Yes, Fashion Week Still Matters — Just Not the Way It Used to
"NYFW is dead" is a refrain that always seems to find its way onto social media every February and September. This year, that three-word statement seems to be louder than ever. For the Spring / Summer 2022 season, several legacy brands and designers, like Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs, and Oscar de la Renta, who at one point defined the New York fashion scene, have decided to cancel their shows. While some have cited Covid-19 and supply chain issues as the reason for skipping the season's biggest stage, others, like The Row, are simply moving their shows to different cities like Paris and Milan. This month, New York will host fewer than 50 in-person shows within the four official days of the calendar. In a typical pre-pandemic season, that number would be over 100 spread across an entire week.
Perhaps it's true that New York Fashion Week is a shell of its former self in terms of hot ticket brands and super exclusive, celebrity-laden shows, but when you look a little bit closer, there is way more to this story. For the young creatives, small brands, and models who rely on its luster for their careers, NYFW is just as important as ever.
"I had the opportunity to be on the calendar this season, and I realized it would give us more of a platform, and more visibility than in the past," Sheena Sood, designer of Abacaxi, tells InStyle. She says it's possible that the shift in big names made room for some smaller brands, like hers, to take their place in the spotlight. This season will be the first time her brand has shown its collection as part of the official Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) calendar. It's a big deal for a young designer, Sood says, and it could propel her brand into a whole different arena. What's more, she is bringing some overdue firsts. "This show is actually an all South Asian cast, and as far as I know, that's never happened before," she highlights, careful not to give too much away about the show taking place on February 15. "That's an example of how having new designers can help evolve fashion week."
Designer Tia Adeola feels similarly. While the young designer has shown her collections at NYFW in the past, she sees this strange time as a way for fashion creatives in her generation (Gen Z) to push forward. "I think we're breaking tradition and shaking the table when it comes to the conventional rules that came with not just fashion but also the fashion calendar," she explained. Her show took place at the beginning of fashion week and was host to dozens of young social media stars and models who are pushing the bounds of what it means to be a fashion influencer.
Other designers say that having the legacy brands step back sets a better precedent about the ever-growing pressure to keep up with the fashion seasons.
Larissa Muehleder, a designer who owns her eponymous label of sculpted neoprene ready-to-wear, tells InStyle that her work has never fit into the traditional calendar. These changes give her permission to continue serving her customers without the pressure of making a whole collection when she's not ready. "It's this idea that you don't have to present if you're not ready; you don't have to force yourself to do something just to fit this calendar because, in the end, it does cost a lot. And it's a surefire way to run your business down if you're not prepared," she explained in a phone call. Seasonality is a problem for several reasons, not the least of which being that it shuts out those who can't keep up with ridiculous expectations to produce several times a year, especially when a fashion show can cost upwards of $50,000.
All three designers felt that changing fashion was about more than just the cast and the clothes. It's about the end customer, too — and moving beyond a certain type of celebrity as the be-all, end-all. It's about bringing in their own communities.
"Fashion is supposed to be exciting. It's supposed to be exclusive, but it's kind of nice that now it is inclusive," Muehleder explains. Adeola echoed the sentiment. "The runway gives me a chance to bring my community into my world in real life and allows them into my mind. We connect with them every day virtually, but these are the moments that count the most," she said. It's not just about who is in that front-row seat for these designers, it's about giving the people who support them a place to see their work come to life.
Speaking of the front row, what about those famous people who have so long used the spot in an exclusive seat to parlay their celebrity into the fashion world? Well, that might be changing, too, at least in New York. And yes, that means the spots once reserved for movie stars and fashion editors will also go to TikTok personalities. "Many of these fashion brands are constantly looking to evolve and diversify," Mahzad Babayan, UTA Digital Talent Agent who represents several popular social media creators like Remi Bader, Amelie Ziler and Cody Ko, tells InStyle in an email. She added that she feels these creators help the brands connect with a younger audience. Like the designers, Babayan also thinks that this shift in New York is a sign of evolution in fashion. She says together, the creator economy and the fashion industry "will help continue to drive conversations around the importance of accessibility and inclusivity."
Other creatives and entrepreneurs are using some of the space to highlight their activism. The Conscious Fashion Campaign, an initiative with the Fashion Impact Fund in collaboration with the United Nations Office for Partnerships and the PVBLIC Foundation, placed billboards throughout New York City spotlighting the women who are making fashion more sustainable. It's not as a contrast to what is happening on the calendar necessarily but as a call for those participating to look at the wider fashion industry and what is being done to improve it. "The future of NYFW is one that showcases unity in respect for all stakeholders from farmers to the garment workers to the models and prioritizes gender equality with women being fairly represented throughout the value chain," says Kerry Bannigan, Executive Director, Fashion Impact Fund.
The changes haven't been all roses for every profession, however. While there has been more inclusive casting for models, the number of opportunities to be in a show has been a hurdle. Some models who have used New York Fashion Week as a way to kick off their careers after getting booked on high-profile runways are finding it harder to be considered for those jobs.
"It's very minimal occupancy for each show right now, so it makes it even more challenging to enter shows," says Martin Soto, a young model who is looking to book his first Fashion Week show. "I'm still going to chase after the dream of walking for an iconic show because I grew up dreaming of walking for New York Fashion Week," he said. Soto already has a big following on social media that has given him many opportunities in fashion, but still, he explains, the magic of working with a major brand can't be replaced.
Teddy Quinlivan, a model who has walked on the runways of Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and Prada, explained the shift for models a little more in-depth. From her perspective, it's not only a change with what brands are showing but also how the bigger brands are casting in general. "I think the unfortunate thing nowadays is that the designers would be really inspired by a girl who encapsulated a specific look of the season or the look of the moment," she says. She added that there is pressure that not only do you have to be a great model, you have to be a star.
"Now I feel brands are so thirsty and hungry for publicity that instead of seeking out models who have these really interesting, unique looks and faces, they're trying to find people that already have a large Instagram following, or there's some sort of nepotism aspect to their stardom."
She also asserted that in her "era" of models — Quinlivan got her big break in 2015 — a great walk and a unique look would help you get booked. Now, on top of the smaller number of official shows on the calendar, not having industry ties is more of a hurdle. "I definitely feel this as a model who doesn't come from a famous family, or has no nepotistic connection to anybody who can get me a leg up in the business." Both models recognized that while discovery from big brands may be fewer and farther between, the opportunity to support independent designers was an exciting change.
So, no, New York Fashion Week isn't dead. It's evolving — and that's exactly what shoppers have been asking of the industry for a decade.
The absence of certain American luxury brands doesn't necessarily signal a going out of business sale in the near future; they're still creating gorgeous clothing. They're just learning it's not always necessary to show, especially in a global pandemic. For fans of fashion, models, and up-and-coming designers, the shift might be the jolt that NYFW needed. We can now see a wider variety of brands that have a different point of view in their designs and who prioritize sustainability and diversity. The performance aspect is still integral; that it changes all the time only proves it will continue to be relevant. Perhaps Quinlivan put it best when asked what remains important about New York Fashion Week: "It's about exhibiting creativity in a format that doesn't exist in any other capacity." And, quite simply, you can't find that anywhere else.