NEW YORK, United States — With more than 250 presentations and runway shows set to take place during the Spring 2014 season of New York Fashion Week, which kicks off next week, it’s no stretch to say the system is broken. There are too many designers showing too many collections. As well as overloading the schedules of weary editors and buyers, sick of schlepping to endless shows and presentations, this leaves precious little opportunity for truly talented emerging brands to cut through the clutter and attract the attention they deserve.
There are exceptions, of course. Suno saw traction in its very first season thanks to a strong show of support from American Vogue, while Prabal Gurung had already been anointed a rising star by American media icon Oprah Winfrey months ahead of his first outing. But unless a label manages to somehow generate a huge amount of buzz, the simple fact is it’s unlikely that top buyers and editors are going to attend their first presentation. Or their second or third.
Ruth Runberg, former buying director of London’s Browns and a veteran of the New York fashion scene, who has held positions at both Barneys New York and Saks Fifth Avenue, isn’t satisfied with the current situation. “When I was at Browns, I would get 50 enquires a day from brands in the lead up to fashion week, and that’s just via email. I’d have another stack of 50 envelopes,” she said, over coffee in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighbourhood, where she moved a year ago with her husband. “There’s just no way to see everything — and to make sure you’re not missing something good.”
To help steer buyers in the right direction, Runberg — who since moving back from London has built an independent consulting business — has created The White Space, along with freelance stylist and friend Alison Brokaw. An appointment-only event taking place from September 10th to 12th, from 10am to 6pm, at the West Chelsea studio of Justine and Jeff Koons, The White Space will give five designers, handpicked by Runberg and Brokaw, the opportunity to show their wares under one roof, in a way that’s efficient, compelling and affordable. For designers, traditional showroom representation can cost five figures a month, while a presentation or runway show can start at six figures, even for small productions. Many emerging designers simply need a empty white box in which to show their work, but during New York Fashion Week, even finding this can be complicated and expensive. Instead of charging a fee, Runberg and Brokaw will take a small percentage of any sales orders made at The White Space. The designers have also chosen, of their own accord, says Runberg, to make a group donation to the Koons Family Institute, a think tank that works with the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children.
Brokaw’s personal relationship with Justine and Jeff Koons is fortuitous. She happens to be “on the school run” with Justine. And the Koons name gives the project weight. After all, who doesn’t want to take a peek inside Jeff Koons’ studio? But ultimately, it’s about the designers. Runberg and Brokaw have hand-selected five promising talents who will show at the space. There’s Holly Fowler, a London-based Central Saint Martins graduate whose hand-painted dresses are already being sold at legendary department store Bergdorf Goodman; New York jeweller Jody Candrian, whose handmade cuffs and bolo ties evoke her native Arizona; Lee Savage, a Savannah, Georgia-bred, New York-dwelling handbag designer whose brass clutch bags are inspired by corrugated cardboard; Anjhe Mules, a London-based designer whose high-fashion activewear line, Lucas Hugh, has won her plenty of fans (she is stocked at Selfridges, Harrods and Browns); and finally, Yaser Shaw, a fifth-generation Kashmiri shawl designer whose pieces are each handstitched with the initials of the artisan who crafted it.
For each of these designers, showing in New York, in a notable way, is a priority. “It allows me to meet a broad range of international buyers and press and show my collection in an established commercial market,” Fowler said. For Savage, whose line is brand new, it’s about getting in front of the buyers herself, rather than hiring a sales assistant as proxy. “I was excited at the thought of participating in a more grass roots venture,” she said. Mules, who is stocked Stateside at Kirna Zabete and Net-a-Porter, aims to build on the traction she’s already gained in the US market. “We have seen huge and fast-growing interest from American customers already,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity to capitalise on that. And New York Fashion Week offers great global exposure, too, attracting buyers from all over the world who don’t always come to London.”
Of course, more established support programs such as the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s “Americans in Paris” showcase, London Showrooms and MADE all have similar goals. But Runberg and Brokaw’s venture may just boast the right mix of quality, curation and venue to stand out and attract key editors and buyers. Adds Runberg, “Given the talent of the designers, I think we really have the opportunity to reach the right people.”