The decline of fashion week, explained
For years, people have been wondering whether it’s even worth saving.
Feb 8, 2019, 10:57am EST
The decline of fashion week, explained
Fashion week is dead. Haven’t you heard? It was dying, and then it was dying some more, and kept on dying, and now it’s dead.
Or is it? Perhaps fashion week is coming back from the dead, or maybe fashion week was never really dead at all. Despite the fact that fashion week still very much exists, people have been arguing about its death for years.
The concept of fashion week — which, in the US, usually refers to the New York Fashion Week that takes place in February and again in September — is relatively simple: designers presenting collections for the following season to a room full of their peers in the fashion industry.
Its genesis can be traced back more than 75 years, but over the past decade, NYFW has become something else. Depending on whom you ask, it’s turned into a bloated and outdated trade show for an industry that has evolved beyond it, or a parade of influencer narcissism, or an overcommercialized slog where nobody has any original ideas anymore. It’s possible it peaked in the late 1990s, after Sex and the City brought the glamour of New York fashion parties into living rooms countrywide, or maybe it was in the excesses of the mid-2000s, when fashion became an increasingly common business venture for celebrities, just before the recession devastated the economy.
Still, each time fashion week rolls around now, the same debates have to be litigated: Should fashion week still exist? Who is it for? These questions aren’t really about whether the parties are fun or the trends are cool. It’s about whether the structure of fashion week is relevant to the way people buy clothes today.
The history of New York Fashion Week
Though its origins lie in the “press weeks” that took place in New York every fall and spring beginning in 1943, in which editors would flock to ritzy hotels to watch runway presentations of designers’ latest collections, the fashion week we know today is a relatively young phenomenon. From the 1940s to the ’80s, New York, Paris, London, and Milan established themselves as the “Big Four,” the largest and most important centers of fashion, each with its own slate of shows. The concept of a dedicated week-long event for a city to promote its fashion industry has now spread globally.
For a long time, fashion weeks made sense. Runway shows offered editors and buyers a chance to preview the collections and larger trends that would hit clothing racks in six months, allowing time for magazines to plan content and for department stores and boutiques to make business decisions far in advance.
New York Fashion Week as it lives now didn’t begin officially until 1993, when Fern Mallis, then the executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, sought to centralize the scattered process of editors and buyers running around to various runway shows all over the city.
“Organized shows put American designers on the map and changed the fashion landscape forever,” Mallis told Racked in 2015. “Before that, there were 50 shows in 50 locations. Everyone did their own thing without understanding what a nightmare it was if it was your business to get from one show to the other.”
By 1994, the success of American designers like Calvin Klein and the celebrities their shows attracted (a very young Leonardo DiCaprio, for instance) established NYFW as a must-cover event.
For 16 years, “the shows,” as they were called, took place inside tents set up in Manhattan’s Bryant Park. This not only freed attendees from frantically running from venue to venue but also meant designers were no longer responsible for the burden of producing a fashion show from scratch — the space, lighting, sound, and security were all handled by a production firm. That’s not to say it was cheap: In 2007, a show at Bryant Park cost “at least $50,000” for designers, according to one estimate.
Come 2010, the event had spilled beyond the reaches of the relatively small park — at its height, NYFW included nearly 300 shows — and after years of disagreements between the fashion industry and Bryant Park’s management over its expansion, the event was moved to tents within the plazas of Lincoln Center. The new location, while slightly farther from New York’s Garment District where many designers keep their studios, had 30 percent more space and was equipped with much better technology to fulfill the needs of the increasingly digital event. A year later, designers started regularly live-streaming their shows on YouTube so that even those without an invitation could tune in.
Meanwhile, another industry was exploding far outside the walls of the tents: personal style blogging. In the years before Instagram, a smattering of well-dressed (and often wealthy) fashion mavens all over the world shared photos of their outfits online alongside slice-of-life blog posts. Between 2004 and 2008, people like Bryanboy and Tavi Gevinson were starting to build brands with quirky clothing pairings and colloquial writing voices.
These early “influencers,” who gained fame even before the term became a bona fide career choice, planted the seeds of a fashion industry reckoning. They were outsiders, threatening the traditional system in which magazine editors held almost absolute power in directing public opinion of fashion trends. “They had a keen awareness of how technology could help them attract the attention of hundreds of thousands of like-minded fashion fans who had been shut out of the conversation,” critic Robin Givhan wrote in 2014.
And while the fashion industry ultimately embraced them — Marc Jacobs named a bag after Bryanboy in 2008, and Lucky magazine put three digital influencers on its cover in 2015 — these swaths of previously unheard-of showgoers were often blamed for ushering in the so-called death of fashion week.
To a certain extent, their critics had a point. These hoards of well-dressed digital natives were adept at peacocking for street style photographers who waited outside runway shows, thereby creating a spectacle outside the tents that was arguably bigger than what was going on within them. And even by the time they sat down, these oft-maligned newbies didn’t necessarily adhere to the old-school rules; namely, not taking photos during shows. Anyone who followed them online was privy to essentially the same access they had.
In 2015, the shows were booted from Lincoln Center, by way of a lawsuit that determined the space where NYFW was held could not be used for commercial purposes. But even prior to the settlement, many designers were already beginning to decamp to various other event spaces around the city. The biggest brands, like Alexander Wang, preferred to rent out enormous warehouses to put on fashion shows that morphed into all-night ragers, while up-and-coming designers experimented with intimate showroom presentations that felt more like art openings than fashion shows. The latter strategy was also a good way to avoid the gargantuan cost of putting on even the most basic runway show, which back in 2014 was estimated to cost around $200,000.
Though New York Fashion Week eventually relocated to two separate event spaces, many of its marquee designers had decided not only to host their shows on their own but to forgo the traditional fashion week calendar entirely. This creeping decentralization, both physically and temporally, has contributed to the event’s waning relevance.
Why fashion week isn’t as important as it used to be
It’s not that the organizers and participants of fashion week haven’t been trying hard to keep it alive: Price points aside, high fashion is as democratized as it’s ever been. Anyone with internet access can now watch almost any major runway show in the world in real time, and when designers screw up, they’re forced listen to the opinions of average people via social media. Racial diversity among models still isn’t great but has largely improved in the past three years alone. It’s no longer such a shock to see, say, a size 10 woman walk down a runway, nor is it unusual for a designer to make a progressive political statement with his or her collection. None of this has been enough, though.
Fashion week is dying because it has zero relevance to the way modern shoppers buy stuff.
The traditional fashion calendar, in which a collection of garments for fall is presented the preceding February and spring clothing is shown in September, actually comes from King Louis XIV. In the 17th century, he established France as the center of the luxury textile industry by imposing a seasonal schedule wherein new textiles would be released twice a year, as a means of encouraging people to buy more of them. From the beginning, it was simply good marketing — people bought the latest textiles because they were new, not because they were actually needed.
And back when fashion shows were more like trade shows, where new collections were presented to a small number of editors and buyers who would then report on the coming trends for readers or order garments for stores, this system still served its purpose. But now that images can spread worldwide in an instant and the act of buying a dress can be reduced to about three taps on a phone, the six months between when an outfit walks down a runway and when a person can actually buy it feels ridiculously archaic. Fashion trends, likewise, now flare up at lightning speed and flame out just as fast thanks to image oversaturation, so that after the half-year waiting period, an aesthetic can feel played out.
Much was made of the fact that in 2016, major designers like Burberry, Tom Ford, and Tommy Hilfiger adopted a “see now, buy now” strategy, in which their runway collections were available to purchase immediately. But for most mass-market clothing brands, that’s just business as usual. The biggest fast-fashion brands like Asos, for instance, can turn around entire collections in the span of a few weeks.
Another problem with the traditional fashion calendar is how it forces designers to put out four or more full collections a year, sapping designers of creativity and creating a huge financial burden for brands. (In addition to spring and fall collections, there are in-between seasons like resort and pre-fall, which sometimes also involve runway shows or live presentations.)
Enter drop culture. Companies have found success by creating scarcity, building buzz and dropping limited collections or individual items whenever they want instead of releasing collections on a regular schedule. The most famous of them is Supreme, the streetwear brand that, even after 25 years, still attracts lines that span full city blocks every Thursday morning. It doesn’t need a presence at fashion week to do that.
Plus, there are far fresher and less expensive ways to market a fashion brand that don’t involve runways. There are highbrow examples (like the brand Opening Ceremony’s relationship with the New York City Ballet) and quirky ones (like designer Rachel Antonoff turning a fashion presentation into a school science fair). And then there are presentations that just exist online, like Misha Nonoo’s “Insta-Show,” where the only spectacle was the one taking place on Instagram — the only medium through which most people have access to a fashion show in the first place.
At the same time, the draw of covering fashion week for magazines and websites has waned. As fashion week and the nitty-gritty cycles of high fashion in general have less relevance to consumers’ shopping habits, it isn’t surprising that readers aren’t as interested in hearing about them.
People aren’t sure whether fashion week is even worth saving
All of this raises the question: Who is fashion week even for? Designers are ditching it, no one seems to be clicking on coverage, and often, the events feel like little more than exercises in Instagram influencer posturing.
Sure, for smaller and up-and-coming brands, fashion week is still a banner event that can provide marketing opportunities. But for the most part, fashion week doesn’t seem to be succeeding in its primary function: getting people excited about buying things.
Part of this could be because we don’t care about clothes anymore. A Bloomberg feature last year called “The Death of Clothing” highlighted all the reasons Americans are spending less of their incomes on their wardrobes, from the casual-ification of work attire to the flattening of top-down influence (it doesn’t just come from fashion houses anymore).
Brands that been held up as innovators in the industry, like Nasty Gal, are now struggling. Neither of them put on high-profile runway shows, but they serve as examples of a possible decline in our interest in fashion and, more broadly, our interest in owning things versus our desire for experiences. “Who needs fashion these days when you can express yourself through social media?” the Bloomberg piece begins. “Why buy that pricey new dress when you could fund a weekend getaway instead?” Why indeed?
New York Fashion Week is currently place like it always does, in early February. This time around, however, it’s added more panel discussions and film screenings, expanding on the success of similar previous events from last fall. Perhaps making fashion week more relevant means making it more like a conference — accessible to more people and with a takeaway beyond just “buy some stuff.” Attendees can now also purchase tickets to shows, which traditionally have been free and invite-only, through bundle deals called “NYFW: The Experience.”
In most ways, though, this February’s New York Fashion Week looks the same as it has in recent years: which is to say, with fewer and fewer people paying attention.