It's only a few weeks away from her presentation at New York Fashion Week, but all is calm in Alejandra Alonso's Soho studio. There are no crying assistants, no errant pieces of fabric or piles of takeout containers — in fact, everything is completely tidied up. Even Alonso's dog, an adorable dachshund named Latte, sits quietly in her lap through the entire interview.
It's an impressively serene scene, considering that Alonso is only in her third season presenting her line, À Moi. Fashion Week is a notoriously stressful time for designers, let alone for an emerging brand like Alonso's; between the (very high) expense of putting on a show, the over-packed schedule and the months of planning required, even the most established designers can find themselves in over their heads.
Still, many young designers feel that showing on the Fashion Week calendar is important. "Being on the calendar and being on the radar, it's kind of a big thing," Alonso says. "Being able to walk together with press or buyers and show them each garment and really get them into the philosophy of À Moi and my own little world, my inspirations and my explanations, it's an advantage to the collection and to the brand."
"I feel like it's a great platform for exposure and to kind of legitimize yourself as a designer," says designer Ann Yee, who first showed in fall 2011. "In the arena of emerging design, when you show, it basically gives everyone the idea that you're actually doing something right, you have your shit together and you have the resources together to do a proper presentation during Fashion Week. I feel like it makes you look better among your peers and it's a great vehicle for press and exposure — people getting to know the brand better."
Which is why many of these emerging designers aren't deterred by the challenges of setting up a proper presentation — starting with finding a time slot. Many small designers have a hard time competing with other brands for coverage, a roadblock that can keep some small brands from attempting to show.
"We are a bit insulated from the chaos of Fashion Week, but we have seen the calendar and the schedule is overwhelming," Sean Monahan and Monica Paolini of Sea tell Fashionista via email. "For a new brand, we imagine it is difficult to find a time slot that allows for a meaningful impact."
Once a good time slot is secured, most emerging brands go with a presentation format over a traditional runway show; having a two-hour window allows for time-taxed editors and buyers to stop by when they have the opportunity, which also removes the pressure of filling potentially empty seats. It's also a chance for the designers to explain the philosophy of the brand and the inspiration of the collection to each person who comes through.
Eventually, Alonso hopes to build up to a full fashion show, which would allow her to present more looks. She estimates that for fall 2015, she has made about 65 pieces, but she will only present 18 looks on Friday to best create a cohesive vignette; obviously, this is limiting. "I don't want to make changes during the presentation even though we have two hours, because what if you come by, and you have missed one of the most powerful looks because I just changed her into another one?" Alonso explains.
Having a presentation isn't enough, either. The location also has to be convenient to the other shows happening in the same time slot — especially in winter, when getting around is a challenge — and as big designers leave centralized locations, that presents another big issue.
"Under no circumstance right now would we show during the second week because it's huge designers, and these designers are even now moving to Brooklyn, which I think is really cool to find completely different venues, but for a smaller designer it's really hard to get there — they're going to go there for big designers but nobody is going to see your show in Brooklyn at this point," Alonso says with a laugh.
And of course, it all has to be affordable. Alonso says that after the economic crisis, it's not possible to find the kind of sponsorships that once kept emerging designers afloat. "The cost of a fashion show can get up to easily $200,000, so finding the right venue [is challenging], but in the right venue there might not be lighting, there might not be music, and all of those are extra thousands that you have to add to the budget," she says. "So it's not just about the venue, it's about strategizing."
But surprisingly, the biggest challenge for an emerging designer is booking the models for the show. Tied in, of course, to the problems of a packed schedule, young designers are forced to compete with established counterparts for a small pool of talent. Though there are plenty of models in need of work, designers feel having the right talent is as important for the image of the brand as the venue or the lighting.
"Honestly, the model casting is the most stressful part," Yee says. "A lot of agencies are tough on newer designers, and they'll play hardball; [they] won't work on trade anymore, and in the beginning — obviously we're young designers — we can work with giving away clothes in exchange for a model, but they became tougher in the end and we'd have to put down dollars. Other designers that were more well known were fighting for the girls."
Alonso has had similar experiences. "As an emerging designer I don't have the budget to really get the normal prices for those agencies, but at the same time I don't want bad models because it's a designer price point, it's a designer collection," she says. And both Alonso and Yee have had presentations where agencies pull models the night before the presentation because another designer offered more money.
But the press of showing at Fashion Week helps make that easier as well. "Even yesterday, one of the agents was calling us saying, 'Well, I really want to work with you this season because you got all my models on the cover of the New York Times,'" Alonso says. "It's easier, having those images from a fashion show; for me, I think it makes people think it's more real."
Still, showing at Fashion Week isn't a priority goal for every designer; Yee is taking this season off, and Monahan and Paolini haven't yet put on a Fashion Week presentation. "By not showing in the traditional sense, we are able to focus our attention on design and production — the core of the business — and not on showing," the Sea designers explain. "It also helps us duplicate the collection for our Paris and Tokyo showrooms, which allows for more buyers to see the line each season. Perhaps we lose press coverage and a few stores that value showing, but for us, not showing has not been an impediment to growth."
"I've been taking my time perfecting each design and focusing my energy on what the feedback has been on the buyers from past seasons, and really putting that towards each piece, making sure it's going to have a good reaction during market — I've had more time to do that, " Yee says. "[And] I'm saving a lot! Like I said, I do it on a budget usually, but still, it's a chunk of money that I can put towards other things like production costs and fabric, so it's helped in that way for sure."
It's why many designers have chosen to show their collections through lookbooks or events which are off the Fashion Week calendar. But for Alonso, the challenges of putting together a fashion presentation on the official New York Fashion Week calendar are worth the effort.
"When we've tried to do something a little bit out of the calendar, it hasn't worked out, because it's not just New York — you need to think about how many shows are happening after. Even now, I need to meet with my photographer but he's not back until tomorrow because he's covering menswear in Europe," she explains. "There's always something happening. I could not cut market week because I want to do a presentation, because then I'm affecting sales, and then I cannot do it after market week because then I'm affecting my press."
"For me, those things have to be completely parallel," she says. "There's no good sales without press and there's no good press without sales, so it's a matter of balancing it out. I think the presentation affects both of those really positively."