How the Runway Took Off
A brief history of the fashion show.
The department-store shows were wildly popular, drawing crowds in the thousands. According to Leach, the throngs were so disruptive to city life that merchants in New York City and elsewhere were eventually required to obtain a license for shows using live models. In New York, police threatened to put an end to the shows altogether. Indeed, the phenomenon became so widespread that in 1950 Fairchild published a book titled How To Give a Fashion Show,which begins with an appeal to the executive assistant: "Have you ever been called into the boss's office at the end of a hectic day to be greeted with, 'Miss Gordon, I've been going over the figures of the ready-to-wear division today, and I've decided that what we need to pep them up is a fashion show. I'd like you to go to work on one immediately'?" And in 1954, Edna Woodman Chase—former editor of Vogue and organizer of the 1914 "Fashion Fete," an event to benefit the war-relief effort that is often (apocryphally) called the first fashion show—complained in her memoir about the ubiquity of the phenomenon: "Now that fashion shows have become a way of life … a lady is hard put to it to lunch, or sip a cocktail, in any smart hotel or store front from New York to Dallas to San Francisco without having lissome young things … swaying down a runway six inches above her nose."
When, then, did the shows make their way to Bryant Park? During the '70s and '80s, American designers began to stage their own shows in lofts, clubs, and restaurants. According to Fern Mallis, vice president of IMG, the company that houses 7th on Sixth—the organization that produces New York's Olympus Fashion Week, as well as several other shows—the impetus for the event we are familiar with today was literally an accident. It was 1990 and Mallis, then executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, was attending a Michael Kors show in a loft space in downtown Manhattan. When the bass started thumping, a piece of plaster came loose from the ceiling and fell onto the models as they went down the runway. As Mallis remembers it, the girls strutted on, but plaster also landed in the laps of writers Suzy Menkes and Carrie Donovan, while the rest of the crowd nervously searched for fire escapes. During another show in the early '90s, this one in a Soho loft space that was "packed to the rafters," a generator blew, leaving the crowd of editors and buyers in the dark. The audience waited for 30 minutes, holding cigarette lighters aloft as though swaying through a power ballad, until the generators were restored. It was then, Mallis says, that the fashion set said enough with small, unsafe spaces. "The general sentiment was, 'We love fashion but we don't want to die for it.' "
As head of the CFDA, Mallis took up the cause and sought out a venue where all the shows could be held in a single space. Designers, she says, were reluctant to sign on; they worried that showing in a group setting would hamper their creativity. But they also realized it would allow their work greater visibility. After an experimental first run at the Macklow (now the Millennium) Hotel on 44th Street, the concept took off. Mallis then worked out a plan with Bryant Park to put up tents in the East and West Plazas. A year later, the Spring 1994 collections were sent down the runway, and Fashion Week as we know it began. The CFDA also created 7th on Sixth, a separate company with its own board, and this organization formalized a schedule, drew up a press list (which is harder to infiltrate than the Vanity Fair Oscar party), and sold sponsorship to various companies. Finally, Mallis says, the shows were "organized, centralized, modernized." (Of course, as anyone who has braved the suffocating crush at Bryant Park knows, "hectic, chaotic, and frantic" seem more appropriate designations.)
Fashion Week—like Press Week before it—helped American designers reach a more international audience, as it allowed editors, writers, and buyers from abroad to see the country's best work at a single time, in a single place. But even though it can feel these days like it's always Fashion Week, the average American woman is now more removed from the fashion show than ever. Of course, department stores still host shows on occasion, but they no longer draw throngs—most of us can now safely lunch without lissome models undulating past us (if we take lunch at all). Now, the fashion show belongs to Manhattan the way the movies belong to Hollywood; the spectacle exists elsewhere, apart from our everyday lives.
Thanks to Ruth Finley, Valerie Steele, Caroline Evans, and Fern Mallis.
Amanda Fortini is a Slate contributor.