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Special Issue
WWD Collections issue 11/17/2014

The ladies protested—or did they?

Certainly they demonstrated in support of women and fashion and women who love fashion, the site of their high-brow, indulgent populism the Boulevard Chanel, a glorious Haussmann-esque street conceived, commissioned and installed by Karl Lagerfeld in the stately emptiness of the Grand Palais.

This story first appeared in the November 17, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Placards held high and megaphones at the ready, Lagerfeld’s legions made their boldest statement sartorial diversity; they were turned out in a range from Gisele’s knitted nothings to dresses made from paillettes that mocked the street’s concrete. Alluring fashion within a memorable show—certainly worth demonstrating for. Yet in fashion now, there’s plenty to demonstrate against as well. Quite simply, the system no longer works.

These days, our lives are too fashion-packed. Four solid weeks of 12-plus hour days of nonstop shows are too much. I’m not advocating for the end of the fashion-show era. There’s nothing like the experience of a show that resonates on some level beyond a parade of pretty, thin girls in nice clothes, that makes you think or question or, on rare occasion, cry; that sweeps you away on its sheer beauty, or leaves you awestruck with theatrical bravado. Such a show is 12 minutes of heaven, 12 minutes never to be repeated and to which a relative handful of people have been privy, 12 minutes that are an honor to observe. Most of us retain a mental file of favorites. Our work and lives would be lesser without them.

But the fact that some shows serve an important creative purpose along with the perceived commercial one doesn’t negate the fact that the current show system is antiquated, particularly in New York. Which is not to beat up on New York, only to use it as Exhibit A, because New York Fashion Week is the most severely overscheduled and stressful. The rest of the circuit is no cakewalk either, a frenzied airborne caravan of more, more, more—more shows, more time, but arguably, diminishing return.

For starters, a question, and not one posed flippantly: What is the purpose of these fashion weeks? Once, the answer was clear. “Fashion weeks” provided a concise time frame within which brands (they were called houses then) would reveal their primary messages for spring and fall. Now, the pre-seasons are the commercial juggernaut and the runway, an ever-diminishing portion of the business. So is the purpose still to capsulize a brand’s primary message for the season? Or is it to live-stream for instant global reach? To garner photos of front-row celebrities? Street-style photos that, with luck, will become associated with the brand outside whose show they were snapped? If these are the goals, are there paths other than 400-plus presentations to their fulfillment? Or are brands no longer the primary beneficiaries of their cities’ fashion weeks? Is the promotion of “fashion” as its own entity now as important as highlighting and promoting the work of individual brands? If that’s the case—done. The global spotlight on the four major fashion weeks couldn’t be more intense. But is that in the best service of individual brands, particularly the smaller ones?

Of spring’s shows, relatively few were memorable, and not because most of the clothes were bad. Yes, some were god-awful. But those were neither the norm nor the point. Some of the clothes we see in a given season are great, inspirational, even; most land somewhere between fine and very good. In a vacuum, most have a legitimate case for hitting the runway. This process, however, doesn’t operate in a vacuum (except that which separates most of us from any other of life’s activities for a solid month).

Even if every show were stellar, if each existed in that glorified space between Prada and Comme des Garçons, the system no longer works. Period. For a very simple reason: time. Father Time is undefeated. Sports pundits invoke that truism when noting the professional twilight and professional passing of the great ones—Manning, Jeter, Mariano. Father Time is also intractable. Unlike my torso, the pesky patriarch declines to expand to accommodate whatever gluttonous excess gets thrown in.

Nearly 70 years ago, Ruth Finley had the brilliant idea to organize New York so designers wouldn’t schedule simultaneously. For years to come, the shows fit neatly into eight-hour days with no weekends and no simultaneous showings. There were few enough houses showing to make that possible. This spring’s 220-or-so New York shows and presentations (that’s women’s fashion only, exclusive of accessories and men’s) in nine days made for an average of just about one an hour—24 hours a day. We know how that scales out.

Shortly before the spring season started, the CFDA bought the Fashion Calendar from Ruth, stating at the time its intention to “deliver improved organization and efficiency in the scheduling of New York Fashion Week,” and enlisting the branding firm Redscout to assist with the process—a noble and challenging endeavor.

Any attempt to impose order on the shows, in New York and elsewhere, must take into account some tough questions. The toughest: Is it time to throw out baby with bath water?

Nothing works, starting with the name. This fashion week, that fashion week. In what universe other than fashion do nine days (New York, Paris) equal a week? Normal (read non-fashion) life recognizes two common perceptions of a week, the standard Gregorian calendar week, though (who knew?) the seven-day structure precedes Gregory by decades. (As for the origin of the seven-day week, it has no natural, astronomical foundation à la the 24-hour day or lunar month; a quick Google search references Babylonians and cavemen—interesting, but off-topic.) The five-day workweek was the creation of Henry Ford, who wanted to afford people time to covet and use his cars and other leisure-oriented consumer products.

Ah—quality of life issues. Who in fashion dares think of those? Our issues are more concrete. They center on time, and not just woe-are-we-no-time-for-dinner time. This is a case of the proverbial “not enough hours in a day” invocation turning quantifiable. The number of brands showing has outgrown the schedule’s long-stretched elasticity. That’s in New York. In terms of calendar saturation, Milan and Paris are getting denser, though right now, with a tweak here or there, each of those cities could, and should, lose a day. This would truncate the interminable and, for travelers, expensive, seasons. Unofficially, countless people have longed aloud for Louis Vuitton and Miu Miu—both can’t-miss shows for commercial and creative reasons—“to move up.” (As for Hermès at 5 p.m. on that last Wednesday—nonsensical.) I don’t cover London, but from what I understand, it’s as frenzied as New York.

What would work? The simplest and most complicated answer: fewer shows. Suggest such to Steven Kolb and Diane von Furstenberg and they counter by asking who has the right to tell someone not to show? Fair enough. The U.S. is a free country, as are England, Italy and France. But industry organizations exist for a reason, and what’s wrong with a little persuasion/strong-arming of newcomers?

I don’t know the solution, but the subject deserves conversation beyond platitudes and whining. It’s not just a matter of organization. You can be Mussolini, but if you put too many trains on the same track, you’ll have scheduling mayhem.

So, some points for discussion…

First: Codify the purpose of the shows. What is it that the industry, brands and designers expect to achieve? The show machine is such a behemoth that a good percentage may not be able to answer that question clearly. Once articulated, are all realizing their goals? Do smaller niche brands feel squeezed out by the big guns? Are there alternative ways to achieve global reach, with online shows, for example? Many brands—hello, contemporary—could get their messages across just fine, including look book pictures for instant global dissemination.

How about a little practicality/audience consideration? We show-going types get that the venue is part of the creative message. We also get traffic. Paris has done a good job of localizing most of its shows. In New York, the East Side/West Side/Spring Studios thing has grown really old. The idea of clustering shows—remember that notion? Why won’t people do it? Case in point: Carolina Herrera at 10 o’clock at Lincoln Center followed at 11 by Tommy Hilfiger at the uptown Armory on Park. Last season, I came thisclose to missing Tommy due to a necessary post-Carolina stop, after which a good driver made a bad traffic decision. I decided in that car that at this point in my life and career, I’ll no longer fret over or apologize for the occasional bodily function.

Here’s another idea: the oft-discussed, never-implemented group showing. I don’t mean a band of three or four recent-graduate friends, but a tony trade show. It could work for three-quarters of what’s shown in New York and a good percentage in the other cities. In New York, four shows are sometimes scheduled concurrently. Not even the most voracious showgoers can be in four places at once, but they can easily visit four trade-show booths in an hour.

For those aghast at the thought, there is small-scale precedent. In February, LVMH hosted a reception for the 30 semifinalists for its Young Fashion Designer Prize. Each designer had a small presentation area, and it worked beautifully. Why couldn’t that notion scale up without spinning tacky? It’s succeeded in the art world, with original fairs and U.S. spin-offs, Art Basel Miami and Frieze New York. Fashion could even feed the obsessed consumer beast and open the doors to the public. (Although industry-only days first, please. Many of the art-educated toddler set at Frieze New York give in to acting their age—not amusing to working stiffs.)

Finally, what about rethinking the seasons? Maybe each brand should show once a year—you take spring; I’ll take fall. Perhaps some high-end houses could show during couture.

Random thoughts for sending baby down the drain? Yes. But proposed seriously. Something must change, and it won’t be Father Time.

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