New York Fashion Week was the first fashion capital to begin organising shows seasonally but it will come as no surprise that the concept of fashion shows themselves first began in Paris in 1800s. At this time shows took the shape of private fashion shows held by French couture houses for their most prized clients. Models would take part in a ‘fashion parade’ for the atelier, taking prime position in a line to showcase the salon’s wares. Fashion shows of this format would last for up to three hours and would take place every day for several weeks.
At the turn of the century, it was New York’s turn to make them mainstream. In 1903, the New York City speciality store, Ehrich Brothers held America’s first fashion. It didn’t take long for the concept to go mainstream with several department stores and retailers getting in on the action by 1920, mostly hosting in-store or at top hotels. It wasn’t until 1943, when the iconic Eleanor Lambert, began clustering fashion shows together into an organised seasonal format.
During World War II, the occupation of the Nazis meant that Allied countries were suddenly cut off from French fashion news and the trendsetting designs that made Paris the couture capital of the world. Lambert’s goal was to bring these shows together in order to boost American fashion during the occupation of France. The week was originally called ‘Press Week’ and at the time Lambert introduced it as, “a variety show, a kind of vaudeville performance with a prologue showing a cross-section of women who get their clothes in New York.” The week consisted of press breakfasts, fashion shows and plenty of photographers. Conveniently, the timing landed coincided with the growth of New York’s cultural scene with a fascination from global eyes with the jazz and poetry scene. Furthermore, with more and more women entering the workforce at this time, the interest in women’s fashion grew exponentially. The ability of this Press Week to energize the American fashion industry led it to become the model for future fashion weeks and the groundwork for fashion week as we know it today.
As Lambert’s Press Week began to grow in popularity, there was further need to up the game on the organisation front. As designers were starting to get more attention in department stores, more and more designers wanted in on the fashion week hype. While Lambert brought the American fashion industry to life with fashion week, Ruth Finley brought order to the fashion world for nearly 70 years through her curation of the Fashion Week Calendar. The pink-sheeted schedule was an essential guide to every event and venue involved in Fashion Week.
To the American fashion industry, Finley’s Fashion Calendar became a bible. Her goal? To maximise the audience opportunity for each designer at their show, avoiding all potential clashes with other events and giving every designer the moment they’d worked so hard for. Finley was the go-to person in the fashion industry when it came to getting your collection on a stage. Any designer that wanted to show at Fashion Week simply had to call Finley and name a date and time. Throughout her career, Finley remained a neutral decision maker, basing priority slots on first come, first serve. She was firm with that placement, showing no favouritism over the course of the 70 years she ran the Fashion Calendar.
By 1975, the trend had caught on and designers continued to show twice a year in September and February in New York City with the event eventually being known as New York Fashion Week. At this point, other cities had started to catch on with both Milan (1975) and London (1984) launching their own versions. Once 1994 rolled around, the event had continued on the rise, getting bigger and better and calling for a move in New York from hotels and loft spaces to Bryant Park. It was here that the famous white tents, exclusive invites and A-List celebrity sightings started rolling in. Perhaps most significantly, big sponsors were showing interest such as Mercedes-Benz. The event soon outgrew Bryant Park and moved to the Lincoln Center in 2010.
The format of fashion week as it stands has found itself in limbo. There’s certainly no shortage of theatrics and experiential events from designers but recent seasons have seen record low number of shows on the calendar and designers taking a more informal approach to showcasing collections. Fashion week as we once knew it is experiencing an existential crisis. Many designers including Thom Browne, Altuzarra and Proenza Schouler opted to showcase collections in other cities in recent seasons while many such as Alexander Wang and Monse have walked away from the traditional calendar altogether, opting to pivot their presentation approach or show at an alternative time throughout the year.
The younger generation consumes fashion in a much different way which causes huge challenges for designers particularly in determining how best to engage with new audiences. How the future of fashion week looks is unclear but perhaps that’s not such a bad thing? Instead, let’s engage our imagination and embrace pivotal opportunities ahead for the industry.