Will Opening NYFW to the Public Remedy Fashion's Problems?

The fashion calendar is an interesting one; the time that accrues between women’s ready-to-wear runway shows, in particular, and the subsequent deliveries of those garments and accessories to stores is quite sizable. The Council of Fashion Designers, a prominent trade organization based in New York, wants to change this. The organization, which is headed up by designer Diane Von Furstenberg and its CEO Steven Kolb, and boasts a roster than includes the designers behind Proenza Schouler, The Row, Marc Jacobs, and Oscar de la Renta, among others, is also exploring the possibility of opening the bi-annual fashion week to the public.

Speaking to WWD this week, Ken Downing, senior vice president and fashion director of Neiman Marcus, said the current fashion model - particularly when it comes to New York Fashion Week - could use some adjustment: “I am an enormous proponent of relooking and recalibrating how we use the fashion show that has become a mega-marketing event. The history of fashion shows was to show the buyers and the press the message of the season. But technology has utterly changed everything in our industry. That customer continues to follow Instagram and Twitter and watches the live-stream of fashion shows. When they are seeing clothes, they are less aware of seasons. What they are seeing, they want.”

A major element of Downing's statement seems to speak largely to what is actually being shown on the runway (especially when considered against when those garments and accessories will actually be in stores and shoppable) and how this translates into sales for brands and for retailers. In this way, designer Rebecca Minkoff's recent announcement is very interesting. Per WWD, rather than showing her new Fall/Winter 2016 collection in February, like everyone else, Minkoff plans to show her Spring/Summer 2016 collection – which will be in stores in February, thereby coinciding with her New York Fashion Week show. This makes sense.

Minkoff says that by switching up the schedule, she will be able to leverage the press that comes from the fashion show to actually make immediate sales, rather than hoping customers will remember and seek out the garments and accessories six months later. Additionally, Minkoff says she will show her collection in front of a consumer audience — 30 to 50 percent of the show goers will be consumers — being among the first to take this dramatic step. (Both Givenchy and Rag & Bone, which opportunities for the public to attend their spring 2016 shows, beat Minkoff to the punch here, though).

The president of the Council of fashion Designers of America, Diane Von Furstenberg, made similar points this week, echoing Downing: “With the current system the way it is, the only people who benefit are the people who copy it. It’s very confusing.” With this in mind, the CFDA has enlisted the help of the Boston Consulting Group, which will conduct a study to define "the future of fashion shows," as WWD put it. The study, which will begin in January, should take about seven weeks, and is not slated to have an impact on the upcoming February show season. However, WWD reports that the Boston Consulting Group's findings may have very real impacts on future New York Fashion Weeks, as the BCG will survey industry experts to explore a possible shift to shows that are more closely aligned with retail deliveries, and ones that are open to the public. 

The trade publication ultimately suggests that this all comes together to raise the question: "Should [fashion shows] be open to the public? The consumer demand for fashion entertainment certainly seems to exist, but how should it be satisfied?" 

This is arguably where we begin to encounter murky water. Fashion entertainment? Now that's an interesting way of putting it, and leads me to the question: What are we actually selling, garments or fashion show tickets? Is this New York Fashion Week or Project Runway?

In the realm of high fashion, it certainly is not a secret that a large part of what brands are selling is image. For much the same reason some houses show couture collections, brands stage runway shows or presentations.  The purpose of such shows is multi-faceted. As Downing noted, in the past, shows were primarily staged for the purpose of showing retail buyers and the press the message of the season for each given brand. A more modern purpose – given the influx of technology and social media – is to use such bi-annual events as a major source of advertising. Fashion Week, whether it be in New York, London, Milan or Paris, is a highly publicized event - from the runway shows and their front rows to the street style. Magazines, newspapers and websites provide coverage, as do individual show goers who take to their social media accounts to share photos and info about the shows, often in real time. Celebrities sit front row and cause further fury.

In this same vein, the ready-to-wear shows are a bit like their haute couture counterpart because they are put forth - in part - to generate buzz. For the most part, couture, which has evolved quite extensively from the practice of creating wardrobes for the elite in the 1700s to its modern form, is generally considered a loss. With some exceptions (think: Raf Simons for Dior), couture is considered a highly dated practice. While there are, in fact, couture customers all over the world, the art of couture has arguably shifted its focus a bit to coincide with modern demands. The result is a focus on widespread advertising for house and its ready-to-wear collections and licensed goods.

As Pierre Bergé, the original business partner of Yves Saint Laurent, notably said in 1987: “We don’t make a profit from couture. But it’s not a problem. It’s our advertising budget.” He was referring to resulting exposure in media and on red carpets. The same can be said – to some extent – for ready-to-wear, which sells with far less frequency than brands’ more accessible collections, such as Ralph Lauren and Michael Kors’ respective Polo shirts and MICHAEL Michael Kors collection purses and watches. 

Yes, in addition to creating and showing high fashion ready-to-wear for its own sake (or couture for couture's sake), this form of fashion has yet another benefit, one that high fashion houses have been relying on since at least the 1950's: Licensing - the practice of contracting with another party to obtain and use rights intellectual property rights, in our case) in exchange for an agreed payment (a fee or royalty).

Take, for instance, Luxottica, the eyewear company that acquired the rights to manufacture and distribute Prada, Burberry, Tom Ford and Chanel sunglasses. Prada, Burberry, Tom Ford and Chanel still have the right to use their names (aka their trademarks) in the sunglasses/eyewear category; they have just chosen to authorize Luxottica to do it for them. Without such authorization, Luxottica would not be able to manufacture eyewear using the name "Chanel", for example, without being on the receiving end of a trademark infringement lawsuit from Chanel.

In the midst of fashion week, in addition to a brand having its garments and accessories strewn across the internet, the brand is accordingly on many people's lips and timelines. This is the equivalent of an expensive advertising campaign. As such, the collection is doing its job and garnering a lot of attention for the design house.

But since the vast majority of people cannot afford high end ready-to-wear (or couture) creations, what good does such advertising do? Well, it is often indirectly very effective. Instead of primarily aiming to sell pricey ready-to-wear by putting on runway shows and outfitting celebrities, these fashion houses aim to sell more accessible items, such as some of their more affordable ready-to-wear items, diffusion collections, or fragrances and cosmetics. As many design houses learned early on, both high end ready-to-wear and couture collections allow them to not only reach a large audience, but they allow them to establish and/or maintain a reputation for luxury and high fashion.

As a result, they can sell more accessible items, such as bags for over $3,000, fragrances for $100+ or lipstick for $40 - in the case of Chanel, which shows bi-annual couture and ready-to-wear collections - in large quantities. Thanks, in part, to the press and prestige derived from its couture and ready-to-wear collections, Dior maintains successful eyewear, jewelry, lingerie and hosiery licenses. Because of its inclusion in the arena of high fashion, Giambattista Valli's little sister collection, Giamba, a newly launched venture, can likely be sold at higher price points than your average ready-to-wear collection.

With this in mind, opening the tents (or what was once tents, prior to several location changes, one of which was due, in part, to attempts to control the crowds of non-show goers) to the mass market, may be beneficial. Attending a runway show is certainly different than watching it online.

But at the end of the day, is a move to a publicly accessible NYFW really going to help? Most importantly, is it going to help high fashion brands (whose price points are high) sell clothes? Sure, such a transition may help spur sales of lower-priced licensed goods, which arguably have no problem with sales as it is. However, will turning fashion week into a week-long string of theater productions have any significant and sustainable affect on sales of legitimate designer goods (which seems to be the ultimate and admirable goal of the CFDA)? I'm not so sure.

Also, this proposed model, which seems to primarily benefit design brands with strong licensing systems or little sister/diffusion collections in place, overlooks the vast majority of New York-based designers, whose brands are still very much in the emerging phase and have no such programs in place. Thoughts?