When designer Kenneth Cole presented his spring 2000 collection in the Hammerstein Ballroom Monday, the requisite retailers, press and invited celebrities, including Jamie Lee Curtis and Jon Lovitz, were present. But so were members of the general public.

It is common for designers to invite their friends, acquaintances and family. It's always nice to have a few nonjudgmental faces smiling in the audience. But it is rare for a designer to welcome the general public unless the show is a special event featuring a band, perhaps, or celebrating a landmark anniversary. And while such occasions have happened a time or two during the womenswear presentations, no similar public events come to mind during the menswear shows.

Cole's open-to-the-public show may well be a first.

For a minimum $1 donation to the American Foundation for AIDS Research, made at any of Cole's Manhattan stores, you could get a ticket to the fashion show. According to a company spokesperson, a couple of hundred consumers attended and the designer raised a few thousand dollars for AmFAR. The show's time slot of 10 a.m. Monday made it difficult for most folks to attend. But putting out the welcome mat to the public will not be a one-time gesture: The company will try to move future shows to a time that is more convenient for working people. And this show was broadcast live over the Internet.

With this gesture, Cole confirms that the shows are, at heart, entertainment. The real business of fashion happens in the trade shows held in unremarkable convention centers and in the showrooms. That's where buyers really scrutinize a collection and place their orders. For years, the runway presentation has been more beneficial to the media as a chance for a fast overall view of a designer's line. It is an event to give a collection context and an opportunity for designers to increase their name recognition and glamour quotient. Catwalk shows are elaborate advertisements aimed at a small but influential audience. And of course one can't forget the prestige factor associated with mounting a flashy, exclusive production.

But Cole has realized that fashion shows offer a far more valuable opportunity than trying to generate a little excitement among jaded fashion observers. They are a chance to connect with customers, particularly the ones most intrigued by fashion. It is a chance to create buzz about a collection at the grass-roots level, because nothing sells merchandise--whether it is a CD, a book, tickets to a film--faster than word of mouth.

If this becomes a trend, the purpose of fashion shows will have come full circle. Decades ago, the point of a runway presentation was to sell clothes to customers seated in the audience. But soon those customers and the designer's intimate relationship with them were transformed. The shows became industry events and celebrity gawk-fests, exploding into unwieldy public-relations extravaganzas. Cole is bringing them back to their earlier and wiser intent. Sure, buyers still come to the presentations to show their support and to get a sense of how the designer would put his own collection together. And the shows give the media an opportunity to see trends, get an indication of where a collection is headed and, ultimately, where the industry as a whole may go.

But more important is the realization that the shows--the best of them, at any rate--are designed to generate excitement within the audience. And if that audience doesn't include the consumer, then the entire runway system risks becoming an expensive exercise in hubris.