Blame it on the commercialism of the American market, the romantic lure of the City of Light, a dearth of designers focused exclusively on the category, or the fact that the industry is slow to embrace fashion trends. Whatever the reason, it’s become clear that, while the U.S. may represent the world’s largest market in terms of sales, it is unable to sustain a viable men’s fashion week.
The men’s runway shows that wrapped up last week in Paris — where American designers including Thom Browne, Amiri, Reese Cooper, John Elliott, KidSuper, Greg Lauren and Rhude all opted to show their spring collections — delivered an unmistakable message that designer menswear in the States is on life support.
The Council of Fashion Designers of America had made an effort in July 2016 to create a men’s fashion week. New York Fashion Week: Men’s was launched with great fanfare and attracted top American names including John Varvatos, Thom Browne, Tommy Hilfiger, Billy Reid, Todd Snyder, Robert Geller, John Elliott, Michael Kors, Rag & Bone and a slew of others.
But with each subsequent edition, the number of participants dwindled and despite the CFDA shifting the dates to align with the women’s calendar, NYFW: Men’s was eventually discontinued as designers decamped to Europe and New York was left with a lineup of emerging labels. The situation wasn’t helped by the fact that several of these brands — Abboud and Varvatos in particular — lost their namesake designers as their businesses were sold, and others such as Geller took a break and Snyder discontinued wholesaling to focus on his own stores and e-commerce.
While there are some brands that still show in the States and New York Men’s Day, a showcase for emerging brands created by Erin Hawker of Agentry PR, continues to hold events twice a year, the focus in the men’s market has undeniably shifted to Paris.
Elliott, who had shown in New York several times when he was just starting his brand, held his first runway show in Paris this season.
“New York was great to the brand,” he said. “We launched the brand in New York and did nine shows there, but we were much smaller and there was a different motivation to what we were trying to achieve.”
Now, he said, the company operates three stores with a fourth opening soon and the goal is to “position ourselves as an emerging global luxury brand. To attract the eyeballs of the world, we have to go where those eyeballs are, and that’s Paris.”
He said he took notice when other American brands started showing there and realized that they received the same attention from the U.S. press as they had when they showed in the States, but also attracted international buyers and media. And while showing internationally requires more of an investment in terms of financing, “it puts your brand on the biggest stage, so it’s worth it.”
Elliott said that although America represents his company’s largest market in terms of sales, he is confident that he can continue to grow in the U.S. through his efforts at wholesale and direct-to-consumer as well as through social media. “But what we can’t control with the same precision is how many people outside the U.S. know us,” he said.
His goal for his brand is to grow in Europe and Asia — and he’s already thinking about adding retail stores in Paris, so showing in that city is definitely the best way to grow the business. “I could see us coming back to the States someday,” he said, “but it would have to be for a very specific purpose. We just started in Paris so we’ll continue there. What we got in New York at the time felt huge, but the reaction in Paris is at a different level, so we feel like we made the right decision.”
Colm Dillane, founder and designer of KidSuper, just wrapped his first in-person runway show in Paris as part of the official calendar. “The real reason I came to Paris was for the esteem,” he said. “When you think of fashion week, you think of Paris. I always thought that would be unattainable for me because I’m so much of an outsider. I didn’t think I belonged there with Chanel and Vuitton. But I thought, I may as well shoot for the stars.”
So although he was rejected from the official calendar twice, he was finally invited to join and jumped at the chance. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he’d already won the LVMH Prize’s Karl Lagerfeld Special Jury Prize. “They welcomed me and it was fun to be pitted against all the biggest brands and creatives in the world and be on the same battlefield,” he said. “They always say if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. But in fashion, it’s whether you can make it in Paris.”
Doni Nahmias, founder and creative director of Nahmias, an emerging brand that showed for the second time in Paris, weighed in: “I still consider myself an emerging designer in a luxury landscape and think it’s important to capitalize on the international awareness when it comes to visibility to global retailers, department stores and high-end boutiques that have a presence during Paris Fashion Week. This season marked my second runway show and it proved critical to show in Paris as we had an incredibly strong buyer presence. I was so glad to see that the publications had a great stamp in Paris, with travel opening up and restrictions being loosened.”
As an American, however, he still hopes to be able to do something special Stateside. “All of my collections are inspired by my upbringing in Santa Barbara [Calif.] and the West Coast lifestyle. With that said, I think there is a place and a moment that will present itself when I can showcase something special in the U.S. to supplement the traction being built off of showing in Paris and provide buzz in a different way. It seems like the U.S. presents an environment where an off-kilter activation, something immersive, is more feasible than Europe where sometimes logistics have proved a bit difficult to manage.”
One designer who hasn’t made the jump across the pond is Willy Chavarria, who continues to show his collection in New York.
“Undoubtedly, men’s fashion week hasn’t garnished the same power as Europe has over the last few years,” he said. “The turnout is larger and there are more presentations so it’s definitely a bigger event there than it is here.”
Chavarria attributed that in part to the fact that “Europe is more design driven and America is more commerce driven.” The biggest American names have become “a little diluted” in terms of their fashion messaging as they chase sales, he said, “while in Europe, there’s so much more conviction” in establishing a strong identity and design ethos. “We don’t have that here.”
But that’s still not going to draw him to Paris.
“We are such a New York brand and our shows are such a part of the city. The location is so important to the vibe of the collection,” he said. “We feel more connected to the city than to New York Fashion Week.”
Dustin Hellinger, Chavarria’s brand director, added: “For us as an American brand, we see ourselves as reactionary — we react to American politics and events. So as a New York brand, we feel a need to be there and be a voice to those issues.”
Beyond the esteem, the timing of the shows for spring is also key to many menswear brands’ decisions to show overseas. The dates of the European shows are better suited to the men’s calendar since the men’s market is generally in mid-July while the women’s is in September. So any men’s collections shown after Labor Day during the high profile, women’s-skewed New York Fashion Week have already been seen and bought by men’s retailers.
“The runway is so important because that’s where we connect with the public with our message and philosophy,” Chavarria said. “But for selling, it’s better for the buyers if you show earlier in Europe.”
Although Europe is attracting all the attention now, Chavarria said he’d welcome New York being able to regain its place as a fashion capital for menswear. “I’d love to see it come back,” he said. “New York is such a strong, resilient city and it seems like the natural place to host the world’s fashion industry.”
For Bruce Pask, men’s fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus, it’s less about the lack of viability of the American market than the show dates.
“CFDA made great inroads in its attempt to create a men’s fashion week, but it’s really about coordinating market dates,” he said. “Paris has become a global marketplace: the merchants and the editors are there, and it’s where the show dates seem to work. It’s right after Milan and it’s right before women’s couture begins, so there’s an intersection. Plus it’s a relatable, concise, easy-to-navigate city.”
For any brand seeking access to a global marketplace, Paris is the right choice, as evidenced by the designers from around the world who have chosen to participate. “It’s not just Americans,” he said, pointing to Craig Green and Paul Smith from London as well as the Japanese designers who show there.
“But these things ebb and flow,” he said. “It was great when CFDA organized men’s fashion week in New York. It was exciting and attracted foreign buyers and press. And Erin Hawker has been a consistent presence for young up-and-comers. But markets ebb and flow and Paris has the celebrities, the athletes and the social media influencers right now. But these things tend to shift organically and I believe there will be another time in the future when the men’s market in New York will be viable.”
“Everything goes in cycles,” she said. “Right now, there’s a mass exodus of brands who are not being supported in the U.S. and want to get in front of buyers and international press. Unless you have hallmark brands that people want to see and travel for, they won’t come here. But Europe is so crowded now, I think brands will begin coming back so they can own the night.”
With the larger brands setting their sights on Europe, it opens a window for lesser-known labels, she believes. “For emerging brands, this is a good place to show. New York Men’s Day is in our 18th season and we’re starting to attract larger sponsors, so there’s definitely an interest in men’s and gender-fluid brands.”
The next edition of NYMD will be held on Sept. 9, she said, but starting next year, the date will go back to July to align with the trade shows that have returned to New York.
Over the course of his career, Joseph Abboud has held more than 40 shows and he remembers vividly when the men’s market was vibrant and runway shows were rampant in New York.
“In the ‘90s, not only was there a men’s week, but there was a men’s 10 days,” he said. “Defecting to Paris is like getting baby formula from France, why can’t we make our own? The voice for American menswear has been lost.”
One of the reasons is that so much American menswear is centered around basics and categories that don’t change much from season to season while European designers offer “pure fantasy,” he believes.
“There used to be an energy in American menswear but we’re not seeing any real leadership today. If you ask most Americans who the next big men’s designers are, they will know Calvin Klein or Ralph Lauren, but not any of the up-and-coming designers.”
And with a lot of big brands, he said, the owners of the businesses are often not willing to invest in brand building. “They look at brands as assets and milk them for the licensing revenue.”
Abboud believes runway shows are important to establish brand identity, but in America, despite CFDA’s efforts to establish a men’s stand-alone showcase, “the main focus has always been on women’s and men’s has been treated as a stepchild.”
Jian DeLeon, men’s fashion and editorial director of Nordstrom, offered his take on the situation: “A good portion of France’s power comes from the fact that Paris is the hub of fashion as an industry and a highly regarded expression of culture. The top French billionaires made their fortunes in fashion and luxury — whereas in the United States that money comes from tech. The sentiment is that fashion is taken more seriously in Paris than most places in the United States, so if a designer can make it there, they’ve made it to the big leagues.”
Even so, he believes the U.S. still has a place in American menswear.
“There’s no doubt the U.S. is already a top fashion capital. Just because a label doesn’t necessarily show here doesn’t make it any less American. One of the greatest exports of the United States has always been its contributions to culture at large — whether it’s Levi’s jeans, Nike sneakers or the iPhone. Aside from a small number of jeans, hardly any of those items are made in America.”
Steven Kolb, chief executive officer of the CFDA, also took a positive view of the situation: “There’s a great history and audience in Paris. The CFDA is proud to see American menswear designers show among the Europeans and understands how that access can help their businesses. This highlights the strength of American talent globally as well.”
Although the attempt to restart a men’s fashion week in New York ultimately failed, Kolb said he was “very proud of the seasons we produced New York Fashion Week: Men’s. The participating designers and partners benefited from CFDA’s efforts.”