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I spent most of my time at the Manege when I attended fashion week in Moscow last October. It all felt familiar to me: the dark, club-like atmosphere zhuzhed up with purple lights, a car display, and free drinks. For all I knew, I could have been at Lincoln Center back in the days when Mercedes-Benz was New York Fashion Week's title sponsor, a relationship that ended in 2015.
On the other hand, I definitely wasn't in Midtown anymore. In New York, I don't have front row seats at most shows I attend, nor is it particularly easy to wrangle designers for interviews during the week. I certainly don't have my own personal assistant tasked with helping me navigate the schedule and handle any language-related complications. In Moscow, all that was mine, plus as many Red Bull vodka cocktails from the VIP lounge as I could stomach. (Zero.)
Founded in 2000, what is now known as MBFW Russia is a regional event with aspirations to become a more significant player on fashion's global stage. In some regards, it's making headway. It has a big-name sponsor and attracts international press. In Moscow, I met writers and editors from Hunger in London and Highsnobiety in Berlin. A Vogue staffer had flown out the season before and would return the following spring.
This roll call of foreign media, a status-affirming exercise for MBFW Russia, comes with a big caveat: I was there not because my employer at the time felt it prudent to pay for a plane ticket and accommodations so I could explore the Russian fashion market, but because it was free.
For me and everyone I spent time with, this was an all-expenses-paid press trip, a beloved and ethically-fraught tradition in the fashion industry that gives editors license to work (with varying degrees of intensity) from cushy locales. Brands regularly invite staffers from magazines and websites, as well as self-employed bloggers, to, say, tour G-Star Raw's Amsterdam factory with Pharrell or spend a heavily Instagrammed weekend in the Hamptons. The result is generally positive coverage; fashion writers are good at highlighting the best of what they see. And so the theory goes that in order to get hype's positive feedback loop whirring, relatively nascent fashion weeks need to buy some eyeballs too.
In very recent history, major fashion publications have reported from fashion weeks in cities as varied as Seoul, Medellín, Copenhagen, Sydney, Berlin, and Tbilisi, often at absolutely no cost. As with fashion week in Moscow, these events are younger and smaller than their establishment counterparts in New York, London, Milan, and Paris — the "Big Four," which draw fashion heavyweights and A-list celebrities, not to mention drive the industry's economy and conversation as they're home to the world's most powerful brands.
The Big Four weren't always so big, of course. It's not unreasonable that what are now second-tier spectacles might work their way up to the big leagues, too.
Before fashion shows became the high-speed, highly publicized affairs they are now, they were intimate salon performances.
Before fashion shows became the high-speed, highly publicized affairs they are now, they were intimate salon performances.
Charles Frederick Worth, an English designer whose House of Worth was based in Paris in the mid-to-late 19th century, is recognized as one of the first to show his creations on live models. Clients in attendance at his private presentations could order their favorites made-to-measure. That model spread: France's Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture has organized twice-yearly shows since the early 20th century.
The first American fashion show is said to have taken place in 1903 at the Ehrich Brothers specialty store in New York — a move likely inspired by the French — and other, bigger retailers nationwide quickly realized its utility in marketing to middle-class shoppers. But it was the occupation of France in World War II that kickstarted fashion week as we now know it.
Because American editors couldn't travel to Paris, still the dominant fashion city, the publicist Eleanor Lambert launched a showcase for Stateside designers called "Press Week" in 1943, setting in motion not only the ascendancy of American designers but the event that would later become New York Fashion Week. (She would go on to found the Council of Fashion Designers of America, or CFDA, in 1962.) Lambert's strategy for establishing Press Week sounds familiar: she offered to cover travel expenses for any out-of-town journalists so they could attend the inaugural shows.
Aided by trade organizations looking to promote designers' work, the development of the Big Four picked up speed in the latter half of the 20th century. Milan Fashion Week is said to have gotten its start in 1958, the year the organization that later became the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana was founded. The ready-to-wear shows of Paris Fashion Week began with the inception of the Fédération Française in 1973. According to the British Fashion Council, which was founded in 1983, the London Fashion Week we know today launched in 1984. Former CFDA executive director Fern Mallis consolidated New York Fashion Week into a single location in 1993.
Runway shows are ultimately about business, and as brands' sales models shift to accommodate a changing market, so must fashion weeks.
As their origins would suggest, runway shows are ultimately about business, and as brands' sales models shift to accommodate a changing market, so must fashion weeks. Thanks to digital platforms and social media, runway imagery hits the internet before a show has even concluded, which means that consumers are often tired of collections when they reach stores six months later — possibly because they already bought the rapid knockoff version at Zara. Ironically, the long-standing practice of delivering a new season's collection to stores well before the weather turns is also out of step with the contemporary shoppers' inclination to wear what they buy immediately.
With these problems in mind, numerous brands in New York and Europe have been reworking their approaches to the catwalk. At London Fashion Week later this month, Burberry will combine men's and women's into one seasonless show and put product on sale right after it ends. Public School has opted out of New York Fashion Week entirely, and now shows in June and December.
Thakoon Panichgul has reoriented his eponymous brand toward a direct-to-consumer business model, effectively cutting out department store and boutique buyers from his sales strategy; he'll show fall 2016 this New York Fashion Week, when other designers are presenting spring 2017. Misha Nonoo, who experimented with putting a lookbook on Instagram last September rather than holding a runway show or presentation, is planning a Snapchat show this year. She, like Panichgul, has taken her business totally direct-to-consumer.
Depending on how pragmatic or technophilic you are, digital initiatives like Nonoo's might make you wonder if the fashion show isn't totally obsolete. But for up-and-coming fashion weeks not on the Big Four circuit, there's still a strong case for getting people's physical butts in physical seats. Unexpected knowledge gaps make themselves apparent when editors get on the ground.
Erin Cunningham, a senior fashion editor at Refinery29 who attended MBFW Australia in May, expected that the majority of brands she saw in Sydney would be new to her. But she was surprised to discover that some labels were already sold at retailers she knows well, like a sexy-cutesy line called Dyspnea that is stocked at Nasty Gal.
"I consider myself to be pretty well-versed in designers," Cunningham says. "Then you go there and meet people and assume it's their first collection, but they've been showing for five years."
Fashionista deputy editor Tyler McCall went to MBFW Australia at the same time as Cunningham. She told me that she'd never heard of the brand Romance Was Born prior to touching down in Sydney, but quickly gleaned that it was one of the most hotly anticipated shows of the week. (Cate Blanchett has worn the line.) She wound up enchanted by its show, during which models walked through the rooms of an old estate and emerged onto the lawn to pose for photographers.
That's not to say organizers of smaller fashion weeks don't invest digitally. Fashion Week Stockholm brought together members of the country's tech and fashion industries to launch a new digital platform at its shows in late August. Alexander Shumsky, president of MBFW Russia and executive president of the Russian Fashion Council, is strict about shows never starting more than 15 minutes late — positively early compared to some designers' presentations in New York — because he wants to optimize the live stream experience for those who can't or don't yet want to fly out to Moscow. Last October, Shumsky brought over a team from the New York-based virtual reality startup YouVisit to film the action in three dimensions.
But for all the good digital and social media does in enabling labels and personalities to burst into our line of sight, the internet is oversaturated, and relying on its populist power to surface interesting finds is an imperfect system. Some things just have to be done in person.
"Now we are really focusing on the rest of the world."
Though seemingly every local fashion week is seeking to develop a global following, it's difficult to characterize them broadly since their organizational structures are so varied. One omnipresent player, however, is Mercedes-Benz. The German automaker has been sponsoring fashion weeks for 21 years now, and is currently involved in 50 such events around the world, either as the title sponsor (Mercedes-Benz China Fashion Week, MBFW Madrid, MBFW Amsterdam) or as a co-sponsor (Paris Fashion Week, London Fashion Week, Milan Fashion Week).
Using its huge marketing budget to flood the fashion scene reinforces Mercedes-Benz's status as a luxury brand and gives it access to, as a company rep explained to me, "new target groups." It's not the only car company to have figured out this equation. Cadillac supports certain CFDA initiatives, and Lexus stepped in as the official sponsor of New York Fashion Week when Mercedes-Benz withdrew from the event.
Although its name doesn't appear in lettering quite as large as Mercedes-Benz's, the events and talents agency company IMG is perhaps the most important force in launching new fashion weeks around the world and in reworking or generating more publicity for those that are already up and running. IMG wholly owns, operates, and produces events like MBFW Berlin; MBFW Australia; MADE New York, Los Angeles, and Berlin (IMG acquired MADE in 2015); and New York Fashion Week: The Shows, which accounts for a significant portion of the presentations that take place during September and February.
Catherine Bennett, the senior vice president and managing director of IMG fashion events and properties, leads this effort. When Bennett landed at IMG in the spring of 2013 from the CFDA, where she was the trade organization's head of business affairs, her first task was to reposition New York Fashion Week. That involved relocating the shows from Lincoln Center to two new spaces downtown, Skylight at Moynihan Station and Skylight Clarkson Square, rebranding with a fresh logo, and creating new offerings like pop-up stores where everyday consumers can shop looks fresh off the runway.
"Now we are really focusing on the rest of the world," Bennett says.
In addition to owning a number of fashion weeks, IMG consults on many others, helping organizers find commercial opportunities and partners. Those include London Fashion Week, Milan Fashion Week, MBFW Russia, Tokyo Fashion Week, and Shenzhen Fashion Week in China. IMG declined to disclose any financial figures when I asked whether it makes a profit on these events, as it is a private company.
For Bennett and her team of roughly 50 people, this work is a mixture of investigating potential markets — Asia is still full of opportunity, she says, and Northern Europe is of particular interest — and fielding outreach from local organizations and designers.
"Sometimes we get approached by a fashion week that already exists in a country, that is ready to have more international exposure, or is ready to elevate their event to a more international standard," Bennett says. "We get approached oftentimes by a government body or a tourist body who wants to bring more attention to the event."
It's easy to understand why a tourism bureau would get involved: fashion week coverage doubles as promotion for the city itself. Although not every reader is going to book their next vacation purely for the shopping opportunities, it undoubtedly helps in ways that aren't directly measurable.
Erin Cunningham from Refinery29 had her trip to MBFW Australia sponsored by both IMG and Destination New South Wales, the tourism and events wing of the New South Wales government. Unlike other reporters who were there purely by invitation of IMG, Cunningham had hosts who orchestrated activities for her like breakfast at Bondi Beach and a trip to the zoo.
It's easy to understand why a tourism bureau would get involved: fashion week coverage doubles as promotion for the city itself.
MBFW Russia is owned by a communications and public relations company called Artefact Group, which worked small sightseeing excursions into our schedule too. Lunch most days involved clambering into a Mercedes-Benz van with other foreign reporters and a few publicists and driving to a restaurant for a prix-fixe meal subsidized and arranged by Moscow Restaurant Week. These sort of perks aren't unique to my trip to Russia — they're standard for fashion's propaganda machine — but they did feel peculiar in a country where journalists have reportedly been fired, or even killed, after criticizing the government.
One night, a woman who worked for MBFW Russia offered to show me and another writer around the Bolshoi, home of Moscow's opera and ballet. We sat in a darkened back row to watch a rehearsal and wound our way through fluorescent-lit hallways to stand on one of the establishment's other stages, looking out into the red and gold maw of the empty theater. Then we got lost in the bowels of the building for what felt like a solid hour before finding our way back into the cold air.
Even with the knowledge that press trips are engineered to curry editors' favor, you'll find that being allowed to lurk around a beautiful, infamous, chandelier-filled theater on a frigid near-winter night can engender some real romanticism toward a city. These tactics, they work.
Emma Ohlson, the secretary general of the Association of Swedish Fashion Brands, describes the creation of Fashion Week Stockholm a little over a decade ago as a reaction against the disorganized way in which brands were holding catwalk shows around the city — a centralizing effort. The Patriksson Communication agency and Bon magazine spearheaded the endeavor, and the Berns Hotel provided the venue. Today, the Berns ballroom remains one of Fashion Week Stockholm's main spaces. Though the week is all about local talent, its vision has been international from the get-go.
"Sweden is a small market for design-driven brands, so brands have a ‘born global' mindset and Fashion Week has followed suit," Ohlson writes in an email. "From the start we have worked to attract international visitors and it gets better each season."
Is the work produced by local designers interesting and technically-sound enough to write about, or to shoot for an editorial?
At the most recent Fashion Week Stockholm, 25 journalists were sponsored to attend, thanks to Scandinavian Airlines and the Berns Hotel. That's the same number as in previous seasons, but Ohlson says that the number of foreign editors and photographers attending on their own dime grew by 100 percent this season, to 50 people.
However, Fashion Week Stockholm does not have a purely international focus. Along with staffers from titles like Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, and InStyle, prominent Scandinavian bloggers, editors, influencers, and buyers always show up, says Ohlson.
From Bennett's perspective, a week can't properly go global without first establishing a solid local fanbase. She says that the support of trade organizations like the British Fashion Council in London or the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana in Milan, which know their home markets better than anyone else, is critical to the success of a city's fashion week. The same goes for the media.
"When we're trying to build the profile of an event, once we have the local support, then we will make an effort to invite key international press to come and see it," Bennett says.
I ask Bennett how she can tell when a fashion week has reached the maturation point at which it can successfully ramp up its foreign agenda.
"You kind of feel it," she explains. "It's just sort of a vibe that you get when you know you're ready."
For editors, maturity is largely a question of quality: Is the work produced by local designers interesting and technically-sound enough to write about, or to shoot for an editorial? Is it on par with the Gucci gowns and Saint Laurent boots the publication typically features? Is it good enough to justify having a member of the team out of the office and across the world for a few days?
Sometimes the answer winds up being no.
One writer who was in Moscow with me describes the collections there as low-quality, adding that the week would have been a wash if it hadn't resulted in good professional contacts with other journalists and some local retailers. I felt similarly about the clothes. The construction of most of what hit the runway in Moscow wasn't as solid as what I'd seen at New York Fashion Week, and only a few collections really hit home for me from a conceptual (and shopper's) standpoint.
One exception was a young designer named Jenia Kim, who operates the label J.Kim. Kim, who is of Korean descent and was raised in Uzbekistan, presented her spring 2016 collection at the multi-brand boutique Air Moscow, which also carries brands like Ann Demeulemeester, Bernhard Willhelm, and Linda Farrow. Two models posed casually in front of racks supporting dresses with overall-style bibs, flared cropped pants with frilled hems, and shirts with ruffles at the neck that looked tailor-made for some very chic clowns. Kim anchored her structural adventurousness with a low-key color palette of olive green, black, cream, and navy.
The brand seemed just right for a Man Repeller-reading, downtown New York-dwelling sort of girl. In fact, a few days after I saw the collection, an interview with Kim popped up on that very website. During a week where most brands didn't feel worth writing home about, I was gratified to identify Kim's brand as something that would really fly in New York.
It's not just journalists that attend fashion weeks around the world; it's retailers, too. And while writing an article about a brand takes time — which in theory translates to money — placing an order involves actual money. I wasn't surprised to discover that Natalie Kingham, a buyer at Matches Fashion who has traveled to a number of fashion weeks outside of the Big Four, subjects brands to a much more rigorous assessment than I do.
"Wherever in the world I'm looking for product, I'm looking for the same thing: integrity, a strong point of view, good DNA," Kingham says. "Then you ask yourself the other questions: will my customer engage with it? How is it made? Where? How well set up is the brand for shipping internationally?" And beyond aesthetics and logistics, a brand also needs a firm handle on the nitty gritties of fit and pricing.
It's not just journalists that attend fashion weeks around the world; it's retailers, too.
Kingham attends the shows in New York, London, Milan, and Paris each year, and tries to add on fashion weeks in one or two cities that are slightly more far-flung. Matches pays for her to attend the Big Four, but Kingham says that the others are a mixed bag, with her employer covering some and fashion week sponsors covering others. The latter was the case for her trips to fashion weeks in Seoul last October and Sydney this past May.
It seems that fashion week organizers don't work buyers into their budgets in the same way they do media. Ohlson says that while Fashion Week Stockholm sponsors have paid for foreign buyers to attend in years past, that wasn't the case at the most recent fashion week. Shumsky says that his team has sponsored buyers and reps from online retailers to attend fashion week in Moscow, but not every season. That's largely because exporting clothing out of Russia is a difficult process right now, though Shumsky is hopeful that the government will make it easier to do so in the near future.
The more well-developed a fashion week is, the more likely Kingham is to place an order, but sometimes the brands are just not far along enough, and she walks away empty-handed. That's not a total loss, though.
"Sometimes it's not there, but you gain a wealth of experiences and connections," Kingham says.
When that happens, she turns to observe how local consumers shop, what they're wearing on the street, and how they live their lives. They could be her customers, after all. And she's still looking at brands. A designer's vision and business might not be fully developed today, but it could be something spectacular two years down the line.
For many designers operating outside of New York, London, Paris, and Milan, the ultimate goal isn't to leave their home market, but to nonetheless expand beyond its boundaries. Even if their local fashion week gets international attention, many find it worthwhile to show abroad, too.
Jenia Kim says the biggest benefit of showing at MBFW Russia, which cost her roughly 33,000 RUB or about $500, has been meeting members of the foreign press in person. But she's noticed that very few non-Russian buyers show up to fashion week in Moscow, particularly those from high-end stores. To boost her visibility, Kim has held showroom viewings in New York and Paris, paying for the spaces herself, as well as her own expenses.
Another young designer I met in Moscow, who asked to remain anonymous, echoed Kim's sentiment that MBFW Russia isn't the place to meet buyers. He has shown at MBFW Russia twice — initially paying about $75 and then a little less than $1,000, since brands at different stages of their development are charged different amounts — but currently has no plans to return.
The designer feels that the organizers are competent but don't prioritize fashion as an artistic pursuit, leaning toward more clearly commercial brands. Thanks to social media, young designers can live without fashion week anyway, he adds. That said, he says he would definitely like to show overseas in the future.
Like J.Kim, Sydney-based Romance Was Born has supplemented its decade of participation in MBFW Australia with showrooms elsewhere. Last season, co-designers Anna Plunkett and Luke Sales jetted off to France to participate in the Australian Fashion Chamber's Designers Abroad program, which was created in 2015 to provide a select handful of Aussie designers showroom space during Paris Fashion Week. The goal is to help them grow their businesses internationally by introducing them to a wider range of buyers and media. For Romance Was Born, the entire experience was free.
Plunkett and Sales will be going back to Paris this September as part of the Designers Abroad program yet again. One day, they hope to present a runway show at Paris Couture Week.
"The Paris Haute Couture shows are the reason we pursued fashion as our art form," Plunkett and Sales write in an email. "The challenge is if you are going to do it, you want to do it with the best production value, so you want to ensure you have the time and resources to put towards it."
"We have this portfolio that no one else has in the universe, so we're in a unique position to be able to take talent from different markets and seed them in other places."
IMG, too, has made creative cross-pollination an explicit part of its global fashion week strategy. At the company's inaugural Made Berlin event in early July, the buzzy American brand Eckhaus Latta, which typically shows in New York, threw an after-party showing off its collection. In September, the German brand Ottolinger will present its own work at Made New York. Call it a designer exchange program.
Likewise, IMG invited a number of New York-based brands to MBFW Australia last season, including Oscar de la Renta, Cynthia Rowley, and Tome. For Tome designers Ryan Lobo and Ramon Martin, showing in Sydney — which they first did in April 2015, before returning this past May — was something of a homecoming. Both are Australian but founded their brand in New York, launching in 2011.
The decision to base Tome in New York was rooted in, first and foremost, the fact that they both wanted to live there, Lobo explains. Still, it wasn't purely about lifestyle.
"We also felt that launching in America and in New York would have a greater global reach and impact," he says. "I worked with a lot of brands who launched in Australia that then tried to break into the American market, and it's a hard road, especially if you establish all your production in one place and then try to supplant that and move here."
Lobo says that Tome has always had a strong press following in Australia, but that showing there was a local marketing coup. For MBFW Australia in May, he and Martin decided to show their pre-fall 2016 collection and make their runway collection shoppable straight off the runway, a tactic that designers elsewhere have been experimenting with. It wound up being helpful for sales and growing their customer database in the region.
Bennett says she aims to see more of these cross-cultural exchanges taking place in the future. "We have this portfolio that no one else has in the universe," she explains, "so we're in a unique position to be able to take talent from different markets and seed them in other places."
IMG's designer exchange program might help alleviate another challenge to local fashion weeks' pursuit of publicity: the question of finding time to make it there in the first place.
There are only so many days in the year, and many of them are already accounted for by the Big Four fashion weeks, which occupy one month in September and another in February. On top of that, there are resort shows in the late spring, which some luxury brands have begun staging in distant locales: Chanel in Cuba, Dior and Gucci in England, Louis Vuitton in Brazil.
Caroline Issa, the chief executive and fashion director of Tank Magazine and a favorite of street style photographers, attends the entirety of the New York-London-Milan-Paris circuit in addition to menswear and couture weeks, for instance.
"I already devote quite a lot of working days to the main fashion weeks, and I have less time to explore smaller developing markets," she says. "As much as I would love to, I can't."
Issa did, however, manage to hit up MBFW Tbilisi in the country of Georgia this summer with one of her colleagues. (While Issa's travel accommodations were covered by the fashion week organizers, Tank paid for the second editor to go.) The event lathered up excitement from foreign journalists and buyers, thanks to the fact that Balenciaga creative director and Vetements co-founder Demna Gvasalia hails from Georgia — if the country helped form Gvasalia's game-changing outlook on design, who else might emerge from the same waters? Issa gave high marks to the week, adding that she discovered a number of interesting brands like Lalo Cardigans and Atelier Kikala.
Tank's small staff makes it difficult to have someone on the ground at every fashion week around the world, but Issa sees the benefit in staying curious, sniffing out brands on the ground, and learning about the cultures out of which they arise.
"I think it's really important for us to be not blinkered by the Big Four and what's happening in big business in your usual cities," she says.
While the establishment fashion weeks serve as something to aspire to, aiming to replicate them perfectly isn't necessarily the right move for local organizers.
"I think it's really important for us to be not blinkered by the Big Four and what's happening in big business in your usual cities."
"Of course we're inspired by the bigger weeks around the world. There's a magic in what goes on in Paris and over 300 shows in New York is awesome," says Fashion Week Stockholm's Emma Ohlson. "I think maybe we have previously tried to be a small version of Paris, but it doesn't really rhyme with what Sweden looks like today and what our brands look like today."
At August's shows, the Fashion Week Stockholm team decided to not dictate what season designers presented. If a brand wanted to show a new collection and take pre-orders, it could; if it wanted to present old stock so that shoppers could snatch a piece they missed out on a few seasons ago, that was fine too.
This past May, IMG repositioned MBFW Australia as an event specifically for resort collections.
"We realized the event wasn't as effective for the industry as it could be, and tweaked it and pushed the schedule back," says Bennett. "We turned it into a resort event, which was wildly successful and well-received in the industry."
Not only did that draw the Sydney shows into wider industry conversation, since other designers showed their resort collections around the same time, but it gave the event its own angle. Something to make it stand out.
In Moscow, the brand Ne Tiger staged a show slower than any I'd ever seen — a throwback, if anything, to the old school salon style of fashion shows. The models sauntered down the runway in elaborate gowns, stopping halfway to spin with a graceful sense of showmanship before continuing on at a glacial pace.
The designer Dimaneu's show included a prolonged dance scene, during which a young woman in a red leotard wielding a star of the same hue — a Communist symbol — ascended a tiered block structure at the entrance of the runway. Models walked the runway in ruby ball gowns printed with Kremlin stars that fanned out into geometric abstraction. The effect pointed to a young designer channeling the codes and emblems of his country, and its history, for his generation.
It could have happened in New York, but it wouldn't have been quite the same.
Eliza Brooke is a senior reporter at Racked.
Editor: Julia Rubin