By  on May 16, 2006

Just before the fall 1996 fashion season in New York, two mega powers of the American industry got into a public tiff about the nature of the fashion show system. "I have a problem with how overblown the runway shows have become," Donna Karan told WWD. "There's too much media coverage. Why are we showing the consumer fall collections when we're still trying to sell her spring?"

"Hello," Calvin Klein shot back the next day, offended that she and Ralph Lauren had rejected the still-new 7th on Sixth tents in favor of the modesty of a showroom. "Too much press? What does she think we do this for?"

Jump ahead nine years and that exchange plays as both prescient and quaint. The recently completed spring 2006 collections featured a marching band, a freak show, burlesque, a public-service video, the reopening of a major Paris landmark and a tabloid's worth of celebrities, heavy on the B-list. Oh yes, and there were clothes, too, although not always positioned front-and-center in the hoopla.

If all that sounds like a system spinning wildly out of control—and a universe removed from the tents-or-no-tents debate waged by Klein and Karan a decade ago—it is. And suddenly, people are questioning the system, wondering if it should or could be reined in, or if it's just an industry monster, at times bubbly or bumbling, feeding on itself. Certainly anyone with more than a season or two on the circuit knows that whining is as much a part of the show system as loud music and mascara. Too long, too hot, too crowded, too focused on elements other than clothes—all typical refrains, gripes with which nobody could reasonably disagree. In addition, ever since the dollar dove, "too expensive" has been added to the litany by store execs and top editors from the U.S. They send vast teams to Europe and feel increasingly soaked by hotels, especially in Milan where, let's face it, they see us coming like style-starved ants to a fashion picnic. There are even fears for physical safety. Crowded, creaky elevators; ancient venues with lots of parched wood, and countless places with inadequate exits give rise to frequent "what if" musings. Then there's the schedule, which goes on and on—even this time, despite some serious consolidation in Milan due primarily to a campaign waged by Anna Wintour.

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