Meryl Streep at Baby Phat?

"And what was Clive Owen doing at Miss Sixty in September? Does he even know what Miss Sixty is?" Illustration by Christopher Kasch.

Imagine settling into your hard-won spot at a Proenza Schouler show, only to see a disheveled Courtney Love posing for photographers in the front row. Or arriving at Alexander Wang and bumping into a scowling Bea Arthur as she makes her way toward a seat. Aside from wanting to applaud Bea for her timeless work on The Golden Girls, you’d probably suspect you’d fallen through the looking glass; those designer-celebrity pairings are about as natural as steak and gasoline. And yet, considering the illogical turn that celebrity attendance has taken at Fashion Week recently, that’s about what we’re expecting to see next.

No one is naïve enough to believe stars hit the tents purely for the love of clothes. It’s more of a symbiotic relationship: celebrity cachet for the designer, free clothes and flashbulbs for the star. But once upon a time, the union of fame and fashion had logic to it. Mischa Barton gracing Marc Jacobs’s front row made her seem style-savvy and him look hip to today’s crazy kids, while Julianne Moore at Calvin Klein lent the brand a certain gravitas and her some press about something besides her incredibly depressing movie roles. Suddenly, though, the gravy train is careening off the rails. We understand Rachel Weisz supporting Narciso Rodriguez because she routinely wears his clothes, but we snicker when sloppy-chic Maggie Gyllenhaal pops up at preppy Tommy Hilfiger and spends the entire show looking queasy, as she did in February. And what was Clive Owen doing at Miss Sixty in September? Does he even know what Miss Sixty is? Those pairings are as rational as asking Ellen Page to show up at Badgley Mischka wearing hot pants and a feather boa.

Somewhere, the celebrities, designers, or both, seemingly stopped considering whether their association even makes sense; the subsequent mismatches dilute the effect of inviting a famous face in the first place. For example, mall-rat-friendly Miss Sixty should’ve reached for a clueless starlet-in-search-of-style who might feasibly be coaxed into entering one of its stores—a girl like Miley Cyrus, perhaps. Instead, the label handed its fall 2008 front row to the proudly avant-garde trio of Chloë Sevigny, Ashley Olsen, and Milla Jovovich, all sporting facial expressions indicating they wouldn’t wear those clothes even if they were starring in The Amazing Adventures of a Miss Sixty Model.

That’s where the strategy backfires: It’s too overtly a marriage of financial convenience. In previous years, the notion of paying for front-row star power was whispered about in hushed tones, usually reserved for admitting you just ate a cheeseburger with the bun, but now the practice is loudly, openly discussed because it’s just so obvious. When the front row of the Sunday-morning Hervé Léger show reads like a Vanity Fair “Young Hollywood” issue—Ginnifer Goodwin, Mandy Moore, Amy Smart, all shoehorned into bright bandage dresses—there’s clearly more in it for them than a chance to have their panty lines compromised by skintight horizontal stripes. A lot more. But attending random shows just for the money risks damaging a star’s brand and wrecks the designer’s cred by making him look desperate. Surely slipping Sevigny a fat pile of cash to take a ten-minute nap at your show isn’t really worth the ensuing press about how ridiculous and nonsensical her presence was in the first place.

It has us wondering where this slippery slope will end. Paris Hilton filing her nails at Oscar de la Renta? Dakota Fanning fawning over Rock & Republic? Catherine Deneuve and Meryl Streep whooping it up at Baby Phat? We’re not suggesting designers denude front rows of famous faces—heaven forbid! But they need to reconsider cutting the checks with some semblance of common sense. Because Anna Wintour should never find herself gazing across the Vera Wang runway at twenty Deal or No Deal girls and realize she’s the cheaper date.

Meryl Streep at Baby Phat?