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New York Fashion Week Is Broken: Here’s How To Fix It

The twice-a-year extravaganza still drips will glamour, but fashion insiders are finding new ways to improve it for the digital age.

Last Thursday morning, while employers all over New York instructed staff to work from home because of the blizzard that had descended on the city, fashion editors, buyers, and bloggers showed up en masse at Clarkson Square and Madison Square Garden. Not easily deterred by weather, they put on their sturdiest stilettos and scaled snow banks to attend the first day of New York Fashion Week 2017. “It didn’t impact our turnout one bit,” says Cat Bennett, managing director of fashion events at IMG, the company that produces runway shows for a third of the designers, including A-listers like Jeremy Scott, Prabal Gurung, and Oscar de la Renta. “Of course, in the background, my team and I were having a collective heart attack.” But as Bennett points out, even when snow isn’t fluttering down (and spoiling attendees’ blowouts), New York Fashion Week is always an enormous, coronary-inducing undertaking.

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In the ’90s, it was strictly an industry event that involved a handful of key American designers—among them, Calvin Klein, Michael Kors, Donna Karen, and Ralph Lauren. Fast forward to 2017: 230,000 members of the fashion industry and the general public will attend as many as 218 unveilings of individual collections over seven days. That doesn’t even include smaller gatherings that take place simultaneously, like Harlem Fashion Week and Small Boutique Fashion Week.

For those attending, those seven days require crisscrossing the city to catch one show after another. And for all this frantic rushing around, many people often feel disappointed that they didn’t get to see everything they’d hoped. “It is a grind, and by that I mean 18-hour days,” says Frank Zambrelli, who spent the last three decades designing for Chanel, Coach, and Judith Leiber before launching a bespoke handbag company, 1Atelier. “There’s a genuine lack of consolidation now that once used to exist. It’s become a tornado.”

Veronica Kerzner, founder of Style Fashion Week, a separate event that puts together shows for emerging designers during the same week as NYFW, concurs. “You go through all of this chaos—the snow, the hoards of people—for an 11-minute show. Then you get up, you leave, and you go across to another part of the city to do it all over again.”

For a sense of how enormous New York Fashion Week has become, consider this: The twice-annual affairs, in February and September, generate $900 million for New York City, according to an economic report prepared by Congress. NYFW has a greater economic impact than the U.S. Open (which brings in $700 million), the Super Bowl ($500 million), and the New York City Marathon ($340 million).

Even though it’s a cash cow for the city, there’s a growing sense that Fashion Week isn’t working. For one thing, the event’s raison d’être has fundamentally changed. It began as a way for designers to show their collections to buyers and fashion editors six months before the clothes would appear in stores. But the internet has disrupted this calendar. These days, presentations are often live-streamed, and designers are increasingly adopting the “see now, buy now” model, making their collections available online or in shops immediately following shows. The audience for the presentations has changed, too. Rather than serving as a trade show for industry insiders, they’ve morphed into glitzy, celebrity-heavy spectacles to create buzz for brands. “When I was at Chanel in the late ’80s, Karl’s shows were not the carnival that they are now,” Zambrelli says. “The question is whether this is the best way to do the job.”

Since the very purpose of NYFW has changed, does the event still need to happen over seven days? Could it take place outside of New York? Should it fully adapt to the digital age? Here, industry veterans weigh in on how NYFW is being reimagined.

Models dance behind the stage at IMG’s Fashion Week event.

The Snowball Effect

To understand Fashion Week in its current form, it’s worth looking back at its original purpose. The very first iteration of New York Fashion Week as we know it began during World War II as a patriotic effort to shift the focus of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar editors away from French designers toward American ones. “Press Week,” which took place at the Pierre and Plaza hotels, was a hit and helped people like Bill Blass become household names.

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As more and more designers entered the fashion industry, they began to throw their own Press Week events all over the city at nightclubs, lofts, and restaurants. Eventually, in 1993, the Council of Fashion Designers of America decided it was time to consolidate the shows into a single venue: Bryant Park. (Lincoln Center was added later; most shows now take place at Clarkson Square and Madison Square Garden.) “It was an efficient way to show a collection,” Zambrelli says. “As a buyer or an editor, you could see everything you needed to over the course of seven shows a day, for four or five days. It was all very civilized.”

Back in the ’90s and the early 2000s, runway shows hadn’t changed much since Coco Chanel presented her collections to customers and a few members of the press a hundred years earlier. “They were, essentially, trade shows,” Bennett says.

Fifteen years ago, consumers still had to wait six months before looks would appear in magazines and in boutiques. “The shows were really created to give insiders an early view,” says Karen Harvey, a consultant and talent spotter for top fashion houses. “It was about getting the heads of fashion at Neiman Marcus, Barney’s, Selfridges, and Harrods excited about what was to come so they could get their buyers prepared.”

All of that has changed. First, fast fashion brands like H&M, Zara, and Topshop entered the scene and started churning out cheaper versions of runway looks so that by the time high-fashion collections arrived in stores, their impact was dulled. Technology also entered the equation. Fashion bloggers started posting reviews and photos immediately after the shows. Then, in an effort to retake control, brands and designers began streaming shows on their social media channels, opening the once exclusive event to the entire world. Fashion houses can now speak to consumers directly, bypassing magazines, department stores, and even bloggers.

In other words, everything about Fashion Week has changed—except the increasingly outdated, nearly 80-year-old convention of presenting the clothes themselves. “The new innovations are happening on top of the old model and framework,” Bennett says. “It’s morphing, but not totally transforming.”

The catwalk at Style Fashion Week

New Models

And yet . . . We’re beginning to see signs of transformation on the horizon. Increasingly, designers are eschewing the traditional six-months-in-advance calendar and making their collections available for retail purchase right away. Last year Tom Ford showed his collection at an intimate dinner at the Four Seasons. While guests were enjoying the show, the very same products were already in stores, ready to go on sale the next day. Rebecca Minkoff, Tommy Hilfiger, Burberry, Vêtements, and Thakoon have all presented versions of the “see now, buy now” concept.

Not all designers can afford to do this, however. As Bennett points out, the new model places the burden on the designer to identify and manufacture garments that they are confident will sell. Traditionally, it was the buyer who placed orders based on a limited number of samples and paid for the production of the collection in advance, taking on the financial risk. “It’s much harder for smaller or newer labels to play this game,” she says.

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But across the industry, runway shows are being reconfigured to place the consumer—rather than the buyer or editor—in the front row. The point is to entice the consumer to purchase outfits, sometimes from an inventory that has already been produced. “The benefit of a show still is the immediate reach that you have,” says Zambrelli. “A single piece—an accessory or a shoe or a dress—can continue to have a life on social media for days. It’s an incredible asset in terms of promotional activity and consumer engagement.”

Fashion brands are putting more creativity into entertainment at shows, incorporating music and audience engagement in new ways. Last season, Rebecca Minkoff presented her collection outside, in front of her Soho store. The event turned into a street party, with attendees dancing to the beats of a DJ. The show was live-streamed on Minkoff’s website, and people could buy the new clothes at the boutique and online. Meanwhile, Tommy Hilfiger took over Manhattan’s South Street Seaport, where he created a carnival, complete with a Ferris wheel, food tents, and a record store. A runway was set up for the show, and items from his collaboration with Gigi Hadid were available for purchase.

“It’s more than ‘see now, buy now,'” says Harvey. “They’re creating an explosive event. They’re thinking about how you can engage with your customer directly and sell product in a more interesting way.”

This season, both Minkoff and Hilfiger sat out NYFW altogether, opting to take their party concepts to L.A.: Minkoff staged an outdoor show at the Grove shopping center, while Hilfiger set up a fair in Venice Beach. Meanwhile, Opening Ceremony is also avoiding this week’s Manhattan madness in favor of partnering with the New York City Ballet on a show at the end of February. Rag & Bone skipped the runway altogether and opened an exhibition of Polaroid photographs of the collection to the public.

To Harvey, these are all glimpses into Fashion Week’s future–which is to say, it will no longer be one unified experience that happens in one place or at one point in time. “Is Fashion Week still relevant?” she asks. “I think as we know it, from the past, it’s not.”

Runway images from IMG’s Fashion Week event

Change Drivers

IMG’s Cat Bennett is constantly working with designers to come up with creative approaches to shows. “What we’re finding now is that the way that designers want to present their collections to audiences—from buyers to editors to the entire world—is becoming a personal decision,” she says. “It’s completely different for everybody, from soup to nuts. Our job is to give designers as many different tools as possible to be able to do that.”

Some create unique pieces of digital content every month. Others set up pop-up shops to offer consumers an opportunity to buy some of the items presented on the runway. IMG recently acquired Made Fashion Week, a platform for emerging designers, and has been throwing hybrid celebrations that emphasize music and art so that it feels more like a festival.

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Veronica Kerzner founded Style Fashion Week in 2011 as an alternative to the types of traditional shows that IMG produces. Her goal was to reimagine Fashion Week from the ground up, to scrap elements that weren’t working and improve on those that were. Her organization began as L.A.’s official fashion week, but it has evolved to include presentations in New York, Palm Springs, and Dubai throughout the year. This year, Style Fashion Week’s shows took place at the Theater at Madison Square Garden and largely showcased up-and-coming labels. Often, multiple designers will present their collections back-to-back to the same audience. NYFW, on the other hand, herds attendees in and out of presentation halls over and over, all day long. “The idea is for these designers to work together and share their networks,” Kerzner says. “Whether the designer is looking to meet with buyers or sell to consumers or just generate brand awareness, we ensure that we have all these different facets so they can achieve their goals. But importantly, it’s done in a way that is really fun.”

For Kerzner, this means creating an event that takes into account the needs of the consumer as well as the needs of the industry. At her events, there are two distinct zones outside the main runway hall: a marketplace for buyers to see products and interact with editors, and another area for the general public to relax between shows. Audience members often stay for several hours or an entire day, so a welcoming ambiance is important. Last Thursday, for instance, violinist Miri Ben-Ari performed between shows to break up the day.

Still, no amount of innovative change is going to make the old-school approach to unveiling collections obsolete overnight. Every day, Bennett meets designers who spent their childhoods dreaming of their first runway show—the chance to find their place on a timeline with Coco Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, and other great names from fashion history. Often, emerging talent simply wants the fairy tale: the classy venue, the bright lights, the rows of seats filled by influential members of the fashion community, the opportunity to walk on stage, greeted by applause.

“Even though it’s totally not working on a million levels for most people, we’re seeing that the runway show is far from dead,” Bennett says. “It’s still magical in that moment when you’re sitting in the dark, then the lights come on and the models come out. There’s still that special feeling that overtakes you. I don’t think that’s ever going to go away.”

About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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