By  on April 22, 2010

Milan has one. Paris has one. A lot of people think it’s high time New York had one, too — a dedicated men’s fashion week, that is.

“I’ve been a member of the CFDA for 10 years and we’ve been trying to figure out how to do that for 10 years,” said designer John Varvatos of creating a dedicated New York men’s fashion week. “If we’re going to try it, we have a better shot today than ever before, because we have a bigger design contingent.”

Currently the industry settles for a small share of New York Fashion Week, held in February and September and dominated by women’s wear. The men’s collections shown in February are relatively close to the European shows in January. The problem is September, nearly three months after the men’s shows in Milan and Paris.

The chief complaint from designers is that the timing in September is all wrong for driving business.

“I love showing in New York, and I showed there primarily,” said Varvatos, who used to mount the city’s biggest and most celebrity-attended men’s show before he took to showing in Milan three seasons ago. “The reality for us is the men’s market opens in Milan the week of June 20, and the New York shows aren’t until September.”

By then, American designers who manufacture in Europe can no longer take spring orders. For contemporary labels that manufacture in developing countries, there may be more flexibility. Given their druthers, designers at all levels prefer to make their statement on the runway before letting buyers into the showroom.

“So how do you get the best value for all that you spend on a show? It’s a ton of time and money. There’s very little value for showing in the States if you’re an international brand. I would love to show in New York because it’s uncomplicated and it’s our base, but it doesn’t make sense,” said Varvatos.

Thus, despite worldwide acknowledgement of the exciting men’s design flowing out of New York in recent years, American designers with means are increasingly opting to show in Europe.

The latest is Thom Browne, who said recently he intends to show his signature collection in Paris from now on. He already wet his feet a few seasons back with a presentation at Florence’s Pitti Uomo trade fair, and shows his Moncler Gamme Bleu collection in Milan.

“I’m very proud to be an American designer,” said Browne. “But we do have to sell in a true selling season of men’s in order to get production started. Getting sales done in June and early July is really important from a production standpoint….It means getting the next collection done two months earlier, which isn’t easy. And even sooner, actually, because we have to get everything and everyone there.” But he believes it’s worth the trouble because showing in Europe not only eliminates onerous delay, it exposes designers to a more international audience than New York.

“To get the international crowd in New York, especially for men’s, is definitely harder,” agreed Tim Hamilton, who has shown in Paris twice and intends to continue. He has remained a part of New York Fashion Week by having parties and presenting his diffusion line, Redux.

“I respect the role that New York plays for emerging designers. I was part of that. But there’s too little organization. Ruth Finley [of the Fashion Calendar] will kill me for saying that, but why not be a little more selective here? Everyone complains how jam-packed the calendar is. It’s too much. That said, if there were a separate time for men’s, I would definitely consider it,” said Hamilton.

The stance of the CFDA and IMG Fashion is, frankly, if men’s designers prefer to show in Europe and are able, more power to them.

“Do you make the industry come to you, or do you go where the industry is already coalescing twice a year, which is in Europe?” Zack Eichman, vice president of communications for IMG Fashion, asked. “I understand the concern [about missing the buyers], but ultimately, fashion shows are media events. There is a contingent of buyers who need to see the directional nature of shows, but buyers make decisions in showrooms. The reason to have a show, hire models, do hair and makeup, spend all that money, is a marketing exercise.”

It wasn’t always this way. Years ago, men’s designers such as John Bartlett held shows during New York market week, in July. At one point it was even large enough to necessitate a tent, but it didn’t command much attention outside the core constituency.

When Helmut Lang moved to New York, he changed everything. In 1998, Lang said he would not wait for New York Fashion Week, which in those days came last in the order, in October. Others followed suit and New York Fashion Week was permanently moved up six weeks to September, establishing the current order of women’s fashion weeks.

Around the same time (maybe under the influence of Lang’s coed shows), a lot of American designers began inserting men’s looks into their women’s shows, thereby opening the gates for men’s generally — although the glamour and breathless urgency surrounding women’s wear tends to drown out the men’s.

Perhaps the situation warrants a different approach now that American men’s wear is held in higher regard. The number of men’s designers multiplied in the last decade, since Trovata, Cloak and Thom Browne proved men’s wear could be a vehicle to fashion stardom, however ephemeral.

“There is some interest [in a men’s fashion week] from designers, but where that would fall on the calendar, and how to make it globally relevant, is a big question mark,” said Eichman of IMG. “I don’t know if it’s necessary when there are other opportunities for men’s designers to mount shows during New York Fashion Week or in Europe. One thing IMG has learned from extensive global fashion week creation is these things have to be organic. There has to be a vital group of designers with buzz in the industry, and motivation to go and see those designers.”

Milan and Paris have dedicated fashion weeks for men’s wear every January and June, and the European capitals’ respective fashion chambers maintain official standards in an effort to shut out the untalented or irrelevant. For many European fashion houses, especially in Italy, men’s wear comprises close to half their business, and they reflect this in the high-octane shows they produce.

In New York, on the other hand, anyone sufficiently resourceful can put on a show and get on the fashion calendar,­ which is also one of the reasons the city is such a wellspring of emerging designers.

To a degree, the expense of showing in Europe siphons off the haves from the have-nots, or the have-lesses. But no designer showing in New York would cop to wanting it any other way. Some of them tout their civic pride and patriotism as deciding factors, especially if Americana forms the basis of their brand.

“I feel New York is the right context for what I’m doing,” said designer Michael Bastian. “We’re luckier than most because having it produced in Italy, we open to the retailers in June, in Brunello [Cucinelli’s] showroom during Milan Fashion Week. What ends up happening is selling shuts down in August, then we show, and a lot of accounts come back and want to add things that came down the runway, and it’s actually too late. So we do pay a price. And it’s weird because we have to keep the collection under wraps from the press, but the retailers have already seen it.”

When he was fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman Men, Bastian sometimes didn’t bother staying in town for the New York shows. “Which was kind of pathetic, in retrospect,” he said. “But we had already done the buys. And at the time, there weren’t that many men’s shows. That was a reason I jumped in here, that void. Now I’m resolute that I will stay here. Whatever effect it has on my business, I accept. I think it’s important to stand up and be part of New York. What I’m doing should be seen in the context of others with this American point of view. It would be weird to show between Dolce & Gabbana and Roberto Cavalli — that’s another planet.”

Duckie Brown’s Daniel Silver and Steven Cox affirmed their commitment, as well.

“Duckie Brown is a New York company. This is our base and we’re here to support New York. You can’t keep taking from the city and not give back. We feel it’s our responsibility to support New York fashion. If we’re going to make our living here, we should show here. Everyone thinks the grass is always greener, and maybe it is, but it feels right for us to be here. We showed in Milan once, and it helped with sales there, but it was also difficult because of the big guns that are there. You’re up against Armani and Prada and Dolce. Anyway, it seems a lot of people who show there still show here, as well. Or they end up coming back, I suppose to garner favor with the press and be part of the machinery that garners them whatever they think they can get.

“We all know there’s something special and interesting happening in New York, in the last five years, with the explosion of these men’s wear labels,” added Cox. “But I do think without big guns, you don’t have a chance of getting foreign press here. People will say they don’t want to fly here twice.”

As Cox alluded, New York now keeps faith in a seemingly endless supply of new faces and fresh talent. Which is why some parties want to reinforce New York Fashion Week, not flee it — especially young designers still enjoying the first blush of validation.

“I think it would be good to reserve the first two days of fashion week just for men’s wear and promote it as a separate event,” said designer Robert Geller.

The first days of New York Fashion Week already are front-loaded with men’s shows, but making it official could have some symbolic effect.

“For me, there’s actually something nice about doing my men’s and women’s collections simultaneously,” said Richard Chai, who has shown his contemporary men’s collection in New York since its initial Paris launch. “What’s beautiful about New York Fashion Week is the hustle and bustle. I get to wear two different hats and it’s fun for me.”

Chai shows men’s by itself, but designers who show men’s and women’s together might agree with him and support the status quo, to avoid increasing production expenses.

“Again, unless there’s a real demand for it, it would be a difficult thing to build, because you wouldn’t be guaranteed the right designers would participate,” said Steven Kolb, executive director of the CFDA. “How would you layer marquee names with the emerging designers so it’s fully representative? That’s been the challenge.”

Indeed. In 2008, ENK International and IMG Fashion wrangled four or five relatively unknown labels to show during men’s market week in January and July, on Pier 92, adjacent to ENK’s trade show, and dubbed it Men’s Fashion Week. The effort never gained traction and was dropped.

Jim Moore of GQ attended those shows and applauded the efforts of all involved.

“I think the intentions were great, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be tied into a trade show. It needs to be its own 7th on Sixth moment. I think the spirit of that event was great, but attaching to the trade show might not [appeal to major designers]. We need a couple of headliners to draw in the foreign press, and then it could be a perfect storm. There definitely is an impressive roster of designers to work from.”

ENK wants to give the project another whirl. “We are in the planning stages of reigniting a dedicated men’s fashion week,” said Elyse Kroll, founder and chairman of ENK, which, it so happens, is owned by IMG. “I believe we were ahead of our time. There’s never been a moment like now for men’s wear in New York. There’s a proliferation of new talent and they need a platform. It can include fashion shows, presentations and trade shows. We’re working on it and we’ll make announcements in a few weeks,” she said.

Naturally, trade show organizers want to be associated with any dedicated men’s week.

“A lot of Capsule designers would like a runway,” said Edina Silver of BPMW, which runs the Capsule trade show. “You need a title sponsor, and for IMG or CFDA to get behind it, and one or two awesome designers to headline it. If they had all that, everyone else would come around. There’s definitely enough people in town for trade shows to come see the shows. And it would only help the city establish itself further as a fashion capital and men’s wear capital. It’s a shame that we’re losing great designers to other cities.”

Kolb, for one, cheers the fact that the city produces designers who can hold their own in Europe.

“When these Americans go to Paris or Milan, I don’t think it’s stripping any Americanism. In fact, it’s something that serves us proud because it puts us in the middle of those markets in a very American way. There’s something to be proud of,” he said.

But another contingent wants to see those departures stanched before the New York scene loses critical mass.

To be clear, the vast majority of Americans do show in New York, where the last installment of shows, in February, featured at least 50 men’s collections. And they have always drifted back and forth. When Donna Karan Collection used to have men’s, it was shown in Milan at times. And Ralph Lauren almost never shows men’s wear, favoring showroom appointments instead, but he showed Purple Label in Milan in 2002.

Calvin Klein Collection showed in Milan for all of the Italo Zucchelli era until 2009. Now it shows in New York in February and Milan in June, an effective solution from its perspective.

There is speculation Marc Jacobs will soon start showing men’s, and will do so in Milan. President Robert Duffy once revealed plans to do just that, and after the plans were derailed, Italy’s Staff International bought the men’s license.

Jacobs showing in Italy would be another major American designer indicating the action for men’s is not in New York. And there lies the crux of the issue: For a New York men’s fashion week to gain impetus, there needs to be some heavy hitters.

“It would take a few marquee names to shift their shows to a dedicated men’s week for the rest to follow suit,” admitted Marcus Wainwright of Rag & Bone.

Still, there’s always that possibility — and the plethora of up-and-coming men’s labels in Manhattan is only increasing the pressure for a dedicated men’s week.

As Moore said: “It’s not as much of a pipe dream as it used to be.”

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