Designers Are Trying to Make Fashion Week Great Again

Industry insiders all agree that the way designers present collections is outdated and ineffective, as is the breakneck pace of the fashion cycle. This New York Fashion Week, however, some designers challenged the status quo.

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Sep 17 2016, 1:30pm


Audience enjoying a runway show. Photo by Camilla via Wikimedia Commons

On Wednesday, Ralph Lauren's spring/summer 2017 runway show for New York Fashion Week tried something it had never done before in its more than 50 years as a brand. Immediately after the label presented it's latest runway show in a towering glass tent across the street from its flagship store on Madison Avenue, its new collection featuring Western-style fringe jackets and ponchos was made available for purchase. Although several designers have been experimenting with "see now, buy now" over the past few years, Ralph Lauren is one of the largest American brands to try out the runway-meets-retail tactic, which is one of many trends signifying a desire among designers to reform fashion week.

"Showing clothes, then delivering them six months later... it's over," Ralph told Vogue before the show. "With the internet, social media... you have to change."

Change is exactly what the doctor ordered. In March, the Council of Fashion Designers of America released results from a study about the current state of New York Fashion Week. It polled 50 industry insiders, including everyone from designers to bloggers. The consensus was that the system of showing clothes in a runway presentation and selling them in stores months later was outdated and ineffective. They also framed the breakneck pace of the fashion cycle as a problem that leaves designers burnt out and doesn't help gain new customers.

The reality is that fashion week hasn't evolved that much since it was started back in 1943. The semi-annual series of presentations and runway shows that showcases the latest designer collections to a crowd of international buyers, press, celebrities, and fans hasn't kept pace with our advances in technology, industry, or globalization.


Kelly Cutrone before a fashion week runway show. Photo by Flickr user Savanna Smiles

Ralph Lauren's move to offer its collection immediately after the models made their way down the runway, however, is one way to break out of the doldrums of NYFW. Tom Ford, Alexander Wang, and Burberry have also been experimenting with the "see now, buy now" model, and it makes sense.

In an age when the audience snaps pictures and posts them online before 15-minute runway presentations are even over, offering the new clothing to the public immediately after debuting it on the runway cuts down on the risk of fast-fashion knockoffs, and could even help designers capitalize on hype. After all, if you're going to drop anywhere from $40,000 and up to create a spectacle-like runway production, why wait to make that money back?

"All these young and emerging designers who are coming up with these great looks are spending all of their money [on runway shows]," says Kelly Cutrone, who's been running the fashion firm People's Revolution for 20 years and has produced shows all over the world. "They are also going out there and saying 'Hey, these are trends.' Then everyone from H&M, Forever21, and Zara takes pictures of the clothes and sends them to their design house—they don't even have to come to the shows anymore. They take a black muscle tee, throw some tool on the side of it, and charge $19.99 before putting it on the shelf three months before the [designer's] clothes come out."

Putting together a fashion show involves conceptualizing a collection, creating samples, and finding a venue, in addition to the finer details like arranging lighting set-ups, music, and PR. According to Kerby Jean-Raymond, the designer behind Pyer Moss, designing the clothes for a fashion week show takes about four months, which means there's only two extra months between spring/summer and autumn/winter to work on everything else that comprises a fashion business.

This proposition is especially problematic when the shows can actually lose you business. In the past few seasons, Pyer Moss has put on some of the most hotly debated runway shows. For spring/summer 2016, Jean-Raymond turned his show into a platform to promote the Black Lives Matter movement. Jean-Raymond's powerful message was lauded by critics, but it cost his company over $120,000 in business from buyers too chickenshit to take a stand against oppression.


Kerby Jean-Raymond. Photo by Nick Sethi

Although some major designers are trying out new ways to make fashion shows more lucrative, for younger brands like Pyer Moss, who are on the rise but still lack the resources and revenue of storied brands like Ralph Lauren or Burberry, these new tactics can be tough to implement.

"It is really hard. I think it should be 'see now, buy soon,'" said Cutrone. "You can do 'see now, buy now' in limited quantities, but how do you do a production run if you are an emerging designer? For someone like Ralph Lauren, you know you are going to make 10,000 polo shirts so it is no big deal. For a smaller brand, how do you know how many to make? You don't because it has to be based on your orders."

Some brands like Public School, Gucci, and Vetements are combining their men's and women's collections, to help cut down the workload. "Designers are human beings who need to have some spare time to get rest and gather strength. Instead, designers are put under enormous pressure and insane schedules," Vetements CEO Guram Gvaslia told Vogue about showing men's and women's separately. "The industrial machine sucks out their creativity, chews them up, and spits them out. Once a genius, the designer is left behind incapable of being creative."

Other designers are balking at the system of fashion week by simply rejecting the official CFDA calendar and showing their presentations "everywhere from churches to clubs, and on everyone from agency-signed models to their own friends," writes W Magazine's Steph Eckardt.

The need for change has some people questioning whether the runway show is on the way out entirely. But the reality is that as annoying as fashion week can be for designers, the annual event offer a priceless opportunity for them to present their vision, which is something they can't do when the collection is simply shipped off to stores or worn by a celebrity without context.

It's this power of unfiltered expression that has kept and will undoubtedly keep attracting creative designers back to fashion week. And hopefully, with these new trends of change, they can catch the stodgy semi-annual event up with the 21st century.

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