Runways Are Dying, Long Live The Runway

Is September here already? I swear, I still feel as though we just finished February’s round of fashion shows no more than a week ago and already I’m looking at a schedule for New York Fashion Week, starting September 6, that makes me want to pull from my head what hair was left after last season’s nightmare.

First, let me just mention that whoever decided to put Milly, Cushnie, Chromat, and Monse all back to back on Friday afternoon was being incredibly mean. There’s no way, given the state of New York traffic, for anyone to cover all four of those very important shows. As frustrating as that schedule may be, though, more disturbing are the number of gaps in the schedule, especially on Sunday, where no major labels are showing. Alexander Wang moved to a June/December schedule, dropping seasonal titles. Diane Von Furstenberg is taking salon appointments. Not seeing anything for Jason Wu and not getting a response from his PR team echoes rumors we heard last season. No Public School on this season’s schedule, either. All that and we’re not going to start on the list of labels that have moved to London Fashion Week or elsewhere for their shows.

Here we sit, mere days before the traditional Women’s Ready-to-Wear season begins, and the schedule is so full of dead spots that the only consolation is that one has plenty of time to check out the newcomers. This isn’t the first season I’ve sat here wondering if New York is even worth covering at all. It is. First, for that Milly, Cushnie, Chromat, and Monse lineup, and then for events such as the premiere of Wes Gordon at Carolina Herrera and whatever Raf Simons has dreamed up for Calvin Klein.

New York Fashion Week isn’t dead yet but it has lingered on life support for at least the past two years which has more than a few people wishing it would either get better or pass on so that something else could take the space. At the center of that argument is the fact that the runway itself, that once great bastion of the fashion industry, no longer holds the power it once did; not in New York, and certainly not anywhere else in the United States.

Drop back about a hundred years or so and runways ruled the fashion world. The first fashion show in the US appears to have happened around 1903 and they quickly became popular as the premier method by which a designer could show their clothes to department store buyers. Department stores were a big thing as well. In addition to Macy’s and Gimbles, who were constant rivals, Bergdorf Goodman, Lerner, and Abraham & Strauss all fought to be the kings of luxury retail fashion.

For many years, runway presentations happened at the department stores but as competition grew and more designers were looking to sell to the expanding US market, it made sense for there to be an independent system of presentations so that designers would only have to present one runway show rather than 15. NYFW was the answer, starting in 1943, right at the end of World War II. Members of the fledgling fashion press were invited along with department store buyers and an icon of fashion was born.

What worked for designers and sellers in 1943 doesn’t work so well in 2018, however, and it hasn’t for quite some time now. Once people discovered the ease and convenience of shopping online, the entire design-to-consumer chain changed. As the concept caught on, an increasing number of people found they would rather buy directly from the designer, eliminating all the steps in between, from buyer to wholesaler to retailer. The industry has struggled with the change for twenty years now and in the midst of that one thing becomes glaringly apparent: runways don’t work the same way they once did.

Where the failure of runways becomes most apparent is at the local and regional level. Runway shows at local department stores and boutiques were once the best way for an emerging designer to get their clothes noticed. Not so anymore.

Designer Catherine Fritsch of Rue Violet told us that, for her, the runway is simply, “not a good strategy.”

Dlang warned that designers, “have to look at the value. If they have to pay $1,500 or more for expenses it may not be worth it.”

Nikki Blaine advised: “Look at who is going to be sitting in those seats next to the runway. If they can’t help you then it’s not worth it.”

When it comes to local and regional runway shows, about the only people watching runway presentations are spectators. One local department store buyer, who insisted her name not be used, told us that her big-chain department store forbids her from even considering local designers.

Ms. Fritsch warned: “Runways are entertainment. You have to make things that don’t sell and it ends up being a waste of time.”

If runways don’t work, why still do them? Dlang still suggests designers “go for it if you’re new to a city.” Ms. Fritsch admitted that fashion shows at least get one’s name in the paper and “every time you’re in the newspaper you get a couple of orders.”

Runways are still a part of the fashion industry, but they play a much smaller role than they once held, especially for new and emerging designers. Instead, we’ve found that designers do better to consider a mix of partnerships, influencers, and unique marketing opportunities such as pop-up shops. We’ll take a look at each of those in our next three articles.

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