While the deluge of "death of fashion week" stories over the past few seasons have painted one very specific picture, the stats paint another: According to the 500 industry insiders Fashionista surveyed ahead of New York Fashion Week, only 36% of respondents said they "somewhat agree" with the statement that "fashion week is pointless." Separately from the fact that the biannual event undoubtedly depletes resources, puts further strain on the environment and, for many, takes a toll on mental health, NYFW has its merits. And all this chatter begs the big question: In 2020, who — from a business perspective — is still benefiting from participating?
It's an especially relevant question for the beauty industry, which acts as a key source of monetary support for designers as well as manpower behind the scenes. Sponsoring a show doesn't come cheap — its estimated cost is anywhere between $5,000 to $15,000 — yet it seems that as long as brands are willing to help keep the lights on, editors and pros will continue to congregate every season. Perhaps part of the reluctance to pull the plug is because there's still some magic left, as was evidenced by Gucci's Fall 2020 extravaganza in Milan that lifted the curtain on backstage and revealed the inner workings of a fashion show (albeit a glamorized version of the time-honored frenzy).
"We all come for this ritual that is almost religious," creative director Alessandro Michele told The New York Times. "In our world it is very important, and I really want to go on repeating this ritual. We say, 'one day I want to stop and do something else,' but that day never comes. I'm 48 years old and have not found something else."
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Brands like Maybelline New York, the official makeup sponsor of the New York shows for the past decade, agree with Michele's stance that fashion shows still matter. "With fashion as a core pillar of Maybelline's DNA, New York Fashion week is a place where the brand belongs — it's the intersection of fashion and emergence of trends all in the heart of New York," says Amy Whang, the brand's SVP of U.S. Marketing. "Connecting the brand with New York Fashion Week allows us to democratize beauty, inspiring consumers with looks from the runways and showcasing how they can achieve them at home. It is also an opportunity to give them a firsthand look at new product launches and allows us to provide education through tips and tricks from our arsenal of top makeup artists that lead these fashion shows on our behalf."
For TreSemmé, the official hair sponsor of New York Fashion Week, supporting fashion week poses an "opportunity to do something meaningful," explains Jessica Grigoriou, Brand Engagement Director for TreSemmé. The company is "committed to supporting women on and off the runway," and hired an all-female team of hairstylists (including Odile Gilbert, Justine Marjan and Ursula Stephen) to key shows like Christian Siriano and Rebecca Minkoff.
Bobbi Brown (the brand) has taken a similar approach and sees fashion week as the "perfect platform to support like-minded, female-founded brands rooted in New York, such as longtime partners Ulla Johnson, Veronica Beard and Rachel Comey and newer relationships like S by Serena Williams," says Veronika Ullmer, VP of Global Integrated Communications at the company.
"I still think when cleverly done and with the right marketing and creative teams, you can make a strong statement," says international fashion and design consultant Fern Mallis, who is also credited with having created NYFW as many of us know it today. "It's up to the beauty brands as to how they use [fashion week] to further their branding, visibility and publicity. It's not up to fashion week to do it for them."
That said, nearly all the cosmetic powerhouses have streamlined the number of shows they are supporting during fashion month. There are also brands like CoverGirl that have pulled out altogether (a spokesperson for the company declined to comment for this story). Many brands cite changes to format (with multiple designers opting for experiential events, presentations, lookbooks and video over traditional shows), as well as the ever-thinning NYFW calendar, as the impetus for the drop in sponsorships across the board.
Ukonwa Ojo, senior vice president, global marketing at MAC Cosmetics, also notes that staffing 67 shows across all four fashion cities with makeup artists for more than a month isn't exactly an easy ask. "In order to support the designers, we bring a team together from all over the world of more than 80 MAC artists. Our artists help support an average of three shows per day with up to 45 models each, as well as test looks in preparation for the shows," she says. "All our artists that work backstage come from our stores, so taking them out of the store for a long time has become more challenging."
The strategy has also changed for some sponsors: Maybelline New York scaled back from 27 shows during Spring 2015 (the brand's most jam-packed season ever) to a modest 10 for Fall 2020 (which included boldface names like Michael Kors, Proenza Schouler and Jason Wu). "Our current strategy is quality over quantity. When selecting designer partners for the season, we look for strong makeup looks, an inclusive runway and a brand that resonates with our consumers," explains Whang.
The fact that many designers still opt for little more than a strategic swipe of mascara, a barely-there coat of sheer pink nail polish and untouched hair isn't going to cut it for long in the age of Instagram, when more is still not nearly enough, especially for sponsors looking to sell product, create impactful content for social media and secure press. "I like to work with brands who are pushing the boundaries on design — the more creative, the better," says manicurist and founder of an eponymous range of polishes, Jin Soon Choi, who began her backstage tenure in 1998. "I want to make sure the nail look is bold, artistic and fun." The brands who take risks and stray from a basic ponytail and no-makeup makeup made famous by icons like Calvin Klein (a house that abandoned the runway in 2019) stand to reap the greatest reward in terms of beauty brand dollars and media interest.
As for the pros, many said they still find fulfillment being backstage during fashion week — but they can't deny that the scene has changed. According to makeup artist Diane Kendal, who started working backstage in New York during the mid-'90s, social media "has taken away an element of mystery and surprise." On the flip side, Erin Parsons, global makeup artist for Maybelline New York who got her start working on Pat McGrath's team in 2008, says it gives fashion week more reach. "There's so much more visibility from every perspective," explains Parsons. "Designers share content on social to give followers a look into the collection; artists can pick the perfect picture to post that represents their work backstage; and guests can share the show in-real time, which makes the shows more inclusive than they ever were before."
For makeup artist Dick Page, who pioneered the pared-down aesthetic at Calvin Klein in 1992, the "availability and ubiquity of social media" might make fashion week more accessible, but the verdict is still out on whether or not that's actually a good thing. "Democratizing something that needs a certain amount of cachet ultimately ends up undermining it," he says. "It's a bit like watching the making of 'The Avengers' and you see people with wires trying to jump and you're almost like, 'Who cares?'" In his view, seeing the man (or woman) behind the curtain can create disillusionment and disappointment.
There's also the question of whether or not the fleeting nature of a runway show is even still the right way make an impact in the age of information overload. "There's so much entertainment in the world that you're just as likely to get [beauty] inspiration from watching Euphoria — maybe even more so because there's an ongoing story," says Linda Wells, the original backstage beauty reporter, founding editor-in-chief of Allure and founder of Flesh beauty. "You spend time with a show like that, care about the characters, and see meaning in what they are wearing and using. There's a different level of information and excitement attached to it."
All, however, is not lost — at least not yet. "It's a really good opportunity for brand awareness, especially for [an established] brand that's trying to change its identity. I think that's what happened with Maybelline when it started sponsoring New York Fashion Week more than a decade ago," says Wells. "I think it also has value for a new brand because it gets the product in the hands of makeup artists, models and media." This type of visibility is certainly an expensive proposition for companies, especially those who don't have the capital to take a gamble, but some of the "real winners" in Wells's eyes are those who have "a direct connection with someone who's creating something for the runway." She cites brands like Marc Jacobs Beauty, Tom Ford, Charlotte Tilbury and Pat McGrath Labs, noting that "their names are on the products and that's a big benefit."
Asked if her 3 million followers still get excited about the looks she creates and the products that are routinely teased backstage, McGrath says, "People are always obsessed with what we're using and they want to know all the details." Ojo says MAC's "global community of over 23 million" are still inspired by what's trending on the runway. "Fashion and culture are huge passion points for our consumers so it's important for us to bring them behind the curtain during these fashion tentpole moments," she adds. However, when it came to talking numbers or revealing whether or not they see a spike in sales surrounding fashion week, all the brands were predictably less forthcoming.
Perhaps fashion week isn't about driving direct sales at all — and maybe it never was. For me, a former Style.com staffer whose bread and butter was backstage reporting, it's about the intangible feeling of being part of a special moment in time, which is something you can't quantify in terms of money, page views or likes. For Wells, watching people frantically sew sequins onto a dress actively worn by Mariah Carey backstage at Versace or listening to Michael Kors tell his cast of supermodels about the attitude he wants them to have when they hit the runway remain irreplaceable experiences. For Choi, the memory of receiving a bouquet of flowers from Lady Gaga after the megastar surprised everyone by strutting Marc Jacobs's Fall 2016 catwalk will never get old. The sheer joy (and relief) of successfully keying a show with a staggering 124 models and a four-scene set brought Grace Lee, lead makeup artist for Maybelline New York, to tears. "It was epic," she says of Kith's Spring 2019 extravaganza.
The challenge that lies ahead is making consumers, brands, editors, influencers and more feel the same level of excitement as this complex system struggles to stay afloat. Whether that means somehow reinstating the mystery that once loomed around backstage or selling the opportunity to go behind the scenes the general public (like Endeavor Experiences already did front of house this season for shows like Rag & Bone, The Blonds and Monse) is anyone's guess, but finding the answer — and finding it fast — is critical in order to justify the resources required to keep the remaining magic alive.