image: Proenza Schouler

image: Proenza Schouler

New York Fashion Week has been losing significant names over the past several months, with Thom Browne, Proenza Schouler, Rodarte, and Altuzarra – some of the biggest players in New York fashion – defecting to Paris to show their collections as part of the world’s most prestigious Fashion Week. Industry insiders and journalists, alike, have been quick to question what effect such noteworthy moves will have on the New York Fashion Week calendar and more generally, on New York as a fashion capital.

The consensus thus far: The American system is in transition and these deflections will be weighty. Gary Wassner – the co-founder and Chairman of InterLuxe, a fund that partners with and invests in growing fashion and luxury brands, and co-CEO of fashion finance company Hilldun Corporation – says the U.S. runs a “serious risk” by letting some of its most promising talent go. New York Fashion Week pulls in $900 million in revenue for Manhattan, and the industry, itself, employs over 180,000 people in New York, after all. 

Some have suggested that moves like this also stand to jeopardize the esteem of the New York fashion system and the draw of NYFW altogether. “It does seem to be a bit of a rush right now, with some of our best talent heading to Paris. The international press already complains about NYFW not offering enough creativity, so it hurts to lose a shining star like Thom Browne,” says veteran journalist and fashion critic Christina Binkley, who also noted that Paris is not a guaranteed fix for brands. Remember Hood by Air? 

Wassner agrees, saying that the Council of Fashion Designers of America (“CFDA”) needs to refocus its efforts. The New York-based trade group has long spent its time and resources marketing the U.S. as capable of producing globally merited brands. Now that we have that, the CFDA – whose members range from Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, and Carolina Herrera to Marc Jacobs, Alexander Wang, and Jason Wu – needs to “adapt.” (The CFDA appears to have attempted to implement changes this spring to help implement a more compelling week).

The Beginning of the End?

As for whether this is the beginning of the end for American fashion brands, the CFDA certainly would not like us to believe it is. Two of the bigger names in fashion book ended the week:  Tom Ford opened September’s NYFW and Marc Jacobs closed. 

The question remains, however: Can designers take their brands to the next level by way of NYFW in its current form, which has been characterized as a chaotic calendar that chose quantity of presentations and shows over quality in attempts to get bigger? 

Designers – particularly those who have built something from the ground up, as Joseph Altuzarra did after attending design school, carefully honing his craft, and launching a business during the height of the recession – deserve to be able to evolve further. If they feel the establishment is not backing them, it is almost impossible to blame them for jumping ship. 

At the same time, after spending several handfuls of years and countless resources marketing New York as the home of brands that can compete on an international basis, why are the CFDA and the larger companies that benefit from American fashion – “Amazon, the city itself, New York hotels,” are among a few, says Wassner – not joining together and doing more to ensure that the most promising designers do not have such great incentives to leave? 

The questions here are seemingly endless. The answers, far less prevalent. 

What Is Really Going On?

There are a few highly-cited reasons for why designers have taken to opting out of NYFW. Paris and its fashion week have long been viewed as the end-all, be-all of Fashion Weeks on the world stage, thereby providing an instant injection of prestige for brands that show on its calendar. Additionally, there has been a lot of discussion about the commercial opportunity that a slot on the Paris Fashion Week schedule entails, namely exposure to international buyers that do not attend New York Fashion Week. 

Nonetheless, there are a few factors that do not add up in the case at hand. For one thing: What/who – exactly – is drawing these brands away? The scenario formerly appeared to be a case of brands looking to the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode – the Paris Fashion Week organizing body – in order to stage runway shows in Paris. However, that is not what is going on here … entirely.

As Altuzarra said in a statement on Wednesday, “I am honoured to be invited by La Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode to show in my hometown of Paris.” An implication that Altuzarra was potentially poached from New York, is this? Language surrounding Rodarte’s Spring/Summer 2018 show also emphasized their “invitation” to show on the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode’s calendar.

While poaching, per se, does not appear to be at play, the Fédération is – according to TFL sources – actively approaching designers to move their shows to Paris. In the same vein, the Fédération is certainly not making it difficult for brands to ditch their current arrangements and take part in its Fashion Week(s).

As noted by BoF’s Lauren Sherman, “In order to show on this season’s official calendar, designers were required to fill out a formal application, which included paperwork and in-person meetings. For the established designers who applied, it could be likened to an A-list Hollywood actor [merely] having to do a screen test for a coveted film role.”

Additionally, the Fédération has, in recent seasons, established a separate – and entire day – solely for ready-to-wear brands to show ready-to-wear collections during the regularly scheduled couture shows. Hence, Proenza Schouler and Rodarte showing Spring/Summer 2018 collections, while everyone else was showing Fall/Winter 2017 couture ones. If this new schedule does not explicitly cater to non-native brands, I’m not sure what does.

According to the New York Times, there are other figures attempting to lure talent away from New York. “Alexandre de Betak … the ubiquitous fashion show producer (he works with Dior and Michael Kors, among others), had apparently been trying to lure the Mulleavys to show in Paris for years, the better to invigorate their audience.” 

Another seemingly missing link: Money. In to exact, who is footing the bill for these non-conglomerate-owned brands to up-and-stage lavish shows in Paris? For partially Kering-owned Altuzarra, this is not necessarily a relevant inquiry, but for privately-owned brands, there is no saying that the Fédération and/or its corporate sponsors did not chip in.

Rodarte’s public relations firm, Black Frame, did not respond to a request for confirmation as to whether Rodarte, alone, sponsored their S/S 2018 show.

An Enduring Rivalry, An Inferiority Complex

It is not uncommon, of course, for the French to invest heavily in fashion and all that comes with it. “The French take it very seriously, it is a huge part of their economy,” says Wassner. “In the U.S., we think of it a lot more frivolously than we should. It is a huge part of our economy and we cannot afford to lose it.”

Such dedication and investment in fashion in France (and comparatively less in the U.S.) – paired with the New York Fashion Week organizers’ inability to: a) Reign in the calendar to make it more manageable (read: less painfully packed and inconvenient) for show-goers, and b) Construct a calendar of shows that actually rivals New York’s European counterparts, as opposed to operating like a charity-calendar for very young and/or not-yet-promising brands that are objectively better suited to trade shows or off-season events – must make the opportunity to seek solace elsewhere pretty darn appealing.

As for whether there is a budding rivalry between New York’s fashion council, the CFDA, and the Fédération, it would be hard to imagine there isn’t, especially in light of such hard-hitting brands jumping ship.

“Well, of course there’s some rivalry – felt more by the Americans than the French,” says Binkley. “But there is also support and often cooperation. I’d compare it to a sibling relationship, with the Americans being the younger sibling with the inferiority complex.”