Each year New York opens the fashion calendar and sets the tone for the season. It is the first of the four major capitals to go since Helmut Lang decided in 1998 to completely redesign the fashion calendar by presenting the collections in September rather than November. Other designers were quick to follow and since then, New York has set the tone for each upcoming season. But the story of New York Fashion Week is more complex than that. So we take you back to when it first started — from the Second World War to the present day.
The beginning of NYFW
New York Fashion Week would not exist without Eleanor Lambert. Born in Indiana, she studied sculpture in Indianapolis and Chicago before moving to New York in 1925. And with that changed the course of American fashion history. A hard worker, she began her career in advertising and then participated in the creation of the New York Dress Institute in 1941. In 1943, innovation struck her again and she created Press Week. Before the Second World War — and Eleanor Lambert for that matter — Paris was the epicentre of fashion: both buyers and journalists converged on it to discover what the couturiers were about to produce. The French capital dictated trends, and many US-based fashion brands imitated what crossed the Atlantic. But as the war continued around the world and Paris remained under German occupation, an opportunity appeared for American fashion to chart its own course.
The development of NYFW
Over the following decades, this calendar, with its ever-increasing number of fashion shows, enabled the United States to become a legitimate player in fashion, propelling some of today’s biggest names, such as Oscar de la Renta and Ralph Lauren. In parallel with the evolution of silhouettes and cultural trends, the nature of fashion shows also changed. The presentations were scattered, each creator choosing the site most suited to his or her vision. Initially, these were department stores and showrooms. Over time, nightclubs, lofts, and galleries have been added to the list.
Eleanor Lambert was still active in the world of fashion, and notably participated in the creation of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) in 1962, which aimed to recognize the American fashion industry both culturally and economically. And the shows were only growing – in size and quality. From Halston’s fashion shows — attended by celebrities such as Bianca Jagger and Liza Minnelli, and described by Andy Warhol as the “ultimate art form of the 1970s” — to Diane von Furstenberg’s presentations, the 1970s were characterized by extravagance and innovation.
And in the 1980s, the volume went up a notch again (see Betsey Johnson’s flashy fashion shows) and the epaulette went one size up, thanks to designers such as Donna Karan, and her 1985 Seven Easy Pieces collection for the modern and elegant woman.
The renewal of NYFW
In the early 1990s, the press and buyers were at the end of their rope. To attend all the fashion shows organised all over the city — in apartments as well as in industrial buildings — Fashion Week made the spectators run in all directions at a frantic pace. This sense of frustration finally reached its peak in 1991, when part of the ceiling collapsed during a Michael Kors show, ruining
Suzy Menkes’ famous banana fringe. Following this incident, journalists complaining that their working conditions had become hazardous (other glitches had been reported, including elevator and power outages), Fern Mallis, then CFDA director, decided that New York’s Fashion Week should change course. And most importantly, had to find a new space. And that’s how the event became centralized again, when two white tents were set up in Bryant Park to host the majority of the shows.
The rest of the decade was then marked by many memorable moments — from Marc Jacobs’ grunge-inspired Perry Ellis show in 1993, to Kate Moss’ nonchalant walk on Calvin Klein’s podiums.
Not to mention that in addition to top models, this decade also marked the rise of celebrities at the forefront of fashion shows: Julia Roberts, Leonardo DiCaprio, Drew Barrymore, and Mariah Carey, among many others. The new location in Bryant Park was also accompanied by official partner opportunities, with the biannual event being renamed Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in the late 1990s.
The NYFW as we know it today
After braving the storm of the new millennium (literally, given the 1999 hurricane, which added a dramatic touch to Alexander McQueen’s early New York years), the NYFW faced new challenges — but also new opportunities — in the 2000s. In 2001, for the first time ever, the shows were cancelled following the September 11 attacks (even today, Fashion Week is still planned around those important anniversary dates). The following years were marked by great advances, and a host of new emerging creators, including Rodarte, Thakoon, Jason Wu, Prabal Gurung, and Alexander Wang.
The global explosion of street style and blogs has also profoundly changed the nature of Fashion Week, broadening the way fashion was disseminated and conveyed. Hordes of photographers followed in the footsteps of Bill Cunningham, the founding father of street photography, and personalities such as Tavi Gevinson and Bryanboy made their appearance.
All this also coincided with a change of site. In 2010, the calendar showed nearly 300 shows, and the Lincoln Center, which offered more space for this now gargantuan event, seemed to be the best option. But the NYFW did not stay long, as a group of activists filed a complaint against the New York City Parks Department four years later, stating that Fashion Week had a detrimental effect on nearby Damrosch Park.
Today it takes place at Spring Studios in Tribeca, but more and more designers are opting again for off-site shows and installations made by them. From Tomo Koizumi’s fascinating ball dresses, to Pyer Moss’ committed messages, to Eckhaus Latta’s material mixes, the ingenuity and thrilling rhythm of NYFW’s fashion shows, shows no sign of running out of steam.