The power of hosting a fashion show has been recognised around the world for almost 75 years. From promoting department stores to contributing billions to the industry of a country, how did they start and what has changed over the years?
A Brief History
In 1943, the first New York Fashion Week was held, with one main purpose: to distract attention from French fashion during World War II, when workers in the fashion industry were unable to travel to Paris. This was an opportune moment – as for centuries designers in America were thought to be reliant on the French for inspiration. The fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert organized an event she called ‘Press Week’ to showcase American designers for fashion journalists, who had previously ignored their works. The Press Week was a success, and, as a result, magazines like Vogue (which were normally filled with French designs) began to feature more and more American innovations. Until 1994, shows were held in different locations, such as hotels, or lofts. Eventually, after a structural accident at a Michael Kors show, the event moved to Bryant Park, behind the New York Public Library, where it remained until 2010, when the shows relocated to Lincoln Center.
However, long before Lambert, there were fashion shows throughout America. In 1903, a New York City shop called Ehrich Brothers put on what is thought to have been the country’s first fashion show to lure middle-class women into the store. By 1910, many big department stores were holding shows of their own. It’s likely that American retailers saw that the French were calling them ‘fashion parades’ in Paris couture salons and decided to use the idea. These parades were an effective way to promote stores and improve their status. By the 1920s, the fashion show had been used by retailers up and down the country. They were staged, and often held in the shop’s restaurant during lunch or teatime. These shows were usually more theatrical than those of today, heavily based upon a single theme, and accompanied with a narrative commentary. The shows were hugely popular, enticing crowds in their thousands – crowds so large, that stores in New York in the fifties had to obtain a license to have live models.
An Inside View
Since launching SA Fashion Week 15 years ago, Lucilla Booyzen has attended many of the major Fashion Weeks around the world. She shares her observations and experience with us:
How have fashion weeks changed around the world over the last 15 years?
Fashion weeks around the world have become paparazzi moments. When I started going to the London, Paris and Italian Fashion Weeks it was about design and the front rows had very specialised fashion media seated there. Over the years, however, the shows have developed into a marketing and public relations opportunity for both the fashion house and the celebrities who attend.
One of the first Celebrities I saw at a fashion week was Woody Allen and Soon-Yi at the New York Fashion Week in the 1990s – right after the scandal of Allen having admitting to a relationship with Soon-Yi, his adopted daughter. The media were more interested in the couple than the show, running up the street after him. The next day the papers were filled with images and gossip about Woody Allen.
It was also during the late 90’s that celebrities were invited to sit in the front rows and also to model the designer collections. These days stars are getting paid to be in the shows – this has become part of the power of a fashion house.
The whole affair has recently become a case of, “Look who’s wearing a designer,” and not, “Look what a designer has designed.”
Nicole Kidman was paid £1 million to wear Dior to events in the late 1990s. Gianni Versace went all out for celebrity endorsements too, starting with Richard Gere, and slowly designers worldwide started tapping into the power of ‘who you know’. In Europe, America, Asia and Australia designers are still designing fantastic collections and their use of celebrities is supported by a very exciting, new, original and well-made range of garments, whereas in South African it’s more about who you know, and not what you design, that can turn you into a fashion God– quicker than sewing a button on a blouse.
What similarities and differences have you observed in attending these shows?
There are many similarities. They are all marketing platforms where designers show their latest collection to buyers and the media. New York starts the fashion week cycle, so to speak, then London, Milan and lastly Paris. They all show trends that are around three months in advance.
Most buyers only start buying once they’ve seen all the shows – they all want to see what Paris has before they start buying.
All these shows are by invitation only and only in the past few seasons have some fashion weeks released some tickets for sale, but they remain very exclusive. They all have celebrities, a huge amount of media present and they all occur in the business capitals of the various countries. All the shows are seasonal, showing summer in winter and winter in summer
Designers must pay to be part of a fashion week, with the fashion week owners supplying the infrastructure. The designer shows are very rarely sponsored. The individual designer shows are organised and managed by the marketing, strategy, PR and production teams of each designer. The front row is the most important row at any fashion show. Some countries show couture and ready-to-wear separately, but they all have collections for men and women.
With so many fashion weeks occurring around the world now, it’s inevitable that each has developed its own distinct character. New York is more commercial and ready-to-wear – think Donna Karan and Calvin Klein. London is edgy and innovative and they aren’t scared to do avant-garde – think Vivian Westwood. Milan is alternative, very over the top – think Prada. Paris is pure design and the capital of haute couture – think Dior, Channel and Jean Paul Gaultier.
From a technical point of view New York and Milan are on par, London is next, with Paris being more relaxed. Although these shows have a major production component it is not the defining factor of success.
So, what should you wear when invited? New York Fashion Week has more trendy ‘now’ looks, the best commercially available. London is totally alternative, and even sometimes quite wild. Milan is very chic, with a twist. Beautiful shoes! Paris is very calculated. Everyone is beautifully dressed and there is an air of subtlety in what people are wearing. But don’t be deceived, everyone will know if you’re wearing the wrong thing, even among the younger crowd.
What lessons have you learnt from shows abroad that could be implemented here?
Designers that can’t design shouldn’t be showing their collections. We need to aspire to absolute perfection on every level.
What is the criteria for selecting designers who show at a fashion week?
Internationally there is no selection, only editing when it comes to new designers. For a designer to show at New York or Paris Fashion Week it’s all about the money they bring to the table, unless it’s part of an initiative by that specific fashion week.
London and Milan are more strict when it comes to allowing new entrants to show who are not on par with their existing designers – they just don’t allow it.
Is there a global ‘fashion week community’ that travels to many of the shows?
Yes absolutely. It’s been called the Fashion Circus in the past. The perfect name, as it moves like a circus from city to city with the circus and groupies following. Then of course you have the media and buyers that go to all the fashion weeks as it’s part of their job to do so..
Do you consider shows to be more for the benefit of media and buyers than for the general public?
Any fashion week is about the media and the buyers. Only in the late 1990s did the celebrity start playing a role. It’s not for the general public at all. If it was it wouldn’t be called a fashion week.
What strategic partners and buy-in do you need from sponsors and city authorities to create a fashion week?
You need everyone to understand that there are benefits for the whole country in developing a credible fashion week. This benefits the creative fashion design industry and creates sustainable jobs and builds related businesses. It’s also a fantastic photo opportunity, that can change the international perception of a country. Unfortunately, it can also have the opposite effect if one puts the wrong designer forward. There needs to be a strategy in place, like they have done in New York, London, Milan and Paris. The value is probably best illustrated by London Fashion Week, that has attracted many non-fashion brands, such as DHL, Vodafone and confectionery brand Ferrero. The benefits to the economy go beyond fashion in many instances.
How do you see SA Fashion Week staying relevant and sustainable for the future?
The only way for a fashion week to sustain itself is when designers invest in the event, realising the power of the collective showcase, that they will ultimately benefit from. They need to understand the marketing power of showing a collection at a highly focused event. This needs to be backed by their knowledge to design, the skills to manufacture and knowledge on how to market themselves.