STYLE / A dogfight to get close to the catwalk: At Chanel's Paris show what really matters is where you sit, says Roger Tredre

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IT'S WHERE you sit that counts. The 17 most prized seats in international fashion are in the front row at the end of the catwalk at the Chanel ready-to-wear show. The people who filled these seats on Thursday are the ones who make things happen in fashion. They are the world's most powerful arbiters of style; designers know that their verdicts on a collection are the ones that count.

And they are all journalists. In fashion, journalists don't merely report. They are considered an integral part of the industry, for they are the means by which designers bring their collections to the notice of their potential customers. They need to be wooed, flattered, and, occasionally, bullied.

Suzy Menkes, fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune, was banned from Christian Dior on Wednesday for her criticism of the house's couture collection in January; Ms Menkes consoled herself by wearing a badge at other shows with the words 'Persona Non Grata'.

Ms Menkes always has a front spot at Chanel, and every other fashion show. So does John Fairchild, publisher of Women's Wear Daily, the US newspaper considered essential reading within the fashion business. So, too, does Anna Wintour, editor of American Vogue.

The US market is all-important for the big French fashion houses, which is why American magazines and newspapers tend to dominate the front row. Other countries' journalists may still find themselves in the front row, positioned in the seats running either side of the catwalk. But after that, it's a scrap to see who gets which seat. The auditorium is divided into zones patrolled by the Chanel public relations managers from a dozen countries, including Japan, Italy, Spain, Germany, Australia and Britain.

On the right-hand side of the catwalk sit the buyers from the big US and Japanese department stores that stock Chanel, and store managers of the 65 Chanel boutiques worldwide, including Catherine McKenna from the Old Bond Street store and Josianne El- Kabbaney from the Sloane Street shop. The left-hand side of the catwalk is reserved for journalists.

Celebrities always get into the front row. At Thursday's show, I spotted John Galliano, the British designer ('It's my first Chanel show. I'm so excited]'). The other celeb was Vanessa Paradis, a star indeed, who made a grand, late entrance, sending every photographer scurrying for a picture.

No one at Chanel likes to talk about the seating plan, you'll understand. That would be most undiplomatic. Louise Brassey, 28, public relations manager in London, has her zone to organise, but no, she can't say how many seats she has to distribute.

Actually, it's not hard to work out for yourself. An hour before the Chanel show on Thursday morning, I slipped into the catwalk tent and did some homework. Every seat has a name on it. There are about 60 seats (out of 1,500) for the Brits. Only six of them are in the front row. Two are filled by Alex Shulman and Anna Harvey, the editor and deputy editor of British Vogue. The other four go to the editors of Harpers & Queen, Tatler, Elle and Marie Claire. The newspapers are farther back: the Independent is in the third row, with the Sunday Times and Daily Express. The Daily Telegraph is in the fourth row.

Does it matter where you sit? Sally Brampton, freelance journalist and former editor of Elle, says it can do. 'If I had been placed in the fourth row as editor of Elle, I would have been rather worried about the international standing of the magazine. It's a very direct way of seeing how important you are considered by the designers.'

Another former editor remembers the time she was seated in front of Anna Wintour, then editor of British Vogue, at a Jean Paul Gaultier show. 'Gaultier thought British Vogue was crap. She was in a fury.'

No one likes to admit that they care about where they are seated. But there is no more pathetic sight in the fashion world than a once-great journalist who has lost her position of power gradually fading further backwards with every season: from the front row, to the third, to the eighth, to the fourteenth. Then, maybe, she finds herself standing at the back. The final indignity? Her request for a ticket is turned down.

At Chanel, the fall from grace is the most public of spectacles.

The Chanel front row: how they lined up

Marina Schiano, creative style director, Vanity Fair; Tonne Goodman, fashion director, Harper's Bazaar; Paul Cavaco, fashion director, Harper's Bazaar; Liz Tilberis, editor in chief, Harper's Bazaar; Kevin Doyle, senior vice-president, European publisher, Women's Wear Daily; Patrick McCarthy, executive vice-president, editorial, Women's Wear Daily; John Fairchild, publisher, Women's Wear Daily; Suzy Menkes, fashion editor, International Herald Tribune; Carrie Donovan, fashion editor, New York Times Magazine; Anna Wintour, editor in chief, US Vogue; Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele, fashion director, US Vogue; Grace Coddington, fashion director, US Vogue; Andre Leon Talley, creative director, US Vogue; Bernadine Morris, fashion editor, New York Times; Elsa Klensch, fashion correspondent, CNN; Jade Hobson, creative director, US Mirabella; Ricky Vider, fashion director, US Mirabella; Late entry: John Galliano, British fashion designer, who switched his seat and squeezed into the power line-up.

The Chanel Autumn Collection is on the 'Independent' Fashion page next Thursday.

(Photograph omitted)

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