New York Fashion Week is in turmoil. If it weren’t obvious already, the news on Wednesday that Joseph Altuzarra is defecting to Paris makes it official. His is the fifth American brand to do so in two seasons, with Proenza Schouler, Monique Lhuillier and Rodarte (who held appointments there last fall) having shown during what used to be couture week, but is now an amalgam of couture, spring and cruise. Altuzarra will show during the city’s traditional ready-to-wear season, as will Thom Browne.
With those single-season departures, New York has lost several of its most highly anticipated, most artistic shows. There aren’t many more left. Yes, there are still plenty of shows, hundreds of them, but relatively few with the must-see magnetism that every season needs. While that may sound mean, it’s not intended as such. Rather, it’s a statement of fact, and people are wondering. In Paris during couture, I had at least three conversations (none of which I initiated) that included snippets along the lines of, “What’s happening in New York?”; “Something’s got to be done”; “Soon, there won’t be anyone left.”
It’s a situation long in the making.
The American industry has always been more democratic than its European counterparts, at least in part a reflection of a country established as a democracy. Whether rooted in a noble, broad-stroke egalitarian mind-set or matters of business or creative inclinations, American fashion as an entity has always been perceived as less fancy and more utilitarian than its European counterparts. Yes, we’ve had our Bills, our Oscars, our Galanoses, but as the show system developed, American fashion was known for its sportswear, with Milan the home of industrialist style, and Paris, the birthplace and ongoing epicenter of genuine savoir faire.
Ancient-history distinctions? Perhaps. Only the divide between New York and Paris now seems more pronounced than ever. For a good chunk of time, the reputation of American fashion enjoyed a dramatic ascent. When Marc Jacobs and Michael Kors were hired by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton for Louis Vuitton and Céline, respectively, it seemed to formalize recognition of a new level of international respect. Soon thereafter, with the essential support of the industry, the CFDA and the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, more and more attention was focused on younger designers and in turn, the numbers of young people flocking to fashion — and starting up their own companies — escalated. Meanwhile, existing companies became themselves more focused on (some might say obsessed with) marketing.
For a while it was great. Business and creativity flourished as new global markets opened, while consumer-side interest in fashion as sport, both participatory and spectator, flourished. At some point, it seemed that every brand, no matter how small, how big or how basic, headed for the runway, at least in New York.
Somewhere along the line, New York Fashion Week became a victim of its own success, its identity diffused and splintered under the mentality of more-more-more and bigger-bigger-bigger. Among the myriad forces in play: the aforementioned heightened interest in fashion as a career and the parallel explosion, first, of the Internet, and then, of social media. Everyone wants to have a show, often less for the in-house audience (unless, of course, it’s a consumer show) than for the opportunity to live-stream and have pictures Instagrammed the world over. The difference between New York and Paris, or one of the differences, is that in Paris, the calendar is controlled; not everyone gets to show. New York seems to adhere to an open-door policy: come one, come all, get your spot on the calendar. Those who don’t get an official spot, show anyway.
The sheer numbers, driven increasingly by contemporary collections, overwhelm. Surely there are criteria that must be met before getting a spot on the calendar, but they’ve got to be pretty loose. Paris has a significant contemporary market, but how many of those companies hit the runways during show week? In New York, many shows are more about the marketing opportunity than the clothes, especially so at the contemporary level, some members of which (I think) are adhering to the consumer extravaganza, buy-now-wear-now approach that basically failed miserably at the designer level.
Then there’s the relentlessness — upward of 30 shows a day. Not only is it not pleasant — many aspects of most jobs are not pleasant (it is called work) — but it’s not conducive to the kind of mental and emotional engagement that fashion today so desperately needs. Most shows converge into one big mental — not a blur, that’s too neutral a word — one big mental blob.
That doesn’t mean that most of the clothes are bad. Most of the clothes are fine, but merely “fine” seldom needs a runway. Even if every show were fabulous, even if each were 10 percent better than the most glorious show you’ve ever seen, in aggregate, their sheer numbers diminish the impact of all but the very best. Along the way, sometimes, the very best don’t get their due, the audience reaction more likely, “It was great. Where to next?” than “I’m breathless. Let me savor the moment.”
Fashion needs breathlessness. Hence, the exodus. Altuzarra cited as his reason for leaving the desire of the company “to accelerate its international growth.” Unlike the others who have fled, as a native of Paris, he can claim a personal, if not professional, going home. Other designers have articulated a desire to reach more international press than in New York (despite the fact that New York always seems to have a strong international showing), and, in the case of those who showed during couture, the intent to start their showroom sales appointments earlier.
But let’s face it, those are the polite answers. That doesn’t mean they’re untrue, but they are most certainly incomplete in their truth. To anyone who’s covered a recent New York Fashion Week, these exits have the distinct ring of the tony types getting out of Dodge. It’s likely that the brands and their designers want to escape the scheduling suffocation and increasingly contemporary-skewed fashion of the New York calendar while basking in the reflected glory of what remains the fashion capital of the world. (To that end, Proenza, Rodarte and Monique all fared well in their Paris debuts.) Will more follow? Perhaps.
Exactly where that leaves New York, it’s tough to say. But to see the overpopulation and diminished fashion quotient of its fashion calendar as merely an unavoidable manifestation of broader, ongoing industry and cultural changes is a mistake. Who remembers another time when people waxed negatively about a season still two months away? No one has started trash-talking Milan and Paris in anticipation — at least not yet. New York needs an overhaul, beginning with a reevaluation and articulation of its purpose. If it’s determined that its purpose should be a semiannual mega marketing fest for companies across a broad spectrum of fashion, that’s fine. Own it. And if more of the genuine fashion purveyors then choose to take their shows on the road, who could blame them?