New York Fashion Week is facing major changes.


Why? Does it all matter? What’s the point?

Questions of deep existential import? Nah — at least not as posed here. Who has the time or emotional bandwidth to ponder the deeper reaches of the human condition with a month-plus of fashion shows already under way?

This story first appeared in the February 8, 2017 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Here, those questions reference New York Fashion Week. They trigger ample conversation, the multiple and diverse answers indicating that any definitive take on the biggest question — the why — is elusive indeed.

To note that the shows have changed is hardly a bulletin. Once upon a time, they consisted of a tidily scheduled lineup of events slated by participating fashion houses for the singular purpose of revealing their next season’s lines to retailers and long-lead press as well as trade vehicles and a handful of consumer newspapers.

At that time, the collections displayed a wellspring of creativity, the purest, most distilled expression of each house’s creative vision. (“Brand” was too harsh and clinical a term for fashion back then.) How times have changed, particularly in New York, where the Show System has gone through seismic revamping over the decade or so, for the better or for the haphazard worse, depending upon to whom you speak.

There are many reasons for the upheaval, but two stand out as primary. First, the growth of the industry here has outpaced that in Milan and Paris in terms of the numbers of new participants who have rushed in. While the burgeoning of London rivals New York in terms of relative growth, it remains a smaller market with a Show System that was always a bit of the Wild West. Secondly, the explosion of new media that has changed everything forever, but not neatly. In fashion, it has created whole new constituencies — the bloggers and influencers who have become essential to the fashion process — who in turn have stoked the interest of consumers, who now want instant access, not only to the news of fashion as it breaks on the runways, but to the fashion itself.

Or so say many retailers and designers, fueling the instant fashion phenomenon. Numerous houses have, in a short time, made instant delivery core to their brand messages, some seeming to prioritize the when of the arrival at retail over the what. Others adhere to the traditional schedule, maintaining that the lead-time is necessary to full development of the creative process and subsequent adaptation of that process into commercial reality. If there’s a common refrain, it’s that each brand must do what its creative and commercial heads deem right for its specific circumstance. True enough. But now, with so many brands going in different directions, figuratively and literally, the collective point of NYFW is becoming hazy and the collective process, unwieldy. There remains a vague structure rooted in the traditional communal mind-set, but the participants are not at all of a like mind.

“I am mostly in a go-with-the-flow mode on these topics as it seems to be an open buffet,” says public relations maestro Pierre Rougier.

Go with the flow indeed. “Without a doubt, the era of the one-size-fits-all show is over, and we need to let the dust settle to see what lies ahead,” concurs Rachna Shah, a longtime executive at KCD, recently elevated to partner. Shah acknowledges that the prolonged fashion seasons in aggregate, and NYFW in particular, “transition as brands determine what the best way to show their collections is — in season, on a runway, in one city, live or digitally — these are all elements that brands are considering or experimenting with. And a lot of exciting fashion moments are coming from this experimentation.”

For Opening Ceremony’s Carol Lim and Humberto Leon, that meant an offbeat event last week, well before the official opening of the season. They invited fashion guests to a performance of the New York City Ballet’s “The Times Are Racing.” Leon designed the ballet’s costumes, and they in turn inspired the buy-now spring 2017 collection.

Others embrace fashion expatriation. Rodarte’s Laura and Kate Mulleavy and Proenza Schouler’s Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez have decided to up and leave for Paris. The Mulleavys will forgo a fall 2017 show altogether and will hold market appointments in Paris; the Proenza guys retain their spot on the New York fall schedule. The pair will head to the City of Light in July to present their spring collections early, while basking in the reflected glory of haute. That’s the trans-Atlantic migration. This season has seen movement in the opposite direction as well, chipping away at the “NY” of NYFW. Los Angeles became the Promised Land du Jour for a number of contemporary brands: Rachel Comey, Rachel Zoe and Raquel Allegra all showed fall collections there this past week. Also headed west was Rebecca Minkoff, who showed spring. On Feb. 4, she took over The Grove for a day of activities in advance of what she described to WWD as “by far our largest show we’ve ever done…

“We’ve invited the entire world, basically,” Minkoff said, referencing the 1,500-strong crowd, about two-thirds of whom were consumers.

Tommy Hilfiger’s competitive adrenaline must have pulsed; he’s reportedly invited 2,000 consumers to his show, scheduled for Feb. 8 at Venice Beach. It will be his second huge consumer-facing TommyNow event, following last season’s extravaganza at Pier 16 in New York. “We’re constantly pushing boundaries to further democratize the runway and get closer to our consumers, and in the future, I can imagine staging our shows in a different city each season, including New York…” Hilfiger says. “Consumers have always been at the heart of my business, and our mission is to be the most democratic brand on the runway.”

Yet democracy isn’t for everyone. Call it intimacy or elitism, a number of designers are thinking small.  While over years Marc Jacobs has embraced the concept of fashion show as theatrical extravaganza; this season, he’s opting for a quieter approach and a smaller scale. This includes a no-cell phones mandate. This inspired by Prince, who issued a similar directive before commencing a concert Jacobs attended shortly before the performer’s death.

“We’ve committed to the Armory so we’ve got the Armory,” Jacobs says. “But we’re going to really get this guest list down. I’m going to show a lot less, very different than last season, which is no different than I usually do. I don’t even want the media or the TV or the video or the pictures in the room. I just want the people who I think should be looking at clothes, looking at clothes. That’s the plan.”

Jacobs adds that while this approach might prove a one-season whim, right now, he wants to “somehow have boundaries and decide how [the show] is seen.”

Other designers express similar sentiments. “I don’t want to do big shows,” says Derek Lam. “I think all this change gives a lot of people permission to do what they feel.”

Last season, Lam eschewed his typical show — which itself was on the small side, relatively speaking — for a presentation, which he will do again for fall. “I’m trying to do a more intimate show, where it’s just about retailers and a few key editors.”

With all of this reevaluation in play, many designers still find the shows worth it. Unlike some younger designers, Joseph Altuzarra focuses on the medium’s traditional purpose, pre-instant fashion and social media hype. “I feel that the purpose of NYFW is to show my work to editors, buyers and stakeholders on a seasonal basis and to this day, I feel that it continues to fulfill this purpose,” he says.

Tory Burch, too, is thinking small and considers a NYFW presence essential. “I keep thinking about the idea of ‘less is more’ across all areas of our business,” she says. “That said, a fashion show during NYFW is invaluable to us as it gives us the opportunity to show the global market the breadth of our collection.”

On the audience side, the explosion of new media ushered in a whole new era of show going, and a juxtaposition of purpose that has sometimes pitted new and traditional media against each other. Yet now, some new media types who have been around for a while are starting to sound quite traditionalist. “The circus of fashion week has gotten so out of control, I dread walking into a show,” says Tina Craig, founder of Bagsnob.com. “The fashion industry as a whole needs to stop catering to the ‘I’m very cool’ crowd, the ‘It’ girls and the street style [set]. I’m sorry. They don’t influence me to buy a $4,000 bag or a $10,000 outfit. They don’t influence the real luxury consumer, the woman who’s paying full price.”

For magazines and their editors in chief, show attendance has long been both business requirement and essential source of editorial inspiration. While Harper’s Bazaar’s Glenda Bailey considers it a “privilege to view fashion shows at the highest level,” she acknowledges the often miserable logistics, particularly in New York, with so many shows in lower Manhattan — which can mean a three-hour-plus round trip from the Hearst Tower for a single show. “I’m actually embracing the presentation opportunity,” Bailey notes of an option gaining favor among some designers, “because I so relish being able to talk to the designer and being able to feel the clothes. We cover as much as we possibly can, but it’s almost impossible to be able to get around to all of the shows.” For her, flexibility and a can-do spirit are key, whether that means previewing a collection when she can’t make the show or, when she can, running backstage afterward to put dibs on a potential cover look.

W’s Stefano Tonchi is less optimistic. “Let’s face it, in an age of changes and disruption when everything moves so fast, what stands out is probably [those brands] with stronger roots and more tradition. Milan and Paris become more important because they have companies that have incredible tradition and also incredible presence in the market — Dior, Armani, Louis Vuitton, Prada.” He maintains that at this moment of confusion, New York lacks fashion gravitas, suffering from a dense calendar overloaded with too much of too little fashion significance.

Retailers in particular feel the time constraints of the New York schedule. “I don’t think that we’re going to go back to a time where it’s very formulaic,” says Bergdorf Goodman’s Josh Schulman. “Each brand is finding what’s right for them….The reality is from a retail perspective, the real work happens in the showroom regardless of where the show the spectacle happens. Often, the showrooms are in different cities than the shows themselves. We use the fashion weeks as sort of an anchor to see as many vendors as possible and be a part of the community, and we can do that in different places.”

Ditto, Ruth Chapman of Matchesfashion. She notes that the length of NYFW makes adequate coverage a challenge for her staff. “Really, for our buyers, the focus isn’t just shows but more key showrooms — the ones where you actually spend dollars,” she says.

“Increasingly, I feel brands should consider alternatives to the runway and think about innovative ideas to get their message across — i.e. film, more investment in imagery, a more targeted approach to who they actually want to sell to in terms of stockists. Brands really need to play to their DNA so we understand their point of difference and they convey their brand philosophy more.”

Man Repeller’s Leandra Medine’s take is not all that different. She attends shows “looking for a larger story — a comment on our culture, a sign of the times,” and thinks that in-person observation is the best route to that discovery. Yet, from a practical standpoint, Medine questions the necessity of mass attendance at NYFW and other shows. “A condition of social media is that every person has a megaphone and the ability to cultivate a community around their interests…” she says. “Maybe that’s exactly why we’re seeing so many versions of how and where and when to do a fashion show. Instead of assuming we all have to jump on board and participate in these mediums, maybe it would serve us to think more clearly about what content will best serve our communities.”

So, too, are fashion brands trying to figure out how best to serve their communities — the industry and ultimately, their consumers. Resolution is unlikely to come with 20/20 clarity, if at all. Yet, even as the concept of the mega consumer-facing show gains steam (albeit among the limited number of brands that can afford to do it well), inklings of counterpoint have started to percolate. Diane von Furstenberg, the Godmother of American Fashion who from her long-tenured leadership of the CFDA has overseen and nurtured its expansion for years, calls the current swirl of ideas and approaches across fashion a tsunami, a storm as unpredictable as it is volatile.

“We don’t know where we’re going. Everyone is in a moment of crisis,” she says. Yet she predicts if not a full-on return to simpler times, then at least a clarification of purpose. “I think the big fashion show will be more consumer-driven,” von Furstenberg says. “And for the trade and for the experts in the fashion, it will be more intimate. It may go back to that.”

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