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Photo: Getty Images
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How Downtown Cool Hunters Hijacked Fashion Week

The story of Made Fashion Week, as told by the founders themselves.

On June 1, 2012, there was an explosion in New York City's Meatpacking District. Workers removing a gas tank at the old Mobil Station—right under the High Line at 15th Street and 10th Avenue—accidentally ignited some fumes, causing a blast that shook the neighborhood.

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If you weren't there, you've probably forgotten all about the strange incident. Houghton designer Katharine Polk, however, will always remember it. It was the day she finally got the chance to present her collection to Jenné Lombardo, the co-founder of Made Fashion Week and unofficial gatekeeper of its young designer roster

Each year, Lombardo, along with partners Mazdack Rassi and Keith Baptista, invite new designers to join their lineup, a privilege because of the event's prestige, but also because it can be a financial lifesaver—there is no venue fee to show at Made.

Polk was giving Lombardo her pitch in the Made offices at Milk Studios, right next door to the gas station, when the building was forced to evacuate. She feared, after months of trying to get in front of one of fashion's few fairy godmothers, that she missed her chance.

Made provides hairstylists and makeup artists to its designers, free of charge. Photo: Getty Images

Lombardo, however, was more than accommodating. "We did the whole meeting on 15th Street," says Polk. "I just remember Jenné saying, 'Let's get it done.' Next thing I knew, I was in for the September 2012 season."

More than two years later, Polk is still showing at Made. Given that Houghton is just a little over four years old, the free space and other subsidized services (including access to makeup artists and hairstylists) are significant to her bottom line. But she also simply prefers the venue over others.

"You have an amazing crowd—a different crowd than you get at Lincoln Center," Polk says. "It's such a concise, curated hub of young, cool designers. You know you're going to get a great show." Polk is also exceedingly grateful for Lombardo, who has become a client, wearing Houghton to events on several occasions. "Jenné really put her money where her mouth was, supporting the business and the collection."

"You have an amazing crowd—a different crowd than you get at Lincoln Center."

Polk's story might have started out with a literal bang, but it's indicative of the relationship Made Fashion Week has maintained with its designers, an ever-changing roster that has included some of the industry's biggest stars before they were brand names: Alexander Wang, Proenza Schouler, Suno, Joseph Altuzarra. It also helps explain how Made has usurped the IMG-owned Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week as the most desirable option available to New York-based designers. In fact, IMG was so impressed that it decided to acquire its competitor.

Made's ascendence may have been swift, but it was not entirely intentional. "It was the perfect storm," says Lombardo. The company's story begins at the end of 2008, when the fashion world was feeling the pain of the recession as much as any other industry. "When the economy crashed, we were terrified for our own businesses, our own jobs," says Rassi. "At the same time, there were these young, amazing, creative people that we wanted to help get through the crash as well."

Jeremy Scott—and his famous friends—are Made regulars. Photo: Getty Images.

Lombardo was a top creative executive at beauty giant MAC, in charge of special events and projects, including Lady Gaga and Cyndi Lauper's Viva La Glam campaigns. (Along with Made, Lombardo now runs her own creative consulting firm, The Terminal Presents.) "We were like-minded and always crashing into each other over different sorts of projects," says Rassi, the co-founder and creative director of Milk Studios, a top venue for photo shoots, exhibitions, and special events with locations in both New York and Los Angeles.

Lombardo, who was pregnant, called Rassi on his honeymoon with the idea. They enlisted another close friend and colleague, Keith Baptista, to be their third partner. At the time, Baptista was senior vice president of production and managing director of digital at KCD, the fashion PR agency with offices located in Milk Studios. He had produced several events within the venue, including 16 seasons of Calvin Klein runway shows.

"We recognized that the business needs new points of view, new talent on a regular basis."

"It was a time when people didn't focus on new design talent as much as they do now," Baptista, who now owns creative production firm Prodject, says of the climate in 2009. "It was really about establishment designers, it was about big companies. We recognized that the business needs new points of view, new talent on a regular basis. We didn't want this generation to be wiped out."

The goal of Made's first season was to offer emerging designers a place to do a runway show or presentation at no cost. Fashion Week sponsors had offered complimentary services in the past, but there was always a fee for the venue. While Made designers are still responsible for hiring models, publicists, and their own production teams, as well as other costs associated with staging a show, a spot on the schedule immediately wipes away the five-to-six figures it costs to rent a venue and hire a check-in staff and beauty team.

Rassi provided the venue, Baptista became the event's executive producer, and Lombardo brought in MAC to sponsor the whole thing. (Those first two years, the event was actually called MAC & Milk.) From the get-go, however, Lombardo insisted on replacing the "s-word" with "partner." Offering financial support at Made Fashion Week wasn't just about getting a bit of real estate on a step-and-repeat, it was about playing a role in a young designer's success.

Presentations from emerging designers like Ostwald Helgason are a draw at Made. Photo: Getty Images

That first season, Made had little trouble finding enough talent to fill its roster, and demand has only continued to increase. The team also didn't have to spend much time chasing potential partners. "Brands started coming to us, which was really unique," says Rassi. For the February 2015 season, brands on board include Lexus, American Express, Macy's, and Maybelline, which replaced MAC as the event's official makeup partner in 2014.

A Fashion Week sponsorship can cost well into the six and seven figures. Title sponsor Mercedes-Benz paid $2 million a year for its spot at IMG's Fashion Week, according to industry sources; non-title sponsors might be required to fork over upwards of $1.5 million. (IMG did not respond to requests for comment about sponsorship costs.) "Early on, we started mastering this balance between art and commerce, protecting designers from brands overreaching and wanting logos everywhere," Rassi continues. "Some brands didn't adapt to it very well. The ones that are still with us did."

"We started mastering this balance between art and commerce."

But sponsors are only happy if people show up, and they continue to do so, thanks to Made's tight roster of must-see emerging talent. (There are 29 designers showing at Milk plus two offsite Made shows, compared to the 85 associated with IMG.) "When someone hears a designer is in the program, they immediately think, 'I need to check them out,' which is a huge boost," says Thomas Onorato, owner of PR and events firm OW, which has represented both sponsors and designers at MADE. "It helps from all angles, from getting editors and buyers to attend to securing additional sponsors."

Michelle Ochs, designer of womenswear label Cushnie et Ochs, considers it a can't-miss opportunity; this is why she and co-designer Carly Cushnie have showed there for multiple seasons. "The cost is a factor, but it's also about the people. When you find great people to work with, it just makes things so much easier," she says. "It takes the guessing out of things, too. We were showing at different locations every season before we were at Milk. That kind of stability, when you're so small, is invaluable."

What isn't so easy is choosing which of NYFW's 250-plus designers get the chance to show at Made. As Houghton designer Polk attests, the process of making it into Made is anything but conventional.

Photo: Getty Images

"We're really protective of Made's culture," says Baptista. "What keeps us unique is that it's not about a certain set of criteria, per se. The designer needs to fit into our community, and have the ability to grow and benefit from our investment." That means knowing when it's time for a designer to move on as well. "I don't think there's a perfect scenario here," he continues. "Sometimes we've done as much as we can, and then there are times when a designer feels like they've outgrown the program." Adds Rassi, "It's not always an easy decision. The program is meant to help elevate. At some point, it's time for the designer to spread their wings and fly from the nest."

Of course, it's not like IMG hasn't tried to woo designers from Made. While many of the event's earliest success stories have chosen not to be an official part of the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week lineup, a few (like Richard Chai and Costello Tagliapietra) have chosen to show at Lincoln Center after leaving Made. While "the tents" charge a fee—$34,000 and up, depending on the space—there is also more room, which means designers can invite more people.

"The designer needs to fit into our community, and have the ability to grow and benefit from our investment."

This season, IMG's biggest coup might have been getting VFiles to open NYFW at Lincoln Center. The group show, which features community-sourced designers and attracts a decidedly downtown audience, is not connected to Made, despite the fact that the show's official title is VFiles Made Fashion. However, it is an early indication of what a combined Made-IMG might look like next season: cool kids and polished pros coming together.

To be sure, IMG needs Made more than ever. This season, American Express (which is also a longtime Made partner) pulled out of sponsoring shows at the tents after seven years. Last month, Mercedes-Benz announced that the fall 2015 shows would be the last time it sponsored at NYFW. Undoubtedly, the hope is that an association with Made will help attract new sponsors and also convince brands like Amex and Lexus to play an even larger role when the two events are owned by the same company.

So why is Made selling to IMG if it has the upper hand? One word: resources. "People will say, ‘I love what you guys are doing, you must be killing it with revenue,'" Rassi explains. "They often don't realize that the venues are free for designers."

Photo: Getty Images

In the summer of 2014, the partners weighed their options. They had successfully launched Made Fashion Week in Paris a couple years before, and were trying to figure out what the future would look like. "We sat down in May of last year, did a little soul searching and thought about what we wanted to do next," says Baptista.

That "next" was Made Music, which launched in October in partnership with American Express. The goal of the initiative is to foster young musical talent, hooking them up with brand partners and studio space, as well as a network of filmmakers, photographers, and creative directors. They've also enlisted music industry execs, like former Warner Music Group chairman Lyor Cohen and entertainment lawyer Michael Guido, to serve as mentors.

To ensure Made's future from fashion to music, the founders realized they needed the added infrastructure a big investment from a company can bring. They hired Mark Patricof, a managing partner at advisory firm Mesa Global, to help find the right opportunity. "We knew that whatever decision we made had to be a good long-term one that would help us expand our goals," Baptista says. "It would also relieve the three of us from some of the day-to-day duties and allow us to focus on growth and strategy."

It just so happened that Made and IMG needed what the other had. More details of the partnership are sure to be unveiled over the next week, but Lombardo, Rassi, and Baptista insist on one thing: they aren't going anywhere. "It was an absolute requirement" that the three partners stay on board, says Rassi. That promise all but ensures that the magic of Made will stay intact.

Editor: Julia Rubin


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