass runway show at Lincoln Center, a televised documentary on CBS and enough cocktail parties to pickle every liver from New York to Los Angeles, London to Milan.

Like everything else that the fashion industry does -- until it learns better -- FNO promises to be bigger, glitzier and more ostentatious than before. Last summer, stores in Washington's 14th Street and U Street corridors quietly participated with extended hours. This year, Georgetown has gone into overdrive -- planning parties, a Vitamin Water lounge, Cirque du Soleil performances and as much breathless enthusiasm as can fit on M Street and Wisconsin Avenue.

The brainchild of Vogue's Anna Wintour, FNO was conceived as way to gin up excitement about the upcoming shopping season. Times were desperate for retailers and designers; this was a way to lure penny-pinching consumers into stores when the merchandise was at full price. FNO was not about celebrating the runways, high-end designers and rarified goods; instead, it was a wholly commercial endeavor, one that sought the participation of every brand from Giorgio Armani to Zara. And to underscore the point that this was a party to which all were invited, Wintour, whose workday uniform involves Prada and Oscar de la Renta, made a pilgrimage to Macy's in a Queens shopping center to try to pry open the non-designer wallets of the hoi polloi.

With so much razzle-dazzle, retailers were confident they could stir up excitement and publicity. But would anyone actually shop?

As it turns out, some of the biggest financial gains last year were made by stores with the least amount of hoopla in their aisles. For example, New York designer Tory Burch spent the evening at her Meatpacking District boutique where she hosted a block party with music and hamburgers. The biggest activity? Burch autographed a tote bag that was a gift with a $100 purchase. While the company wouldn't specify revenue for the night, sales were twice what organizers had hoped and dreamed.

But the biggest winner might have been Lord & Taylor. Last year, the chain was struggling with double-digit sales decreases when the company was invited to participate in New York's FNO. The decision was not a no-brainer, says Brendan Hoffman, who has been president and CEO for about two years. There would be a substantial outlay of resources: labor, materials, overhead. And there was no guarantee that, after downing free cocktails, people would buy anything.

And in the New York retail world, Lord & Taylor also had an image problem. Even though it carries contemporary brands such as Plenty, BCBG and Diesel, it's struggling to overcome a reputation for being stodgy. As a brand, it doesn't have the high-end gloss of Bergdorf Goodman (and its corporate sister Neiman Marcus) and Saks Fifth Avenue. It doesn't have the cool credentials of Barneys New York. It lacks the enormous footprint of Macy's. And it isn't known for its glitzy embrace of trends in the manner of Bloomingdale's.

No, Lord & Taylor, founded in 1826 and located in an unchic block of Fifth Avenue in New York, still plays the national anthem each morning when it opens its doors for business.

"We knew we were not going to get the A-plus listers coming to our store," Hoffman says.

There would be no Justin Timberlake, no Olsen twins, no Lindsay Lohan. But as it turns out, the store didn't need them.

FNO "was an unqualified success," Hoffman says. "It jump-started our fall season."

Indeed, it was like Christmas in September. Sales surged 40 percent over the previous year. The thousands of customers who came through the doors didn't just linger on the main floor; they wandered through the store, from cosmetics to menswear. And money flowed from their wallets as if a dam had suddenly burst. "The business has been on a terrific run since early September last year," Hoffman says.

In addition to a financial jolt, the store also got an ego boost when FNO's younger customers -- younger than the matrons so often associated with Lord & Taylor -- walked through the aisles in a giddy, cocktail haze.

Why did the store have such a successful night?

"We had to make it more interactive. We had to come up with other sorts of fun ideas," Hoffman says. "We had a blogging station. We had a scavenger hunt. We had New York City firemen from their calendar helping women shop."

In other words, the gimmicks didn't distract from the clothes.

When planning Friday night's extravaganza, the company decided to again remain celebrity-free; this time by choice rather than default. Oh sure, there will be designers touting their wares, from Joseph Abboud giving men wardrobe tips to Carmen Marc Valvo and Yeohlee Teng advising the ladies. But they will not be serenading customers, teaching them a hip-hop routine or otherwise engaging them in non-fashion-related folderol.

It will be an evening that's all about clothes. All about moving merchandise at full price. Of course, "if Justin Timberlake rang the office and said he wanted to come to Fashion's Night Out," Hoffman says, "we'd welcome him with open arms."

Lord & Taylor proved the industry doesn't need celebrities to make the big sales. But a little glitter never hurts.

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