The 75-Year-Long Evolution of New York Fashion Week

Now that “fashion month” (the consecutive New York, London, Milan, and Paris fashion weeks) is swiftly approaching, it is interesting to note how much the fashion show has changed. The modern-day New York Fashion Week is a week-plus-long affair, with runway shows scattered across Manhattan and sometimes stretching into Brooklyn – and this season, will draw guests all the way to Bedford Hills, a town located an hour North of the city, to visit Ralph Lauren’s garage of prized cars, which will serve as the backdrop for his Spring/Summer 2017 show.

In taking over areas of Chelsea and the Meatpacking District – up to Pier 94 and The Armory – and before that, Lincoln Center and Bryant Park, New York’s bi-annual womenswear weeks bring in nearly $900 million to the city, with $532 million coming from direct visitor spending, according to the New York City Economic Development Corporation. Guests – ranging from international press, editors, and buyers to models, influencers, and celebrities, to prized ready-to-wear clients – descend upon the city for the 15-minute-long (plus 30+ minutes of waiting before hand) runway shows, private presentations, and no shortage of parties. But the event was not always such a big to-do – far from it, in fact.

As noted by Time, “Prior to World War II, American fashion didn’t get much — if any — time in the spotlight. Instead, the world looked to Paris for sartorial inspiration. Fashion magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar filled their pages with the aspirational attire of the French, even if the styles weren’t readily available to the average American consumer.”

But this changed in 1943 amid World War II, which kept the American fashion press from their bi-annual sojourn to Paris to take in the seasonal collections from the likes of Chanel, Lanvin, and Balenciaga, among others. As a result, Eleanor Lambert, the fashion publicist – and creator of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (“CFDA”), the not-for-profit trade association of America’s foremost design talent – took it upon herself to facilitate the presentation of the designs of a collective of American design talent in a media-focused event called Press Week.

The event that would later become known as New York Fashion Week was, at first, solely a means for editors – and editors alone – to view collections. In 1943, buyers were not invited, and the public at large had to wait until images of garments and accessories were published in magazines, which was a relatively long and slow process. That was better, still – in the eyes of Lambert – than the alternative; prior to the organization of Press Week, many journalists were not privy to – and therefore, unable to cover – fashion coming out of New York in lieu of an organized event.

So, the origins of modern-day NYFW were borne, as was the practice of payment for coverage, which is still very much a common tactic in the industry. In order to garner all of the coverage possible from her new Press Week, Lambert offered to pay the expenses of any out-of-town journalists who traveled to New York for the event, making coverage – from the outset – of arguably questionable merit and objectivity. Somethings really do stand the test of time, it seems.

Lambert’s efforts were not without results. “Not only did the editors show up, but also when the fashion magazines released their next issues, their pages were full of American designers,” per Time, and Press Week continued on throughout the 1950s, even as the American press resumed their regularly scheduled trips to Paris to cover the bi-annual shows there.

For the next three decades, American designers continued on the tradition – largely with the help of Ruth Finley and her Fashion Calendar. In 1945, Finley – seeing a lack of coordination of shows in terms of dates and times – created a subscription-based calendar. How did one get a spot on the Fashion Calendar, you ask? It was as simple as calling Finley – on the phone – and staking claim on a date and time. Finley would then plot out the week, physically make the schedule and distribute it in little red booklets for the industry to abide by. (The Calendar, and its intellectual property rights, etc., was acquired by the CFDA in 2014).

It was not until the early 1990’s that New York Fashion Week as we know it, both in name and format, got its start. And the man that put it on the map in its current form? Stan Herman – the designer and beginning in 1991, the president of the CFDA – who worked closely with fellow New York fashion pioneer Fern Mallis to gather designers together to show in a single unified location.

So, beginning in 1991, the clear majority of fashion shows in New York were located under the tents at Bryant Park. This collective organization – then called “7th on Sixth” – was for the benefit of all. “Establishing Fashion Week at Bryant Park cut down on costs and labor. Up until then, each designer was responsible for finding and paying for their own space, lighting, sound, and security," wrote Racked. “Not to mention, sets had to be broken down if the space they chose was rented out for another kind of event during the week, only to be put back together again just a few days later for a different fashion show.”

Changes also came by way of the guest lists: Invitations were sent out to an increased pool of individuals, including buyers, traditional – and eventually, online – magazine editors, celebrities, and brands’ biggest clients. Some time later came the early rise of the fashion blogger and street style icon, as evidenced by the select few seated in the front rows.

In 2009, NYFW – after being acquired by IMG, the sports and media management conglomerate, eight years earlier – was branded as Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week (and then returning to simply NYFW almost a decade later) to reflect the event's most significant sponsor. All the while, the internet was slowly playing an increasingly role in the fashion scene, especially since designers were no longer just selling clothes, they were selling their brands (and their licensed goods). Along with the availability of garments for sale on designers’ websites, digital continued to expand its footprint, as fashion bloggers came into in their own.

Bloggers – including BryanBoy, Rumi Neely, Susie Lau, abd Tavi Gevinson, just to name a few – perched in the front rows, provided photos and insight on the shows by way of their blogs within minutes of the models hitting the runway. Long gone were the days of waiting for magazine coverage, and with that, shows were no longer the highly exclusive, private events they once were. Quite the opposite: They were essentially available to anyone with a computer.

Not all designers have embraced the media-driven nature of modern day fashion. For instance, Tom Ford, who returned to womenswear in 2010, has protested quite significantly at time. He called fashion too immediate, overexposed and lacking in freshness. As such, for his debut womenswear show for his eponymous label, Ford prohibited any photographers (including camera phones) and only invited 100 guests. It was his attempt to return to the fashion show of a previous era; a less media-focused show.

Regardless of where one stands on the level of exclusivity of fashion, the hordes of individuals squeezing into the tents at Bryant Park – which hit max capacity in 2010, forcing the bi-annual event to decamp to Lincoln Center to accommodate more people – were indicative of the growing nature of the event and the interest surrounding it.

And it has expanded even more since then – albeit not in a physical way. Beginning in 2011, with the debut of the Fall/Winter 2012 shows, New York-based public relations giant KCD, made shows available online via a password-protected website for editors, who simply could not make it to all of the shows each day due to the large number of scheduled events – and the slow trend towards showing off-site (aka not at the centralized Lincoln Center location).

This trend has since been supplemented with websites that provide of-the-moment runway photos, and others – including brands – themselves, making livestreams of the runways available to anyone and everyone with a computer or iPhone. The week has also reverted to its lack of central location and the organization that came with the one-stop-shop of Bryant Park or Lincoln Center.

Since being booted out of Lincoln Center in late 2014 – thanks to a settlement in a lawsuit in which a class of plaintiffs claimed the NYFW’s intrusion on a nearby park was in violation of laws governing public use of the land in New York (followed by a separate and unrelated legal battle over the rights to the NYFW name) – fashion shows have once again scattered all over the city, much to the chagrin of fashion folk who often must shuttle all over the island of Manhattan to attend shows.

While there has been promise of a new centralized location – Chelsea’s Hudson Yards – to come, only time will tell as to how NYFW will further evolve. As of now, one thing seems very clear: designers, at least in New York, are questioning the 75-year old tradition of NYFW. An increasing number of designers have taken to "questioning the value of the traditional catwalk show,” as designer Jenny Packham put it earlier this year. Others have taken to questioning the merit of New York as a fashion capital in comparison to the more traditionally established Paris.

With that in mind, the NYFW schedule is noticeably slimming down, leaving many fashion designers and industry stakeholders questioning the future of the city’s fashion week. And this should come as little surprise. As Mr. Herman – the father of NYFW – said in 2015, “The industry is just such a different industry. It’s so suggestive to the world. New York is where everybody wants to be for the moment, it may not last forever, it may go into the night.”