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Nolcha Spring / Summer 2017
Photo: Jeffrey Holmes

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How Do Young Designers Afford Fashion Week?

Alternatives like Harlem Fashion Week have sprung up to give up-and-comers a chance.

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When she started her fashion business, Yvonne Jewnell was so young that she needed her mother to co-sign the papers. It was the summer before she’d enter Parsons to study fashion, and she had made a ready-to-wear collection aptly titled “Genesis” — in reference to her religious background and her new life as a designer. She attended everything from street vending events to designer showcases to push her wares, but soon realized that not many in the industry were willing to provide a platform for a 17-year-old.

“At that age,” she told Racked, “nobody wanted to let me in their runway show. So my mom said, ‘Let’s do our own.’” Six years and a degree later, Jewnell and her mother, Tandra Birkett, set up Harlem Fashion Week to offer a space for exactly those designers who don’t have much chance of making it onto the official New York Fashion Week schedule.

Fashion Week is known for both its glamorous shows and for the groups of fashion kids trying to push their way inside through the back door. Its front rows and after-parties are mostly destined for celebrities, editors, and industry insiders, and Fashion Week’s runways are for the most part inaccessible to the city’s young designers, too. With big names occupying the official schedule and a total of more than 300 presentations spread over nine days, it’s hard for up-and-comers to garner any noteworthy attention.

What’s more, the price to stage a show during the week is astronomical: Racked reported that the expense for a show starts around $100,000. As a result, NYFW’s schedule is increasingly filled with designers who have already established themselves abroad, including those from China flying in to participate in the American market. Another result is that designers of color are few and far between in Fashion Week’s offerings: The New York Times reported that in the autumn/winter 2015 season, only 2.7 percent of the designers were black. What’s clear is that showing at NYFW has become a luxury good — meant only for those who can afford it.

Only at Parsons did Jewnell start to understand the challenges that await a designer of color. “I never experienced feeling like a minority until I started Parsons,” she told me. She said that some teachers would never let her speak in class, no matter how often she put her hand up. Others mocked her for her use of Adinkra symbols in her work, something she inherited from the Ghanaian influence in her family. “Some of the teachers really made me feel like the black girl,” she said. (Parsons replied in a statement: "Due to our privacy policy, we cannot comment on interactions between students and faculty or administrators. However, The New School is a place of inclusion and celebrates diversity of all forms. We support our students' intellectual and creative growth and encourage their engagement and collaboration in and out of the classroom.”)

Still, “if you can’t get into the party, you have to make your own,” Jewnell said. This season is Harlem Fashion Week’s second run, with Jewnell showing twice herself. With fees that range between $250 and $1,000, it’s no surprise that its offerings are far more diverse: Around 70 percent of Harlem Fashion Week’s 14 participants are designers of color. The packages include runway shows whose size corresponds to the fee level.

“As you’re building a brand, spending so much money to participate in a one-night event can get you in a lot of trouble,” Jewnell explained. “It’s important to participate, but you need to make sure you can cover your costs.”

The unrealistic financial burden of participating in NYFW has spawned a market of alternatives — at least nine in New York City — many of them offering similar services as IMG, the official organizer of NYFW. As with Harlem Fashion Week, the fees often include the venue, PR, market, and hair and makeup — at a fraction of the price. One of the most established options is Nolcha, whose packages range from a trade show presentation in the Bryant Park Hotel to a full runway at ArtBeam in Chelsea. The difference is in price and professional allure: Nolcha’s packages range from $1,500 to $25,000, which, with the help of sponsors like L'Oréal and Citibank, allows Nolcha to stage professional-grade shows that cost from $75,000 upwards. About 60 percent of Nolcha’s participants are designers of color.

According to Nolcha cofounder Kerry Bannigan, she started her business to fill a niche. “Larger fashion houses have the budget to be in the main Fashion Week, but independent brands just don’t have the money to put on a show. Yet, you have to be around at peak time, which is Fashion Week,” she explained. “There are designers who fear that, because they can’t afford to stage a show, they won’t be taken seriously.”

Designer Jodi Cottongim is participating in Nolcha this year with Blackbird Dillinger, the accessories brand she started two years ago. Even though she chose Nolcha’s cheapest option, she says her participation is still a big investment for her young brand. “Any amount is a significant amount of money for me, because I finance everything that happens with my brand with my paycheck.” Still, Cottongim says she feels an obligation as a designer to show during this frenetic week, hoping that publications she admires, like Elle, Women’s Wear Daily or Essence, will pick up on her work. “If you put yourself onto the major circuit, you need the money and sponsors to pull that off,” she said. “But if I don’t step out of the shadows, no one is gonna come to my house, knock on my door and say ‘I heard you have great handbags, can I come in?’”

In the years following her graduation from the Fashion Institute of Technology, Cottongim worked for a range of designers to gain experience and industry knowledge. Even today, she’s still financing her brand with her personal funds that mostly come from freelance work and the corporate jobs she works a few months at a time. According to her, it’s the little things that make a difference. When Juicy Couture, her previous employer, closed, Cottongim took the material from the sample room that was meant to be thrown away and stashed it under her bed instead. In her daily life, she lives without luxuries: no manicures, clothes shopping, or HBO.

However, Cottongim admits that her family and loved ones have been pivotal supporters in her career. She’s hoping that her ex-boyfriend-turned-best friend — a financial guru who works on Wall Street — can be part of the business side of the brand, as even her participation at Nolcha was made possible by his financial contribution. According to Cottongim, soliciting support is a move she took straight out of the playbook of her heroes. “Tory Burch’s husband was a venture capitalist, who helped her to collect the funds for her brand. With Rebecca Minkoff, her brother is the financial side of her business,” she said. “If you have that kind of support — the kind with dollars — it makes a huge difference in what you can do.”

Jewnell also says that her family, especially her mother, has been a big support from the beginning. Tandra Birkett, Jewnell’s mother, says she’s always given her daughter every resource she had. “I built this company on a teacher’s salary. I’m a single mom, and I don’t have any benefactors who said ‘Here’s $20,000.’” The family has a tradition of strong mother-daughter relationships: Birkett received a great deal of support from her own mother when she was pregnant with her daughter as a sophomore at NYU. To this day, Birkett and Jewnell still live together in a townhouse in the Bronx.

Both mother and daughter confirm that it was as much Birkett’s spiritual support as her financial help that brought Jewnell here today. “We didn’t wait for somebody to say ‘Yvonne, let’s have you in the show.’ We created our own show,” Birkett said.

But at a time when more and more big designers are abandoning the traditional runway format, is it still even worth it to use the few funds a brand has to stage a show? Many New York designers have moved away from their hometown this season: Tommy Hilfiger staged a see-now-buy-now show in LA to stand out from the crowd, while Proenza Schouler is moving to Paris Couture Week as part of a retail strategy. Some have opted out of having a traditional show completely: Opening Ceremony staged a protest- and resist-themed ballet show instead.

Nolcha’s Bannigan sees a trend in how big fashion houses are making more cost-effective decisions. Instead of hosting an over-the-top event, brands are opting for more modest affairs, targeting key names and clients. Misha Nonoo moved her presentation onto Snapchat last season, while designers like J. Mendel have shifted to appointment-only previews. Yet she also realizes how those options are still not as viable for young designers. “Independent designers don’t have the production capacity to follow a see-now-buy-now model, for example,” she said. “Our clientele simply can't keep up with the changes in Fashion Week forms.”

Blackbird Dillinger Busybody Wristlet, $53

As for Jewnell, there is nothing that can replace a traditional fashion show. “It’s about the tangible experience of the audience and the designer being in the same space,” she said. “That’s important for people who enjoy the beauty of fashion, instead of those only interested in buying the clothing.” Cottongim, for her part, challenged a long-standing myth that in the fast-moving, interconnected world of social media, the playing field has leveled between big names and young designers. “How can I get discovered on social media when Alexander Wang and his millions of followers are on it, too?” she asked. Besides, for many young designers, the number of followers doesn’t necessarily translate into financial success, she explained. “I’d rather have 50 followers and 20 people who buy it than five million followers with nobody buying it.”

It’s only slightly ironic that the topic of money isn’t often discussed in a week that is designed to promote the sales of luxurious and expensive apparel. Yet the challenges that face the city’s young designers often come down to exactly that — whether they have the money to participate in the fashion cycle or not. If Cottongim has a final word of advice for young designers, she’d tell them to get a corporate position to understand how a company works. “You can’t think ‘I can just be creative and do what I want,’” she said. “This is the fashion business, so go learn the business.”

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