A look at the Industry, the CFDA, designers, media, and elevating NYFW
Throughout the last ten days, a number of media players published remarks regarding what they believed was a diminished state of affairs for New York Fashion Week, questioning its reason to exist and future. A few have even gone so far as to subtly point fingers at show organizers and designers alike lamenting the loss of big names from the schedule to the addition of presentations and lookbooks, to the rules which govern the show calendar and which designer’s qualify for rights to be on the calendar.
These questions come in the midst of the most significant paradigm shift our industry has faced as digital has upset the apple cart of timing and distribution, challenging traditional gatekeeper control with little sign that the dust will settle soon.
Why have these comments been raised, and nary a one with a positive suggestion? I haven’t the slightest; you would have to ask them.
What I can speak to is the power of the U.S. fashion system. A system that is not unlike America itself, consistently great at communication, limited only by its imagination, and whose greatest strength is the ability to stand up and admit that we can do better, then do it.
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
Emma Lazarus’ sonnet, New Colossus, is at the base of The Statue of Liberty as a reminder of how America was built on acceptance and our participants in fashion week should be no exception. I speak from experience on this subject having arrived in New York with little more than five thousand dollars and a credit card going on to launch my designer business in 1992, mounting ~40 runway shows in subsequent years. The fashion calendar wasn’t a barrier to our success; it was a partner to it.
The CFDA owns the fashion calendar and has done a magnificent job at managing its growth while supporting American fashion. They do indeed have a process and qualification that must be met for designers to show albeit it does allow for nascent talent to gain exposure. Their role is to empower, which they do with countless programs from education to finance. To be clear, it is not the CFDA’s job to prevent designers from showing, manage where and how they show, or grow designer’s brands through press and sales. That is the designer’s job.
So, it is with that in mind that I would like to speak to those accountable. It is us. The designers and media alike who when the integrity of New York Fashion Week is called into question, we have to stand up and say ‘We can do better.’
Here is how.
Recognize That We Only Have Ourselves To Blame For Our Reputation Our Reputation On The International Stage Is Entirely In Our Circle Of Control
I care about The Impression Score’s given to each show and take the role seriously. Looking at every image, averaging over 1600 per day, I believe I see more fashion show images than any person I’ve had the pleasure to meet. Those images include close-up details shots which enable us to look at every stitch and seam. Having designed for 15 years coupled with the access to shows imagery puts me at a unique advantage to be able to say with certainty, our industrial complex is subpar.
Make matters Be vigilant about quality
We need to fight to assure that the make does not undermine our ideas. And our make falls short of that shown on runways of Milan, Paris, and Japan.
Each designer needs to be a champion of craft. If it feels wrong, it is wrong, and your weakest piece represents your highest standard. Fight at every turn for quality. Quality of materials, quality of cut, quality of fit, but most important is the quality of make.
Find or build better resources. Be it the mountains of Italy or the mountains of China, go to where you can to assure your make is stellar. If it is here, raise your bar . . . Then raise it again. Do not waiver. Understand you have a perception to surmount that you have earned. This will take time.
More does not mean better. If need be, show less. It is wiser to present 25 great looks than 42 mediocre ones.
Commentary Does Not Make Up For Lack Of Craft
American’s are magnificent storytellers. Our stories deserve to be heard, are often socially meaningful, and necessary to drive change. Many designers showing in New York today have commentary that far outweighs the quality of both their design and construction. Often they receive media praise for that commentary which can lead to big heads and soft minds.
Those designers mustn’t be fooled into thinking that just because their stories are keen that the audience will forgive production shortcomings. Because as soon as someone else comes up with a better story, theirs ends.
If you want to keep telling stories, make the words worth paying for.
This also applies to fashion media which must balance fostering and championing newness with being a shepherd, one aware of the dangers of promoting business too soon. We have all witnessed countless designers propped up with press attention only to find themselves without the means to support the next round of expectations in their life cycle. Even those who have been in business for over ten years struggle. We must foster the right balance of attention at the right time and help to connect designers with partners who can help them on their journey.
Europe’s real estate is localized and driven by small streets that never allowed for malls with parking lots. Therefore, each designer’s vision was created with a small box retail store with their name on it. Sure, they have wholesale, but they think like a retailer, envisioning a 360 offering for their customer, the actual customer, not the buyer whose vision for their brand is driven by sales results from last season.
European collections are very focused on their customer. They offered accessories much earlier in their business cycle. They grow slowly with control of markdowns, merchandising, and distribution. They make mistakes in their stores before putting it in others. Wholesale partners have less leverage over them. Each of you today has your own store, online. If you don’t and don’t have a relationship with your customer, then get one. Now.
Don’t Go It Alone
Many collections in the U.S. look lonely, especially when it comes to contemporary houses and eveningwear. A lonely collection lacks styling details, lacks proper footwear, proper handbags, proper eyewear, proper details to round out a designer’s statement.
Solve those problems before you start the design cycle and don’t make money an excuse. Walk a trade show, and you’ll see just how many firms there are that make accessories. Your ability to gain exposure is an asset. Leverage it and make deals. Figure it out. Fast and now. Not as an afterthought. Because your afterthought reads like an afterthought.
Bring The Team Together At The Beginning
Many shows look as if they were styled by the designer or the stylist days before the show with little to work with. Stylist are valuable; partners are valuable. Find one. Build relationships and bring them into the design process at the beginning. Do a kick-off meeting to bounce your vision off them even if you aren’t ready. Who knows maybe they will inspire you.
Stylist, hair, makeup, show producers, casting agents are all a part of your toolkit. They are a sounding board who can simultaneously work to help take the weight off your shoulders, rounding out your collection and inspiring new directions. Isabel Marant was wearing wooden clogs when Emmanuelle Alt suggested heels. The idea was foreign to her. Look how that worked out.
Inclusion Is A Standard It Can’t Be Your Entire Story
New York is a progressive city that leads the world on social issues, and that is a role we should maintain. While today it may feel as though championing for inclusion is in itself a meaningful story, and it is, it can’t be the entire reason for your house to exist. Why? Because inclusion will be a standard tomorrow and your brand will have helped make that a reality but without some other reason to exist, you won’t.
Develop your point of view that is inclusive of inclusion, but has meaning on its own.
Press too needs to separate the inclusion as part of a vision but not the only reason for that designer to exist.
Lookbooks Work Make Them Work More
Plenty of designers this season from Jason Wu Collection to Zero + Maria Cornejo stepped off the runway and built lookbooks to showcase their collections. Yes, we miss you from the runway. But if spending $30k on a lookbook rather than $250k on a runway show helps you grow, then by all means, grow.
There are plenty of collections that may be better served by lookbooks. Lookbooks are as easy to share as runway shows. They can live in all the same places.
But if you are going to do lookbooks, give them more meaning, add video, add dialogue, add movement, think of them as fuller stories. Use integrity talents, engage public relations in how to make them cut through the fashion week clutter to be talked about. Build small events around them. Engage art directors who can turn 30 looks into 300 reasons to speak to your audience without driving them crazy.
For those who have made it this far, thank you for the time. We are here to help. That is the role we play. New York Fashion Week is a strong fashion week and will get even stronger.
Because like the fab four said.
Life is very short, and there’s no time For fussing and fighting, my friend.