The Strange Underworld of Fashion Week Scalpers
New York's preeminent fashion week scalper sees selling tickets to invite-only shows as "good samaritan work." He's in his late 20s, says he's a Wall Street consultant by day, and describes himself as a liaison who helps connect friends—mostly underpaid fashion insiders—with outsiders eager to attend the closed-to-the-public events.
Over the past few weeks, the scalper, who wishes to remain anonymous, has listed invitations to more than thirty New York Fashion Week events on the app Shout, a Craigslist competitor, at prices ranging from $180 to $1,300 a head. He doesn't take a commission, he claims, and gives the money back to the original ticket holders. But he does get something for the trouble. "Two years ago I didn't know anyone in New York. Now there's not a single door that can stop me," he said.
People behind those doors see things differently. "Selling fashion show invitations is, quite frankly, very shady," said Fern Mallis, a former executive at IMG and the Council of Fashion Designers of America, where in 1993 she helped create the first New York Fashion Week. IMG, the organizer of shows held at Lincoln Center, forbids the sale of invitations. "Invitations are non-transferable and as a matter of security guests are required to check in on arrival," a rep for Zac Posen told me in a statement.
Despite these rules, invitations are a short Google sleuth away. According to several interviews with buyers and sellers, they're coming from fashion writers, PR reps, and employees of brands, motivated by low salaries in the industry as well as ferocious demand from outside. This year, more than 40 shows are being advertised on Craigslist and Shout, including Alexander Wang, Zac Posen, Herve Leger, Diane Von Furstenberg, Prabal Gurung, and Reem Acra. Craigslist has been used for selling invitations since at least 2009. Shout, launched last year and known as a platform for trading restaurant reservations, is a newcomer on the landscape.
Fashion shows last about 15 minutes each. Prices on the secondary market this year range from $180 to $1,500 a head. Official invitees attend free of charge. These lopsided economics illustrate fashion week's mystique, as well as the delicate balance of money, beauty, and power that drives New York's social universe.
When we meet, the Shout scalper is wearing an understated leather jacket, colorful slip-ons, and a watch with several dials. His suppliers are friends within the fashion industry who, in return for his help, get him into shows he wants to attend. When I reached out to him for this story, he agreed to meet as long as he didn't have to disclose their names. Twenty minutes into our meeting, though, he was dropping them—"they're kind of Anna Wintour level," he said. (I'd heard of them, but this is exaggerated.)
Many of the people he's helped find invites to shows work on Wall Street, like he does, or are aspiring bloggers who don't get invited. He recognizes that the events are attractive, at least on the surface, because attendee lists are cultivated. "I don't think they should be open to the public," he said. "If they deserve it, people will find their way in."
Another Craigslist seller expressed a similar opinion, although with a different sentiment. "The customers I have are losers who don't deserve to attend," he told me over the phone from an anonymous Google Voice number. "They spend money to get something other people work hard for." He's made $2,000 from selling invites for the past two seasons, he said.
"Fashion shows are about prestige," he continued. "If you go to shows it means you're somebody, and the people who don't are considered nobody. They're embarrassed to have purchased tickets."
This is probably true in some circles, but others on the illicit market seemed happy just to be there. A college student who purchased a Rebecca Minkoff invitation for $350 told me she didn't think there was a stigma. "To me this is like a concert or an art opening. It's just for fun," she said (still, she asked to remain anonymous). Invitations are issued to a single name. Because shows are so short, door personnel don't verify IDs, making it possible to attend on someone else's behalf.
Within the industry, invitation scalping is unanimously frowned upon. "I generally encourage any display of the entrepreneurial spirit, but I think selling invitations to an invite-only event crosses the line," Paper's Mickey Boardman told me. "It's a bit like crashing someone's wedding. It's not horrifyingly wrong, but it's rude."
Like weddings, fashion shows are big investments—to the tune of $1 million, if you're Marc Jacobs—designed for a specific live audience. The audience is chosen for its ability to have a positive impact on business, and when it's diluted with randoms from the internet, part of a brand's investment is wasted.
There's also the issue that, if too many people crash, things go can terribly wrong. Fern Mallis, the former CFDA director, tells of a Heatherette show at Bryant Park years back for which someone manufactured fake invitations en masse. "They went to Kinkos and made literally 1,000 copies. We had to have security and PR teams check everybody's invitation against the guest list. It was a nightmare."
Crashing shows predates the internet, according to Mallis. Early on, people would crawl underneath tents or try to impersonate celebrities in order to gain entry. This still happens, but the internet provides easier ways. Shout describes its app as providing "marketplaces for passionate groups." It's more or less a cross between Craigslist and Venmo: Anyone can list a product under whatever username he or she chooses, but users can rate each other, and the company verifies identities internally. It takes a ten percent commission and holds money in escrow until participants confirm a transaction went as planned.
Currently, most of the tickets available on Shout and Craigslist are for shows at Lincoln Center. Off-site shows, or shows at Milk Studios, whose competing fashion week was acquired by IMG in January, are more difficult to crack, sources said. Prices online reflect it—the Anna Sui show at Lincoln Center was $400, a Prabal Gurung show at the The IAC Building in Chelsea, $1,300.
That's partly because Lincoln Center is already crowded with non-invitees. At that venue, sponsors get reserved seats at every show, per IMG's handbook. Since 2007, American Express has operated a "Skybox" for certain high-level cardmembers to watch the shows. Some of this may change next season, when IMG leaves Lincoln Center and combines with MADE at Milk Studios to create a single NYFW at a new, to-be-determined location.
Still, if you're wealthy and uninvited, you'll likely be able to find a way in, through Cragislist or other slightly less shady means. Private concierge services, for instance, make deals with PR firms to obtain tickets for shows at prices even higher than Craigslist. And if a wealthy customer wants to drop serious money on clothes, a brand will likely invite her to the front row with open arms.
"The consensus is that fashion week has become less exclusive, with more people who don't seem to be necessary at the shows," Mallis said. "On the other hand, I could play devil's advocate and say that fashion is about as many people as possible seeing a collection and if more people want to see it, then that's great."
The Wall Street scalper sees what he's doing along these lines—helping people who love fashion participate in it. While selling tickets is a risk for his friends, it's not for him because he doesn't work in the industry, he initially told me.
He later appeared to have changed his mind. After our interview, he deleted his email from the Shout listing, which is still live. Maybe he decided his side business isn't entirely "good samaritan work." In any case, he said he was attending as many shows as he is scalping tickets for this week. As he told me during our meeting: "When you help people out it ends up benefiting you."
Alice Hines is a writer in New York covering fashion and culture.
[Top image via AP/Screenshots via Craigslist/Shout]