By and  on September 11, 2007

NEW YORK — Circus or salon — which does the fashion industry want?

The growing divide between designers who choose to show in the commercially driven atmosphere of the Bryant Park tents of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week and those who go off-site to edgier, loftier or far-flung venues is defining this New York season, and designers on both sides of the fence argue theirs is the best way.

As reported, IMG Fashion, which owns Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, has signed a deal to keep those shows in the park through February 2010. But what happens after that remains up in the air — and there could be major changes in the wind as designers press the Council of Fashion Designers of America to take more control over fashion week.

While the industry pushed for a centralized locale for shows for years, many designers now grumble IMG has created such a frenzy around Bryant Park that it has the general media and public convinced it's the official home of fashion week. But the media circus is a double-edged sword. While it draws much-welcomed attention to the industry as a whole, IMG Fashion may be the victim of its own success, as some influential designers whisper the hype machine is overwhelming, relegating the editors, buyers — and clothes — to supporting roles. The shows are a commercial enterprise, from the sponsors inside the tents to the general public now being able to buy tickets to the shows for about $900, complete with a skybox view.

Showing off-site allows designers to find venues that give their presentations a less generic touch. The downside of that is the logistical nightmare of buyers, press and other fashionistas gridlocking their way through the city's streets. (Does anyone really look forward to those requisite treks down to Milk Studios, or some similar venue, particularly in foul weather? Remember the anniversary year of the United Nations — when even a two-block trip seemingly took an hour?)

That wouldn't be anything new, however. As in the past, the bulk of this season's participants are showing away from Bryant Park. Of the 263 shows to be held during New York Fashion Week, only 57 will actually be held in the Bryant Park tents. Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Marc Jacobs and Proenza Schouler found alternative venues years ago. Oscar de la Renta defected from the tents this season to a former Christian Science church on Park Avenue. That said, the tents still have their share of marquee names, including Diane von Furstenberg, Michael Kors, Carolina Herrera and Vera Wang. And Fern Mallis, IMG Fashion's senior vice president, has no concerns about the growing trend of designers moving away from the tents."In 16 years of doing these shows, I have watched designers come and go," she said. "When we started this, we couldn't do it if we didn't have Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren in the tents. When they left, people said that it's the end of the tents, but history has proven that that's not the case. We fill every slot we could possibly fill."

With one less venue to work with this season to try to reduce the event's impact on the park, IMG claims it had to turn away more than 20 designers who wanted to show in Bryant Park. This year's setup allows for about 60 shows compared with 80 last February. Nevertheless, IMG managed to make room for MetLife's "Snoopy in Fashion." It caused some raised eyebrows and questioning whether MetLife forked out significant cash, since IMG, after all, is looking to make a profit.

Not so, said Mallis, who assured that she would have never taken the tent away from a major designer. "There wasn't a designer that wanted to book in the big tent at that time," Mallis said. "It's a charitable show."

One designer, who asked not to be named, said, "With 7th on Sixth, everything comes prepackaged. Now we have reached a point where it is more sterile to do it that way. With our own space, we can create a more intimate setting."

Tuleh's Bryan Bradley, who has used the tents for years, said, "I show because of the cost, because of the convenience and because, ultimately, people are used to that backdrop. It doesn't distract. It's not like, 'Oh, we're going to this church we have never been to before.' I do believe that fashion shows are best when they are focused and not a road show. All the other things, like getting a band, having people falling from a ceiling or people on stilts...to me, are an admission that the clothes aren't quite interesting enough."

Donna Karan, on the other hand, is a proponent of shows taking more of a salon approach, and she chooses not to show her DKNY and Collection lines at the tents. "If we were showing in season, I would agree to the circus, but right now, we are showing to the press," she said. "I think there has to be a stricter way of looking at it, that it's not all about fashion week. I'd rather talk about fashion in the stores, and the same energy should apply when the clothes get into the stores. As far I am concerned, we should explode at the beginning of every season, but the pre-season should be done like screenings."The celebrities, too, should come to the real premiere rather than the preview, according to Karan. "Let them come during season, but before it, it should be private," she said. "We don't have to explode it and confuse the customer," she argued.

Meanwhile, a year has quietly passed since the CFDA's non-compete clause with IMG expired‚ which has some designers wondering whether the nonprofit organization could be plotting a return to show business.

Executives at the CFDA downplay any notion that they are seeking to compete with IMG's profit-driven fashion week, but CFDA president Diane von Furstenberg confirms the organization is working with the city to find a permanent venue for fashion events, which could include fashion shows.

"I think that it appears clearer and clearer to me that the fashion world needs a large venue and a place where people can go, and that is one of the things we have been working on with the city," she said, pointing to the Hudson Yards redevelopment project as a key opportunity. "The mayor is working on a cultural center there, which will have room for fashion shows and other things," she said.

Von Furstenberg said the CFDA is unlikely to start its own week of shows that would go directly against IMG.

"I don't think the CFDA will be in the business of doing shows, but there is no question the CFDA has more prominence and will work more and more on scheduling, and the dates. I don't foresee us doing shows, but we are working with the city to provide venues that IMG can then take some pieces of," she said.

In 2001, the CFDA sold what was then 7th on Sixth to IMG for the reported sum of $5 million.

At the time of the sale, detractors complained that the CFDA had become too focused on the business of running fashion shows and had veered too far astray from its then 40-year-old aim to further the cause of fashion and to promote American designers. But industry sources involved with the decision insisted organizing and running the Bryant Park shows was too time consuming for a bare-bones nonprofit like the CFDA. Of course, the trade-off meant that the money garnered from the runway shows was no longer going back into the CFDA.Monika Tilley, an emeritus board member, said, "I'm sure all sorts of people think it would be easy to [produce shows]. It's not....One of the reasons we decided to sell to IMG — after we started the whole thing — [was that] we realized it really was a business enterprise and that was not what the CFDA was all about."

According to sources, IMG bought 7th on Sixth at a time when it was in financial peril, and with the hit from 9/11, some are wondering whether it could have survived without IMG's infrastructure.

IMG is the world's leading and most diversified sports, entertainment and media company that Goldman Sachs has pegged as a more than $1.5 billion operation. That figure is said to be more than double what Ted Forstmann paid for the largely sports conglomerate nearly three years ago. Under his reign, IMG has reduced its agent-based business to become more focused on modeling, event management and TV production and distribution.

Aside from Mercedes-Benz Fashion Weeks in New York, Los Angeles and Miami, IMG has a hand in many fashion weeks or events globally. The tents in Bryant Park have become a spectacle with multiple sponsorship booths including MAC Cosmetics, American Express and Havaianas that contribute to IMG's bottom line. "We make sure the sponsors are relevant and bring something to the table," Mallis said.

Sources, however, said that despite the hoopla, IMG's profit from the shows is marginal. IMG's cost of staging them is an estimated $12 million a year, and designers pay from $25,000 to $50,000 a venue. Unlike its sports events, IMG cannot sell television rights for the shows.

If all this is a far cry from when the CFDA ran 7th on Sixth, some say so be it.

"The CFDA has changed, our mission statement has changed, as well," former CFDA president Stan Herman said. "Diane got behind mentorship, scholarship programs and designers themselves. [Producing the shows is] a monster operation, and it would seem to me that it would be a distraction.

"We then ran it as nonprofit," he explained. "Whatever profit, if there was [one], went back into shows. It's different when you run a profit-making machine. At the end of the year, you have to show profit. Fern [then executive director of the CFDA] and I both believed that we were helping fashion in New York [then]. We were trying to make New York a global fashion capital. We weren't thinking of making millions of dollars."Steven Kolb, executive director of the CFDA, concurred the tents centralized the shows and added much venue space to the city for designers, but, he added: "The reality is that New York Fashion Week is not defined by the tents. A lot of people think that fashion week is Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, but it happens all over New York and in many venues."

Despite the end of the non-compete agreement last year, Kolb was adamant that the CFDA would not get back into producing shows. "As an organization that is basically there to represent designers and a trade organization, we have been able to do so much more for our membership by not having to produce shows," he said.

Kolb agreed that one option could well be a 100,000-square-foot Eastern Railyard site within the Hudson Yards project, in the 30s and 40s off Eighth Avenue. That site, he added, could be a future location for a fashion museum, with open park space and indoor gallery venues that could serve for runway shows as well as other fashion-related activities.

"We wouldn't want to produce that, but we would be interested in having a say because of the ongoing conversations we have had with the city," Kolb said.

Mallis said she is not opposed to the idea of IMG taking space within the Hudson Yards development, though completion still could be years away.

"We're all in various stages of discussion with the mayor and the city about the future of the fashion industry," Mallis said. "There is a lot of synergy between us to create a strong fashion presence in New York City."

Kolb said the bigger issue is scheduling, and the lack of one central organization to arrange the show slots. "You have IMG, which is scheduling in the tents; you have the Fashion Calendar, which is scheduling shows, and you have the CFDA involved," he said. "I'd like to see some type of way that decisions are being made in scheduling shows and access to all venues based on what's right to all American designers."

Further change may be in order, observed Bud Konheim, president and chief executive officer of Nicole Miller. "The time is ripe for the CFDA or for someone else to try it. What would happen is the CFDA would get themselves back to serious design. And to have a show, you would have to qualify for shows," he said.That arrangement would leave IMG with what Konheim described as the commodity shows. "It would be like Sears versus Bergdorf Goodman," he said. "If IMG could pull it off, they would be low-level TV, media, chain fashion." The elitists would gravitate to the new format, said Konheim, adding, "It wouldn't be about celebrity-made clothing."

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