To Build on Its Momentum, New York Fashion Week: Men's Needs to Court an International Audience

Now that the hype at home has died down, can New York Fashion Week: Men's continue to grow?
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Outside New York Fashion Week: Men's. Photo: Getty Images

Outside New York Fashion Week: Men's. Photo: Getty Images

With just one year under its belt, the third season of New York Fashion Week: Men's was overshadowed by questions of sustainability. Before it even began, Guy Trebay of The New York Times wondered if the week was "a sprint to the finish or a long slog home;" Business of Fashion's Lauren Sherman said the week "can all turn into a bit of a drag, a collective eye roll if you let it."

It's easy to see from where the concerns come: Some of the biggest names in American menswear, like Ralph Lauren or Thom Browne, choose to show their collections in Europe. CFDA CEO Steven Kolb says those concerns are "silly," telling Fashionista, "The decision for a Thom Browne or another designer not to show in New York is a business decision that's right for them. It's not a decision against New York Fashion Week: Men's."

But while showing abroad might be a smart business decision for those designers, it does leave NYFW:M without the tentpole designers that pull international press across Europe season after season. Though the calendar was certainly full, without mainstays like Billy Reid, or even a brand like J.Crew, the schedule lacked a solid foundation. Even showing on the womenswear calendar elevated the energy level for all designers — not to mention, bringing a large base of international press, with an estimated $900,000 in profits for New York City along with them.

"In order to have a fashion week that is going to get people and sponsors — because, let's be honest, at the end of the day, money has to be made off it — you need these big, anchor shows," says Matt Sebra, digital style director of GQ. "The rumors around Raf Simons going to Calvin Klein, and Calvin Klein being a New York show, would do a lot to draw international retailers and press to New York, and certainly have a halo effect on other designers showing."

That's not to say that NYFW:M is without its strong suits. Much like its womenswear counterpart, the week has boosted the profiles of many smaller, emerging menswear designers. The CFDA has prioritized helping new brands put on shows, allowing talent to be discovered that might otherwise get lost. "They, as an organization, have been extremely supportive of us as an emerging designer," says Scot Shandalove of Matiere. "It's a lot of cost when you're coming from California, but when you have the CFDA and their sponsors that are helping to absorb some of those costs, that's really, really nice for an emerging brand trying to get accounts right now."

A look from Matiere's Spring 2017 collection. Photo: Courtesy

A look from Matiere's Spring 2017 collection. Photo: Courtesy

And if the international presence is lacking, NYFW:M has certainly locked down its American market. In just one year, the week has built a reputation for itself as another fashion event at which people want to be seen. "There are a whole lot of peripheral people who are excited about men's fashion week, like a lot of bloggers and street style people," says Agentry PR founder Erin Hawker. "The core audience of menswear doesn't change, the key buyers and members of the media. What I'm seeing most of is hundreds of people who want to be included."

The business-mindedness of New York also means designers know how to create lines that will actually sell. "I think what New York really excelled at this season is showing a lot of clothes that guys, myself included, want to buy, and are willing to open their wallets for," says Sebra. But as major international brands catch up to the menswear craze, smaller brands are having a harder time keeping the attention of menswear customers. 

"A few years ago, there was this real sense of pride, as men who were getting into fashion and the rise of menswear on the Internet, that went along with supporting these upstart brands, and a lot of amazing brands have come out of that," says GQ style writer Jake Woolf. "For independent brands now, the challenge is, they can make cool stuff, but when a brand like Louis Vuitton or Gucci is also making cool stuff — and it's on a different level, and their shows are so huge, and they have big followers behind them — it's harder for even someone like me who cares about independent brands to pay attention."

The Spring 2017 Ovadia & Sons runway. Photo: Getty Images

The Spring 2017 Ovadia & Sons runway. Photo: Getty Images

If NYFW:M wants to recapture that market share, it's going to have to start stealing a page from the European designers' playbooks. "If I were to be honest, I would love to see more runway shows in the New York space," says Sebra. "I think a lot of times designers rely on presentations, and I understand that, whether it's the size of their business or what they think is best to see the clothes up close, but sometimes I think more runway shows would be better." Presentations, while relatively cheap to put on and easier to plan, often create a static backdrop for even the most dynamic brands. Shandalove says that, while a presentation makes sense for his brand — matiere means material in French, so having the chance to show the materials up close to editors and buyers is a priority for him — he would like to "graduate" to a runway show soon.

And while having the shows centered at the Skylight Clarkson Sq space is convenient for editors and designers alike, it removes an element of creativity from the shows. Choosing a show space and creating a unique runway environment, commonplace for womenswear shows, is another chance to tell the story of the collection each season. With his show at the Roxy Hotel, John Varvatos was cited as a designer following that model to great success. 

"All the shows in Europe are in these super-unique [places], scoped out months in advance, palazzos and cathedrals; it seems like every [womenswear] season Alexander Wang shows in a cool location," says Woolf. "It's all about the vibe and the energy, and I think that would just pop the excitement. You can get to know the brand a lot better based on the space they would choose."

The Spring 2017 John Varvatos runway. Photo: Getty Images

The Spring 2017 John Varvatos runway. Photo: Getty Images

The difficulty, of course, is money. Agentry PR and the CFDA (along with its sponsors) help subsidize the cost for many young brands to show in Skylight Clarkson Sq, something that would be much more difficult without the centralized location. "From a cost perspective, we wouldn't be able to afford to be able to do 12 different locations in one day when you're looking at an average place costing $10,000," Hawker says. "Reality has to be that you have to do what you do to make it happen and to be able to afford to do that."

It's for this reason that designers at NYFW:M should consider designing beyond the basics. "You can't put a white shirt on a runway," says Sebra. "A plain white shirt is beautiful, and everybody wants one, but you can't show that as a new idea to get everybody excited." European designers, as well as womenswear designers, have become very good at designing an "It" item every season, be it a jacket or a shoe. The menswear market is increasingly gravitating towards those must-have buys, often dubbed the "flex piece" in menswear jargon. Those items — like the ubiquitous Gucci loafer — are what build buzz, and would stand out even in a presentation environment. 

At the end of the day, plenty of American talent still shows at NYFW:M; John Elliott, Second/Layer, Tim Coppens and Todd Snyder were all cited as highlights from the week. "The success of [NYFW:M] is not defined by who from Europe or elsewhere is coming and what they think about it, the success is defined by the experience that the designer's having and the ability to move the needle on their business," says Kolb. "There's a lot of vitality around men's fashion right now." Kolb also says the CFDA already has a list of designers interested in showing next season, and Shandalove says his brand never gets more press coverage than he does during NYFW:M. To paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of NYFW:M's death have perhaps been greatly exaggerated. 

"People need to remind themselves that fashion is a cyclical beast, and every city every five years has a 'moment,'" says Sebra. "I think overall, a men's dedicated fashion week is actually a fantastic thing, regardless of what people say about it season by season; it really says a lot in terms of American menswear being able to support its own industry over three, four days."

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