New York’s love letter to the fashion industry, now known as New York Fashion Week, began in the 1960s as a loose collection of showcases in clubs, galleries and apartments all over Manhattan. From SoHo to the Upper West Side, little-known and up-and-coming designers were fueling the fire that would explode into stores the following year, once the big tastemakers got wind of it. For the first half of the century, American designers had drawn inspiration from Parisian styles (and in fact, the very idea of the fashion show was invented by French designers to nobility in the 1800s).
The beginnings of a shift occurred in 1943 when the legendary fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert created “Press Week” in New York, in response to American critics’ inability to travel to Paris during American occupation. Press Week was the first time that the exhibitions of New York’s fashion designers would be clustered into one time frame. Over the next few years, these clusters became the “seasons” of fashion that we are accustomed to. Press Week also jumpstarted the careers of American designers Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta, to name just a couple. By the 1960s, many more American designers had begun to come into their own, with styles that were distinctly American. The shows continued, fashion flowered, and with a well-established industrial infrastructure in place in New York’s Garment District, the city was poised to assume a dominant role in the global fashion industry.
The late 70s through the 80s were heady times for New York’s creative community, with music, art, and fashion cross-pollinating and being propelled forward by an urban culture that was full to bursting with ideas, and those who were plugged in, like Vivienne Westwood and Jean-Paul Gaultier were setting the world on fire with their punk and street-infused couture. This was also the decade of the super fashion icons like Armani and Calvin Klein. Every year, the party seemed to get a little louder, and a little more colorful and flamboyant.
The increasingly high-profile nature of what had come to be known colloquially as New York Fashion Week (after London Fashion Week, formally created back in 1984) and its heritage as an almost-underground showcase for emerging and established talent came to a head in 1990, when parts of the roof collapsed on a group of attendees at a Michael Kors show. This ultimately provided the impetus for an upgrade in venue, spearheaded by the head of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), Fern Mallis. By this time, the CFDA had taken a leading role in the planning of Fashion Week. Originally called “7th on 6th”, NYFW would be held at Bryant Park from 1993 until 2010.
Those of you who lived in the city back then will remember the white tents that populated the park twice a year, the red carpets and the stars who showed up to see next season’s styles, and occasionally showed up with fashion lines of their own. Fashion Week in the world’s most cosmopolitan city gave new and established designers the world’s largest runway on which to strut their stuff, and twice a year spurred commerce in the city, not to mention creating thousands of jobs and helping to sustain hundreds of thousands of peripheral careers in the fashion industry. With the world stage came bigger and bolder designs. Fashion Week was more than just a place to show your newest line: it was often the inspiration for a line. The circle was closed, with the always-impending Fashion Week pushing designers to complete their collections with the knowledge that their designs would be discussed and dissected by fashion critics and designers from around the world.
In 2010, Fashion Week (by this time called Mercedes-Benz Fashion week) moved to perhaps the highest-profile venue in the city, Lincoln Center. The city’s home to opera, classical music, and theater was now also home to the neglected step-child of the performing arts world, high fashion. Perhaps the works of fashion designers were finally being viewed the way they deserved to be all along: as works of art.
Most people who have followed the changing fashions for any period of time know that one thing is true: Everything comes back in style. It’s funny that after all these years, New York Fashion Week has in many ways mutated back into something more closely resembling the scattered glory of the pre-Bryant Park fashion weeks. This year, high fashion will bid Lincoln Center a fond farewell; most of the action will once again take place in small venues around the city. Lovers of fashion will once again have to dash back and forth across town if they want to catch all of their favorite designers (or the ones they love to hate), with organizational responsibilities divided between IMG, and big names like Alexander Wang. The city’s unknowns are really doing what they’ve always done. Namely, setting up guerrilla runways in whatever venue will have them, and hoping for a bit of press. New York has always been fertile ground for hungry talent, and with the city’s fashion industry in flux, that has perhaps never been more true. Many of the city’s young designers seem to view the changing tides as an opportunity, not an obstacle. Hundreds of designers whose names you’ve probably never heard, will jostle for space in the public consciousness with the names you’ve heard forever, with clothing that will without a doubt be experimental, colorful, futuristic, often forgettable and occasionally, breathtaking. As always, what new designer or look the fashion gods will choose to bless is anyone’s guess. But fashion has never really been about that. At its heart, fashion is a way to cut loose, have fun, and express yourself, which would also be great advice for how to enjoy fashion week this February.
Find the New York Fashion Week schedule here.