Gary Wassner

When any major changes are imposed upon a democratic industry, sparks fly. There are multiple questions that need to be asked about the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s seemingly unilateral decision to “truncate” the show calendar without warning. What is the endgame? What problems are being addressed and what issues are they attempting to solve by virtue of these changes? It seems there is serious confusion in that area. Too many “show-goers” complaining about the length of NYFW? Falling attendance by international press and retailers? Mediocrity on the runways? Lack of global relevance and interest? There are multiple competing perspectives. Many of the people in the industry who I’ve spoken with share the same uncertainty regarding the new mandate. The fashion calendars are already difficult enough for us to navigate. How will this division between the closely curated “official” shows (does official mean sanctioned and chosen by CFDA?) and the off-calendar shows help us? Will off-calendar translate to “I can skip these” to buyers, press and influencers’?

If an industry, and fashion is a big industry, is looking to present a solution to a problem, it should clearly delineate the issues first, study them in depth, consider the impact on all stakeholders, and then ultimately draw up a road map that addresses the concerns and moves the agenda forward. As a business owner myself, I believe a successful enterprise must begin with a well thought-out program that considers the rationale, correctness, practicality and efficacy of the plan. But, even before this, a successful business depends upon a viable product. If the product isn’t right, the plan cannot be effective.

So let’s then talk about the “product” NYFW is presenting to the world, and the raison d’être for it. I’ve said many times that American fashion is fashion for the people. Its roots lie in practicality, free expression, creativity, inclusivity, commerciality, lifestyle and entrepreneurial spirit. Any business plan that is imposed upon an industry should seek to preserve and promote these goals and values. I’m confused as to how concentrating on “majors,” or at least brands the CFDA selects, accomplishes the goal of supporting all American designers.

In speaking with the CFDA, from their perspective, the alternative they’re implementing does not constitute a “big change.” They were thoughtfully designed to make the experience of NYFW better, and contrary to the multiple conversations I’ve had with designers, the reactions the CFDA has been getting have been only positive ones. I’m concerned that confirmation bias may have led the decision-makers to believe they’re buying a new car, when in fact all they’re really doing is replacing a flat tire with another defective one.

I am deeply invested in our industry, both emotionally and financially. My company finances over 400 brands and I am an investor in a number of fashion brands and fashion-related companies. I work with major brands, emerging brands, brands that have major global brand awareness but are tiny businesses, brands that have no global brand awareness, but are enormous business, American brands, European brands, Australian and Asian brands, and multiple other companies in between. Many are asking me what the shortening of the “official” calendar will mean to them. They’re now wondering if they should show at all if they’re not considered a “major,” or if chosen to be on the official calendar will they be pitted against another designer who may draw the same audience. Some feel diminished and disrespected. And many of the smaller brands whose loyalty and dependence upon the system is already minimal if it exists at all, are not even paying attention to these issues any longer, further dividing the community. Many feel that the existing institutions are irrelevant already and that these changes just add to their irrelevancy. Traditional press and editorial is a thing of the past. The consumer is the real audience, and the ways to reach it are not dependent upon old-school gatekeepers. Will the shortening of NYFW and the restriction being imposed upon who may officially show under the CFDA calendar, drive a stake into the hearts of aspiring brands, and drive them more aggressively to seek alternatives to CFDA membership, conventional venues, traditional pathways to growth and the runway itself?

These announced changes appear to me to be, as said to me by a trusted industry veteran, designer and friend, “a real insider coup. A shock and blow to the industry.” In this age of inclusivity and diversity, the CFDA’s rationale for its decision, seems counterintuitive. It appears to many to be out of touch, driven by “cloistered editorial concerns” and “ivory tower perspectives.” If the intention is to strengthen NYFW globally and bring back the foreign editors and retailers, then do what the LVMHs of the world do — raise funds to pay for the influencers to come to NYFW and stay here for the duration. Support their commercial concerns. Subsidize the editors’ trips. Incentivize them to experience some of the real thrills of American fashion; the smaller, unpretentious, frequently unknown, often unseen designers and workers in fashion. Support the brands on the forefront of inclusivity and diversity, on sustainability and zero waste, on unfettered design and extreme creativity. Retailers are craving under-distributed, under-promoted brands, but they’re not going to find them among the “major” designer shows. Another reason NYFW has become less interesting to foreign press and buyers is because so many great brands, young and major, already show “off-calendar,” in arbitrary locations, pulling them in all different directions and creating a logistical nightmare. How will these changes fix this? And for the brands themselves, NYFW has been unable to support their growing consumer-facing interests, something IMG is now attempting to do off-calendar. My son Cole suggested that we should break the shows down into two days of emerging brands (five years and younger) like Telfar, Pyer Moss, Chromat, Eckhaus Latta; three days of established brands like Rodarte, Cushnie, Jason Wu, Phillip Lim and Sally LaPointe; and two days of major brands such as Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs. His idea would allow retailers, press and bloggers to all focus on the days most important to them, retailers interested in finding cool new brands will come at the beginning of the week and remain here throughout the week, those who only have the time and the budget for the big shows could come for the last three days. Have ideas of this kind been considered?

I’m not going to make any establishment friends by writing this, but I strongly believe that limiting who can officially show during NYFW is the wrong approach. It doesn’t address the issues of the fashion designers of America. It addresses the issues of a small group of already well-established brands, the traditional fashion media and global retail buyers, who no longer have a monopoly on the fate of these brands anyway. I’m sure the decisions were thoughtful and well-intentioned. I was told by the CFDA that they were not made in a vacuum, though I, for one, was never consulted. Despite the internal discussion the CFDA conducted, the decision-making process was not open to outside debate, and was therefore, by definition, exclusionary.

I began by expressing the importance of a business plan. I’ll end by reiterating my desire to see this plan, and to understand it in the context of the mandated changes to the NYFW calendar. What are the problems and what are the goals? Are all the issues the industry has been raising being addressed by these changes? Or are more issues being created by virtue of them? Are we risking alienating even more of the creatives we’re seeking to inspire and support? Is what has been decided fair to everyone? Have we improved our likelihood of promoting American brands or have we taken the first step toward admitting defeat in the face of global pushback by generating a more restrictive and elitist perception of NYFW, rather than one of inclusivity and diversity?

 

Gary Wassner is chief executive officer of fashion factoring company Hilldun Corp. and chairman of Interluxe Holdings, which has investments in A.L.C. and Mackage.

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