Our conversation with Jennifer Blumin about New York Men’s Fashion Week’s new home
BY KENNETH RICHARD
As any designer will tell you, there is more to a show that the collection itself. Lighting, sound, invitations, seating, cast all are key ingredients – but no ingredient is more instrumental to the desired outcome than the show space itself.
Be it tents or centers, the subject of New York fashion show spaces has been a hot topic since the shows’ inception. This year, New York Fashion Week show producers IMG and the CFDA have turned to the leading pioneer of NYC show spaces, Jennifer Blumin, Founder and CEO of Skylight Group, to help them marry the energy of the city with the energy of the shows.
For over fifteen years, Jennifer Blumin and her Skylight Group have been offering alternative and often engaging spaces to fashion’s design elite, including Ralph Lauren, Proenza Schouler, Prabal Gurung, Joseph Altuzarra and Rag & Bone. This year her firm takes the mantle from Lincoln Center to bring fashion back to its industrial roots and help put American menswear on a global stage.
On the eve of the resurgence of New York Men’s Week, The Impression spoke to Jennifer Blumin about how she got her start, what makes for a great space, crawling through dusty tunnels, and the new New York Men’s Fashion Week.
Jennifer, thanks for taking the time for a call pre Men’s shows. Are you at a venue now?
Yes. I’m crouching here on concrete where I can get a signal, in my dress, which is very glamorous and fashion week of me!
Very glamorous, our first crouched interview, are you at one of your venues?
I’m at Skylight Clarkson Square. I don’t have cell service in the space so I’m crouched at the door on the sort of crumbling concrete, and I’m like, ‘Hey, why is this concrete crumbling? They’ve got to fix this!’
So it is a productive interview. So tell me, how did you get your start as a concrete inspector?
I studied English in college and I was really into history, so it wasn’t the traditional path. I’m not a businessperson and I’m not an events person, but I spent a year in corporate America and realized it was not my thing.
This crazy Israeli billionaire convinced me to open his former home as an event space because people had asked him about renting it. So I took the risk because I didn’t have anything to lose. I opened my first space by myself in 2000-2001, and then I opened Skylight Soho and Longshoreman’s Meeting Hall in 2004, which really sort of set the standard for that industrial blank canvas, high production venue that has taken off so much more in recent years. With the proliferation of digital social media, it changed the game, really making it so much more necessary to build out an environment that is unique to the activation, as opposed to the old Cipriani’s type model of caviar towers and ice sculptures.
Tell me about that first set of clients for the billionaire’s space. Were they hard to grab?
They weren’t because the place was amazing. It’s called Sky Studios, it has a swimming pool overlooking the entire city.
It was a former hat factory. It was the ultimate adaptive reuse in that it had been this factory that he had bought, with so many luxurious elements and this beautiful dark wood huge fireplace that he built. He built the roof like a big glass tube, with gardens and a pool and that was the sexy space. But it wasn’t hard getting clients because the place was so amazing and a lot of people who were my clients then are still my clients now, but it was his design, and now my clients want their designs.
We provide the beautiful bonds to serve as the backdrop, and clients add the layers and the skin, and really make it theirs. History speaks through the layers that they create in a much more profound and deeper way than I think something that’s new can ever do. But it needs to be something where our clients can build whatever they want in the space. So if they want to take down a wall, no problem, just build it back, or we’ll build it. Super high production is really where our business has gone and where the industry has moved us, but the good news about that is we can still find venues with a narrative, and so many of our clients want to know that narrative.
Skylight Clarkson Square is where The Highline once ended, so we have train tracks running through the building. Skylight at Moynihan Station is still a functioning post office and Skylight One Hanson is a bank. A beautiful bank that tells the story of the immigrants’ path as they come through this country and what it means to save their money so their kids can enter the professional class – so it’s allegorized in the sort of iron works and the mosaics, and all the artistry of the space.
How are you finding the evolution of show spaces has evolved over the last few years?
We’re giving clients the bones, not the box, because the box to me denotes something fleeting and something without personality whereas the bones create something and give this idea of a living, breathing organism. So, I would say that we’re giving them the bones much more than we’re giving them the box.
But in the last two or three years, what we’ve seen is it’s not just about the 300 people in the room. It’s about the 300 million people who are engaging in the content created at the event, through various digital platforms and through social media. In the earlier days of events, you had to get by with a printed press release of the event and you would just see the press stories that came from these events and they were just regurgitations of the press release. Now that doesn’t exist. That’s gone and dead and that’s great because there’s this added element of the foyer or the opinions of guests with the event, and that’s new content as opposed to just repeating what the PR firm has in their release. So there’s much more focus in creating events that provoke conversation and give content, whether it’s a beautiful image or the fact that, “Hey, 99% of U.S. mail was once sorted in this room that we’re in right now.” That’s fodder that can then be linked to a brand.
I think people are really moving towards history over the idea of the white box studio space because it gives a permanent feel, as bricks and mortar does versus buying on the internet. This gives a permanence to a product that is, for the most part, future oriented.
Most of what we do is fashion shows or product launches, so you’re looking forward. But there’s an advantage that comes from being tethered to the past, and I think that more thoughtful companies are seeing and feeling that and designers certainly are. There’s also a shift in budgets, as an event now is part of a global, multimillion-dollar marketing budget. That is because of a decline in traditional media. So the money spent on events has grown astronomically because of the global budget. Most events aren’t just a ‘New York activation’ with some tastemakers and press due to digital. So there’s a change happening.
How do you define what Skylight does?
We’re an event venue development firm and we adaptively use historic landmarks to create some of the city’s and country’s most sought after event locations. We also give access to the inaccessible. None of our buildings can just be bought or leased on the open market, so for the people who have seen it all, they are getting unprecedented access into otherwise inaccessible empty landmarks.
You mentioned the ‘country.’ Outside NYC?
Yes, we’re opening in San Francisco at the end of this year.
Thank you! You can congratulate me when it’s actually done, but we’re opening on a pier, on the water, it’s pretty amazing.
Around Pier 42?
Thirty-Eight. Yes, close.
What attracts you to a particular space?
Those beautiful bones – it’s a space that makes you ask, what was this? There will be little quirks in our spaces. For example, at Skylight at Moynihan Station, we have these luminous, sort of shiny, black tiled floors. They’re so random if you think about it, “Why are these floors built this way for just an industrial use?” And the answer is because that was the best backdrop for which to sort the mail. They figured out that this exact, shiny black made you see the mail the best. That’s why we have those and that’s a conversation piece. It’s these things that are done purely for function that add such an interesting layer into the narrative, because no designer today who is looking to generate something beautiful would have thought of that because they’re not thinking of functionality in the same way.
This year is a big year and you are now taking over from Lincoln Center. You received some calls from IMG. How did that partnership come together?
There was a profile on the company in the style section of The New York Times during fashion week last September, and I got a call from Ari Emanuel.
Big call. What did he say?
Well, his people called and there was a “Hold for Ari.” (laughs)
So then you built a bridge with IMG?
IMG was looking to revamp fashion week, and looking for something that was inspired by the energy and the culture of everything that makes New York. I think they, I don’t want to speak for them of course, realize that no matter what was happening with the tents, it is an ephemeral concept in one place. Fashion week plays out in the city and the streets. It is holistic – it’s not about what’s happening in the world with our venue, it’s what’s happening around the city. It engages the city and inspires the city because these designers work in the city and are inspired by the city. The energy of the city makes New York such a wonderful place. That’s what we captured in New York Fashion Week and can help IMG capture.
We have the history, we have the narratives, and you don’t have to travel between the two venues. It’s like the reopening of what was once called the west side corridor, which was where the trains once were. It’s really been easy to build because it was something we were doing anyway and we had a roster of amazing designers who were choosing us for similar reasons. It was really something that they chose to do, which was to shape fashion week, which was really based around the culture of the city.
Now how do you partner per se with designers?
Well, the designers do whatever they want. What we do is provide the bones, provide the unglamorous, technical side of it. You know, everyone thinks it’s this glamour job, not that you’re crouched on the concrete! (laughs)
It’s about our power moves and our rigging points and our structural engineering. There’s a very unglamorous side to it. We work with the production companies to make sure the designer’s vision can be actualized – with the logistics of the space. We tame these wild beasts of buildings that you can’t go in, in a one-off way because there’s so much work to be done and they’ve been overlooked for so long. So we take care of that to get them the rest of the way there. But we do not have anything to do with the design and their vision. We respect that that is up to them and we’re not even in those meetings.
What have been some of the things that have surprised you that you were able to surmount?
When we were opening Skylight at Moynihan Station, two weeks before fashion week. We had a great lineup for fashion week – it was Theory, Rag and Bone, Phillip Lim and some others. Well, we were opening the venue for fashion week and I realized that we had only listened to one of the guys who works in the building who said, “Oh, yeah, there’s a thousand amps of power in this main room.” Theory had bought that space for an exclusive. I woke up at four in the morning and was like, ‘He said that but we never tested that. We should go check.’
We hired an electrician to come in the next day and he said there weren’t a thousand amps, there was zero. There’s no power in this room! And we had fashion week loading literally in one week!
Stephanie, my president, and I had to go with our electrician literally into the bowels of the building, climbing on our hands and knees in the dusty, forgotten tunnels and random places to find more power. So we found old dusty switchboards from like the sixties, reenergized them, and got them up in one week’s time. It’s fun and exciting and sort of urban anthropology and archaeology at the same time. That’s why it’s interesting to me, it’s problem solving in so many ways.
But every time there’s a new venue there will be something like that. It’s just a matter of figuring out what it is. Like the time we ground out a floor to make new, beautiful shiny floors for a designer. We discovered that one side of the space was purple concrete and the other white. The designer was coming in and we said we’d have the floors done for them. Only once we ground them down did we realize there were two different types of concrete, made in two different decades and they could not be matched. So you learn how to solve all kinds of problems, and not freak out.
How did you solve it?
We had to meet in the middle and basically stain them to match the purple, which was not what they were expecting, but there was no other way to do it because you can’t stain a purple any other color. We just tried to mute it as much as possible and spent a lot more money on that than we had planned, but that’s what we had to do.
What would you like to tell us about what’s happening this week?
CFDA and Men’s Fashion Week is getting very exciting. I think what you’ll see and what is going to be very exciting about it is that it’s first of all a rise of American fashion for men. Whereas this has historically only been something that people in the industry knew of, this week helps put that plate really into the popular consumer consciousness. I think what we’ll see is a more mainstream version of men’s fashion because the reality is men care about fashion, and putting it in a place where it deserves, and giving it it’s own week will, I hope, succeed.
There’s so much more functionality in men’s fashion that sort of has always informed it. Doing that industrial piece of New York’s history is going to be so perfect for men’s fashion because it’s the idea of form following function, and these buildings were built for form to follow function. They were industrial, that’s what informed them. For men, they want to look amazing first, and then think about how later. They want something to work, and form follows function and that’s sort of the route of men’s fashion. I think that will be something that the buildings will play into and the history of men’s fashion will play into and we’ll be seeing this week.
Excited for you and thanks for taking the time on the cusp of the shows for a quick call. Good luck.
Thanks, it is an exciting week.
Photos | Allan Zepeda, Matthew Craig, Noah Barker, Natalie Poette, & Adam Elstein