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If You Want to Know Why Fashion Week Still Exists, Ask a Designer

It’s all about them, after all.

Backstage at a fashion show
Backstage at Maryam Nassir Zadeh Fall/Winter 2018
Photo: Mireya Acierto/Getty Images

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A dark cloud of confusion has been hanging over New York Fashion Week for the last few seasons as the industry as a whole tries to figure out what it means to operate these days. To show or not to show? To make a political statement or to carry on as usual? It’s a different time, no doubt, but it’s been changing for a while.

Shows migrated away from Bryant Park and Lincoln Center in 2009 and 2015, respectively, spreading out into every Manhattan neighborhood and even Brooklyn. In 2009, bloggers began making their way to the front rows, seated in spots that had previously been reserved for celebrities and the most prominent editors and buyers. The street style phenomenon hit its fever pitch around the same time, and what happened outside of the shows arguably became more important than what happened inside of them. (Mind you, all of this happened before I was even sure I wanted to work in fashion.)

Speed up to the last couple of years, and we got “see now, buy now,” with brands like Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger trying to get in on the direct-to-consumer wave by making things available to shop straight after the show closed. Had Gigi Hadid not been involved, I can’t say anyone would’ve cared. They surely don’t now.

Some brands even left New York to show in other cities: Proenza Schouler and Altuzarra went to Paris, while Rachel Comey and Rebecca Minkoff went to LA (with the latter literally showing at The Grove, lol). Others, like Opening Ceremony — which showed at the ballet last season and this season will literally go to Disneyland on March 7th, one day after Paris Fashion Week wraps — have decamped from the traditional schedule altogether. Same goes for Alexander Wang, who after this season will show off-calendar in New York during June and December.

But brands aren’t the only ones finding themselves in a weird spot. Editors are cutting down on the shows they attend (if they even go at all), and the online publications they work for are cutting down on coverage because no one is clicking; at the very least, they’re rethinking their programming. (Admittedly, I too would rather keep up with the behind-the-scenes happenings of Fashion Week via Bella Hadid’s Instagram Story than any website.) You’ve heard this all before: Today’s Fashion Week is frantic at best, begging for relevancy at worst.

But here we are! At the close of the fall/winter 2018 show season. For the record, I love fashion, but I went into the whole thing pessimistic (which, in all fairness, is easy to do when you can’t walk out of a show without street-style photographers yelling at you to get out of the way so they can get the shot of the people who matter). I grapple over whether any of it actually means anything, or if I’m just still not immune to FOMO. I think the answer is somewhere in the middle.

It makes me nostalgic for the person I was a few years ago: an embarrassingly eager fashion assistant ready to take any extra ticket my magazine’s staff didn’t care to use just to get a glimpse of the magic. (I can’t even imagine how the OG fashion week attendees must feel.) So this season, I gave myself an assignment in the hopes that it’d change my tune.

Over the last eight days, I spoke to a handful of designers behind smaller labels, including two New York Fashion Week first-timers from outside of the US, to figure out why they still participate. I wanted to know: Do they feel the fatigue like we do? And are they getting enough back?

Sandy Liang fall/winter 2018, look 4
Sandy Liang fall/winter 2018, look 4
Sandy Liang fall/winter 2018, look 21
Sandy Liang fall/winter 2018, look 21

The first and maybe most obvious response came from designer Sandy Liang. Her namesake label is New York City’s Lower East Side star-child, and if I hadn’t banned myself from using the phrase Cool Girl, I’d use it here. (Just peep the lookbook.)

“I feel it’s still important to show during New York Fashion Week because, regardless of evolution, it’s still a time when everyone is paying attention to the industry,” Liang shared over email. “The attention gives new designers a platform that might not be available to them the rest of the year.”

Plain and simple, the opportunity to be seen, discovered, and devoured will always be an attractive sell, especially for younger and smaller brands. Exposure really can be everything, and its ripple effect is real. Liang was named a label to watch by Fashionista in 2015, which was followed by a shoutout in a W roundup of best new designers to follow on Instagram just a few months later. Dazed directed its audience to the same platform the following season, and Who What Wear included Liang in its Class of 2017: Best New Designers to Know.

Point taken.

This season Liang hosted a presentation at Mission Chinese Food, a Lower East Side restaurant that’s as cool as her brand, in lieu of a traditional runway show, as she does every season. It was packed, and before it was even over, all I could see on my Instagram Story feed were Liang’s just-shown cotton candy-colored coats and dresses that I vowed to buy as soon as they become available.

The same sentiment was echoed by Chromat’s Becca McCharen-Tran. “[Fashion Week] continues to be a relevant platform for us to elevate our collaborators and expose Chromat to the world,” she says And it’s true: Chromat has offered center stage to NYFW’s most diverse models over the past few seasons, and the same diversity is reflected in the audience cheering from the seats.

Nanushka fall/winter 2018, look 2
Nanushka fall/winter 2018, look 2
Nanushka fall/winter 2018, look 22
Nanushka fall/winter 2018, look 22

The 13-year-old Budapest-based brand Nanushka, whose revenue has nearly tripled in the last two years, also showed during New York Fashion Week. In a New York Times profile leading up to her debut, designer Sandra Sandor shared that one of the reasons she chose New York was because “most of the influencers we work with are from America.”

Those influencers showed up in big numbers for the presentation — as did their friends, not to mention their followers through the screen — which was filled with gorgeous cherry-red dresses, vegan leather trousers, sheer polka-dot dresses, and one sweet melange knit with a pearl hanging from the zipper.

“Our social media blew up,” Sandor shared with me over email just a few days later. “We were really happy about the people who came by and about their honest yet incredibly positive feedback. We truly appreciate the love and openness New York welcomed us with. It was a huge step for a brand coming from the Eastern Bloc.”

A post shared by Olivia Lopez (@lusttforlife) on

I felt things come relatively full-circle when I spoke to Hillary Taymour of New York-based label Collina Strada. After debuting at NYFW as part of Made Fashion Week‘s spring/summer 2015 season, the line has moved on to show independently, teetering between presentation and runway through the seasons.

This season, Collina Strada had models take a runway that was set like a wedding aisle. Style blogger Reese Blunstein (of @double3xposure) and her twin sister, Molly, were flower girls. There was spoken word, a baby, and the weird/artsy union of multi-disciplinary artist Sasha Frolova and her higher self. (I texted my colleague Eliza in the middle of the show, just a few seats away, that I felt like we were in an art episode of Broad City.)

The day after, Taymour explained over email that being part of Fashion Week “isn’t about relevance” for her or Collina Strada as a brand. “A show is an important platform for me to design around; it would feel anticlimactic to not show for me as a creative.”

Collina Strada fall/winter 2018, look 13
Collina Strada fall/winter 2018, look 13
Collina Strada fall/winter 2018, look 20
Collina Strada fall/winter 2018, look 20

Things sort of clicked here. I felt a bit silly. Of course it would feel anticlimactic to work on something for so long and not be able to celebrate it, which is no different than any other artist hosting an opening party to kick off an exhibition. Of course.

Her response felt like a glaring reminder: come or don’t, but this is about us — with “us” being the community that Collina Strada and many of its fellow New York-based lines have used as an accelerator. They’ve figured out what works for them, and it’s this.

What this set of designers all have in common, and maybe what can be said for most prominent indie labels right now, is that they’ve remained flexible during a time when so much in fashion feels up in the air.

I don’t have the slightest clue on how to revive New York Fashion Week, especially when it comes to the big hitters on the calendar. What I do know is that, for now, the designers’s willingness — and eagerness — to show their collections within the New York Fashion Week calendar schedule is enough to keep it going. And if they keep going, there will always be people there to see what they’re up to.