The Fashion Pit in Emerald City

Richard Renda in Fashion Pit (Photo by Maurice Pinzon)

By Maurice Pinzon
Although the Super Bowl and Super Tuesday voting may have obscured the usual buzz that New York Fashion Week creates, photographers and video crews inside the Bryant Park tents were still rushing from venue to venue, jostling for a position on the media riser. That space is a very exclusive piece of real estate inside the fashion tents, even by Manhattan standards. It is so valuable it is measured in inches rather than square feet and it is to a great extent managed by Richard Renda, the unofficial and some would say benevolent dictator of the fashion pit.

Fashion shows are complex and tightly-timed technical operations that last no more than 20 minutes at a cost of about $250,000 a show. The make-up, the clothes, the models and even the audience must be properly synchronized. The seemingly simple task of getting a model clothed is carried out by specialized companies whose employees are experienced enough to know that properly zipping the correct model into the correct dress is everything.

Mogul media company IMG employs its fashion division to organize what is officially known as Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. According to their website, they promise to make the fashion production possible by connecting “elite designers, top-notch sponsors, and global media with the industry’s most celebrated portfolio of fashion shows and designer fashion events.”

In an interview with New York News Network, Zach Eichman, Director of Communications for IMG Fashion added, “We’re essentially creating a venue and these kinds of general processes to accommodate a wide variety of different shows.”

Indeed, what is prepared backstage is to a great extent produced for the professional media video and still photographers in front of the runway. Fashion Week would be meaningless without the megabits of digital imagery circulating the globe in news outlets, fashion and celebrity blogs, and on the pages of newspapers and magazines.

On the ground, front and center of the media riser, is Mr. Renda, who looks like a cross between a scrappy Steven Tyler, Aerosmith’s lead singer, and a rock band roadie. He always wears a hat that reads, “Totally Cool,” which is the name of his website, totallycool.

If Woody Allen is correct in saying “eighty percent of success is showing up,” then part of Mr. Renda’s clout comes from his having been at the fashion shows since 1993, when the tents first went up in Bryant Park.

Mr. Renda walks around the different venues without reservation, as everyone associated with the fashion shows appears to know him. This reporter observed IMG staff, security guards and most photographers regularly deferring to him.

He is one of those New York characters sometimes seen at neighborhood community boards, so strongly associated with a particular issue that over time a niche of expertise is developed. These types can be exasperating but are so embedded into the fabric of the city that it would not be New York without them.

“No tripods in the front row,” Mr. Renda will shout to a photographer who has never been inside the fashion pit before. And why not listen to him? He appears to be in charge.

In one exchange observed by this reporter, Mr. Renda insisted that he could see three inches of space between a heavyset photographer and a man next to him. Mr. Renda shouted at the first photographer because he would not move even though the two men were just about sitting on each other’s laps.

With eyes that see inches and an imagination that envisions yards, Mr. Renda creates space where it is seemingly non-existent. He thrust his fist in-between the two men and said, ìIf I can put my fist there, I can squeeze another photographer inside.î When neither of the men budged, Mr. Renda threatened to call security, the ìenforcersî as he later recounted.

Mr. Eichman disputed Mr. Renda’s apparent role when questioned by this reporter. “I think that he [Richard Renda] is very vocal and that a number of people respond to him. But like I said, he has no sort of official role for being responsible for the placement of people on the media riser.”

In an interview with New York News Network, Mr. Renda explained that his 14 and a half years of videotaping the fashion shows had given him a unique perspective. He knows the regular camera crews, he has a good memory for the guys with the big egos and he can quickly pick out the inexperienced photographers. He is acquainted with the layout of the different venues. He is not shy about coaxing the photographers on the media riser – a few inches here or there in order to fit in one of the new photographers, perhaps a freelancer.

“Let us handle the pit” is Mr. Renda’s refrain to security or IMG people who attempt to resolve any disputes on the riser.

Mr. Eichman qualified Mr. Renda’s actions. “If we need to get involved then we usually mediate those situations. But we generally expect the photographers who have a fraternally amongst themselves to sort of work out most of the issues,” he said.

Mr. Renda sees his goal as benevolent. He wants to offer a chance to everyone on the media riser so that they can take an unobstructed, if not ideal shot from the pit to the runway. So before the models begin strutting, while the camera crews are still setting up, Mr. Renda surveys the riser to make sure that the main media outlets such as the Associated Press, the New York Times, Getty Images, the large foreign press agencies, and the amorphous set of ìhouseî photographers (those shooting for the designers), are all accommodated.

If he can, Mr. Renda will then try to squeeze in a fresh face. He told this reporter that he looks for people who have been at Fashion Week every day and who have worked hard. He then advises and positions them by creating one of those slots that no one else seems to see.

Mr. Renda believes that the IMG organizers have so much on their hands that they are happy to leave the job to him.

With all the sweat that goes into managing the fashion pit, Mr. Renda still has a poetic side. He believes that being in the pit is a position of privilege – one where you are both in the present and the future because you are photographing fashion that will not be made public until the upcoming season. He sees a model walking down the runway with all the cameras focused on her as a beautiful moment that has finally converged and he knows he has had a fairly important role making it happen.

“I am the key to the magic kingdom,” he said.

A place he likens to “the emerald city where,” Mr. Renda said, “you walk through life and you see all different things and then you come to this place, which is a vortex. It is where everything comes together twice a year. It is like a city in a city.”

“Do not be surprised if you’re standing in the lobby of the tent complex and you see a horse of a different color walk past you,” he added.

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