NEW YORK, United States — New York’s status as a global fashion capital has long been qualified by its commercial concerns. In true American style, the focus here is on the bottom line. A collection shows promise, but can it sell? Can it become the next Ralph Lauren?
The commercial obsession sharpened in recent years. The closure of Barneys New York and Opening Ceremony — shops that once supported new designers by buying early collections — further cut out key early-career support. And investors moved their financial support from designer-led labels to hyped direct-to-consumer darlings.
The challenges are felt more deeply here than in Europe, where social media and e-commerce have also changed the industry, but in different ways. Backed up by the increasingly powerful luxury conglomerates, creatives there are often given more time to grow, and independent designers can collaborate or consult more easily with larger brands as they build their businesses.
The new modus operandi in New York is “do what is right for your brand” — a bit of an every-man-for-himself vibe — with even Council of Fashion Designers of America Chairman Tom Ford taking that approach by skipping town for Los Angeles. He is linking up with the Academy Awards on Sunday, which takes place this year in the midst of New York Fashion Week, kicking off Friday.
Ford won’t be the only name missing this season, which will also mark the first time Ralph Lauren skips fashion week in over 50 years. Most of the 90s powerhouse names will be absent, from Calvin Klein (done with the runway for now) to Tommy Hilfiger (showing in London), while many of the downtown darlings that have built a reputation in recent decades will either be skipping out (like Maryam Nassir Zadeh) or joining other Americans in Paris (like Jeremy Scott and Rosie Assoulin).
Decisions are really made independently on business strategy, timing, opportunities elsewhere.
The absence gives international editors and buyers even less of a reason to fly out — or stay longer than Nike budgeted for them to view its latest Olympic presentation — and see what the city’s designers have to offer. It all forces the industry to question the role of this week moving forward.
“To me, this story is who is showing, and not who is not showing,” said CFDA President and Chief Executive Steven Kolb, adding that the absences shouldn’t be seen as a unified shift. “Decisions are really made independently on business strategy, timing, opportunities elsewhere.”
Designers like Joseph Altuzarra who want to expand their European businesses are attempting that by showing in Paris, Kolb said. “I personally believe Joseph will be back sooner than later,” he said, citing Proenza Schouler and Rodarte, back on the schedule in New York this season, as indicators.
But something larger is brewing this season.
Presenting in New York is no longer the exclusive milestone it once was; designers who want to be considered alongside the kind of creativity coming out of the luxury giants are heading to Paris to be seen in that context. And many of the contemporary brands who form the backbone of New York fashion week are finding they no longer need the validation of the runway as they build their businesses online, engaging directly with customers themselves.
In New York, data now often takes precedence over risk. Decades ago, American designers launched lower-priced diffusion lines to support their bolder runway ideas. Today, the diffusion line is often the only business left — though it can be nearly impossible to discern, on a crowded New York Fashion Week schedule, who is making apparel and who is making fashion.
“The history of New York has its ups and downs... that is historically how this city runs,” said fashion consultant Julie Gilhart, comparing fashion week to a phoenix that cyclically regenerates. “If New York Fashion week becomes smaller and more edited, maybe that’s where we need to go and build from.”
BoF looks back at the key events leading up to and during the last decade of New York Fashion Week, tracing the fragmentation of shows, the brand and store closures and the show structure experiments that have brought the industry to a turning point.
September 1998: Helmut Lang repositions New York Fashion Week when he decides to show before the European season instead of after. Calvin Klein and Donna Karan follow suit and the event’s significance grows in scale.
February 2001: The sports and entertainment management group IMG, which already helps secure sponsorship for fashion week, acquires the rights to stage the shows when it buys “7th on Sixth Inc,” the production division of the CFDA.
September 2001: In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, which take place on the fourth day of NYFW, shows held at Bryant Park are cancelled and designers present their collections to buyers and the press in smaller showroom formats. To help younger designers who could not afford to reschedule their shows, American Vogue hosts a group show at Carolina Herrera’s showroom.
February 2002: Zac Posen’s first independent show is the buzziest of the season, with models including Karen Elson and Paz de la Huerta.
February 2003: Proenza Schouler makes its runway debut. It wins the CFDA Swarovski Award for ready-to-wear in June and the inaugural CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund the following year.
September 2006: Telfar debuts on the fashion week runway at Manhattan Center in a group show organised by GenArt, an arts organization that supports emerging talent.
September 2008: Fashion week draws a total of 232,000 attendees and generates $466 million in visitor spending this year, according to the City government.
January 2009: Three years after launching his label, Jason Wu gains national exposure for designing Michelle Obama’s inauguration gown. The high-profile choice of a young designer galvanises a fashion industry reeling from the recession.
September 2009: Early fashion bloggers Garance Doré, Tommy Ton, Scott Schuman, Bryanboy and Tavi Gevinson attend major New York shows such as Marc Jacobs and Rodarte, kicking off the social media influencer era and changing the power dynamics of the front row.
February 2010: After disputes between Bryant Park and show organisers, the season marks the last at the midtown park tents. Industry insiders worry Lincoln Center will be a less-than-worthy replacement.
February 2013: Hood by Air makes its official fashion week debut. Shayne Oliver’s progressive label first showed at least five years prior at a Chinatown gallery.
September 2013: While it initially attracted many designers post-Bryant Park, Lincoln Center is an unappealing venue for many due to the crowds and overload of sponsors. Tory Burch ditches the tents for the nearby lobby of Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater, two years after her runway debut. Oscar de la Renta stages a smaller show in his showroom. Calvin Klein signals a larger shift to come when it is the first brand to present at the yet-to-formally-open Spring Studios for designer Francisco Costa’s 10-year anniversary. Rachel Comey leaves Manhattan, hosting her first dinner and runway show in Red Hook.
December 2013: Talent agency William Morris Endeavor acquires IMG for $2.3 billion.
February 2014: The season unofficially marks the end of Lincoln Center: Diane von Furstenberg and Michael Kors follow Calvin Klein to Spring Studios while Donna Karan shows on Wall Street. Alexander Wang makes headlines by luring editors to the Brooklyn Navy Yard (Uber discounts and free ferry rides are provided). And Marc Jacobs presents a highly anticipated collection, his first since exiting Louis Vuitton and returning to New York full time.
July 2014: The CFDA acquires the Fashion Calendar from Ruth Finley, furthering the trade organisation’s control of NYFW.
February 2015: With Lincoln Center’s sublicense agreement with IMG Fashion set to expire, the performing arts venue hosts its last NYFW. Tom Ford returns from London to present in LA during Oscar weekend, which overlaps with fashion week. Donna Karan shows what will be her last runway collection for her namesake line. And Kanye West presents his first Yeezy show to much anticipation.
April 2015: IMG inks a deal with two event spaces, Skylight Clarkson Square and Moynihan Station, which will serve as NYFW’s official venues. The announcement comes a month after IMG acquires Made, an event producer that helped launch the careers of young creatives such as Alexander Wang and Proenza Schouler at Milk Studios. Shows at the Meatpacking District venue will end a year later, with Made hosting a Los Angeles show series from 2016 to 2018.
July 2015: The CFDA produces a fashion week for the first time with the launch of New York Fashion Week: Men’s. Brands including John Varvatos, Tommy Hilfiger, Coach, Thom Browne and Public School participate in an intimate series of shows, with big-name sponsors like Amazon Fashion and Cadillac.
September 2015: Givenchy comes to New York, staging an elaborate outdoor runway show for 4,000 guests. Public School’s Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne present their first collection for DKNY. Their appointment at the label marks the mainstream embrace of streetwear. Pyer Moss’ Kerby Jean-Raymond uses his runway show to spotlight victims of police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. When news of his plans break before the show, his original venue and at least one retailer cut ties with him. It marks the first of many activistic runway shows for Jean-Raymond.
December 2015: Tamara Mellon files for bankruptcy protection for her namesake line, which was selling collections on a see-now-buy-now basis to retailers. The company relaunches as direct-to-consumer only, a move that will later be validated by a $50 million Series C funding round in 2019.
February 2016: The see-now-buy-now era begins, as the first wave of designers and brands announce plans to present only in-season collections on the runway, hoping consumers will want to buy the collections immediately. Rebecca Minkoff is the first to pull it off in New York, and Tom Ford skips the seasons completely in order to set up for the new approach.
March 2016: The CFDA releases a fashion week study conducted with Boston Consulting Group that offers few industry-wide solutions but urges designers to choose strategies that best work for their businesses.
April 2016: New York label Ohne Titel closes after failing to find a strategic partner, one of many labels which shutter during this time including Peter Som (whose last collection was Spring 2015) and Suno, which will close in November after failing to find an investor to continue operations.
June 2016: Public School, whose designers Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne also head design at DKNY, begin showing off-season in a combined men’s and women’s runway presentation.
September 2016: Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger present in-season shows for the first time, the latter debuting his first collection with Gigi Hadid in a partnership that will continue until 2018. Kate Spade New York skips the week to return with an in-season show next spring, and Hood by Air presents what will be its last runway show. Thakoon relaunches as a direct-to-consumer brand backed by Silas Chou, but the venture ends the following March.
The season also marks the launch of Midland casting and management agency, founded by Rachel Chandler and Walter Pearce (who got his start finding unconventional models for Hood by Air), who help pioneer street casting for the runway.
January 2017: NYFW: Men’s earns international attention by hosting Hugo Boss and Raf Simons, ahead of his Calvin Klein debut.
February 2017: Simons' first collection for Calvin Klein is presented in a highly anticipated show during a season marked by a political awakening in the wake of the election of President Trump and a historic women’s march. Marc Jacobs shakes things up with a stripped-back runway show with no music or set. Plus-size model Ashley Graham walks the runway for Michael Kors for the first time, a milestone in body diversity from a mainstream designer brand.
The fragmentation continues, with Tommy Hilfiger, Rachel Comey and Rebecca Minkoff showing in Los Angeles and Opening Ceremony showing off-calendar in January. Several designers skip the season entirely, including Tom Ford, who will return to showing collections a season ahead of retail. Public School abandons the off-season schedule and returns to fashion week.
Mayor Bill de Blasio announces plans to create a new fashion manufacturing hub in Brooklyn, where more than 100 manufacturers already operate. The Garment District in midtown Manhattan shrunk rapidly in recent years as designers moved their production overseas and landlords hiked rents. Industry workers who oppose the plan argue that the proposed location is too far from clients and workers.
March 2017: Marc Jacobs closes his last remaining fashion and accessories store on Bleecker Street, where he once had six outposts. The shopping street is full of empty storefronts.
April 2017: Hood by Air goes on an indefinite hiatus. Ralph Lauren plans to close its flagship Fifth Avenue Polo store.
July 2017: Some of New York’s most-followed designers — Proenza, Rodarte and Monique Lhuillier — show in Paris during couture for the first time in the hopes of reaching international editors and buyers.
September 2017: New York designers continue to look abroad. Thom Browne, who has been showing his men’s collections in Paris since 2010, and Altuzarra both show womenswear collections during Paris Fashion Week. Tommy Hilfiger heads to London with Gigi Hadid. Meanwhile, Tom Ford and Diane von Furstenberg return to the NYFW runway schedule, in what will be the latter’s last runway show.
December 2017: Everlane opens its first store in New York, which regularly draws lines of customers eager to see the direct-to-consumer basics line’s products in person.
February 2018: The CFDA shifts men's week from January to the days leading up to the women’s season, and Raf Simons and Tom Ford kick off an extra-long fashion week with their men’s collections. Spring Place, with its crowded elevators, is the official venue partner for IMG. Alexander Wang skips NYFW to show during the pre-collection seasons instead. The CFDA hopes that strategy might be a wider move but no one follows.
June 2018: With Virgil Abloh and Kim Jones making their highly anticipated debuts for Louis Vuitton and Dior in Paris this season, the French capital is the place to be for menswear designers. New York’s menswear week hosts no international or major labels, and in a year will lose emerging names such as Bode to Paris, too. Meanwhile, the LVMH-backed made-in-Africa brand Edun shuts down after attempting a variety of failed strategies.
September 2018: Proenza Schouler and Rodarte return to New York, but Altuzarra and Thom Browne stick to Paris. The season marks both Rodarte and Calvin Klein’s last runway shows to date, as Raf Simons exits the latter by the end of the year and is not replaced.
High-production value shows stand out: Ralph Lauren’s 50th-anniversary extravaganza in Central Park attracts celebrities including Oprah Winfrey and Hillary Clinton, while Rihanna’s first lingerie show challenges the Victoria’s Secret model. Independent designer Adam Selman skips the runway as he closes his ready-to-wear business and shifts to activewear.
December 2018: City Council votes to rezone the Garment District in midtown Manhattan, relaxing a 1987 ruling that restricted landlords to fashion-industry tenants. The new zoning rule allows landlords to convert their buildings to office spaces or other types of business, but it was followed by tax incentives and grants designed to help keep manufacturers in the area. The ruling was vocally criticised by Garment District factory owners and workers opposed to moving to Brooklyn.
January 2019: Mired by discount culture and increased online competition, multi-brand retail faces a reckoning. Lord & Taylor’s Fifth Avenue flagship, all locations of Henri Bendel and Saks Fifth Avenue’s downtown women’s store close.
February 2019: Raf Simons’s absence at NYFW is felt. With the help of Marc Jacobs and Katie Grand, unknown young Japanese designer Tomo Koizumi is the breakout of the season. Tommy Hilfiger presents his first collaboration collection with Zendaya in Paris. Back in New York, a sample sale for direct-to-consumer contemporary brand Dôen draws 5,000 people, cementing the American brand’s cult status. And multi-brand retailer The Line, lead by Vanessa Traina, closes its New York City boutique the Apartment.
March 2019: Calvin Klein discontinues its runway collection, abandoning the runway... for now.
June 2019: Tom Ford begins his role as chairman of the CFDA.
July 2019: After raising over $37 million from investors, direct-to-consumer womenswear brand Reformation sells to private equity firm Permira Funds.
August 2019: Barneys New York files for bankruptcy after a rent increase pushes it to the brink. In three months, new owners will liquidate the inventory and plan to close its stores.
September 2019: Tom Ford cuts NYFW down to five days, compacting and crowding the schedule in a way that brings more energy to the season. Designers aimed to stage differentiated experiences, with half a dozen labels choosing venues in Brooklyn. Tommy Hilfiger and Pyer Moss’ large-scale events at the Apollo and Kings Theatre make headlines, as does Rihanna’s choreographed Fenty lingerie musical show, filmed for Amazon Prime. Telfar trades New York for Paris and finds the international audience he was hoping for. Thakoon relaunches again as a direct-to-consumer brand with a lower price point and a digitally savvy partner.
November 2019: Zac Posen shuts down his namesake line after failing to find a buyer or new investors.
January 2020: Opening Ceremony announces plans to close its influential boutiques as its founders ink a deal with New Guards Group to produce collections under the brand name. Fashion PR firm Black Frame will shut down after fashion week. Siren Public Relations also closes its doors.
February 2020: The calendar continues to thin, with recent runway regulars including Phillip Lim, Maryam Nassir Zadeh and Pyer Moss, among others, planning to sit the season out. Jeremy Scott and Rosie Assoulin move to Paris. Tommy Hilfiger plans to return to London and Tom Ford will present in Los Angeles to coincide with the Oscars. Alexander Wang, who decided not to show as planned in December, says he will host an anniversary event in the spring. And Ralph Lauren sits out the season for the first time in decades, planning something for April instead.