Last Friday evening, one in-demand model after the next walked — or, more accurately, floated — down a mirrored runway to a remix of The Pointer Sisters’ hit “I’m So Excited”. The show was Tom Ford and “excited” was undoubtedly the mood at his highly anticipated event, which was bursting at the seams with glamour. Supermodels turned superheroes donned vibrant, cape-like tops that cascaded over fitted joggers; an otherworldly Bella Hadid, hair slicked back, opened the eveningwear portion of the night in a glittering sheer gown with Kendall Jenner not far behind in an equally transparent, lace iteration of the same silhouette. This epic spectacle was running on the star power in the room as attendees like Jennifer Lopez, Tracee Ellis Ross and Jeff Bezos (yes, you read that last one correctly) looked on.
Ford is known for his signature New York Fashion Week kickoffs, and this would’ve been one hell of a way to do it. Except he wasn’t in New York.
The mega-designer decided to show his A/W 2020 collection in Los Angeles and, like an irresistible fashion magnet, he attracted a bevy of A-listers and editorial talent (Anna Wintour included) all the way across the country. Naturally, this redirected the industry’s attention away from the regularly scheduled east coast happenings — a blow to the gut of NYFW and its already dwindling relevancy.
“When I went to the Tom Ford show in LA, what I was really struck by was the amount of editors, stylists, journalists and critics who are based in New York but showed up for the show,” says Connie Wang, a senior writer at Refinery29 who lives in California. She points out that for those in attendance, accommodating the 7th February date of Ford’s show required missing the first day of NYFW and, most likely, at least half of day two. “That Friday-through-Saturday time stretch has generally been pretty important, and the spot is usually reserved for a lot of really buzzy and contemporary designers whose shows are well attended [in New York],” Wang explains. And while the absence of showgoers was already felt throughout the early portion of fashion week — which included big-ticket items like the Brandon Maxwell show at the Museum of Natural History and a collection of voluminous gowns by CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund winner Christopher John Rogers — a sizeable handful opted to skip out on all six days entirely.
Dora Fung is a freelance editor and stylist who has been covering NYFW since 2006 for publications like Vogue China and The Cut. She was among the crowd of Tom Ford spectators who chose to forgo most of the New York events in favour of an extended, sun-drenched stay in California, making it back only for day six’s Michael Kors and Marc Jacobs shows. “I felt bad missing some of the shows in New York, especially Monse and Self-Portrait because I have a personal relationship with the designers, but Tom Ford has been so good to the magazines I work with that it was too important to not be in LA for it,” she says, with her sights now set on Milan. Ford’s clout, it appears, is heavily rooted in his ties to Hollywood. This has long been the not-so-secret ingredient in his recipe for success. The designer-cum-film director knows how to make an irresistible cocktail of ravishing designs mixed with potent VIP energy and topped off with a delicious sex appeal, and people are drinking it up now more than ever. “That is the power of having an A-lister sitting front row. Where else would you have gotten J.Lo, Renée Zellweger, Demi Moore and Miley Cyrus?”
So is Ford at the helm of a mass exodus from New York? Or, as NYFW struggles to stay afloat in a turbulent sea of change, is he simply riding the current out west?
This is not the first time Ford has deviated from tradition in the direction of California. In February 2015, he showed his A/W 2015 collection in LA. Similarly to his recent A/W 2020 show, the occasion was planned to align with the run-up to the Oscars. “Culturally speaking, the Oscars are more important than NYFW, so why not invest energy and time and physical bodies in the Oscars rather than in NYFW? That might be really forward-thinking,” Wang says. The city is also Ford’s professional and personal base.
But last Friday marked the designer’s second season as the newly minted chairman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, so the controversy of defecting to LA is more symbolic this time around. It can be perceived as a vote of no confidence in NYFW, which just happens to be the most significant export of the institution Ford now leads. After being tapped for the role due to his global vision and perspective, his first order of business was to slice a few days off the NYFW schedule — something editors were actually quite thankful for, and an act CFDA president and chief executive officer Steven Kolb tells Refinery29 has been “an overwhelming success”. But Ford’s LA decision was met with less praise among NYFW organisers and participants who feel like their captain has jumped ship.
“The point of a show now is to create an Instagrammable moment, and the reason that you have to show in a Fashion Week, in a key city, is that you need as many of the people that people care about in one room at one time to shoot those images all over the world,” Ford told Vogue in an August 2019 interview just months before the announcement of his A/W 2020 show location. For a designer like Ford whose pieces are red carpet staples, those “people” for him are in LA, not New York. That means the “key city” for his business is also LA, not New York. Apparently, the CFDA does not disagree.
“NYFW will always be the epicentre of American fashion and newness,” Kolb says. “CFDA believes brands should do what is best for their business, and we support designers who decide to embrace other fashion capitals and expand their horizons — which is at the heart of our mission.”
Ford is certainly not the first to skip town in the best interests of his company. For the past few years, big-name brands like Thom Browne and Altuzarra have left New York to show in Europe instead, chasing the promise of bigger sales in Milan and Paris. Buyers have followed suit to keep up with the industry’s top designers, and the empty seats at New York shows are becoming increasingly hard to ignore. This international shift has drawn into question the real purpose and efficacy of NYFW, asking whether it can survive in its existing format. The growing desire to conduct business abroad is exactly what earned Ford, who has spent the majority of his career in Paris and London, his position in the CFDA.
So the problem, it seems, might be New York itself. As the needs and demands of designers and attendees evolve, the CFDA has to evolve quickly along with them, regardless of where Tom Ford and his army of chic celebs are rallying. Writers and editors are growing tired of Ubering back and forth across the city to watch shows that brands no longer want to pay for (or simply can’t afford). Plus, the rise of influencer culture has made way for a decline in the involvement of traditional and even digital media, resulting in an audience that’s often more concerned with being seen rather than actually seeing.
When bloggers (aka the OG influencers) first infiltrated the fashion circuit over 10 years ago, their presence at shows and presentations incited a collective eye roll among the magazine professionals they’d ultimately replace. But the rapid rise of then-rookies like Leandra Medine, Bryan Grey Yambao and Susie Lau caused a stylish stir, and the hype surrounding the value of their digital followings intensified. Bloggers multiplied and morphed into influencers, and with every Instagram post, social media shoutout and enthusiastic RSVP, they persisted in asserting their credibility. As more invitations rolled in, the influencer floodgates were forced open, washing editorial veterans out of their front row spots. Add to this NYFW’s current partnerships with platforms like YouTube and TikTok for content streaming and creation, and it’s clear that technology and social media are reshaping and democratising New York’s approach to fashion week — but the city is losing some of its MVPs in the process.
Now that the week has officially come to a close, we look back on its series of events with the same apprehension that’s plagued NYFW for a number of seasons. Yes, Marc Jacobs had his choreographed dance routines and Miley Cyrus (who was just sitting front row at Tom Ford). And yes, Brandon Maxwell had creepy-but-cool taxidermy and Bella Hadid (who also came back from Tom Ford). But it might not be enough to keep the conventional fashion world engaged and, more importantly, invested.
But there were moments of definite promise, most notably the triumphant return of Rodarte and Proenza Schouler to the NYFW scene. The homecoming was described as “comforting” by Alexa Seitz, a buyer at Manhattan’s mecca of luxury retail, Bergdorf Goodman. “Over the past few years, we have seen key players in NY leave us for Europe… and you know for a moment it did feel like something was missing,” she says. “Like the city of New York itself, fashion weeks have their ups and downs, but we continue to see exciting things coming out of New York — think Khaite and Deveaux. Even if it’s on a smaller scale, New York is our home and it’s still just as important.”
And then there’s the innovation and hope that radiates from runways of young brands like Area, Christopher John Rogers and Priscavera. The death of NYFW would mean a destructive decline in opportunity for these up-and-comers, and nobody wants that. Consumers are craving newness and optimism, which is exactly what these designers are serving up on a brightly coloured, crystal-embellished platter. These are the unsung heroes of NYFW who deserve our attention. They may even be able to save NYFW. So don’t look away just yet, because these players are just entering the game, and from the looks of it, they aren’t going anywhere.
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