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Fine. Let's Talk About New York Fashion Week

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Fine. Let's Talk About New York Fashion Week

There’s been a designer exodus and a lot of think pieces, so now what?

BY KATHARINE K. ZARRELLA

STYLE  -  AUGUST 11

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Altuzarra Fall 2017

Photo: firstVIEW

If you follow fashion (and I assume you do, because this site is called Fashion Unfiltered), you’re probably aware that we’re in the midst of a crisis. No, no, I’m not referring to North Korea (though, sartorially speaking, Kim Jong-un would fall into the crisis category, and generally speaking, the threat of nuclear war would too). I’m talking about New York fashion week. And, to be precise, it’s less of a crisis than an escalation of a slow, sad decline that’s been rolling down the runway for a few years now. 

Long story short, a quartet of our fair city’s best and boldest designers—Proenza Schouler, Rodarte, Thom Browne, and Altuzarra—has decamped to Paris, leaving a great big creative hole in the NYFW calendar. (Notice I said “creative” hole, not actual hole, because as so many have noted, the schedule, with more than 30 shows per day, is comically bloated.) It’s been widely reported that we fashions are “freaking out,” but “groaning” would be a more apt description of the local industry’s reaction. It’s like, “Ugh, New York is already so overcrowded and overwhelming and dominated by T-shirts and practical shift dresses, and now four of the few brands that present artful, thought-provoking collections are fucking off to Paris. Super.” First World problems? You betcha. But that is the pervading sentiment, and anyone who says differently is lying.

Joseph Altuzarra—who, while based in New York, is actually a Paris native—was the last of the bunch to announce his NYFW departure. And after that news broke on July 12, the think-piece flood gates opened. Vogue’s Nicole Phelps was the first, writing a measured story titled “Why Are American Designers Opting Out of New York Fashion Week?” She pointed out designers’ pack mentality, citing how Helmut Lang’s decision to move up the date of his show in 1998 prompted Calvin Klein and, later, the whole of New York to do the same. In regards to the recent designer exodus, she wrote, “Three’s a trend, but now there’s four…but let’s hope there’s no designer number five.” 

In that article, CFDA president and CEO Steven Kolb insisted that “New York is absolutely open for business,” and noted that all four of the abovementioned designers would not have been able to go show in Paris if it weren’t for their success in New York and the support of the CFDA (all are previous winners of the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund). That’s a fair point, but it still makes New York sound like a stepping stone to something better—a place where designers show until they can graduate and go play with the big kids in Europe. It doesn’t make us look great.

In a Fashionista article posted the same day, Kolb added, “I think the holes—or the vacancies that are created by designers showing elsewhere—only open up opportunities for a new generation of talent to be nurtured and grown and supported." That’s also a fair point (though it nods to how hard it is for anyone—no matter how talented—to cut through NYFW’s sartorial cacophony and stand out against the amorphous blob of nonstop, back-to-back shows). Indeed, there are some names on the New York schedule that could rise to Altuzarra or Proenza status. Sies Marjan is a prime candidate, and designer Sander Lak, a Dutch Central Saint Martins alum who cut his teeth at Dries Van Noten, could have easily launched his line in Paris. But he didn’t—he picked New York, and that’s a big win for us. Monse is another solid young brand, and because its designers also helm Oscar de la Renta, it seems unlikely they’ll flee across the pond any time soon. Then there are labels like Area, Eckhaus Latta, and Vaquera, all of whom have proved themselves to be provocative and full of potential. But these brands don’t make NYFW tick—at least not yet—while those that left for Paris did. So yes, that gaping hole—it’s real, it hurts, and it’s not going to be filled by September, or February, for that matter.

Of course there are still marquee names that make New York unmissable, like Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford, and Raf Simons for Calvin Klein. And then there are the buzzy “events,” like Rihanna for Fenty x Puma (which I like, I do, but I don’t know that celebrity is the way for NYFW to get its groove—or respect—back) and Kanye West (my thoughts on whom you can read here and here), and there’s Shayne Oliver’s capsule for the new Helmut Lang, which should be pretty exciting, though I do miss Hood by Air. But the majority of NYFW’s jam-packed schedule is filled with clothing, not fashion. Now, there’s nothing wrong with clothing—it’s what most people wear—it just doesn’t make for a very interesting fashion week. As WWD’s executive editor Bridget Foley pointed out in her July 13th diary, “The Exodus From New York,” “Most of the clothes are fine, but merely ‘fine’ seldom needs a runway.” Amen to that. And to that point, no wonder four of our creative pillars left for Paris. Altuzarra, Thom Browne, Proenza Schouler, and Rodarte are all fairly established, but in the grand scheme of things, they’re still building their brands. All four are also fashion labels, so naturally, they’d want to show in a city where fashion designers outnumber clothing brands. After all, it’s all about perception, is it not?

Eugene Rabkin, the editor of independent New York-based publication StyleZeitgeist, wrote a terribly smart but highly critical op-ed on the topic for The Business of Fashion. He made some thoughtful suggestions for the improvement of NYFW, like that the CFDA should take a cue from Pitti Uomo and invite guest designers to show, or that we should get bold-faced American designers who long left our shores for Europe, like Rick Owens, to come back. That seems unlikely, but hey, we got Raf here, and he’s not even American, so who knows? However, he also suggested that Supreme stage a skateboarding competition on the steps of the New York Public Library, the argument being that NYFW should take advantage the city’s iconic destinations rather than sticking to sterile, soulless show spaces. I agree that, when it comes to venues, the city itself is totally underutilized, but for the love of god please don’t have a skateboarding competition. One of the biggest problems with NYFW is the abundance of gimmicky, industry-sanctioned bullshit that seldom has anything to do with fashion. How about we skip the skateboard parties and mini concerts and other filler events, and instead work on supporting designers who are trying to produce inspired work? 

Rabkin’s story struck a nerve with KCD co-chairman Ed Filipowski—and it should have. KCD, a high-power PR firm, represents the CFDA (who, if it’s not clear already, is largely in charge of NYFW), and Rabkins’ article poignantly highlighted many of NYFW’s biggest flaws. Filipowski responded via his own BoF op-ed, in which he asserted that everyone is complaining too much, and those voicing an opinion are “backseat drivers,” so stop the negativity, stop bitching, and just celebrate New York already. Honestly, I would so, so love to do that. I live here. My magazine is based here. But New York fashion week in its current state does not, as a whole, represent the best parts of our wildly innovative industry. And when journalists like Bridget Foley—who, by the way, has been an industry leader for nearly two decades and is thus anything but a backseat driver—express legitimate grievances and concerns, it’s probably time to sit up and say, “Hey, maybe something’s not working here. Why are so many people disgruntled? And how can we fix it?”

Filipowski also took issue with Rabkin’s accusation that that New York is too commercial, writing, “To say some scale of commercial success is not a goal for the majority of designers or brands is, well, just not American.” (Actually, what Rabkin said, which he pointed out in a rebuttal on his own site, was that in New York, creativity is being pushed aside for commercialism, and we need both, not one or the other.) The thing is though, New York is too commercial—full stop. Not only are very few designers here making collections that have a point of view and/or push the industry forward, they’re also not proposing any kind of fantasy, and that fantasy—that dream—is the fashion industry’s most lucrative product. Chanel isn’t able to pay for those grandiose Grand Palais sets because millions of people are ordering couture, it’s making bank on the perfume that people buy because they want to own a little piece of the breathtaking haute spectacle they watched on their laptops. And look at Comme des Garçons—each season, Rei Kawakubo puts forth an invigorating concept on her Paris runway which she then translates into a commercial range that consumers gobble up in stores. Comme is an extreme example of a formula that most luxury houses—from Dolce & Gabbana and Gucci to Rick Owens and Marc Jacobs—follow on some level. 

Without the dream, New York fashion week is just a trade show. And frankly, considering the schedule is crammed with so many contemporary labels and clothing brands, maybe NYFW should just become a tradeshow of sorts—but, like, a chic, fun one. No, really. It could be a nice, relaxed way to ease everyone into the fashion month sprint, and there could still be shows, but maybe the CFDA could select 10 designers and brands to put on spotlighted runway presentations. That way, those handpicked talents could do something truly special and really shine. Furthermore, in a quasi-tradeshow format, industry professionals could actually see the clothes and/or fashions they have to buy, review, or shoot, do their jobs properly, and be merry. 

But New York would be unlikely to embrace my proposed tradeshow approach for two reasons: marketing and ego. Let’s be serious, the majority of the NYFW shows are exactly the same: Everyone filters into a clinical white room; everyone sits in said room for 20 to 40 minutes after the designated start time waiting for hired (i.e., paid) celebrities to arrive and get papped; the house lights dim; the music goes up; the models start sprinting down the runway so quickly that you can’t see the clothes, most of which are just what we saw last season in slightly different cuts or fabrications or palettes; and the emotion quotient is zero. Who needs that? Not the buyers—no one makes their buy from the runway, it’s done at appointments and tradeshows. Not the journalists—what are we reviewing, the front row, some pouty blurs, and a glimpse of an anorak? Not the editors and stylists—they’re going to decide what to shoot at their re-see appointments. The shows are for the brands and the designers. With the exception of, perhaps, Marc Jacobs, the biggest (and I mean biggest from a money-making standpoint) brands in New York are putting on shows for their consumer—to create desire via social media, celebrity presence, and the like. I get that, but if the primary goal is to hook customers rather than to express a unique vision, why don’t those designers just sell tickets for their shows to the public, have a secure celebrity section so it still seems “exclusive,” host press and buying appointments later in the week, and call it a day? The answer is ego and industry standing. A runway show that’s attended by the right editors, buyers, and personalities signifies status, success, and importance. It is the closest thing we have in our industry to a pissing contest or big swinging dicks. Who can get the best models? Who can get the best time slot? Who can nab the best front row? Who cares? Zac Posen, whose grand gowns are usually presented during equally grand shows, decided to do a presentation last season and it worked out fabulously. And he’s still famous and successful and popular. More people should try things like that.  

At this point, New York needs to make a decision—NYFW either needs to go full-blown commercial and become a consumer-facing event, or everyone needs to check their god damn egos, recognize that we’ve created a mediocre, bi-annual monster, and figure out how transform NYFW from a snoozy three-ring circus to the greatest fashion showcase on earth. 

I know I’ve been a little bit hard on NYFW here, but that’s only because we are so much better than this. We’ve got the talent. We’ve got the money. We’ve got some of the most intelligent experts the industry has to offer. So now that the complaining is out of the way (I mean, who’s going to pay attention if we don’t behave like there’s a crisis?), let’s stop scoffing and start doing. Let’s examine how we’re treating and teaching the students at Parsons and FIT and Pratt—the future leaders of the New York fashion industry; let’s consider how the press operates (guys, I understand that advertisers are how we all pay for our supper, but if everyone keeps writing that bad or bland things are amazing, we’re really not going to get anywhere); and let’s look at how we treat our designers—our talent, the men and women without whom this industry could not exist because there would be no clothing or fashion. To echo FU menswear editor William Buckley’s suggestion in “Where’s the Excitement at NYFWM?” we need to support each other and make some major changes. So let’s just accept the fact that we’re not number one, assess the damages, and (I’ve gotta do it, I’m so sorry) make NYFW great again. 

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