With New York fashion week right around the corner, we trace the history and evolution of one of the world’s most stylish institutions.
By Suzanne Weinstock Klein
Twice a year, in February and September, groups of fashion designers, editors, stylists, buyers, celebrities and models come from all corners of the globe to Lincoln Center in order to witness the magic that is New York Fashion Week.
But New York wasn’t always the fashion force that it is today. What started as a mere blip on the world’s collective radar has expanded into a world-renowned spectacle. The ultimate celebration of American style and design, fashion week has become fundamental to the identity of the Big Apple and its residents, with just enough excitement to keep things interesting.
The Start of an Era
It’s hard for New Yorkers to imagine, but it wasn’t too long ago that American fashion was an all but nonexistent concept. Yes, clothes were made in America, but fashion was left to the French.
In the 1930s, however, Maryland-born Claire McCardell changed the scene. In a time when American designers were essentially imitating French couturiers, McCardell defined the American woman’s aesthetic, popularizing comfortable yet fashionable pieces and paving the way for future stateside designers such as Halston and Calvin Klein.
“While Claire was influenced by the Europeans, she also realized that the regular American woman didn’t dress like European courtiers, and invented sportswear,” says Simon Collins, dean of fashion for Parsons The New School for Design. “In some ways, the origins of American style, which then became famous through New York Fashion Week, can be laid at Claire McCardell’s feet.”
Other American designers soon followed suit and the U.S., for the first time, was creating its own style and “look.” However, fashion editors continued turning to Europe to fill magazine pages with aspirational designs that were increasingly out of touch with their readers. But everything changed in 1943 when the dangers of World War II rendered editors unable to visit Paris.
Amid the struggle of war, prominent fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert recognized a unique opportunity to finally shine the light on domestic design talent, forcing the grounded American press to take notice. In 1943, Lambert organized Press Week, a showcase of 53 American designers who showed to national and regional media at New York City’s Plaza Hotel. She even paid for journalists to travel to the city. It proved a good investment: Press Week was a runaway success, and magazines filled their pages with American designs.
By the 1960s, Lambert’s cohesive Press Week was a thing of the past and a young, disjointed New York Fashion Week took hold.
“In the 1980s, the shows were a chaotic, [disorganized] calendar of fashion events all over town in nightclubs, lofts and restaurants,” says James Belzer, director of the fashion documentaries “The Tents” and “Make It In America: Empowering Global Fashion.” (Loews Hotels & Resorts is an executive producer of the latter.)
Editors were often dashing across town to catch shows that were a logistical nightmare. Many such shows were held in less than ideal conditions, in crowded spaces, up four flights of stairs or with disruptive technical issues. But the final straw came at a 1990 Michael Kors show, when the bass from the sound system sent pieces of the plaster from the ceiling down onto the fashion elite, hitting fashion reporter Suzy Menkes in the head. “We live for fashion; we don’t want to die for it,” was the headline that Fern Mallis, then-president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), recalled from the incident. Enough was enough, and she set out to find a centralized venue for fashion week.
After a test run at the Hotel Macklowe (now the Millennium Broadway Hotel) on 44th Street, Mallis came to an agreement with Bryant Park and, in 1994 under the auspices of the CFDA, the famous tents were erected for the first time.
The Golden Years
“The tents at Bryant Park unified the industry and became synonymous with New York Fashion Week,” Belzer explains. “The visibility of the tents in that setting created a level of recognition that the fashion industry hadn’t had before.”
Even after the new changes, the Big Apple was still seen as a second-class citizen in comparison to the European fashion capitals for one basic reason: New York Fashion Week occurred after the fashion events in Paris, Milan and the rest of the world. In an industry where timeliness is everything, there was a sense that New York was waiting to see what the Europeans did in order to copy them.
The city and America’s designers finally emerged from Europe’s shadow when designer Helmut Lang announced he would showcase his collection prior to New York Fashion Week, as well as before Paris and Milan’s runway shows. Calvin Klein soon followed, and the rest is sartorial history.
“New York goes first because we don’t need to see anybody else’s [lines]; we’re good with who we are,” Collins says. “We don’t look to anybody else for approval.”
Year after year the crowds continued to swell and the event attracted huge sponsors like Mercedes-Benz (after which the official event is now named). In 2001, global sports and media company IMG acquired the rights to the official event causing a scramble to gain entry to the prestigious shows.
Everyone was desperate to be inside the Bryant Park tents, which became known within the industry for both their glamour and their chaos. After nearly two decades it became apparent that the shows were outgrowing their venue, and changes needed to be made.
All Grown Up
The fashion industry had mixed feelings about Bryant Park, where the CFDA’s original New York Fashion Week truly came into its own. In 2009, hundreds of shows took place in galleries and event spaces throughout the city, away from the ceremonial Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. The showcase was now part of a citywide fashion week rather than the sole place to see and be seen.
In 2010, Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week moved to Lincoln Center. The venue took the event to the next level with digital check-in systems, free Wi-Fi, organized press areas and 30 percent more space.
“There was a lot of sentimental attachment to Bryant Park,” says Belzer, who notes that many designers weren’t happy with the shift. “But the move put fashion into Lincoln Center alongside performing arts like music, dance and opera, which was a big deal and [gave] it a different sophistication. Fashion week grew up a little bit.”
The change shook things up and continues to cause ripples here and there. Some prominent designers now pass on the large, commercial setting of the tents for more creative alternatives or smaller, intimate spaces. For many up-and-coming designers, the cost of showing in the tents is prohibitive and they’re forced to find other venues to showcase their designs. While fashion week has matured in some ways, in other ways it has reverted to the 1980s with designers showing all over town, although there are now more shows in better facilities than 30 years ago.
Despite the occasional unrest, designers continue to enthusiastically display their collections during fashion week. “We who attend all of these shows sometimes bemoan that fact that there are 250 different events, but that’s OK,” Collins says. “If you want to have a runway show and you’ve got the wherewithal to put it together, you can have one. Everyone is in town and if you’ve got a smart way of attracting these people then they will come and the world pays attention.”
Technology Takes Over
While Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week’s move to Lincoln Center was a big shift, the Internet has changed the look and feel of fashion week in a more fundamental way. Shows are no longer protected, privileged and filtered through the lens of select tastemakers. Instead, they are accessible to the public via digital photography, live streaming and social media. Brands aren’t just showing to press and buyers—they’re showing to the world.
Tumblr had an early understanding of how blogs and bloggers were fundamentally changing the way people engage with fashion week, launching a program to bring bloggers and other content creators to New York to document it; September 2014 was its eighth season.
Although bloggers are still finding their place among the conventional fashion week crowd, many members of the old guard have embraced the change. “I think a lot of designers and publicists recognize that talented new voices are not there to fill seats; they are there to consume, and create amazing gifs, photos, and illustrations,” says Valentine Uhovski, fashion evangelist at Tumblr.
Live streaming has also allowed people anywhere in the world to view shows in real time. “In recent seasons, [Mercedes-Benz] New York Fashion Week audience viewing figures have grown significantly, hitting on average of 10 million impressions each season,” says Tabitha Goldstaub, cofounder and head of brand partnerships at Rightster, which manages the live stream of all shows at Mercedes-Benz New York Fashion Week. “Live streaming fashion shows has brought the glamour of the runway onto laptops and into our homes and offices.”
Today, fashion week gives designers more visibility than it has at any other time in history—and that’s one trend that shows no signs of slowing.
Fashion on Film
Although America’s star has risen in the fashion world, there has been a simultaneous decline of the country’s manufacturing capabilities. After exploring the evolution of New York Fashion Week in “The Tents” (2012), director James Belzer is back with “Make It In America: Empowering Global Fashion,” which explores what it will take to return manufacturing to the U.S. with the help of fashion luminaries like Nanette Lepore, Anna Sui and Ralph Rucci.
“I’m trying to stimulate that thought process of, ‘We could make our own clothes if we put our minds to it and we could build a factory tomorrow if we wanted to,’ ” Belzer says. “Thirty years ago, 95 percent of product was made in the United States and now it’s the opposite. Only 5 percent of our product is made domestically.”
Challenges to rebuild the manufacturing industry in New York are enormous. Space is limited, costs are high and advances in technology mean existing factories need upgrades to compete with production elsewhere.
Belzer is optimistic with “made in America” becoming a more popular idea. “Like anything in fashion—like hem lengths or colors—[it’s] a trend-driven business and the trend for the next couple of years will be about how much of our production can we source domestically and efficiently and profitably,” he says. “The future is promising.”
If you’re heading to New York for fashion week, Loews Regency Hotel is the ultimate place to stay. With stylish accommodations for stylish visitors, the hotel recently reopened in January 2014 following a major renovation. The property combines chic, elegant interiors with impeccable service at a prestigious Park Avenue address.
As fashion week regulars know, the key to enjoying the events is finding a retreat to rest and regroup that’s still close to the action. Loews Regency Hotel fits the bill, across Central Park from Lincoln Center and an easy ride down Park Avenue for events and after-parties downtown. After a coffee break at fashion industry favorite Sant Ambroeus and a blowout at the Julien Farel Restore Salon & Spa, hitch a complimentary ride to anywhere in Manhattan in one of the hotel’s swift and sleek Fiat 500Ls.
For more information and reservations, visit loewshotels.com.