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Op-Ed | Rethinking New York Fashion Week

Facing an exodus of top labels like Thom Browne, Proenza Schouler, Rodarte and Altuzarra, New York Fashion Week needs to change on several levels, argues Eugene Rabkin.
Jeremy Scott Autumn/Winter 2017 at New York Fashion Week's Clarkson Square venue | Source: Shutterstock
By
  • Eugene Rabkin

NEW YORK, United States — Things are not looking good for New York Fashion Week. Recently, Thom Browne, Proenza Schouler, Rodarte and Altuzarra all announced their departure for Paris. These are arguably the most creative American 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 sportswear and cocktail dresses, and light on new ideas. Ask almost any European editor about New York Fashion Week and their eyes glaze over. Few of them actually want to come here of their own volition.

With the exception of Marc Jacobs, there is not much left on the New York Fashion Week calendar that is exciting. To be sure, there are important commercial names on the schedule, like Michael Kors and Tom Ford, who is moving his show to New York this season, but they are not the brands the industry expects to produce fashion with a capital "F." A couple of former millennial favourites, such as Alexander Wang and Jeremy Scott, are also staying put for now, but their fans have largely moved on to the newly hyped brands like Vetements and Off-White.

Of course, the brightest spot on the New York calendar is Calvin Klein under Raf Simons. But while the designer's first collection for the brand was praised in public, it left most editors I talked to privately unexcited. His presence was supposed to re-energise New York Fashion Week the way Helmut Lang did in 1997, but the current exodus would suggest otherwise.

Who is to blame? Well, the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) is surely one culprit. Commenting on the recent departures, Steven Kolb, the CFDA's president, told American Vogue: "Not one of these brands would be able to show in Paris if it weren't for New York. They're all winners of the Fashion Fund or participants, and they were able to get their start because of how democratic and open American fashion is." The statement was made to mitigate the damage, but it made New York sound like a B-grade breeding ground that prepares fashion talent for departure to one of the real fashion capitals of the world. The CFDA clearly prides itself on supporting young designers, yet I know brands that have been knocking on the CFDA's door for years to no avail.

The CFDA is still by and large a reference system that requires a power broker to crack. The revolving door of nominees for its annual Fashion Awards is also a testament to how little creative star power New York really possesses. Perhaps that’s why some downtown brands, like hipster darlings Eckhaus Latta, seem content to stay away from the CFDA altogether.

Raf Simons' presence was supposed to re-energise New York Fashion Week... but the current exodus would suggest otherwise.

The lack of the independent fashion media in New York is another factor, especially compared to London and Paris. There is no American i-D, or Another or Purple, publications that have historically championed independent fashion talent. What's more, there is no support system in the American fashion academia that would allow European magazines like London's 1Granary, Helsinki's SSAW and the Paris-based Vestoj to flourish.

But the biggest problem with New York is the established view that fashion is first and foremost a business. The pressure here is not to create but to sell, hence the insipid sportswear that permeates our runways. This type of thinking often starts at school. At Parsons, one the city’s top art and design schools, fashion design courses are taught conservatively and when talented students do appear, as they inevitably must, they are often snatched up by the big commercial fashion businesses, where instead of being given creative freedom, they are forced to design shirts with polo players on them.

So what can be done in order to revive New York Fashion Week? One short-term solution is attracting marquee brands to the city. Why not offer to finance the show of a creative American talent like Rick Owens and lure him away from Paris, even for just a season? Why not invite "special guests" each season? Pitti Immagine successfully does this in Florence during its Pitti Uomo trade fair. How is it that they are able to get Off-White, one of the most talked about brands of the moment, to stage a show in Florence ahead of New York?

New York City itself is an incredible asset. And yet Skylight Clarkson Square, operated by IMG and home to roughly 40 of the 140 shows on the official calendar, is one of the most dispiriting and boring places to stage fashion. Why not try to work more closely with officials to open up some of the city’s most iconic properties for shows and presentations? Give Supreme money and let them organise a skateboarding competition on the steps of the New York Public Library.

New York Fashion Week also needs a more discriminating selection process for who can show on the official calendar in order to make the event less bloated. The Federation de la haute couture et de la Mode in Paris has one hundred brand members, but the CFDA has more than five hundred. And though the council has recently made improvements to the New York Fashion Week schedule, eliminating the second Thursday of the week, tighter curation would be welcome.

But at the end of day, what needs to change more than anything in New York is the deeply embedded thinking that fashion is a business like any other — because it isn't. Fashion is also about creativity, excitement and the spectacular, and we should learn to celebrate that instead of pushing designers to sell above all else. There exists a very clear business model for putting exciting creations on the runway while selling their more simplified versions to stores and pursuing more commercial ventures without sacrificing integrity. Comme des Garçons is a shining example. So are Rick Owens and Thom Browne. New York Fashion Week will only be reborn when we stop thinking like mere businessmen, teach our fashion students that creativity comes first and make New York City itself an exciting place in which to show.

Eugene Rabkin is the editor of StyleZeitgeist magazine.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

Editor's Note: This article was revised on 18 July 2017. An earlier version of this article misstated that Amazon was a sponsor of New York's womenswear fashion week. It is not. The article also misstated that the CFDA produces New York Fashion Week women's shows at Skylight Clarkson Square. It does not. The CFDA produces NYFW: Men's at the venue. IMG operates Skylight Clarkson Square during New York's womenswear shows, when approximately 40 out of 140 shows on the official schedule take place there.

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