New York Fashion Week to Relocate: IMG's Catherine Bennett Reveals Plans, Life Under WME

Matt Furman

NYFW's top exec confirms plans to leave Lincoln Center in 2015 and what it's like working under Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell

This story first appeared in the Sept. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Those who found New York's annual Fashion Week to be a dizzying barrage of Spring 2015 collections should have spent a day there with Catherine Bennett. As senior vp at IMG Fashion, which produces the show, Bennett presided over the entirety of perhaps the most influential U.S. event in the fashion business.

Before it ended Sept. 11, Bennett, 41, saw at least a few minutes of nearly 90 presentations -- including some of her favorite designers, J. Mendel, Carolina Herrera, Bibhu Mohapatra -- all while managing logistics of 100,000 guests at Lincoln Center and taking meetings with the Chinese government about IMG expanding its stable of 32 global fashion weeks into Shanghai.

Bennett's 51-employee event group, which is part of a unit that includes IMG Models and the styling agency Art & Commerce, still is adjusting to its new owners at WME, which purchased IMG for $2.3 billion in January. The deal represented a homecoming of sorts for Bennett, who joined the William Morris Agency training program after law school at Georgetown. She worked in business affairs until being lured to the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 2009 and leaving for IMG in 2013.

Now Bennett -- a divorced mother of a 6-year-old daughter -- inhabits the Park Avenue office she inherited from late IMG owner Teddy Forstmann. There, she is building on a business that maintains nine offices internationally (though IMG won't reveal revenue). She sat down with THR to discuss her new bosses Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell, why stars are so valuable to brands and plans to relocate NYFW in 2015.

How has the WME acquisition changed what you do?

Once the two companies are fully formed into one, I see us growing into a powerhouse of knowledge and expertise -- bringing together the best of every piece of fashion, entertainment, sports and media. Now we have WME's resources available to us -- the relationships.

Bennett’s office has a sofa by Safavieh, blanket by Jonathan Adler and a Chanel print, one of many she has for inspiration.

Does this mean WME star clients will start attending IMG fashion weeks?

Not yet. Their actresses are not yet coming in an official organized way, but we're building relationships with their talent agents.

Ari isn't known as a fashion guy. Describe your first meeting with him.

The meeting happened when IMG just started the beginning of the sale process. I remember Ari and Patrick were there -- and they were both so excited. Ari had been friends with Teddy Forstmann when he was alive and was always asking him to sell IMG. Ari and Patrick had so much more energy than you're used to seeing in those meetings. Ari was jumping up and down. I thought, "I hope these are the guys who buy IMG."

What has your experience with them been since the deal happened?

Their energy has not deflated since. They just came in for the Spring 2015 shows, took a big tour, went to the BCBG show, and Ari actually sat through the entire show, then flew back to L.A. We said: "Listen, you're front row. You cannot leave." I could probably get in trouble for saying this, but for a long time, the fashion department at IMG was sort of the stepchild -- we were not the core businesses, like IMG Models and Sports. The new WME IMG is going to be limitless -- everyone wants to touch on fashion, entertainment, sports -- it's going to be amazing. And the sports-fashion crossover -- everyone is dying to dress Roger Federer and get him to their shows. We had half of the Knicks [team] at a new brand collection called Grungy Gentlemen. It wasn't contrived -- they actually wear [the brand's] stuff.

Tom Ford aviators on her desk, at the ready for a fashion show run.

But mergers are tough. How integrated is your group with the rest of WME now?

I have constant conversations with Ari and Patrick -- they're always involved in the day to day of what we're doing. They have A-list serious clients. I don't know how their heads don't explode.

What's the plan to expand the business?

We just added an event in Singapore -- increasingly a market international designers want to be represented in. We are looking closely at the China market. There are fashion shows that exist there, but not with IMG. We want to be very smart about entering that market.

The rumor is that fashion brands are paying actresses to sit in the front row at shows. True?

Some do. Some don't.

How much do you think celebrities impact sales when they are used in campaigns?

Talk to the designers, but yes, I think they do. When it's an authentic and organic connection, it's helpful for bringing a brand to life. Recognition is everything. From where I sit, if I see a celebrity championing a young designer, that has a big impact.

This year, Hollywood men have reinvented menswear at awards shows and on the street. How has this impacted what you do?

I'm so excited about menswear lately. IMG Models just relaunched its men's division a year ago. We felt the time was right again; there has been no men's division in a long time. People are buying menswear

the way they haven't before. You see young guys and college guys buying real clothes and paying real attention to what they wear. Look at the whole J.Crew menswear explosion.

Fashion Week’s top executive likes to keep fashion books nearby; her favorite fashion photographers are Patrick Demarchelier and Steven Meisel.

IMG tried to pull off an L.A. Fashion Week, but it never took flight. Have you given up on L.A.?

Not at all. We just want to approach it in a different way -- not with a traditional fashion week. L.A. is a market we want to expand into. We'd love to do something consumer-facing there -- kick off awards season with a show of cocktail clothes and gowns and invite stylists, celebrities, editors and bloggers.

What's the difference you see between the fall and the spring collections shown in New York?

September in New York has the most energy; more people come through. More international, more buyers, editors, retailers. It really feels like the kickoff of the international schedule.

Bennett’s 6-year-old daughter Gracie’s artwork is always within her view.

Before 1999, New York Fashion Week used to take place in late October, after Europe as opposed to before. NYFW was in late October and April.

And you have no idea how hard it is to produce shows in winter weather conditions now that fall collections are shown in February. We're always lighting candles and worrying that the tents will fall down. Our generator costs skyrocket -- so do snow removal costs.

There have been reports that NYFW will move out of the Lincoln Center venue, where it has been since 2010.

Yes, we are moving -- everybody seems to know that. We have one more season in Lincoln Center, and then we move. For September 2015, we will be somewhere new. We are focusing our efforts on having September 2015 be a kind of reinvention of New York Fashion Week. That will be the moment to really make evident the addition of the WME part of the company. We are working very diligently to figure out what this new neighborhood/venue will look like.

She keeps a Safavieh tray with decanters from Mikasa and Anthropologie filled with Johnnie Walker Black and Chambord.

New York is not a city with a ton of room to move. Where would you like NYFW to go?

There's not another single venue that's actually complete or doesn't have permit issues. We'd like to pick up the event and just plop it down -- but New York isn't like that.

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