Fashion week, explained.

The language of style.
Sept. 13 2004 7:01 PM

Fashion Week FAQ

Your nagging questions answered.

Vogue's Anna Wintour and designer Zac Posen
Vogue's Anna Wintour and designer Zac Posen

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.?

A model walks the runway at the Zac Posen show
A model walks the runway at the Zac Posen show

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.

As for the shows of young designers, fashion professionals are creative people who are inspired by and supportive of creativity, and personal relationships—with publicists, salespeople, or the designers themselves—go a long way toward filling seats. Plus, fashion people move in a flock—if a few of the heavy-hitters support a young designer, the pack will follow.

5) How are the shows scheduled to avoid conflict? Is there a particular night/time slot that is the most coveted or a time slot that the heavyweights usually win (say, Marc Jacobs)? If you're a small designer, how do you make sure there are no bigger shows scheduled when you schedule yours?

Designs by Sarah Blumenthal
Designs by Sarah Blumenthal 

An industry firm called the Fashion Calendar has long managed the tangled problem of too many designers trying to show over too few days (approximately 150 designers over seven days); the service is run by subscription and produces a weekly schedule of international fashion-related events that buyers and editors look to throughout the year. Conflicts do arise with overlapping shows. Editors and buyers must choose whose show to see, and the little guy generally loses out.

6) Do designers choreograph the show? Do they pick the music for their show, or do they work with a DJ? Is there a dress rehearsal?

Most designers are quite actively involved in selecting show music. They work with a DJ—many, like Michel Gaubert who mixes music for New York design darlings Proenza Schouler, specialize in runway tracks—with the idea that every detail of a show makes an impact on its success. Designers are often inspired by a particular song or band while conceiving their collections, and that plays into the music selection. Shows are staged more than choreographed, with the outfits carefully placed in a particular order to be shown on particular models and timed to hit the runway at certain points in the music. Shows are, after all, shows, and everything is carefully planned for effect.

7)Is this why the clothes are so ridiculous? Do the designers think that the overdoneness of the models (both clothes and makeup) looks good, or are they just doing that for effect?

While it's true that much of what is shown on runways is crap, this is often owing to a lack of talent on the part of the designer, rather than a meretricious reaching for effect. In fact, there are too many shows, particularly in New York, where the clothes are not ridiculous enough, if ridiculous means imaginative. Fashion is not simply about utility, especially on a runway, where ideas are on parade. Do we really need to see a tank top and trousers trotting down a runway and masquerading as fashion? (Remember that fashion and clothes are not the same thing: Clothes keep you from being naked or cold, and pockets provide a place for your house keys. Fashion, when it's good, sends the imagination racing and speaks for the wearer's dreams in a way words can't.)

So, why do designers go for what might seem over the top? There are two very basic answers to this question; one gets to the heart of everything that is right about fashion, and one to everything that is wrong.

Fashion is both democratic and exclusive. Some fashion is meant for broad audiences—New York showman-extraordinaire Isaac Mizrahi, for example, has revived his defunct high-priced label by designing clothes for Target—and some—like the extreme styles of Nicolas Ghesquiere's work for Balenciaga—is frankly not intended for uneducated eyes. The opinion of the man on the street is irrelevant when it comes to clothes designed for connoisseurs. When great designers such as Rei Kawakubo at Commes des Garcons or her protégé Junya Watanabe propose extreme—what some might call ridiculous—style, it is because they are working with the formal properties of fashion (cut, fabrics, complex finishing techniques) in an innovative way. Their client base is intentionally small because a larger business would require responding to mass market demands, and the influence of their innovation is felt primarily within the industry. But so what? Fashion is a community as well as a business, and communities have their own language. A unique use of lace or a well-cut dress are nuances that might be lost on your average shopper but provide secret thrills to fashion insiders.

On the other hand, it happens all too often that runway shows are filled with high jinks for high jinks' sake. Fashion has become entertainment, and so the thinking of many designers goes like this: Zany looks will get the attention of TV producers or stylists with celebrity access (and getting the name out there equals business success). Shenanigans like silly hairdos, exaggerated makeup, or overzealous styling can also hide a lack of skill or true ideas.

The larger issue, however, is that fashion is a big business, and it has suffered from overexposure. What was once the province of an elite and limited audience is now scrutinized on the red carpet and in tabloids at a rate that forces cheap attempts at keeping up with news cycles that move faster than fashion's own natural seasonal reinvention. The industry, of course, has invited the attention. Hype, the theory goes, means profit. But when there are hours of fashion television that need programming and costly tents to fill, no serious fashion professional would deny that much of what gets shown is an embarrassment.

8) Who gets the front row? (And who gets usually stuck in back or in the standing section?) Is there a hierarchy among fashion editors and journalists, fashion buyers, and celebrities? Does the publicist decide the seating arrangements, or does the designer usually insist on looking at the placement?

Publicists and sales teams generally review the guest list, and they apportion the seats accordingly; they work their way back, putting the most important people in front and from there following the natural hierarchy of the guests (editors in chief before associates, store presidents before buyers, etc.). Celebrities, who have been wooed by invitation months before, either make a grand entrance in the final moments of a show and are shepherded to their seat by a PR escort, or they park themselves in their seats before the show begins for added paparazzi time. The idea, of course, is that a shot of a celebrity at a show will give added value to that designer's cachet. As for the designers, most give a glance to the front row seating plan, but any designer too concerned with that ought to go back to his fittings.

9) How much does a model get for a show? How are the shows cast?

Top models like Daria Werebowy and Gemma Ward can get up to $20,000 for a show, plus a 20 percent commission to their agencies. The fee includes up to three preshow fittings and the show itself. Designers hire casting agents, who specialize in runway shows and advertising campaigns, to cast the shows. Every show wants the top models, and there is often a tug of war over certain stars when shows overlap. In the end, a model's agent determines the better career move. Relationships—between agents, designers, the modeling agencies, and the models themselves—play a big part in assembling the ideal cast. Conflicts do occasionally occur between houses, as the models are booked in advance of the listed show time to have their hair and makeup done, which makes appearing in every show impossible.

10) Do the models get to keep the clothes?

Models often work for clothes rather than money, especially when the designers have small houses but growing prestige. While fashion can be a brutal business, support is shown by the modeling agencies and by the models themselves when the shows are cast. Models generally do not keep the actual clothes they wear in the show, as those pieces will be needed for sales appointments or magazine shoots. But they do order clothes, which are sent to them later.

11) How many models does a designer generally use in a single show? And how do they change clothes so quickly?

The current runway vogue is for no more than 40 looks (or "exits" as they are often called) and for one model per look, with no backstage changes. However, it's often hard to find that many suitable lovelies, and so some models might have two outfits to show. In cases where a change is required, each model has her own dresser to facilitate a fast turnaround.

12) Where do the models get their shoes? Some of them must wear 11s and 12s—and yet these sizes are almost impossible to find. Do they hobble around in shoes that are too small? Or is there a secret stash of big-foot shoes?

Shoes are generally designed specifically for the runway, in collaboration with shoe designers like Manolo Blahnik and Christian Louboutin. (Houses that sell shoes under their own label, like Donna Karan or Gucci or Prada, tend to use their own shoes.) Shoes complete an outfit—some would say they make it—and so they are an integral part of the design process. They are designed months in advance and are paired with the clothes during fittings. Top shoe designers generally do make shoes in sizes 11 and 12, but the average model size is 8 and a half.

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