Why Menswear Startups Are Taking to Fashion Week

#NYFW: Not just for traditional brands anymore.
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Eliza Brooke
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#NYFW: Not just for traditional brands anymore.
Frank & Oak's presentation in February. Photo: Frank & Oak

Frank & Oak's presentation in February. Photo: Frank & Oak

In late August, a little over a week before his brand's first runway show, Seph Skerritt had finalized the roster of models and was preparing for the last round of fittings. He'd needed to find pants and shoes for the guys to wear, but things were progressing on track.

Skerritt isn't a designer. He graduated from MIT's Sloan School of Management and went on to found Proper Cloth, an online startup specializing in custom tailoring for men's shirts. After six years in business, during which the team managed to streamline its turnaround time on orders to just a few weeks, Skerritt decided that it was time to transition Proper Cloth from a web-based service into something more closely resembling a fashion brand. 

The team has been expanding its product categories to include ties, blazers, suits and scarves. It's developed a more pointed aesthetic, one that Skerritt semi-jokingly refers to as "Italian grandpa meets SoHo kid."

"We're not selling to buyers. We don't have buyers. This is our fall/winter collection, so we'll put it on the website in the following week or two," Skerritt said in advance of the runway show, which took place September 3. "We want to be in the minds of editors when they're talking about menswear stuff in the future." 

Proper Cloth wasn't the only online-first menswear startup to show at New York Fashion Week this season. Thanks to their direct-to-consumer business models, these brands don't need the industry-wide event to move product. But while they've rejected the wholesale model that Fashion Week rests on, there's a lot of motivation to cash in on the other benefits of hitting the runway: Exposure, press and that special Fashion Week fairy dust. Put bluntly, legitimacy.

It's not unprecedented. Back in 2011, Warby Parker — the granddaddy of stylish web-based brands that you'd hesitate to call a "fashion label" — made a splash when it occupied the New York Public Library for an unconventional Fashion Week presentation that had models reading books with their frames' names printed across the covers. The press ate it up.

For Ryan Babenzien, a co-founder of the men's footwear startup Greats, participating in Fashion Week wasn't so much about establishing the line as a fashion brand as it was about generating awareness. Greats created four shoes for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund finalist Orley's presentation this season. Earlier in the summer it went in on a threeway collaboration with street style mainstay Nick Wooster and the Italian fashion house Lardini.

"We don't consider ourselves a fashion brand, but we play within the fashion world and working with fashion brands is a great way to have our foot in that space," Babenzien says. 

In Babenzien's view, Greats is a "style brand" that isn't dependent on the fashion buying cycle. You could debate semantics here, but the point is: Startups of this make aren't easy to classify.

The ideal outcome from participating in Fashion Week would be a boost in its cultural relevance, he says. The kind that comes by associating with a hot young brand or a style icon with a large and enthusiastic fandom.  

"It gives us exposure," Babenzien says. "We're a year old, and we're doing really well, but we're still unknown by 99 percent of the universe."

A Frank & Oak presentation model. Photo: Frank & Oak

A Frank & Oak presentation model. Photo: Frank & Oak

For the third season running, the Canadian menswear startup Frank & Oak put on a NYFW presentation this September, pulling the unorthodox move of opening the show up to customers as well as editors. As CEO and co-founder Ethan Song explains, the combination of being based in Canada and selling online means that few people get to see the clothes in person. Fashion Week is a way — much more ambitious than the standard pop-up shop — to bridge that gap, both for the media and for fans. 

Because Frank & Oak releases a new collection every month, they culled the best looks from the next three capsules to round out a season's worth of clothes. But despite that effort to fit the Fashion Week mold, the brand is sticking by its sales schedule. The first pieces from the collection were scheduled to drop just a few weeks after the September 8 presentation.

Song describes his company has "half fashion, half tech" — to that end, it recently closed an investment round of $15 million from a variety of backers in both worlds — but to succeed, it has to nail both. Showing at Fashion Week certainly helps on the fashion front, while giving the company a chance to forge relationships with New York-based photographers and stylists. 

And that's the thing: For some tech-minded brands, getting involved at Fashion Week is about building trust within the fashion industry. Need, a curated e-commerce site for men's lifestyle and fashion products, flew in from Dallas to co-sponsor New York Men's Day on September 3. According to founder Matt Alexander, having a presence at Fashion Week was something of a coming-out to an industry that might hesitate to get on board with tech startups.

Need plans to grow into a network of city-specific offshoots — starting in Texas, it follows that its sales would be stronger there than anywhere else. So as Erin Hawker, the founder of Agentry PR and the organizer of NYMD says, participating in NYFW will give it broader geographic exposure.

For any young brand or startup that lands a spot at Fashion Week, though, Hawker advises consistency across seasons in order to crack the industry. That means everything from getting lunch with reporters to doing interesting social media campaigns. The truth is, editors will rarely write a review the first season out.

"[Need] will definitely get the exposure," Hawker says. "But he's got to put together his marketing backend and how he recaptures that momentum. Reinforcing that they're here and this is what they're doing."

Update: A previous version of this article stated that Frank & Oak held separate sessions for editors and customers. It was all one session.