While having a post-fashion week discussion with friend who runs the PR for an up-and-coming designer, she asked me if the designer, who’d made her second showing at Bryant Park for spring 2007, should consider holding her fall ’08 runway show in an off-site location. The designer had felt the financial squeeze of the tents and was trying to do a cost-benefit analysis to see if the Bryant Park is worth its exorbitant cost. My PR friend reasoned that if other designers carry out successful shows in their own showrooms or other offsite locals, why couldn’t her designer do the same?
I explained to her the catch-22 that grips emerging designers at fashion week—editors and buyers will travel downtown for a well-established designer, but if a small name designer shows offsite, she is less likely to attract the players whose attention she needs to catapult her into fashion fame. If her designer wants to make it big (big enough where she can lure attendees even a few blocks off-site), she needs to continue to show in the tents, in a time slot wedged between two powerhouses, so that the industry types will kill an hour at her show and be captivated by what they see. If she really needs to move down the spending ladder, her best bet is the Metropolitan Pavilion or Altman Building, two neighboring venues on 18th street who are packed with shows during fashion week and thus draw continuous crowds.
The smallest venue at Bryant Park, the Atelier, runs about $20k, and the largest, the Tent, goes for over $40k. Factor in models, casting directors, PR, front and back of house production, hair and makeup—and the bill can triple. Again, prestigious designers can get some of this gratis—free hairstyling or makeup for promoting product lines in their gift bags; models who’ll work for free to build their portfolios.
What this does is create a cyclical trap that afflicts all creative, arts-driven industries—designers need funding to get noticed, and they need to be noticed for funding. Many designers rely on family members to get them started—Vera Wang’s father backed her in the beginning. Others capitalize on connections: Sean Combs (P. Diddy) has become the investor behind Zac Posen (the following season, Cartier sponsored Posen’s runway show). Even when they reach critical mass, many design houses rely on the sales of their fragrance or accessory lines to keep them financially afloat. And even the most accomplished fashion houses can fold under financial pressure—Proctor and Gamble closed Rochas after a celebrated runway collection by Olivier Theyskens (P&G left the Rochas perfume line intact). These afflictions of the established brands do not bode well for new designers.
The implications of these financial concerns can be stifled creativity, and a stagnant industry—an accusation murmured at the fall ’06 shows, and practically shouted throughout the tents during spring ‘07.
Several programs have developed in response to this dilemma, with an aim of showcasing emerging talent that otherwise might not be able to grace the runways. Corporate sponsors are increasingly entering the fray, the most notable being UPS, who have sponsored ten rising designers by paying their tent fees—this season: Alice Ritter, Brian Reyes, Erin Fetherston, Michon Schur, Sabyasachi, Sari Gueron, Terexov, Toni Maticevski, Vena Cava, and Verrier. Yet since these designers are picked by a panel of representatives from Vogue, Parsons, Henri Bendel, Saks 5th Avenue, The Council of Fashion Designers of America, Fashion Group International and GenArt, so they have already gained a level of repute. Others are as diverse as the Greek Tourism Board (Vlassis Holevas) and faucet-maker Brizo (Jason Wu).
The industry itself has also developed programs to showcase new talent—programs like Gen Art’s Fresh Faces in Fashion and the Academy Art University provide even lesser known designers the opportunity to show their collections in a group showcase. The CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award skews toward more established designers—the young but comparatively well-known Trovata won last year; it appears to be a fund to take design houses to another level rather than foster fledgling talent.
Some would say that this all comes out in the wash—those who deserve recognition for their talent are driven enough to forge onward until they are noticed. Others argue that as so many budding designers enter the game, the industry increasingly relies on connections. A handful of schools seem to be the only breeding grounds of new talent—this is more indicative of a closed-off industry than the merit of these institutions.
One of the most telling shows this spring was Jay McCarroll’s—a designer whose creations, had it not been for a reality TV show that intentionally recruited non-establishment designers, would have never come down the runway. Jay was arguably the most forward-thinking rising star at fashion week. How many more young talents are stranded in the nether regions of America, burgeoning with talent but unable to express it, or get someone to notice?