While there's no doubt that the runway itself can still serve a purpose, there's no denying — no matter how hard people try— that New York Fashion Week just isn't what it used to be. There are plenty of bogeymen we could blame for the shift (the way people consume has changed, the power brokers of the industry have changed, the definition of an "American fashion center" has changed, and so forth), but that simple fact remains. And that's a shame, because there's plenty of exciting talent happening in New York, but the state of things has handicapped them. And without a captive, international audience, it will be hard for these brands to grow.
The show that everyone is surely still talking about was Christopher John Rogers, the winner of the 2019 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund. The atmosphere ahead of his Saturday evening runway was electric; it was clear people were excited to be there. They were rewarded with one of the most ambitious, adventurous collections of the week, packed with explosions of color and fearless experimentations with volume. While Rogers has room to mature, he has both the artistic and commercial promise of some of the industry's best current designers.
And then there's Jonathan Cohen, whose masterful work with deadstock fabrics and other eco-conscious materials make him a designer for our times. His Fall 2020 collection featured pieces cut from archival prints, mixed into a tightly-curated collection with punk-tinged pieces and thoughtful details.
Wedged between two New York heavyweights — Michael Kors and Marc Jacobs — Alejandra Alonso Rojas presented her latest vision on the runway on Wednesday. Her clothes are better suited to be appreciated from up close than they are on the standard catwalk, but her eye for color and her carefully-considered approach to fabrics could easily set her up to become an American luxury brand on the level of The Row.
The common thread between these three designers, of course, is the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund — a program that's often brought up as proof that the governing body of fashion supports young talent. But by our count, of the past 94 Fund nominees from the years 2009 to 2018 (accounting for those who participated multiple times), approximately 25 are no longer in business — at least not in their original form; six of those were named winners or runners-up, and almost all of them were apparel-based businesses. That's over 25%, according to my admittedly rough estimations.
This is not to fault the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund for the closures. Businesses fail every day in industries outside of fashion, too. (According to a 2018 FAQ sheet from the U.S. Small Business Administration, about 50% of small businesses last five years or more.) Rather, it's to point out that not even participating in the American fashion industry's marquee support system is a promise that a fashion line will succeed.
In an interview with Business of Fashion's Chantal Fernandez, Shayne Oliver — whose Hood by Air was once a darling of the New York fashion scene — critiqued this system for its ineffectiveness.
"[Don't] just throw them a prize and say, 'Oh, we did our duty,' and then put them in touch with CEOs that don't even want to have conversations with them," he said. "Here, there is such a divide between the corporate side and the [creative] side [...] In Europe, the top editor will be at Craig Green's first show, but we have to wait four years to get that reaction. This is why we don't have stars."
The system is broken. Arguably, it's been broken, and the cracks are really just now starting to show. Most of the city's anchor designers — think Marc Jacobs, Ralph Lauren, Tom Ford or Michael Kors — have been in the industry for more than 20 years. There's an entire generation of designers, once the focus of much industry buzz (and many of whom are CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund alums), who have since been left to fend for themselves over the past decade as the establishment was turned upside down. The Proenza Schoulers, the Prabal Gurungs, the Alexander Wangs — these are all brands with tremendous talent, but that have at times found themselves stuck in that frustrating middle space of no longer being a fresh face but not quite yet an institution.
Philip Lim gave an interview to Bridget Foley at WWD about precisely that: When asked whether the CFDA could do more to help himself and his peers, he responded, "Abso-freakin-lutely."
"Reach out, first of all. If I could be honest, I don't know when the last time was we had conversations with the CFDA," Lim continued. "I'm sure everyone is busy and whatnot, but I think that we might be that generation in the middle that's forgotten. Maybe there should be a program, a new program, 'Minding the Middle.'"
Other talents like Wes Gordon or duo Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia of Monse, have been fortunate to land jobs at established American fashion houses — Gordon at Carolina Herrera, Kim and Garcia at Oscar de la Renta — which have enabled them to pursue loftier design aspirations and given them a bigger platform. But should someone like Brandon Maxwell, who consistently puts on one of the most promising and most charming shows of New York Fashion Week, have to wait for a creative director gig to be afforded that luxury?
It's frustrating to have CFDA leadership brush off these criticisms and concerns about the state of New York Fashion Week. CEO Steven Kolb recently told Business of Fashion, "To me, this story is who is showing, and not who is not showing. Decisions are really made independently on business strategy, timing, opportunities elsewhere." That's a great line if you're a cheerleader doing some mat talk on the sidelines; it's less productive if you're a coach in the game.
And while current CFDA chairman Tom Ford's decision to show in Los Angeles certainly made sense for his business model, it's difficult to avoid the fact that he completely disrupted the opening evening of fashion week for his peers in New York. (The decision reportedly sent Jeremy Scott fleeing for Paris, to avoid the conflict in show times.) There was no reason for Ford to show on the official calendar, and had he moved his show up by a day or two, everyone could have been happy.
Besides, what's good for the proverbial gander isn't always good for the goose. Young designers, especially those who go through the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, are very often encouraged to put on runway shows or fashion week events, even if they don't make the most sense for their businesses at that time or are cost-prohibitive.
When Kerby Jean-Raymond decided to sit out the Fall 2019 season with his brand Pyer Moss, Kolb told the New York Times, "It's clearly a risk. He doesn't see the need to be chained to a traditional idea of a designer business. Whether he's right, I don't know." It's added that Anna Wintour reportedly asked "if he was worried about losing his momentum."
It should go without saying at this point that Jean-Raymond has enough courage of conviction in his business and in his message to ignore external feedback and do what he feels is right. But others looking for guidance might more acutely feel the pressure of this kind of messaging from those highest-up in the industry.
Something I found deeply encouraging this season was the amount of designers attending each other's shows; these designers are often seen on each other's Instagrams, hanging out outside of work contexts. It seems like they are forming their own support groups where they are able to mentor one another. The days of designers working in a vacuum, jealously guarding their ideas and successes, is over. I think that's a great step in the right direction.
Every single designer listed in this story is a talent that the American fashion industry should be proud to call our own. New York Fashion Week has a future — it has to. Perhaps it doesn't look the same as it did a decade ago; should we question why the runway is the default? Do we still need to tighten up the schedule and cut another day or so off the calendar? Is there guidance we can offer designers to help them determine whether they need or want to show each season? Could established names partner more closely with new talent to help garner attention?
The real question, though, is whether we'll continue limping along as-is or if we'll be willing to answer the hard questions, make the difficult changes and take control of what we want this biannual event to become. Our designers deserve nothing less.