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Retail's Night Out: Bringing Fashion to the Masses

Dog shows, block-long landscape drawings, a fleet of Volkswagen Jettas to shuttle shoppers, concerts, parties, contests, and celebrities, celebrities, celebrities.

General atmosphere at the Burberry shop, during the Milan Vogue Fashion Night Out
Getty Images
General atmosphere at the Burberry shop, during the Milan Vogue Fashion Night Out

And that's just in New York City.

This year Fashion's Night Out has gone global. Events have already occurred outside the U.S. in cities such as Paris and Milan, and more are planned later in the month from Tokyo to Athens.

On Friday the action turns to New York, and cities from Boca Raton, Fla., to San Francisco, with ferris wheels on Rodeo Drive, Cirque du Soleil performances in Washington, D.C., and hundreds of other events across the country.

Fashion's Night Out began last year as the brainchild of Vogue editor Anna Wintour, who felt that stores could coax recession-wary shoppers to spend if they created unique events and excitement, especially if they were timed to coincide with New York's Fashion Week.

There will be no shortage of that. Retailers and designers are pulling out the stops to woo fashionistas to their events and build buzz around their brands. But will the strategy work?

At Kate Spade's Soho shop, Tim Gunn from the Project Runway television show, will be signing copies of his book "Gunn's Golden Rules," while teams compete to style windows in the shop using his tips.

As the chief creative officer at Liz Claiborne —Kate Spade's parent company—Gunn is a logical choice for the event.

"We think that it's continuing to create an atmosphere where shopping is fun, where it's a great time to be out shopping, and to see what's happening in the retail fashion world," said Craig Leavitt, co-president and chief operating officer at Kate Spade.

But he admits that although the company will be selling a cosmetic case designed exclusively for the evening, the night is not really about sales and selling.

"For the actual evening, that's secondary," Leavitt said. "It's really about getting people excited about shopping and about our industry. It's a celebration of the industry."

But events like these tend to have a halo effect, and perhaps the biggest thing they accomplish is making it possible for anyone to participate.

QVC has been a sponsor of Mercedes Benz Fashion Week for the past five years, and this year the company has opened its first-ever pop-up store in Rockefeller Center to take advantage of the buzz around both the runway shows and Fashion's Night Out.

The store will not only allow more consumers to get acquainted with the QVC brand, but it will also serve as the set for special broadcasts the home shopping channel has planned for this week.

In the past, the Fashion Week shows have been "very successful" for QVC, said Claire Watts, president of U.S. Commerce at QVC. Although she declined to provide specific sales figures, Watts said events like these help to build viewership and introduce new customers to QVC.

At the store, shoppers will get a multimedia experience that includes a chance to try out an iPhone app and experiment with a new widget QVC has designed.

"We have a very active community," Watts said. "They love to talk with each other and express their opinions."

Piperlime, an online retailer owned by the Gap , is another firm not letting the lack of a retail store stand in its way. It will sell shoes, handbags and apparel at a lime-green pop-up shop on Mercer Street that will be open until Oct. 3.

Other retailers are using the evening to debut new stores, including Moncler, Derek Lam, Carolina Herrera and Alejandro Ingelmo.

"It makes them part of Fashion Week...Right now they are sharing in the excitement of the season." -Bloomingdale's, Anne Keating

All the attention around the event has even attracted the attention of those outside the fashion world.

Volkswagen will be offering thousands of shoppers free rides in its 2011 Jetta as a way to promote both the redesigned car and its new dealership in Manhattan.

"It is a fun way to get them into the cars and it solves the problem of not being able to catch a taxi," said Mya Walters, brand communications manger for Volkswagen of America.

At department stores such as Bergdorf Goodman and Bloomingdale's events will be held in nearly every department.

Bergdorf's program includes the "Best in Show" dog show featuring designers and their pooches, while Bloomingdale's will have special guests throughout the evening including Alexa Ray Joel.

"What's really important is having an event schedule so that the it does not interfere with the shopping," said Anne Keating, senior vice president of Public Relations at Bloomingdale's. "You don't want huge crowds of people jamming up the aisles. You want it to be that every time they turn around there's something new."

Bloomingdale's comes to an evening like this with a lot of experience. The store hosts between 600 and 700 events this year. For a night like this, the store tries to ramp up the program quite a bit, but regularly scheduling events is essential to "keep our customers very excited about coming," Keating said.

Last year, Bloomingdale's saw sales rise as a result of Fashion's Night Out, and Keating is "hopeful" that will occur again.

But even more important for the industry is that the event has made fashion more accessible for many people, and that should only grow as the events spread out throughout the country.

"It makes them a part of Fashion Week," Keating said. "It never did happen before. Right now they are sharing in the excitement of the season."

Questions? Comments? Email us at consumernation@cnbc.com

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