Front Row Democracy

From Corner Offices to Reserved Seats at Fashion Shows, the Real Estate of Success is Evolving

  • Text: Tatum Dooley

A front row seat at a fashion show, like the corner office, is a hierarchical marker. Signalled through design and architecture, its value comes not just from the view it affords, but through appearing to have it. A public display of achievement, the corner office and front row are so synonymous with success that they’ve become a metonymy: they mean that you made it—you’re on top of the food chain.

As prime real estate, the corner office meant you were important enough to deserve not one, but two views of the city your office looked out over. The privacy it afforded its occupant was the same privacy that is extended to the front row: despite being on full display, you’re shielded from the intrusion of those who are not. Democratizing the hierarchy of space has recently infiltrated the fashion industry. The front row began as a technicality: important buyers and editors were seated in the front row to access the best view of the clothes. It then began to include celebrities—Yves Saint Laurent’s 1967 show had Francoise Hardy and Catherine Deneuve in the front row, but it wasn’t until the 80s and 90s that this trend of inviting celebrities to sit in the front row became commonplace. It makes sense then, with the concept of “celebrity,” having been democratized by social media, that fashion shows would need more front row seats to meet the newfound demand.

The corner office became a status signifier, so much so that during the 80s, they began building skyscrapers that had more of them. This trend of extending sought after spaces to more occupants can be seen at the Scotia Plaza in Toronto. Completed in 1988, the skyscraper is a beacon of reflective copper in a sea of silver. When I was a child my father pointed up to the top of the tower, which waterfalls down and inwards like a game of Tetris, and explained its purposeful design that allowed upwards of 22 corner offices—considerably surpassing its neighbouring four-cornered skyscrapers. Dr. Bungale S. Taranath, a structural engineer, wrote in his 2012 book Structural Analysis and Design of Tall Buildings, “The simplest prismatic shape only has four corners and, therefore could offer at best only four corner offices….To capture this market, the trend in planning is to have as many corner offices as possible. This is achieved by undulating the exterior, providing nicks, notches, and other convolutions at the perimeter.”

The corner office has faded into obscurity in lieu of the “democracy” of the open office plan. Another familiar metonym for success and status, the front row represents the ideal place to be, a concrete goal to strive towards. It’s worth asking if the front row will follow the corner office’s fall into obscurity—diluted to mean nothing. The neutralizing of the corner office is an important teachable moment: If everyone is important, no one is. If the corner office is no longer a marker of success in the modern office, what is? Is the progression from corner offices, to the mass distribution of corner offices, to the open office, an example of an equal distribution of power, forfeiting the hierarchy in lieu of sameness? Or does it simply present the appearance of such?

If the front row was at first sought for its view of hemlines rather than skylines, it quickly became lusted over not so much for the view it afforded, but the unobstructed view it afforded others of its occupants. A view not just for you, but of you. The celebrities and fashion conglomerates sitting in the front row are meant to be seen as much as see. But like the fading corner office, the front row has recently expanded to include more people amongst its ranks: fashion show runways have retired the catwalk straight and opted for U-shaped and twisting runways, adding extra front row seats to include more people, just as skyscrapers did before them.

Balenciaga’s Fall/Winter 2017 Ready-to-Wear: four walls lined with front row seats, the runway a square. Dior Couture Spring/Summer 2018 in Paris’ runway looked like a funhouse: black and white checkered floor with clusters of analogous chairs faced in all cardinal directions. If you needed another angle to view the show, you could look up to see it replicated on the mirrored ceiling. Raf Simons Spring/Summer 2018 in New York, invitations read “Standing Room Only”—the neon colours bouncing off the wet pavement looked straight out of a Wong Kar Wai film, as the crowd stood shoulder to shoulder, at eye level with the models grazing past them. Simons, again, for Calvin Klein 205W39NYC Fall/Winter 2018 disrupted the didactic nature of a traditional runway with a path that had models slugging through shin-deep popcorn, weaving through the audience. An office building again, this time on the 21st floor of Condé Nast’s old office building at 4 Times Square for Alexander Wang Fall/Winter 2018: The fluorescent light harshly illuminating the front row of chairs pushed up against grey-matted cubicles. No second row, but four corner offices. If you needed more proof that fashion shows and office floor plans share a semiotic meaning, these shows offer it. Prada Resort 2019 in New York: the runway quartered off by cement slabs into a maze, reminiscent of a parking lot obstacle course you learned to drive on late at night.

“The neutralizing of the corner office is an important teachable moment: If everyone is important, no one is.”

I could continue to list the numerous fashion shows that have used the same tactics that Taranath described used in skyscrapers—nicks, notches, and other convolutions at the perimeter—but it would be quicker to name the shows that haven’t democratized the front row in some way. The goal is the same—for more people to feel important, all the while engaging in more interesting visual design.

The skeptic in me wants to denounce the move to lengthen the front row as a strategic decision to pander to influencers—similarly to how fame was democratized by social media, the physical landscape has followed suit. Fashion is equal parts business and theatre. With more people in the front row, there are more unobstructed shots to be uploaded to social media. Better business. But also, just as the Sears Tower makes for a more interesting skyscraper, the curving runways of late make for a more interesting layout and theatrical show. Better design.

The corner office and front row gave us a tactile goal to work towards, a carrot dangling in front of the horse to propel it forward. Except the carrot is respect, recognition, and clout in the form of a coveted place in the building. These ubiquitous markers of having “made it” push us to work harder, be better, cooler, more fashionable. In other words, the urge to take up space in these desirable locations encourages us to compete for a place at the proverbial roundtable. This move, towards a surplus of corner offices and front row seats, marks a shift in its meaning. With more people given access to the coveted space, it becomes less valuable—a dilution of the hierarchy by way of design. The desirability of the corner office and the front row once hinged on its scarcity; by democratizing the space, its capitalistic value has lowered. CEOs and founders now sit alongside coders and temps in a wall-less office, clad in jeans and t-shirts—even the fashion has erred democratic. Will the same fate suffer the front row? If history has taught us anything, the answer is yes.

There’s a flaw in the logic that thinks fashion, and in turn, capitalism can be democratized through adding extra seats for people to occupy. Capitalism thrives on an organizational structure with few people at the top and subordinates that are motivated to work hard to get to the top. The front row and corner office are goals that seem attainable, but when the concept of importance becomes abstract, the structure falls and becomes a metonymy for nothing. If everyone has the best view, it becomes the only view.

Tatum Dooley is a writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in Aperture, Canadian Art, the Globe & Mail, Real Life Magazine, The Walrus and more. She is a contributing editor at The Site Magazine.

  • Text: Tatum Dooley