NEW YORK — They said it couldn’t be done.
In 1993, Bryant Park was known more for drug dealers than fashion shows, and New York Fashion Week was a hodgepodge of venues spread around Manhattan and overcrowded Seventh Avenue showrooms never meant to hold a runway show.
Then the Council of Fashion Designers of America helped the industry say goodbye to falling ceilings (on Suzy Menkes’ head at a Michael Kors show), stampedes into fire-trap elevators (shows at 550 Seventh Avenue were infamous) and frantic cab rides all around town — events that for years marred fashion week.
The CFDA experimented with centralized shows at the Hotel Macklowe for two seasons, but that venue was too small for many designers.
Drawing inspiration from a huge tent show in Central Park during the Democratic National Convention in 1992, the CFDA set up tents in the park behind the New York Public Library, replete with a production company called 7th on Sixth, and transformed the twice-a-year events and the image of the park into a success story that typifies the city and Seventh Avenue. CFDA leaders defied critics and put New York on the map of fashion capitals as never before.
“I think it’s had an enormous impact,” said Fern Mallis, executive director of 7th on Sixth. “It changed the face of fashion in New York. It put American designers front and center by attracting hundreds of international press every season to cover the shows.”
Mallis acknowledged there were plenty of skeptics who questioned centralizing the shows and whether the industry would cooperate, about choosing Bryant Park as a venue and about the CFDA producing the shows. The CFDA has since sold 7th on Sixth to IMG, with Mallis going along with the production entity.
There was a disastrous one-season foray to the Chelsea Piers in 1997, which was decried for its poor location alongside the West Side Highway, but other than that, Bryant Park has become the hub of New York Fashion Week.
“I’m very proud about what we’ve accomplished,” Mallis said. “We’ve maintained a core of the industry at Bryant Park every season and it’s become an institution. But in this industry, you always run the risk of people getting bored, so we invite feedback from the designers and everyone involved in the shows…and work to keep things fresh and innovative.”