Until this season, New York Fashion Week (which starts today) was like a blood sport—a spectacle where stylish society gladiators and celebrities fought for front-row space and catty publicists turned their noses up at the little people clamoring to get a standing-room spot at the big tent shows.
But with economy as it is, those days are gone. This season, the fashion-as-arena-rock show seems to be morphing into secret-show-in-small-underground-nightclub. More designers than ever have turned to subdued presentations—glorified cocktail parties where models strut around a crowded room wearing the clothes—or simply cancelled their shows altogether.
“They’re feeling it at Kohl’s and they’re feeling it a Bergdorf’s.”
Before this season, the common perception (or misconception) is that going to see a fashion show was akin to seeing a Broadway musical. But a serious business event? Not so much. The week began as an industry event, with a handful of editors and retailers perusing a tiny showroom or salon to watch a string of house models display the clothes. In 1993, the shows moved to big white tents in Bryant Park and took on the feel of a three-ring circus.
Companies like American Express have only reinforced the notion that fashion shows are important, coveted events, selling “exclusive” packages to elite cardmembers promising “insider” access to an American Express-branded lounge (the “Skybox”) overlooking the main runways.
Last year, for example, they also sold tickets to a special cardmember-only Peter Som show and this year, the Council of Fashion Designers of America president, designer Diane von Furstenberg, will stage a show for American Express cardmembers at $150 a pop featuring looks from her Spring 2009 collection.
This year, however, the shows are returning to smaller, more industry-oriented events—perhaps out of necessity—and designers are paring down their guestlists.
Jason Wu, for one, who has seen his profile skyrocket ever since Michelle Obama wore his one-shouldered white gown at the inaugural ball last month, will continue to stage his usual cozy show, even though he’s become a mini-celebrity and people are clamoring to snag an invite.
“For me, it’s about the industry,” Wu told The Daily Beast. “It’s the industry that has supported me from the beginning. I feel no pressure to increase the capacity of the show. I like to think of it as more of a private affair, and it’s about the people who have supported you from day one—the retailers and the editors who have been there for me.”
Fashion Week is not heading into speakeasy territory just yet, don’t worry. But things are definitely changing—it’s just too expensive. High-profile designers like Vera Wang and Betsey Johnson are only doing presentations this season (long-held as a static format usually associated with up-and-comers trying to get a foothold during Fashion Week at a fraction of the cost). At Bryant Park, the venue cost alone for a runway show in the tents starts at $28,000 for the smallest space and up to $50,000 for the largest tent, according to IMG Fashion, which operates Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week.
“I would say that a fairly straightforward presentation for smaller designers can run $50,000 to $80,000, and for a runway show, $60,000 to $100,000,” said Max Wixom, a principal of OW! PR, whose clients this season include Elise Øverland, Jenni Kayne, and Frank Tell. “Larger designers can run $100,000 to $225,000 for a presentation, with runway shows costing $200,000 to $300,000. Obviously, if there’s crazy video projections or runways with walkways in huge public spaces, that only makes the cost bigger.”
Even Marc Jacobs, whose shows for the past four years have truly lived up to the Broadway-spectacle hype, reduced its total list of invitees by more than half—to 700 from 2,000. It was a shock to many.
Jacobs’ shows have become synonymous with fashion decadence (a year ago, Sonic Youth performed songs from “Daydream Nation” on an enormous stage/runway during the show). Elaborate set design, the biggest celebrity names, a ferocious pit of photographers and stadium-style seating in the cavernous New York State Armory make it a must-see each season—it’s a show with so much gravitas in the fashion industry that people have waited over two hours packed like sardines on uncomfortable aluminum bleachers just to see it.
The reason for the cutbacks, said Robert Duffy, president of Marc Jacobs International, was that “it’s not going to be like it has been in the past, where Marc Jacobs Inc. entertains everybody for the evening.” He told WWD: “I’m not saying it’s not going to go back to that, but right now, during this economic environment, it would seem ostentatious for us to continue doing the same thing. [The feeling is] just have the people that need to be there be there and look at the clothes.”
Akiko Ichikawa, a fashion journalist, writes for the New York Times-affiliated Asahi, with a daily circulation of eight million, but even she didn’t make the cut for Marc this season. In fact, only seven Japanese journalists did, said Wag Inc., the publicity firm that handles Marc Jacobs’ Japanese press. Compare this to last season, where they allocated 23 seats.
“I guess this season is going to be a crucial point for the fashion industry to think about the reason for the shows once again,” said Ichikawa. “Designers need to be creative and have smarter ideas to make an impact. I don't want to see just the mannequins or models standing in a room.”
“Whether you are Marc Jacobs or a young designer, everyone is having the same experience with the financial stuff this season,” said Thomas Onorato, Max Wixom’s business partner at OW!. “They’re feeling it at Kohl's and they’re feeling it a Bergdorf’s.”
Still, said Wixom, even when money is tight, designers can’t fully dispense with the show. “The show and the presentation are still a vital part of getting their name out there and in front of the editors and buyers.”
Often, emerging designers get around the issue of money by seeking out sponsors to help offset the costs of showing. Or there are awards like the Ecco Domani Fashion Foundation award, which gives $25,000 to seven designers each February to be used toward staging a show.
“As emerging independent designers, we do have to reach out to sponsors in order to cover the considerable expenses of a show,” said Alexa Adams of Ohne Titel, which she designs with Flora Gill. They are one of this year’s Ecco Domani winners. “But if we had not won the award, we still would have done our best to present a show. Shows generate more excitement and press, which is vital for younger labels.”
As for other alternatives to shows or presentations, designer Kai Kuhne is very familiar with some of the more unusual forms that fashion shows can take. He’s done shows as gallery exhibitions, videos and performance art, both on his own and when he was designing with AsFour.
“I love doing both,” he said, “but in a runway show, you see the pieces in movement on different individuals, alive and kicking.”
Regardless of the way a designer participates in Fashion Week, the underlying message this season an absolute focus on the bottom line and not on the pageantry.
“It’s time to get rid of the artsy-fartsy stuff and start selling clothes,” chimed Onorato.
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 sometimes a backup dancer for "The Anna Copa Cabanna Show."