New York Fashion Week Doesn’t Need to Be Saved

“Things are not looking good for New York Fashion Week,” pronounced Eugene Rabkin in an op-ed for Business of Fashion. This hand-wringing arrived in the wake of announcements from four of New York Fashion Week’s most creative designers (Altuzarra, Rodarte, Proenza Schouler and Thom Browne) disclosing their intentions to show in Paris instead.

The op-ed continued, “[These are] designers that New York really cannot afford to lose, because the city’s fashion week already has a reputation for being something of a creative snooze-fest, heavy on the sportswear and cocktail dresses, and light on new ideas.”

Recently, though, I’ve started to wonder if the doom and gloom surrounding the fate of New York Fashion Week isn’t the fault of New York Fashion Week itself, so much as the industry’s perception of New York Fashion Week. Here’s a question I’ve been chewing on: Is NYFW really “light on new ideas,” or is there a lack of open-mindedness toward what NYFW can or should look like?

You can only try to fit a square peg into a round hole for so long, and New York’s square peg is defined by characteristics (commercialism, showmanship) that don’t necessarily jive with what we might consider the round hole of fashion with a capital “F.”

A number of recent developments have lead me to believe that this September’s NYFW will be its most consumer-driven yet. Earlier this month, WWD reported that IMG plans to introduce exclusive opportunities for corporate clients and high-end consumers — think private behind-the-scenes tours, fashion insider Q&As, photo opportunities on the runway, premium seating at shows, designer and model meet-and-greets, luxury gift bags, exclusive styling services and access to a full-service hospitality lounge.

“We’ve had incredible demand from brands, designers and people who recognize NYFW and global fashion weeks are changing and evolving,” said Mark Shapiro, co-president of WME/IMG. “Fashion shows are the ultimate mega-marketing event, and historically the consumer has been outside the door.”

IMG is essentially treating NYFW more like an event or a show (in the vein of a Broadway musical) and less like an exclusive, insider-only critical appraisal. Plus-size retailer Torrid is taking a similar approach by directly inviting consumers to participate in the NYFW experience. Its upcoming runway show in September will double as the semi-final competitive round for the brand’s third annual Model Search Competition, whereupon the winner will be selected by Torrid friends and fans.

It’s also telling that while a slew of New York designers are decamping to Paris, Rihanna is doing the opposite with her Puma show, bringing it back to New York, where she first launched her line for Fall 2016. Rihanna is a masterful showman, not to mention a consumerist goldmine (she was named the most marketable of all big-name celebrities in 2016), so it makes a lot of sense that she and Puma would bring the collection back to where these particular qualities resonate most.

Having never been to a fashion week outside of New York myself, I asked Leandra why New York seems to be leaning so hard in this direction relative to international cities. “New York fashion is motivated by our market, and our market is a contemporary one, whereas Paris’ market is still rooted in the couturiers of the ‘50s,” she said. “The thing about a contemporary fashion market is that it doesn’t require the same kind of critical appraisal, because it is essentially the broken-down version of what’s already been shown in Paris, so in a way it’s already been digested.”

As for the observation that NYFW is light on ideas, she said, “In New York, we take a lot of fashion’s more complicated ideas and make them simpler. Obviously there are exceptions, like Marc Jacobs, who almost always shows us what we didn’t even know we wanted. Many of the design houses in Paris do as well, but it takes time for that degree of complexity to marinate. That’s why the six-month period between the show and the ability to purchase is so important.”

The business logic behind making fashion and fashion week more consumer-friendly isn’t hard to grasp, and given New York’s reputation for wearing its entrepreneurial guts on its sleeve, it’s not shocking that it would start leaning into that identity for fashion week. New York is a city preoccupied with the bottom line, and the bottom line is that clothes aren’t just art; they’re meant to be purchased and worn. Designers can’t just create, they have to sell.

That being said, there’s no reason business savvy and creativity can’t coexist in fashion. Just last week, luxury conglomerate Kering announced soaring profits thanks to Gucci, where recurring operating income is up 69% compared to the first half of 2016. The value of Gucci in a business sense is undeniable — ditto for its artistic value. Creative Director Alessandro Michele has nailed the formula for wearable, sellable art, and his collections have the rare ability to transcend the lifespan of a single season.

I won’t argue the New York fashion industry has reached that point yet, but if it’s currently doing the work of metabolizing international cities’ big ideas and regurgitating them in a way that caters to the consumer, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with leaning into that ability for now. I also don’t think it signals a dearth of New York-based ingenuity and imagination. If anything, it opens the door for new ideas and new players to emerge, especially if certain New York designers feel their businesses are better suited abroad. It leaves more room (literally) to experiment.

New York has historically been a hub where creativity and monetary success converge. Why not let it do what it does best and see what happens?

Collage by Rachelle Klapheke. Photos by Jamie McCarthy and Westend61 via Getty Images.

Harling Ross

Harling is a writer and was most recently the Brand Director at Man Repeller.

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