VIP fashion: Don't you know who I am?

By Zoe Walker

The world of fashion VIPs isn't just about the social pages or sitting in the front row - Viva peeks into the VIP salon.

Being a fashion VIP means more than front-row seating. To be initiated into this exclusive club means gaining access to the inner sanctum of a private world. Photo / Nicola Topping
Being a fashion VIP means more than front-row seating. To be initiated into this exclusive club means gaining access to the inner sanctum of a private world. Photo / Nicola Topping

Did you hear about the secret Prada sale? See photos of the exclusive Gucci lounge at the races? Peek inside the invite-only salon above the Louis Vuitton store?

Well no, you probably didn't. Because beyond the social page photos of "exclusive" events and token celebrities seated in the front row at fashion shows, the world of high-end fashion VIPs is shrouded in relative privacy. These are the true VIPs, the very important customers who have proven to be so loyal to a designer or brand that they are given special status - but please don't talk about it. Here, it is all about discretion.

But who are these customers? What do they get that you're not getting? And how do you become one?

I was one. As a student five years ago, I would visit Karen Walker's O'Connell St store weekly, regularly buying (often laybying) whatever took my fancy. Sometimes I would just pop in to see what was new and say hello to the staff.

They quickly realised that I was a seriously loyal customer and subtly informed me that I had a VIP discount. Then came invitations to new season salon shows, and eventually, the ultimate: a phone call from one of the shop girls inviting me to their New Zealand Fashion Week show.

It is that loyalty and passion for a brand that is most often behind VIP status. All of the designers I spoke to - most hesitant to talk "on the record" about their VIPs - acknowledge that it's less about how much a customer may spend, and more about the relationship they have with the brand. (Although often is it largely about money: according to the Guardian, fashion e-store Net-a-Porter's VIP customers account for 1 per cent of their business but 20 per cent of their sales; they get special perks like being invited to meet and greets with designers, trunk shows and private dinners.)

Ruby Boutique, home to the Ruby and Madame Hawke brands, has V-VIP customers who store managers will communicate with on a regular basis, sometimes informing them of the arrival of new styles they think the customer may like.

They are sometimes given gifts, and a select few were invited to their NZ Fashion Week show last year. But as Brand Manager Eleisha Balmer explains, "These customers aren't always the ones who have spent the most money, but are often those most passionate about our brands, always popping into store to visit our retail staff and check out new deliveries."

Ruby Boutique is somewhat democratic in its approach to VIPs, with a loyalty club that any customer can join, where they get first notice of promotions, pre-sales and invites to various launch events.

World has established around 100 long-term customers in New Zealand and Australia, who get perks that include anything from invitations to new season previews and viewings, intimate degustation dinners, early access to sales, invitations to fashion week events, and previews to exclusive speaking events at World beauty stores.

Matt Vogts, World public relations manager, explains that they try to offer a personal and engaging experience for anyone who visits a World store, "but with VIPs the advantage is that the retail managers are close friends who have worked with the customers for a number of years. World has been serving customers for 22 years and so a number of our VIPs have grown up alongside the brand and are very much part of the family".

Scotties, offering pieces from high-end international designers like Marni, Lanvin and Celine, also has long-standing customers that have strong relationships with staff.

Owner Marilyn Sainty explains: "We do often buy at the international shows with certain people in mind and sometimes get requests from them for an occasion or because their work requires a certain way of dressing. We have customers who have supported us for many years and we do get to understand what they might need - you can see something when you are buying and think of them immediately."

But again, it is more about the relationship. "Every customer is valuable and it is always satisfying if you can find something for them."

Of course in a time where discretion isn't very fashionable, the idea of a VIP often gets hijacked and used somewhat inaccurately - think of "VIP" mall fashion shows, international "VIP" New Zealand Fashion Week guest Brian Long, Usher's fragrance VIP - and the acronym has almost become shorthand for celebrity. But for those who organise high-profile events, celebrities are just one part of the VIP guest list (and always the most photographed).

Sarah Paykel has worked behind the scenes on some of Auckland's most glamorous events, from the opening of the Gucci flagship store (which involved a memorable surprise show and party afterwards) to several Chanel trunk shows held in a private home for hand-picked clients through to the launch of Tiffany & Co. Eyewear into New Zealand (a sit-down dinner for 80 special guests at Kelliher Estate).

For Paykel a VIP can mean many things.

"A VIP can be a great customer of the brand holding the event - one of their top spenders - or they could have media appeal if the aim of the event is to achieve media coverage in the social pages of the newspapers and magazines. This would mean they need to have an established profile in their own industry and be known to the general public.

"VIP guests can also be associated with the brand - visiting VIPs who work for the company in other countries, often in senior management roles, or they could be important business associates from other companies. Including them in a VIP capacity is a way of saying 'Thank you, it's great doing business with you'."

Murray Bevan is another who organises high-profile fashion events with VIP guest lists, some of his most memorable being the Sass & Bide store opening party earlier this year, Kathryn Wilson's debut New Zealand Fashion Week show last year (where front row VIPs were given a pair of shoes made especially for the occasion with a lovely handwritten note from the designer), and the "Vote Karen Walker Eyewear" launch party (where several pairs of sunglasses were stolen by naughty so-called VIP guests).

He says the criteria for guests invited to events differs with each client.

"Some clients select their VIPs based on annual spend if it's a retail-based event, and other clients want the most 'visible' and active people at their event from the worlds of fashion, beauty and art. From my point of view, we constantly refine our VIP list based on attendance at past events, positive feedback, ability to collaborate with the brand in some way, and then we add a decent sprinkling of well-known people to give the party that exciting edge."

A positive attitude also counts for a lot for these PRs.

"A great VIP is someone who offers something to an event," Paykel explains.

"They need to be interesting in their own right and have usually achieved at a high level at what ever they do. They are not just a pretty face, and rent-a-crowd or wannabes will never make the cut if it's a well thought-out guest list. Each guest is invited on their own merit and the organiser selects individuals who will mix well together and create a great atmosphere, which is obviously what every organiser or host aims to achieve - whether it is a corporate event or a private party at home."

Although many VIPs may attend these events, don't expect them to talk about them afterwards. The world of luxury fashion is especially guarded. Louis Vuitton, for instance, prefers a discreet approach to its customers, adding to the mystique and allure of VIP status.

They have special salons for loyal customers, including one above the Queen St Louis Vuitton store in Auckland - a VIP salon used for exclusive showcases and for loyal very important customers who want privacy when shopping.

The most exclusive of these salons may just be part of their mammoth and luxurious New Bond St maison in London, which has an exclusive invite-only area called The Apartment, accessed via a private lift.

Gucci is another with a policy of discretion, preferring not to go into much detail about their VIPs - they do explain however that they hold private client showings at the beginning of each collection launch, with one-on-one appointments that allow their VIPs to be taken through pieces by a Gucci buyer.

Meanwhile Prada recently flew three of their top Australian customers to an exclusive Prada show in Beijing, attended by around 1000 VIPs from the Asia-Pacific.

At DFS Galleria, VIP services are wide-ranging, including personal shopper assistance, private transportation services from local hotels, access to a special club lounge, previews and pre-orders of new season arrivals and invitations to special events - such as an exclusive Tiffany & Co. event where guests were shown the collection followed by a three-course meal (expect many more events in the coming months for their international VIPs visiting for the Rugby World Cup). Their VIPs are part of what is called a "platinum services club", which has varying levels depending on spend - the top being the prestige level, customers who purchase over US$75,000 ($92,017).

These glimpses into the world of luxury VIPs gives an insight into how much brands are willing to do to look after their clients, and make them feel like an insider and friend. This exclusivity has begun to extend online, interesting in itself seeing as the appeal of the internet is largely in its democratisation.

"Instant insider access" is promised at members-only fashion webstores like The Gilt Groupe, while Moda Operandi goes one step further by working on an invitation-only basis, allowing members to pre-order pieces from collections as they appear on the runway.

The website explains that, "Membership at Moda Operandi is offered by invitation only. Interested parties may apply for membership by completing our membership request form, however applying for membership does not ensure a membership invitation will be extended."

Curious, I applied, expecting to be rejected; my VIP fashion status extended only to my time at Karen Walker. But 24 hours later an email appeared in my inbox: "Your application to Moda Operandi is approved."

- NZ Herald

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