Why, a four-year-old child could understand this report. Run out and find me a four-year-old child. I can’t make head nor tail out of it. —Groucho Marx
Everyone in and out of fashion has known for the past couple of years that the whole construct of fashion weeks need to change. The most recent season is a perfect example of why. Some shows are customer-centric and are heavy on spectacle. Some shows are buyer-focused and try to totally block out consumers from attending their events. Other designers try to merge traditional runway presentations with various social-media tie-ins using apps such as Instagram and Periscope. There was little feeling of cohesion at any of the four major cities but, at least, the governing bodies in Milan and Paris both made statements that they’re not planning on changing from the traditional format. While that decision may yet come back to haunt them, they deserve some credit for making a definitive statement on which labels, designers, buyers, and editors can all depend.
For New York Fashion Week, the Council of Fashion Designers in America (CFDA) is responsible for the NYFW schedule. However, they do not have any logistical control nor any authority in telling designers and labels what they can or cannot do. Without anyone to tell designers no, NYFW has become the largest fashion week in the world. This past season saw more than 275 designers making some form of presentation during an eight-day period. This does not include events such as the Saint Laurent ready-to-wear show in Los Angeles just before NYFW kicked off. This is great news for the city of New York. NYFW generates more revenue than the Olympics or the Super Bowl. However, the environment makes it difficult for designers who have little or no name recognition to draw the attention of buyers and editors who are already swamped.
Just how difficult is it to get noticed at NYFW? Consider that, at my peak in 2014, I struggled, and often failed, to make it through eight shows a day, and that was when the tents at Lincoln Center still provided a central location for the majority of major shows. I topped out at 67 shows that week. That means I missed roughly 75% of the shows! I only made it through 23 this season, which means more than 200 presentations escaped our view. There simply is not enough time in a day to cover everything.
Getting noticed isn’t the only problem designers have at NYFW, though. As technology has changed, the current schedule of showing a collection, taking orders, then delivering on those orders in 4-5 months has deteriorated. The causes are obvious. Smaller ateliers with only an online presence may seem a small threat when viewed one at a time, but together they take millions of dollars out of the retail flow. Fast fashion houses such as H&M and Zara completely turn over their inventory every eight weeks, with new items arriving almost daily. Consignment and resale shopping has also grown dramatically the past five years. All this together, along with others such as online-only discounters, represent billions of dollars coming out of traditional retail, severely impacting fashion’s traditional flow.
Oh, but there’s still more. Now that a large number of fashion shows are streamed live on the Internet and/or mobile apps, in addition to live or nearly live pictures on Instagram, NowFashion, and Vogue, among others, consumers see the new styles, and want the new styles when they see them, but those same styles are old news by the time they actually hit stores 4-5 months later. By the time clothes are on store shelves, fast fashion retailers and online discounters have already produced and sold enough knock-offs that the “new” stuff feels old when it arrives.
Then, there’s the added fact that many designers are flat out exhausted by the current schedule. With many brands supporting spring/summer, resort, pre-fall, fall/winter, homme spring/summer, and homme fall/winter, there is a new deadline for designers every other month, or it would be every other month if the calendar made any sense. Dates actually overlap so designers are often working on four different collections at any given time.
We’ve seen these problems building for the past five years; they are neither secret nor surprise. With the loss of major sponsorship for NYFW after Mercedes-Benz exited last year, there was little question that something needs to be done. The question is: what? To that end, the CFDA hired big-five firm Boston Consulting Group (BCG) to help study the problem. Sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it? Bring is someone objective and let them help.
Yeahhhhhh, about that …
Last week, the CFDA released BCG’s report. You can read the whole thing here if you wish; it doesn’t take all that long. There are a lot of pictures. What was the final conclusion after all this time and money was spent? Look for yourself:
While the CFDA will not promote only one specific idea at this time, it was imperative to bring out all the issues. It will encourage designers to try and experiment with new concepts and will foster continued conversations on the topic through stakeholder meetings, panel conversations, and workshops throughout the year. The CFDA owns the New York Fashion Calendar and will accommodate all types of shows and events and continue to support all designers regardless of how and when they show
For those of you not versed in consultant-speak, please allow me to translate for you: “Do whatever the fuck you want and we’ll stand here with our thumbs up our butts holding the calendar. You have our best wishes.”
This sorry excuse for a statement ultimately amounts to no statement at all and renders the whole report pointless. Void of any guidelines, and with a decree that they’ll support whatever a designer/label chooses to do, CFDA essentially gives up NYFW to complete anarchy with the door wide open for mayhem. While the report recognizes all the pertinent issues and accurately assesses the options, what was needed was for the CFDA to make a choice. Choose a method, perhaps a partnership between two methods, and say, “Hey, this is what NYFW can support, anything else and you’re own your own.” Instead, get nothing.
I can understand how the CFDA and BCG came to this conclusion. Read between the lines and the consultant speak and it seems rather obvious there is a preference for an in-season hybrid that uses capsule collections for sale at show times with the remainder of the stock arriving later. However, given they interviewed such a very small number of people (50 total), all it takes is one or two people voicing opposition to raise concern. Acting as a rule-setting authority is new ground for the CFDA, which still suffers from a lot of who-died-and-left-you-in-charge attitudes among its rank and file. Rather than risk upsetting any one group of designers, they punted, tossed everything on the table, and are waiting to see what happens next.
NYFW needs strong, authoritative leadership. Diane von Furstenberg has done well as the board’s chair, but the rest of the CFDA board of directors is a mish-mesh designers with such a disparate set of needs and interests that I doubt they can be unanimous on anything. Theirs is a society in which even one person not on board with the plan gets noticed by the press, and ultimately consumers. Designers are, inherently, under obligation to put the interests of their own labels ahead of those of the group. Such an organization has no business being in authority over a set of events that require definitive guidelines and objectivity.
What am I saying? The CFDA needs to let someone else handle New York Fashion Week, its calendar, its structure, and its management. NYFW needs an owner who can be objective, who understands the changing dynamics, and more than anything, understands that if you’re trying to please everyone you end up pleasing no one. For designers to manage NYFW is a severe conflict of interest and this CFDA report is evidence of how powerless the agency is to create any real and valuable change to NYFW.
Please, Ms. von Furstenberg, start looking for a managing third party now. While it’s not likely one can be found in time to save the trainwreck in September, perhaps next February won’t hold the chaos that this one did. Without strong leadership, and soon, NYFW as we know it may totally disappear. And this report? It does no one any good at all.