Photo: Stefan Gosatti/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
Whether you’re a full-on fashion fanatic or an occasional fashionista, you no doubt know at least a bit about the biggest fashion event of the year: New York Fashion Week.
This fashion trade show, which takes place every February and September in New York City, has become a phenomenon that everyone from A-list celebrities to everyday consumers clamors to be a part of.
But how much do you really know about NYFW? You’re about to take a crash course in Fashion Week history.
Everyone wants to be in something you can't buy, that you have to be invited to. It's a very exclusive invitation.
- Fern Mallis, credited with starting New York Fashion Week
A Fashion Disaster
As popular as New York Fashion Week has become, it’s easy to assume the event has been around since American designers such as Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein first captured consumers’ hearts and closets. But think again.
Before the early ‘90s, New York-based fashion designers put on runway shows all over the city, from empty SoHo lofts to trendy nightclubs such as Studio 54. But in 1991, one fashion disaster changed this forever.
On West 24th Street, Michael Kors was hosting one of his uber-popular runway shows with supermodels including Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer and Cindy Crawford, when the sky began to fall. Kors’ thunderous runway music shook the loft so much that pieces of the ceiling began tumbling onto models and guests.
“[The models] just brushed off their shoulders and kept walking,” said Fern Mallis, executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America at the time and co-creator of what is now known as New York Fashion Week.
“Chunks of plaster landed in the laps of Carrie Donovan, who was [fashion editor] of ‘The New York Times,’ and Suzy Menkes, who was the fashion editor – and still is – of the ‘International Herald Tribune,’ and everyone else on the front row.”
The next day, leaders of the Council of Fashion Designers of America and other members of the fashion community decided that something must be done about safety. “We live for fashion,” Mallis said. “We didn’t want to die from it.”
Thus began the search for the perfect place to host designer runway shows. “The object became to organize, centralize and modernize so that we could put on safe, sound fashion shows,” Mallis said.
That’s where the tents came in.
The Tents: From Bryant Park to Lincoln Center
By 1993, the Council of Fashion Designers of America had struck a deal for Bryant Park, a public park downtown on Fashion Avenue.
“Bryant Park was the backyard, basically, of the fashion industry,” Mallis said. “It was just a block away from the showrooms and all the design studios.”
Thanks to sponsorships and donations from brands such as Evian and magazines such as "Vogue" and "Harper’s Bazaar," the first New York Fashion Week began on Halloween 1993.
Then known as “7th on Sixth” because it was between Sixth and Seventh avenues, the event took the city by storm. Huge white tents went up on the Bryant Park lawn, and the spectacle drew tons of attention from domestic and foreign audiences.
“The tents really unified the industry around a show schedule and also placed New York on the fashion map,” said James Belzer, director of “The Tents,” a documentary about Fashion Week set to premier during the February 2012 Fashion Week.
“When you look at Paris and Milan and even London, for that matter, those capitals really had established fashion show experiences and schedules, and New York wasn’t really factoring into the equations prominently in those early days,” Belzer noted.
Once New York Fashion Week made its debut and began showing before the fashion weeks in Europe, the game changed. “That was a big development that really created this energy and focus for New York as a fashion capital,” Belzer said.
Within a few years, Fashion Week had grown beyond the ability of Council of Fashion Designers of America to handle it. In 2001, it was sold to IMG, an international talent agency and production company.
After years of dramatic runway shows and fashion madness at Bryant Park, the event now known as Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week moved uptown in September 2010 to Lincoln Center, a storied performing arts venue also home to The Metropolitan Opera and The New York City Ballet.
While Lincoln Center, surrounded by top restaurants and chic hotels, is more convenient for Fashion Week goers, many designers weren’t pleased with the move.
“It has taken the city a little bit out of Fashion Week,” said Eila Mell, author of "New York Fashion Week: The Designers, the Models, the Fashions of the Bryant Park Era."
“It’s not in the heart of the city anymore,” she said. “You don’t have the big crowds. There used to be huge crowds of onlookers just watching to see who would come in and out of the tents.”
A Fashion Spectacle
But don’t be fooled: Fashion Week is still as big a phenomenon as it was when it began booming almost two decades ago. In fact, it may be more popular than ever.
“Everybody wants to be in something you can’t buy, that you have to be invited to,” Mallis said of the invitation-only event. “It’s a very exclusive invitation.”
This exclusivity means that people from all walks of life – fashion journalists, A-list celebrities and everyday fans – fight for a chance to see the shows.
“Fashion Week is sort of the driver of the fashion industry, so that’s where the trends get set. People want to be with it,” Belzer said. “They want to feel like they know what’s going on, that they have the right sensibilities about what they’re wearing and how they’re presenting themselves.”
If anything, celebrities are more concerned with staying in fashion than almost any other group.
“Celebrities have a particular amount of pressure on them to present themselves in a certain way because they get critiqued,” Belzer said.
This is probably why Fashion Week has become as well known for celebrity sightings as for beautiful clothing and glamorous runway shows.
“It’s like the circus is coming to town,” Mell said. “They set up tents and all the celebrities come, socialites, and it really feeds into the public’s obsession with celebrity.”
The Media Revolution
If one thing has changed the face of Fashion Week forever, it’s technology.
“When we started, everybody in the world didn’t have a cell phone or didn’t have a handheld device,” Mallis said. “They weren’t taking pictures, they weren’t tweeting and blogging and reporting.”
Today, people all over the world can see Fashion Week collections seconds after models hit the stage. When it started, it was for insiders.
“Now everyone has a camera, so as soon as a look hits the runway, it’s out there,” Mell said. “It’s on the Internet, and that’s a huge difference from the very early days, when the general public had to wait for six months to see what was coming down the runway. Now, by the time something actually comes into the store, it’s kind of old.”
While this pressures designers to keep things fresh and media outlets to get Fashion Week footage to their readers immediately, it's a plus for everyone who can’t squeeze into a designer’s show.
“The Internet will help to make [Fashion Week] more intimate, ironically, because people can watch it at home," Mell said. "They don’t have to be at the tents to see the shows.”