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Image: Unsplash

“Prior to World War II, American fashion didn’t get much – if any – time in the spotlight,” Time magazine asserted several years ago. “Instead, the world looked to Paris for sartorial inspiration, with fashion magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar filling their pages with the aspirational attire of the French, even if the styles weren’t readily available to the average American consumer.”

In the early 1940s, however, the status quo, the all-encompassing France-as-epicenter set up began to change … at least for those in New York. As American travel to Europe became drastically curtailed and then restricted entirely in the midst of World War II, the American fashion press was kept from embarking upon their bi-annual sojourns to Paris, where they would take in the seasonal collections from the likes of Chanel, Lanvin, and Balenciaga, among others.

“The French capital powerfully dictated trends, with plenty of US-based fashion labels copying what first appeared across the Atlantic,” according to Vogue. “However, as war continued across the globe and Paris remained under German occupation, an opportunity emerged for the Americans to establish their own design credentials.”

With such a dearth of fashion activity, a well-known American fashion named Eleanor Lambert had an idea. She would facilitate the presentation of the designs of a collective of American designers as part of a media-focused foray called Press Week.

At first, the small event, which would ultimately become known as New York Fashion Week, was solely a means for editors – and editors, alone – to view collections. In its inaugural year in 1943, buyers were not invited, nor were designers’ most esteemed (and deep-pocketed) clients. As for the public at large, they had to wait until images of garments and accessories were published in magazines, which was a relatively long and slow process. Nonetheless, that was better – in Lambert’s eyes – than the alternative: prior to the debut of the organized seasonal fashion event, many journalists were not privy to and therefore, were unable to cover, fashion coming out of the Big Apple.

According to Vanity Fair, before Press Week came into fruition, “The only way that regional reporters had been able to cover the New York collections was to shadow hometown store buyers as they placed orders in [the brands’] Seventh Avenue showrooms.” Lambert’s new venture would ensure that the fashion press had access to esteemed American designers’ offerings.

And so, at the Plaza Hotel just steps from New York’s sprawling Central Park,  fifty-three designers – including Claire McCardell, Hattie Carnegie and Norman Norell – showed their seasonal collections, and the origins of modern-day New York Fashion Week were borne, right along with practice of payment for coverage, which is still a common tactic in the industry. After all, “Lambert fail-safed the success of her innovation by offering to pay out-of-town journalists’ expenses,” per Vanity Fair.

Lambert’s efforts were not without results. “Not only did the editors show up, but when the fashion magazines released their next issues, their pages were full of American designers,” per Time.

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, and “over the next few decades, [Press Week’] increasingly packed schedule of shows helped to establish America as a serious fashion force,” according to Vogue, “spawning many of today’s big names, from Oscar de la Renta to Ralph Lauren.

Yes, for the next three decades, American designers carried on the tradition seemingly without question – 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? It was as simple as calling Finley – on the phone – and staking claim on a specific date and a specific 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. Stan Herman – the designer and the president of the CFDA as of 1991 – worked closely with fellow New York fashion pioneer Fern Mallis to gather designers together to show in a single unified location. This meant that beginning in 1991, the majority of fashion shows in New York were located under tents erected in the center of midtown Manhattan’s Bryant Park.

This collective organization – then called “7th on Sixth” – came with an array of benefits. “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, print – and eventually, digital– magazine editors, celebrities, and brands’ biggest clients. Sometime 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 – the intellectual property for which had been acquired by sports and media management conglomerate IMG 8 years prior – was branded as Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week to reflect the event’s most significant sponsor (before returning to the simplified  NYFW almost a decade later). 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 the story-telling elements surrounding their brands, and their often logo-covered licensed goods.

Along with the availability of garments for sale on designers’ websites, digital media continued to expand its footprint, and fashion bloggers began to hold their own weight, all while holding court in fashion week’s front rows.

Bloggers – including BryanBoy, Rumi Neely, Susie Lau, and Tavi Gevinson, among others – were perched alongside esteemed editors in the front rows, providing 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 becoming democratized, essentially available to anyone with a computer.

The new level of accessibility that was creeping into fashion did not prevent hordes of individuals from squeezing into the tents at Bryant Park, an indication of the growing nature of the event and the interest surrounding it. By 2010, almost 20 years after setting up shop in Bryant Park, the bi-annual fashion week circus was forced to make a move when it hit max capacity. The tents moved 18 blocks north to Lincoln Center in order to accommodate more people.

And the bi-annual New York Fashion Week has expanded even more since then – albeit not only 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 (i.e., 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. 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 – following a settlement in a lawsuitin which a class of plaintiffs claimed that 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 (and sometimes beyond) to attend runway shows during which models are on the runway for less than 15 minutes.

While there has been promise of a new centralized location – Chelsea’s Hudson Yards – that has been complicated as of late due to ties between real estate billionaire Stephen Ross, who was behind the development of the site and remains on the board, and President Donald Trump, prompting bog-name New York brands, such as Michael Kors, Vera Wang, Rag & Bone, and Prabal Gurung to cancel their shows at the new outpost.

All the while, no small number of designers in New York, are opting out of the 76-year old tradition of NYFW, during which time major shows cost an estimated $100,000 and more. Some have been estimated to cost as much as $1 million, with the return-on-investment being anything but crytal clear, prompting an increasing number of designers have taken to “questioning the value of the traditional catwalk show,” as designer Jenny Packham put it in 2017.

Some have chosen to pursue digitally-focused endeavors, such as Instagram-only shows, while others have opted out altogether. Rodarte’s Kate and Laura Mulleavey, for instance, released a lookbook instead of staging a show. Still yet, others – such as Altuzarra and Telfar – have decamped from New York to Paris, which still holds the title of the most esteemed fashion capital in the world.

Still yet, as of the Spring/Summer 2020 runway shows, the formerly more-than-a-week-long NYFW schedule is noticeably slimmer. In his new role as chairman of the CFDA, Tom Ford has (kind of) cut down on the number of shows and days on the NYFW calendar in an attempt to boost the allure. However, it is “still a weeklong event,” per Footwear News, making it “shorter than the grand, seemingly-never ending finale that is Paris Fashion Week, but longer than London and Milan.”

As for what is to come for New York, which has reportedly drawn smaller numbers of media figures and buyers in recent years compared to its European counterparts, Stan Herman – who thanks to his early work in organizing a more unified event, has been coined “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.”

In terms of the relevance of fashion week more generally, Tom Ford is not immune to the need for reflection and reinvention, telling WWD in 2016: “In a world that has become increasingly immediate, the current way of showing a collection four months before it is available to consumers is an antiquated idea and one that no longer makes sense. We have been living with a fashion calendar and system that is from another era.”

“Fashion shows and the traditional fashion calendar, as we know them, no longer work in the way that they once did.”