09.19.09

The Future of Fashion Week

After hundreds of shows, dozens of parties, and one epic night out, the biggest stars in the fashion business contemplate what comes next.

Capping off a fashion week unusually weighed down by real-world concerns—as in, will anyone actually buy these clothes?—a panel was convened Thursday at Milk Studios in Manhattan to discuss a very serious question: the future of fashion.

Emceed by Estee Lauder President John Demsey and moderated by International Herald Tribune fashion critic Suzy Menkes, the event brought together hot young designers (Proenza Schouler, Alexander Wang); hot young boutique owners (Opening Ceremony’s Carol Lim and Humberto Leon); the hot young dean of fashion at Parsons (Simon Collins); and a hot young fashion mogul (Milk Studios’ co-founder Mazdack Rassi) to contemplate such heavy topics as whether being a fashion designer makes any sense.

“Fashion shows are really creating fantasy,” said Steven Kolb, executive director of the CFDA. “They’re defining aspirations.”

“All you really need is passion, and a point of view,” asked Jack Lazaro, one half of Proenza Schouler.

But in an era of belt-tightening, is passion enough to survive? (How about a generous investor, too?) Alexander Wang was more practical: “You can't just be creative. It's just as important to stay involved in all aspects, especially the business, and see that the clothes are being worn, and sold.”

Fashion Week is the time of year when the industry is in its most publicly extravagant mode, so in this sour economic climate all the inevitable questions about an industry predicated on splurges came up: Does Fashion Week really need to be as big as it is? Do designers really need these expensive 15-minute runway shows? Is Fashion Week just an absurd artifact from the good old days of 2007? If people aren’t shopping the same way they used to—indiscriminately, in droves—does something fundamental need to change about the way clothes are made and sold? Maybe expensive-to-produce shows are…demode.

This summer, the Council of Fashion Designers of America held a town-hall meeting with various members of the fashion community—Diane von Furstenberg, Donna Karan, Betsey Johnson, Proenza Schouler, and others—to discuss the question of Fashion Week’s relevance at a time when retail is in crisis.

“Retailers made the strongest case that it clinches the deal and helps make the sale for their customers,” said Fern Mallis, the senior vice president of IMG Fashion who attended the meeting. (IMG Fashion produces Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, the shows that take place in the tents at Bryant Park.) “It’s important to see collections at the shows. Whatever designers spend, they get value from—they get fame and notice and get their vision out there. Many have seen that when they don’t do shows, they don’t see their clothes out there and they don’t get the same kind of press.”

As lavish as it may seem, especially in the depths of an economic downturn, Fashion Week is still an essential part of the retail business. When you strip away all the pomp, circumstance, and Madonna sightings, it’s really just a fancy trade show. It’s a time when brands get defined, images get made and designers big and small get press—something that’s especially important in an age of slashed advertising budgets.

“Fashion shows are really creating fantasy,” said Steven Kolb, executive director of the CFDA. “They’re defining aspirations.”

This year, designers defined aspirations as simple as “to dress like Michelle Obama” (Jason Wu) and as complex as “to star in The King and I” (Marc Jacobs). But perhaps the biggest revelation of the week was that even in difficult times, women everywhere still aspire to dress beautifully.

Once again, Fashion Week became a city-wide documentary project (or reality-TV show, if that’s your speed) in which, by some enormous feat of organization and selective chaos, everyone from Anna Wintour to the casual Queens mall shopper got caught up in the spirit of fashion.

“There are more and more media outlets, more and more Internet sites, more and more people at cable TV stations,” said Mallis. “More people have blogs and Facebook pages and tweet. Everybody has TV shows—there’s Project Runway, The Devil Wears Prada, The Fashion Show. People are fascinated by the workings of the fashion industry.”

Given all this public interest, could a consumer-driven fashion week be retail’s salvation, expanded to include a full schedule of shows targeted to the buying public?

Not necessarily—in part, because the runway show isn’t the be all, end all.

“It would be a waste of time, energy and money,” said Julie Gilhart, women’s fashion director of Barneys New York. “I feel the shows are mostly for the press.” Gilhart acknowledged the benefits involved for designers who have shows—“It certainly creates more press and name recognition”—but that at the end of the day, “I feel the customer is interested in buying great clothes that work for her and not made on a decision if a designer has a show.”

Yet for certain commercial, mass-market brands, having a runway show has become a way to simulate “high fashion” credibility. As a marketing move, both Ann Taylor and QVC staged runway shows this season—except that instead of showing clothes that wouldn’t be available for six more months, they showed ready-to-buy fall fare sold directly to the consumer. QVC’s three-hour long runway affair was broadcast to viewers nationwide, who could buy Rachel Zoe’s collection for QVC, among others, straight off the runway. And Norma Kamali and Ralph Lauren both used the buzz of Fashion Week to launch e-commerce iPhone applications.

In a different sense, for emerging designers Fashion Week offers convenient one-stop shopping for their company. “When you're a smaller brand, you have to take advantage of these opportunities,” said Liam Fayed of menswear label Bespoken. “It's great to have a captive audience, from all the key influential press and stores, for one week in the same city. To be able to get in front of them to present our line is extremely valuable.”

The problem is, there are close to 250 shows packed into the schedule each season, stretched from uptown to downtown over too short a time—and yes, while there is more media attention than ever, major outlets tend to only focus on the biggest, most established names. So questioning Fashion Week’s relevancy might have more to do with this: If a tree falls and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

One of the strengths of the New York fashion industry has been promoting emerging talent, whether it’s helping defray some of the costs of showing at Fashion Week through sponsorship, or offering prizes like the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, which selects one designer each year from a pool of 10 finalists who receive mentorship and $200,000, as well as two runners-up who each receive $50,000. “I think that New York has better conditions for young designers; we help them, we support them,” said Diane von Furstenberg, designer and president of the CFDA. “That’s really what I want to do with New York Fashion Week, is to support them.”

On the sponsorship end, making headlines this season was M.A.C and Milk, a partnership between M.A.C cosmetics and Milk Studios. Thanks to M.A.C’s sponsorship, Milk offered space to 30 designers for free, making it the second largest single venue in the city outside of the tents at Bryant Park, otherwise known as Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week—where M.A.C was formerly a sponsor.

More than just offering free space, what M.A.C and Milk offered was a way for designers to effectively document their shows. “Unlike with the tents, where they pop up twice a year, we are here 365 days a year,” said Mazdack Rassi, founder and creative director of Milk Studios. “This is what we do. We are more interested in the creative process of this whole week than we are in having the shows.”

Legs, Milk’s Emmy-award nominated film division, produced two films this season, for Temperley London and Shipley & Halmos; their casting company, called House, cast nine shows. This is M.A.C and Milk’s answer to ensuring that the falling tree in the forest makes some noise.

And then, of course, there was Fashion’s Night Out, the first “global celebration of fashion” and the brainchild of Anna Wintour. Von Furstenberg compared the event, which drew exuberant hordes into the streets around New York, to La Fete de la Musique, the Parisian street music festival that takes place every June. She hopes the night will become an annual tradition.

“It’s like what back to school is for children—you get your new coat, your new little black dress, your new handbag,” said von Furstenberg. “It forces consumers to look into the stores, so while Fashion Week is going on, there is buzz on the consumer level.”

When it comes to the retail crisis, there are other more serious questions to address: Has the psychology behind spending irreversibly changed—is the desire to shop still there? Is the tolerance for frivolity shrinking? As of late, fashion’s way of justifying itself has been, “In this economic downturn we need glamour and fantasy more than ever.” You may not need a new pair of shoes, the reasoning goes, but you need this dream. Fashion’s Night Out took this one step further, by adding a moral dimension to desire. Not only do you want to shop, because you aspire to feel more glamorous, but you need to shop, or people will lose their jobs. In the department of ethics, it’s Dilemma 101: Will you be a good citizen by saving jobs, or by saying no to overconsumption?

With designer fashion, at least, the mentality is that you’re buying something of heirloom quality, not just off-the-rack disposable goods. “We’re talking about the high end here,” says Fern Mallis. “We’re not selling underwear.”

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Renata Espinosa is the New York editor of Fashion Wire Daily. She is also the co-founder of impressionistic fashion and art blog TheNuNu and a sometimes backup dancer for "The Anna Copa Cabanna Show."