This year, as New York's annual fashion week rolled around, the Slate staff found that the event leaves many of us perplexed: Just what is fashion week about, anyway? Is it, as one editor put it, "a snooty scam perpetrated by New Yorkers on poor slobs elsewhere"? Or is it an occasion for designers to present their artistic ideas and try to influence taste? We asked our resident expert, Josh Patner—former assistant designer for Donna Karan and co-founder of the popular label Tuleh—to answer a few of our most burning questions.
1) What is the purpose of fashion week?
Simply put, fashion week initiates the two major seasons—fall and spring—in which designers present their new collections for the fashion press, retail buyers, and others with influence in the fashion world. Fashion journalists review the collections just as film critics might cover new releases at Cannes. Fashion magazine editors assess the mood of the season and identify the trends to be photographed and written about. Buyers, who make selections for department stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue or smaller boutiques, identify those same trends and assess how their funds might be best spent. Others with influence—Hollywood stylists in search of Oscar night dresses, socialites and celebrities whose wardrobe choices are widely copied—make what essentially are shopping lists of the looks they'll buy and wear.
But there is also a broader, more complex answer to this question. Fashion week, while often seeming like a business convention, is not solely about business. It means something different depending on your place in the fashion world. Designers rely on the fixed date of a fashion show to end a creative cycle that might otherwise last indefinitely: Proportions might be finalized after months of tinkering; color combinations might be refined. Fashion journalists often use the week to search for a good story—a flash of brilliance from an unheard of talent, say, or the crash-and-burn tale of a once-beloved star—or they might just as easily be repaying a social favor with an undeserved great review, placating one of the publication's major advertisers after a previous slam or, more benignly, giving budding talent a pass when the clothes fail to impress. For fashion buyers, who choose the inventory for the stores, the shows are a chance to look up from their computer screens and socialize; they will not make their purchases until weeks after the shows. In other words, business, the stuff of deals and budgets, is not conducted under the tents. The shows leave an impression—of sexiness or invention—and in this field where impressions count immeasurably, that is business enough.
2) Does the perceived success of a fashion show at fashion week correlate to how well a designer fares in a given season?
Yes and no. If editors and buyers leave a show feeling exhilarated, it only serves the designer well. Major stories might be written and photo shoots planned. Orders might be increased and the clothes featured in a store's advertising or window display. This is particularly true for a new name. For established designers, a knockout show might increase media exposure, but it doesn't necessarily translate into more money.
3) Do the designers make any money from the shows themselves (not from increasing their profile or getting into newspapers and magazines), or are they just a massive expense? How do young designers afford stylists, makeup artists, etc.?
Designers don't charge admission for fashion shows. Even fashion addicts have limits; no one would go. An average show—generally thought of as a promotional expense—costs about $150,000, though many are produced for less and certainly many for much more. Major expenses are the venue (the largest of the three tents offered in New York costs $42,000, the smallest $18,000); the models (fees start at $2,500, and most shows include about 25 models); invitations (design and printing costs can run to $5,000); hair and makeup artists with a team of assistants (top stylists can get more than $25,000, and each assistant might get $250); and shoes (even at a wholesale price of $275 per pair, shoes can total tens of thousands of dollars for multiple pairs). Fledgling designers are lucky if they can get sponsorship—perhaps from a liquor company or trade organization—to help deflect costs. Some break the bank trying to produce shows beyond their means. Paradoxically, the more prestigious a show, the less money the designer may have to shell out: Marc Jacobs is rumored to never pay models, who consider it a badge of honor to walk his runway, whereas more commercial houses, say Kenneth Cole, have to pay up when they don't have much status to trade on.
4) What happens if you have a fashion show and no one shows up? How do you induce people to come when you're just starting out?
The chances of absolutely no one showing up are slimmer than a model's legs. Somebody always wants to go to a fashion show: Throw up a velvet rope, and a line will surely form. But getting the heavy-hitters—Vogue's Anna Wintour, Women's Wear Daily's Bridget Foley, the International Herald Tribune's Suzy Menkes, and the New York Times' Cathy Horyn, plus retailers from Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, and Barneys—is no easy feat, even for established names. While it's common knowledge that top editors pay their respects to top advertisers by showing up to sit in the front row, you can bet your Vogue subscription that Anna Wintour is not keen to be at, say, the Ellen Tracy show at 9 in the morning (at such shows, commercial offerings geared toward department store chains are on view). But business is business.