NEW YORK, United States — At a time when the luxury menswear market is growing swiftly, American menswear labels still lack a unified, New York-based platform to help them attract media attention and drive their wholesale businesses. Most are forced to show abroad — in London, Milan or Paris — or wait for New York Fashion Week, a womenswear-dominated event that falls outside the menswear selling cycle. (In the spring/summer season, New York Fashion Week begins more than two months after the close of Paris menswear and a month after the men's sales period has ended.)
As a result, New York has lost key menswear players like Calvin Klein and John Varvatos to Milan, while, in recent seasons, rising labels like Thom Browne and Phillip Lim have chosen to show their menswear in Paris. Other brands have begun presenting their men’s collections in the space between Paris haute couture and New York Fashion Week, while some simply send out digital lookbooks.
One designer who chooses to stick it out in New York, out of a sense of loyalty, is Michael Bastian, former men's fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman who watched the decline of American designer menswear over his five years in the job from 2001 to 2006. "When I first started at Bergdorf, there was an American half and a European half on the men's designer floor, and slowly it just became all European with an American corner, which was really just John Varvatos," says Bastian. "And the sad truth was that, here I was, the men's fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman and I could have missed New York Fashion Week. There was nothing I hadn't already seen, we'd already done the buy.”
For some labels, showing in foreign fashion capitals is working well. But for the American men’s fashion industry at large — at a time of exciting growth, when emerging designers like Public School and Ovadia & Sons are pushing the creative envelope, while labels like Thom Browne are steadily building globally recognised brands — this fragmented state of affairs is anything but ideal.
"The American men's business is a really robust business and our talent is some of the best in the world," said Tom Florio, former publisher of GQ and Vogue, turned CEO of Advanstar, which runs the Magic and Project trade shows. “So why are they showing in cities that, quite candidly, are depressed markets that don't have nearly the amount of retail? We should have them here representing our country.
As recently as last year, conversations about organising a men's fashion week in New York, expected to launch in July 2014, were bubbling. Participants have included the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), along with key American media, designers, trade show organisers, retailers and production agencies.
"If these people are trying to pull together a New York Fashion Week, then we're definitely on board," said Bastian.
"If there was an opportunity to have a New York men's week that makes sense within the international men's calendar, then we'd definitely be interested," added Jeff Halmos of Shipley & Halmos, who cites timing difficulties with sales and production as the major reason he stopped showing during the womenswear-focused New York Fashion Week.
Eric Jennings, vice president and fashion director of men's, home and gifts at Saks Fifth Avenue, is equally enthused. "It would be really beneficial," he said. "The new brands get the short end of the stick when they're showing during New York Fashion Week, and those will be the ones that benefit the most. The bigger brands will always get the press and the buyers are going to be able to write those orders, but it's the emerging designers that would really benefit from having a men's fashion week in New York."
"There are a lot of gutsy, forward-thinking designers out there in America," added GQ creative director Jim Moore. "To give those people their own time, their own season that works well within the men's schedule would be phenomenal, and it feels like a no-brainer to me."
But according to Steven Kolb, chief executive of the CFDA, a July 2014 launch is now out of the question.
Kolb had set out to raise corporate sponsorship to support the mooted menswear week, with a minimum target of $2 million and a tentative cutoff date of Thanksgiving 2013. But despite these efforts, the search for sponsors ultimately failed, and at the time of writing, there was no one party willing to fund such an event.
"To create this three or four day men's week really requires us to get some corporate involvement and we haven't been able to do that," said Kolb. "Without that, there's nothing we can do. We were hoping that we could have that in place for summer 2014, so there were a lot of meetings with a lot of people with varying degrees of interest, but we were not able to figure anybody out to help sponsor. We had production and designers ready to go. We even had some potential dates we would have probably done it, but I think that window has closed for summer 2014. From a planning process, it's not feasible.”
But Florio isn't ruling anything out. "Whether or not we pull off a smaller event in July, there is certainly the potential that it can happen. In my mind, there will be a New York men's week, and it's very likely it can happen sometime in 2014," he said, adding: "[For women’s] you have Anna Wintour and Vogue driving one part of the women's business in the States. You have the CFDA, and you have IMG funding Fashion Week. That's not really happening in the men's. There have been a lot of conversations, and awareness has really peaked. There's a rather significant group of designers who are interested, but what we need at this point is to get the funding and the sponsorship to pull it off."
Florio also notes that while sponsorship is key, it's not necessarily the most important piece of the puzzle. Lest we forget, a key catalyst of the rise of London Collections: Men was the return of Burberry, a major international advertiser, to its hometown.
"If all the American designers that are the big anchors decided to do a fashion week tomorrow, it wouldn't cost any money," said Florio. "They would have their own men's fashion week and they would run their shows the way they do everywhere else in the world. You need the anchors to bring in the international press, and you have to help fund the smaller designers. What you need is to bring in the international press and buyers — that's what a fashion week is all about."
Kolb is confident that if New York builds the platform, those anchors will come. "Without naming names, I spoke to either the designer or the PR person [at all the major brands]. All of them were aware of our plans, some of them were ready to set up and do a show, and others were ready to do some kind of activation, if not a proper show."
So what would a New York men's week look like?
"The concept is based on a centralised location with multiple venues within that location," said Kolb. "We'd schedule it so that maybe 15 new generation menswear talents — from Public School up to Michael Bastian — would show at that centralised location, driven by underwriting from sponsors. And around that there would be bigger brands who could do independent things that are either in the vicinity or scheduled appropriately."
Jennings believes it's just a matter of time. "There are certain individuals that would really benefit from putting up the money for it, so I'm quite surprised they haven't been able to raise the two million."
Michael Bastian — and no doubt many other men's designers who currently present their collections during New York’s womenswear week — hopes it's sooner rather than later. "A day after the show happens and we're looking at the bills, it's like, 'Wow, that was a lot of money to prove our loyalty.'”