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Remember when dates were what you wanted on Saturday nights?
This story first appeared in the December 22, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
In fashion, the dates now mean one thing. Wherever two or more industry people are gathered, it’s likely that, sooner or later, the divisive topic of show dates, specifically the disputed terms of the “second-Thursday agreement” that has for the last three years determined when the shows start and end in New York, London, Milan and Paris, will be in hot debate.
After months of talks, there’s still no solution. Organizers in the first three cities thought détente had been achieved. That fell apart last week when the Chambre Syndicale sent formal notification that its members voted unanimously to stick to their previously determined dates for 2013 and 2014. That prompted Diane von Furstenberg to send Didier Grumbach and Mario Boselli a letter in which she made the essential point that New York, London, Milan and Paris are not four separate, independent entities but one long fashion train with four stops. The organizers of those cities must work together, she wrote, and “we all must be unified.”
“There’s no one to blame,” Diane said on Tuesday. “The one thing I’d like to accomplish, whatever happens, is that we all look at it as the same fashion season.”
DVF makes compelling use of a basic fact of astronomy: Assuming the continuance of the second-Thursday New York start (in fact, whether the agreement was reached in perpetuity or for three years is subject to interpretation), the rotation of the calendar will benefit different cities at different times. Past years have benefited Europe by way of earlier starts, the better to facilitate production; the immediate future would benefit the U.S., giving a bit more of a Labor Day holiday. Sound reasonable? Not to Paris, where the houses voted unanimously against shifting, effectively putting the kibosh on the presumed agreement. The saga continues.
Maybe, however, the dates dilemma merely obscures the real problem, that fashion is, if not victim of its own success (fashion folk make poor victims), then at least trapped in its choke hold. Maybe the reality of today’s industry no longer jibes with the once tidy flow of shows from city to city. No one who attends the shows, regardless of residence, talks about the dates without moaning in short order that the calendar is just too long. Paris could be shortened by a day. Milan has ebbed and flowed from a dragged-out nine days to a breathless three, settling into what seems a reasonable seven. London gets squeezed. The most egregiously long run: New York.
The New York season officially starts on a Thursday but really gets going off-calendar on the Wednesday, continuing full-throttle through the following Thursday. Really full, with a 9 a.m. show or presentation and 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. shows every night (except for the closing Thursday night). My unofficial count for last season puts the total at 294, 322 including Wednesday. Thursday to Thursday, that’s an average of 36.75 shows a day. When last I checked, the day still had 24 hours, some of which are supposed to be for sleep. We all know that from a creative standpoint many shows — perhaps a full half of the New York schedule — have no reason to exist. That conversation tends to focus on younger types “not yet ready to show.” But putting the onus for the overstuffed days on the upstarts is unfair; there are just as many established companies who show for no apparent reason other than the press they’ll get. Which, in a complicating factor, is not insignificant motivation.
I’m front-and-center among those who find New York too long, with trying logistics (uptown, downtown, the endless back-and-forth). Yet here’s the rub: Even if all of the why-are-these-guys-showing types didn’t, New York offers a whole lot that’s fabulous, or potentially so, far more so than just 10 years ago. I recently saw a news report about the highway infrastructure of the United States. Some expert said that most roadways, decades old, were simply not constructed for current traffic volumes. That’s the problem with our fashion “weeks.” They — to say nothing of the solar day — were not intended to accommodate 36.75 shows on each of eight days. When the system was established, that volume would have been unthinkable.
Maybe it’s time to throw out baby with bathwater and start over. Do we need the shows? (I think yes, even though during the current pre-fall all we hear is that the clothes we’re seeing now are the really important ones; the unspoken next thought is that the runway clothes, not so much). Does everyone who currently shows need to show? (A resounding no.) How to weed out the nonessentials? (Probably impossible; some kind of fashion first amendment right-to-assemble-even-for-the-purposes-of-showing-boring-clothes thing, although the CFDA could try some strong-arming).
So what to do? “Should [New York] be punished because we have too many good people?” Diane inquired. (I think she was mocking me.) Punished — no. But the exciting explosion of American fashion talent in recent years has exacerbated the scheduling problem, leading to extending the number of days here. As Jason Wu, Joseph Altuzarra and Alex Wang were securing their must-see status, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan and Calvin Klein didn’t shutter their doors to make room.
Maybe New York should develop a schedule of deliberately concurrent shows, as many as three an hour from, say, 9 in the morning to 7 at night. Retail and edit teams would have to split up, period. Political problems would ensue, but that’s life. The schedule could potentially be cut by two days.
Diane told me runway photos are more important now than ever. Why can’t some brands, the ones who won’t rock the world with fashion, show online and distribute look-book photos, as already happens for resort and pre-fall? (The photo distribution happens; no one, to my knowledge, shows only online.)
These are mere musings, not well-thought-out or perhaps at all plausible. But in my chat with Diane, she suggested that raising issues without offering solutions isn’t helpful. So here’s my shot at starting the discussion. I’m no Copernicus, but I know that 36.75 — and counting — shows per day can only defy physics — even fashion physics — for so long.
The holidays are one time when customers most appreciate great service at retail. There are others.
My dear friend Susan Kalafut lost her husband to a heart attack a few weeks ago. While taking care of some of the essential business that accompanies death, Susan passed Stuyvesant Plaza in Albany and decided to stop in at Chico’s to look for funeral clothes. Though a fan of the retailer, she wasn’t a regular enough shopper to know her sales associate’s name, Jen, until that day. When Jen posed a cheerful, “Hi! How are you?” Sue shared her sad news and broke down. Jen and a colleague “leapt into action,” Susan e-mailed. “They were so incredibly compassionate — not to mention professional — and for a few brief moments, I felt as if I had my own stylists.” They outfitted Susan perfectly, accessories included, made liberal use of discounts and later sent a condolence card. “I cannot get over it,” Sue wrote. “I don’t know if you have any contact (at the corporate level), but if you do, please let them know there is a middle-aged widow in upstate N.Y. who will never, ever forget them.”