At 9:30 a.m. last Thursday, Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week's opening day, Cosmo's Carly Cardellino first spotted the trend. "My first backstage fashion week parting gift: Njoy cigarettes!" she tweeted. Adding, "WHAT?!"
The next morning, New York's Kurt Soller listed NJOY e-cigarettes as one of the "13 Awesome Moments from Day One of Fashion Week." Later, The New York Times posted a glammed-up photograph of a stunning, red-lipped woman exhaling nicotine e-vapor in the courtyard at Lincoln Center (the publication reports that she's an NJOY rep). Soon, BryanBoy was Instagramming shots of himself "vaping" in high style at FashionIndie's Socialyte Gala (hashtag #njoyment).
By the time NJOY appeared as a sponsor at Prabal Gurung's well-attended runway after-party, the brand's status as a Fashion Week staple was secure.
Writing about his experience backstage for theFashionSpot, Wilhelmina's Social Media Director, Damien Neva, bristled against the prevalence of e-cigs at the shows (he had encountered two NJOY reps backstage at Richard Chai): "I am not going to enter a debate about the sliding scale of unhealth of methods of nicotine delivery, but rather will say that if it looks like a cigarette, then it ought not be pushed on young models."
Neva noted that e-cigarettes had also appeared at Fashion Week last season, and he'd alerted the Model Alliance and CFDA. "Following this latest incident," he wrote, "the [Model Alliance] promised to address the matter in its next model talk."
When we reached out, founder Sara Ziff told us that although the organization did not promise to address the issue at an upcoming event, they were opposed to NJOY's Fashion Week sponsorship: "The Model Alliance does not support the availability of e-cigarettes at NYFW."
"When Damien contacted us again via Twitter this week, I personally went to Lincoln Center to have a word with the two people who were handing them out by the backstage exit. They said they were sponsors, and although they said they were checking IDs before handing out the e-cigarettes, I saw them handing them out to models without checking ID.
One model (who is not a member) complained last season about this problem via Instagram. Our social media coordinator asked her to file an official complaint to Model Alliance Support, but she did not follow up. Twitter and Instagram are not the appropriate channels to report a problem, and there is a limit to what I can do personally if no models actually report the problem to the Model Alliance.
We ask that any model who wants to report this, or any other problem, become member of the Model Alliance and contact our Model Alliance Support service (Support@ModelAlliance.org) so we can try to help."
Later, she added: "I brought this issue to the Board's attention and we've decided to post an information piece on our website with facts about the health consequences of e-cigarettes."
In April 2012, NJOY e-cigarettes announced that it had received a $20 million investment from Catterton Partners, a private equity firm with holdings in Kettle Chips, Odwalla, Frederic Fekkai and Sweet Leaf Tea. A year later, shortly after they had executed their first Fashion Week sponsorship, the brand scored a coup with a ballsy video ad starring Courtney Love (the project was spearheaded by PR consultant and former Company of We designer, Jayzel Samonte).
I spoke with NJOY's Chief Marketing Officer, Andrew Beaver, about the company's participation in Fashion Week. He confirmed that NJOY has had a "financial relationship as a sponsor with IMG [the firm which organizes NYFW] for the past two seasons," but was not participating at the level afforded to marquee-level sponsors like Tresemme or American Express. He stated that the sampling team, hired by event marketing firm Factory 360, was "only sampling in areas where people smoke and not sampling anywhere inside Lincoln Center."
When I pressed him, noting that representatives were seen distributing e-cigarettes backstage at Richard Chai and at Prabal Gurung's after-party, Beaver explained that his company had arranged a relationship with various designers directly.
"All the public spaces are IMG spaces," he said, but when designers lease areas of Lincoln Center for their shows, they are free to bring in brands independently. "I've known Prabal for a decade," he added, "and he was happy to sample our product for adult guests."
He emphasized that his team had worked closely with Factory 360 to implement strict protocols about checking IDs: "We don't sample to anyone who's not a smoker. We ask if they smoke and if they say no, we move on. We use a very professional sampling agency, so we don't harass them or anything."
When asked whether NJOY products might be a hazard in an environment teeming with impressionable young models, Beaver said, "If you're model and you're over 18, then you're an adult. If you're under 18, we have absolutely no interest and we don't sample to them."
He acknowledged that there is a "heightened sensitivity in the area of cigarettes," which is why his company is serious about operating in a way that's entirely above board. "We don't take this lightly. When I saw your email this morning [asking for a comment in response to allegations that NJOY representatives were seen distributing cigarettes at NYFW without checking IDs], I called the head of my sampling agency and asked, 'Is everyone crystal clear on this? And if they're not, they'll be fired.'"
(model vaping backstage at Timo Weiland)