February 14, 2021

The Unbundling of New York Fashion Week | BoF Professional, News & Analysis

Dozens of brands are due to publish fashion films and look books next week. But the designers who are sitting this season out are also worth watching.

A decade after the last season of shows inside the tents at Bryant Park, many designers no longer feel they need to stage runway shows to build a business in American fashion. The defections from the fashion week calendar, a steady trickle over the years, turned into a stampede during the pandemic, when health restrictions made traditional runway shows almost impossible.

None of the fashion capitals are immune. In Paris and Milan, where brands owned by luxury conglomerates still stage lavish shows with coveted front-row seats, Celine and Bottega Veneta are among the labels to abandon the schedule.

But it’s New York where the calendar’s disintegration is most advanced. Even before the pandemic, star designers routinely made the jump to Paris or showed on their own schedules. Many emerging brands saw Instagram, rather than the runway, as the best way to reach American consumers.

Still, New York Fashion Week remains one of the single largest marketing moments for the industry each season and still appeals to plenty of designers, buyers and press. It’s possible to imagine a post-pandemic revival: After months of virtual everything, there might be renewed excitement for in-person shows. The absence of marquee names gives lesser-known designers a shot at the spotlight, as well as sponsorship dollars.

But the more nebulous and undefined the week becomes, the harder it is to go back. Some buyers and editors forced to review collections online during the pandemic may decide they are happy continuing to do so. Brands are also facing financial challenges after apparel sales plunged last year. Many have more pressing uses for their tighter budgets than a splashy runway show.

The Council of Fashion Designers acknowledged as much in a recent decision to widen its fashion calendar, once the quasi-official signal of who was on and off the New York Fashion Week schedule, to include shows taking place on other dates and during other fashion weeks.

CFDA chief executive office Steven Kolb said the new calendar is an “American cultural statement for the season,” with New York Fashion Week as the core event. Each season will vary in how many designers decide to show, he said.

“[The expanded calendar] brings those brands together more than they’ve ever been brought together,” he said. “It’s not just a one-season pandemic reaction, it’s really an organisational shift, an American industry shift, in the way seasonal collections are presented.”

It’s really an organisational shift, an American industry shift, in the way seasonal collections are presented.

IMG, the Endeavor-owned fashion events company and agency that maintains an alternate fashion week schedule, is hoping for a return to normalcy – eventually.

“A lot of people are optimistic about September, and we’re very excited about the potential for greater capabilities ahead,” said Noah Kozlowski, director of global designer relations at IMG.

Next week, the vast majority of designers and brands that are participating will present their collections through digital lookbooks or short films that will be available on social media, the CFDA’s free, open-access, industry-targeted platform Runway360 and/or IMG’s consumer-targeted site, nyfw.com. For a second season, designers Jason Wu and Rebecca Minkoff are planning small, in-person presentations with the help of IMG and its network of sponsors.

In a mostly digital format, the idea of a time slot is close to meaningless, allowing for flexibility that has eroded much of the critical mass element of New York Fashion Week. Some designers presented their collections in previous weeks, like Maria Cornejo, while others have presentations in some format planned for March, including Tory Burch, Oscar de la Renta and Eckhaus Latta. Christian Siriano, whose outdoor show at his Connecticut home generated far more social media engagement than any other brand in September, according to Tribe Dynamics, is hosting a small, in-person runway show on Feb. 25, a week after the official end of fashion week.

Many of the city’s biggest names are sitting the whole season out, including Marc Jacobs and Ralph Lauren.

For IMG, fashion week remains a key source of profits, even in its diminished state during the pandemic. Its parent, Endeavor, a talent agency that also produces entertainment, sports and fashion events, was hit hard by the pandemic, and laid off over 1,000 employees last year, according to industry reports.

With fewer big designers showing, and fewer shows generally, IMG has had to work harder to monetise fashion week. It has attempted to make Spring Studios in downtown Manhattan a hub along the lines of Bryant Park. That strategy is more popular with sponsors, who want a central location to set up pop-up shops and installations, than designers looking for unique venues.

This season, BMW, Visa, E!, Perrier and Tresemmé are sponsoring the largely digital presentations on IMG’s site, and the agency secured additional funding for Jason Wu from Coca Cola and Christian Cowan from Motorola, among other deals.

IMG’s site will also publish other content, including panel conversations, and is adding an e-commerce element with limited products available from Rodarte’s streetwear line Radarte and LaQuan Smith, among others. It has linked up with the Black in Fashion Council to set up a showroom for Black designers at Spring Studios where guests can visit by appointment.

In its lineup next week, IMG has slated 40 designers who are completely new to its fashion week, including PizzaSlime (a WME client) and Loring New York. IMG’s Kozlowski described a largely digital fashion week as a “launchpad” for emerging designers.

“In the absence of some of the bigger brands, who can kind of afford to do whatever they want, when they want, it really paved the way for new voices to be heard and get the attention of the mainstream industry,” he said. “With digital, everyone has the opportunity to view everything.”

Indeed, many designers still cannot afford to show during fashion week without the financial support of IMG and its sponsors. The industry is hurting financially, and a return to 2019 levels is still years away.

And for those that do have the time and resources, this season could still provide a rare opportunity to get on the radar of consumers and press for designers who might otherwise be overlooked. That was always part of the appeal of New York Fashion Week. It just happens less and less.

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