NEW YORK, United States — For years, fashion industry observers have been flicking at a sensitive question, reflective of how the sector is changing: Does New York Fashion Week matter? Should it exist? Who is it for? For many American designers, orders for their Spring/Summer 2020 collections, shown virtually to buyers, press and consumers this month, will determine whether or not they survive the sales-crushing pandemic. And yet, this strange season’s series of “shows” made it clearer than ever: the value of New York Fashion Week is up for debate.
Dress designer Jason Wu was one of just a few who dared to stage a traditional in-person runway show, inviting 30-odd editors, stylists, influencers and industry friends — all required to wear face masks — to the rooftop of Spring Place, the go-to venue for events and talent management company IMG, which owns NYFW: The Shows. Despite the body temperature checks and emergency contact form requirements, it felt normal, but in an eerie way — like a ghost from fashion week’s past. More than two dozen street style photographers waited outside the building afterwards, though it was unclear who they hoped to capture.
There were a few other in-the-flesh experiences — Imitation of Christ at a skatepark in Los Angeles (stretching the definition of New York Fashion Week), Christian Siriano at his modernist Connecticut home, Eckhaus Latta on the streets of the Lower East Side — but most designers who were listed on the set schedule released pre-filmed videos or simply published collection images, which dribbled out, day by day, on Runway360, a digital hub run by the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), on NYFW.com, run by IMG, and on social media platforms. Zac Posen, who closed his namesake label in November, live-draped dresses in Central Park as an homage to New York City’s resilience after a difficult year.
Harlem’s Fashion Row, which is typically staged as an award show with new collections revealed throughout, celebrated via live stream the industry’s new Black talent, including Kimberly Goldson, Richfresh and Kristian Lorén, and spotlighted Black leaders, including British Vogue Editor-in-Chief Edward Enninful, Teen Vogue Editor-in-Chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner, designer Kerby Jean-Raymond and public relations agency founder Nate Hinton, who have guided the industry at large through this year’s civil rights movement and beyond.
Carolina Herrera released a filmed conversation between the eponymous founder and creative director Wes Gordon. Other brands, like Jonathan Simkhai, filmed models on the Spring Place runway with empty audience seats. Ulla Johnson filmed an otherwise traditional runway show on Roosevelt Island, while Cynthia Rowley staged a music video-inspired clip with a live band on the streets of the West Village. Newer labels also took the opportunity to make bold statements, like Apotts by designer Aaron Potts, whose latest unisex collection played with the racial symbolism of the two-headed “topsy-turvy doll,” while menswear designer Colleen Allen debuted her first-ever collection with a digitally animated clip that resembled a dystopic video game.
While some drew notice, most of these proposals had little impact, overshadowed by bigger news elsewhere in the business, like the launch of Amazon’s new luxury shopping platform, which is selling Oscar de la Renta, and Telfar’s collaboration with Ugg footwear. (Neither brand participated in fashion week this season.)
For decades, New York Fashion Week was imperative for American designers, but its power has waned in recent years as the traditional runway to department store model weakened, particularly in the US, and more designers showed in Paris. Will it survive the pandemic? Some designers, even young ones who likely once dreamed of taking part, are questioning its future.
I don't feel the need to be on this calendar anymore.
“Most of the stores that I work with are either going bankrupt or they're not ordering, and I don't feel the need to be on this calendar anymore,” said Susan Korn, founder of Susan Alexandra, a line of beaded handbags and accessories. For the last three seasons, she has hosted elaborate fashion shows in New York, including an original musical production and her version of a Bat Mitzvah celebration. Multi-brand retail used to be 70 percent of her business. She’s decided to cut out the middleman and go entirely direct-to-consumer — and cut Fashion Week, too.
“The best way I can connect with my people is through Instagram or through emails,” she said, outlining a strategy that has become more important for many American fashion brands. At one point she was planning an “elaborate” presentation, but she cancelled those plans. “I checked in with myself and thought, ‘Does anyone really care?’” she said.
Linda Fargo, Senior Vice President of Fashion Office and Store Presentation at Bergdorf Goodman, said that her team was able to see more collections virtually than they would have physically, but that the "energy and emotion" of real-time presentations were lost. "Hopeful for a future where we can see some combination of both," she said via email.
Of course, not every designer label agrees, as evident by how different brands approached this hampered week.
On Thursday, Christian Siriano went so far as to invite about 60 guests, each shuttled in private SUVs, to the backyard of his expansive home in Connecticut, more than an hour outside the city. He presented a collection of voluminous red carpet gowns and patterned, tailored separates which, despite the fact that all the models wore masks, felt ready for a reality we do not live in currently. While Siriano’s shows typically feature front rows packed with celebrities and influencers, actor Billy Porter was the only notable one in attendance. (Siriano designed the tuxedo dress Porter famously wore to the Oscars in 2019.)
“It's been seven months of...no glamour in our lives,” said Siriano after the show. “Everybody really needed it, and also business is hard. We had to close our store, we furloughed employees. We need to keep going, or else it’s over.”
Wu, whose show featured his first contemporary-priced line, is another designer who clearly loves and needs the runway experience, and uses the format as a way to make a statement about his brand. “I want people to see that as a designer, I have a casual side, too,” Wu said of the Tulum-inspired collection of printed day dresses and oversized blazers, which required unconventional preparation methods, like Zoom model castings and masks at every fitting. “I have a need to create and I have a need for beauty because that’s something I need in my life as a creative person."
Eckhaus Latta designers Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta chose the public walkway under the Manhattan Bridge as a runway, not far from their Chinatown store. With no music or finale, passing joggers didn't even realise a show was taking place.
"Seeing clothing in motion is essential," said Eckhaus, adding that they wanted to convey a feeling of human community through the show, even if most people will watch it online. (Latta, who is based in California, remained there.)
“The habit and pattern of [the show] has been really useful for us in defining a structure in our business and our practice,” Latta said. “We still wanted to share what we are making… but not in this way that feels so insanely fantastical and digital, like here’s an alternate reality because the one we are in sucks — that’s not really how we think.”
Seeing clothing in motion is essential.
Designer Catherine Holstein, whose still-new luxury label Khaite has been gaining traction in retail and respect with critics, is also eager to return to the runway. But this season, she sent out a substantive box of inspirational goodies to editors and buyers, including a small candle designed in collaboration with Régime des Fleurs, a white-vinyl record, a leather pouch filled with postcards, as well as a large-format book of Hanna Tveite-photographed images of her latest collection, tagged with fabric swatches. These types of shows-in-a-box are crisis-era time capsules, and may become more meaningful as the years go on.
Theory Chief Brand Officer Siddhartha Shukla saw the fashion week framework as an opportunity — not only to showcase the brand’s spring collection, but to highlight its cold-weather gear, too, which was sold to buyers months ago. “New York Fashion Week is a prompt like many other prompts,” he said. “We’re happy to participate and use the occasion as a platform to talk about what we’re thinking about."
New York contemporary designer Tanya Taylor said presenting upcoming seasons during fashion week “does not do anything for our business.” So instead she released a video on NYFW.com this week reminding viewers to register to vote, with appearances from Hillary Clinton, Mindy Kaling, Rosario Dawson and other famous friends.
Taylor said opting out of the week, which she first skipped last season, has not had a negative effect on her relationships with wholesale accounts or with customers.
“We are even getting attention from new retailers that I’ve always wanted,” Taylor said, adding that the brand is also cutting down on the styles it will produce for wholesale.
It’s not only the smaller or newer brands that are opting out. Majors such as Marc Jacobs, Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, The Row and Tory Burch, as well as smaller but closely watched labels like Proenza Schouler and Pyer Moss — they’re all doing something else at some other time, or nothing at all. Gabriela Hearst, who earned the CFDA Award for womenswear designer of the year on Monday, is making the move to show in Paris in September.
In the coming weeks, Michael Kors will present the collection to buyers and then press in small in-person or Zoom appointments before releasing images of the collection online in mid-October, as part of a plan to show later each season moving forward.
“We are doing what I believe is right for our business, for our customers and I think it will all evolve. Fashion is not and shouldn’t be stagnant,” Kors said on Thursday during a photoshoot for the Spring 2021 collection. “Who knows, maybe the European collections will shift.”
While Gucci and Saint Laurent pledged earlier this summer that they will rethink their approaches to fashion week — with Gucci showing only twice per year and doing away with seasons, while Saint Laurent said it will skip Paris this season and rethink its presentation calendar — the European fashion weeks are likely to remain the epicentre of networking and dealmaking.
New York was already fragmenting before the pandemic. This season, the bifurcation between the CFDA and IMG — the trade organisation owns the fashion week official schedule, while the agency owns the moniker New York Fashion Week — made things more confusing, as both launched content platforms (with different corporate sponsors.)
Some American designers looking for more international exposure, like Altuzarra and Peter Do, were already presenting or marketing their collections in Paris in recent years. And now with so many designers struggling financially as retailers cut budgets or delay payments, many brands are not expected to survive this crisis. If they do, they will be unlikely to prioritise runway shows as they rebuild their businesses in a more profitable, direct-to-consumer way — further putting into question the need or value for New York Fashion Week.
“Certainly, would it be easier for everyone, let’s be frank, if everything was at the same time?” said Kors. “I don't know many people who would be unhappy if it was in a centralised location either.”
He was referring to when New York Fashion Week took place at one time and in one place when it was at the Bryant Park tents between 1993 and 2010. But maybe the next iteration of fashion week is actually more global.
A global fashion week in Paris could be a compelling model for the future for American brands that benefit from — and prefer — centralisation. Milan, the industry's other commercial centre, will not cede to Paris. Designers who don’t need fashion week, or prefer to show in their hometowns, can continue doing as they please. But knowing that there is a place in Paris for everyone could streamline things. While that kind of total shift won’t likely find support from IMG, the CFDA or even New York City, which all generate revenue fashion week through sponsorship, designer fees and tourism activity, it could be a solution that makes sense for New York’s fashion talent that needs the platform.
Perhaps the right-sizing of the industry will apply to fashion month, too.
Additional reporting by Alexandra Mondalek.