In the beginning there were three — Ralph, Calvin, Donna — the brands that became synonymous with upwardly mobile, female-first sportswear.
They were joined by Carolina (Herrera) and Oscar (de la Renta). Later came Marc (Jacobs) and Michael (Kors) and Narciso (Rodriguez), the three Americans chosen in the 1990s to help revive major French houses (Louis Vuitton, Céline and Loewe) and hence crowned the Next Big Things. After them came another generation championed by the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund in the post-9/11 world: Proenza Schouler, Rag & Bone, Rodarte, Altuzarra, Thom Browne — all newer names with international magnetism.
Yet it is exactly that latter group of success stories who are decamping for alternate shores. When the exodus began, I talked to Steven Kolb, chief executive of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, about whether he was concerned, and the message was: absolutely not. It was a personal step for each brand based on its business needs, not a vote against New York.
And besides, to have the Paris seal of approval — to have American brands be good enough to show in Paris — should be seen as a badge of honor for New York.
It is true that all the designers who left New York Fashion Week have done so for individual reasons: because it’s better for deliveries to show in July; because they need to reach international buyers; because their parent company is French.
But it should be pointed out that no one who shows in Paris, London or Milan seems to feel a need to experiment in quite the same way. Indeed, the Paris schedule is exploding, even without that impulse. And to a certain extent, that simply underscores the stereotype that Paris is a more fertile place for aesthetic growth than New York, one that focuses on creativity as opposed to — sniff! — mere clothes.
It’s an idea reinforced by the fact that into the vacuum left by the departures comes a flood of pop culture powers led by Rihanna, returning after two seasons in Paris with three major fashion week moments: the introduction of her first makeup line (Fenty Beauty!); the Fenty Puma show; and, finally, what may be the most buzzed-about blowout party of the week. She is going to be such a dominant presence, one might be forgiven for thinking it’s actually Rihanna New York Fashion Week.
Then there’s Philipp Plein, the German P. T. Barnum of fashion, who will hold his second extravaganza in New York, complete with Dita Von Teese and Future. (Last season he took over a public library with living Statues of Liberty and a performance by the Kills, which may give you an idea of what to expect.) And Desigual, the Spanish brand, whose show is being orchestrated by Jean-Paul Goude and the choreographer Ryan Heffington, of Sia’s “Chandelier” video fame — who is also working with Opening Ceremony and the director Spike Jonze on another performance, which will be open to ticket holders from general public.
There will be a pop-up store featuring designer-made New York Fashion Week T-shirts, masterminded by WME/IMG, the sports and entertainment behemoth that administers the largest group of shows. Which has also introduced, for its corporate clients and high-net-worth consumers, the option to buy NYFW: The Experience, a behind-the-scenes opportunity to … well, experience the collections.
As a result, the balance of power seems to be shifting from aesthetic influencers to Instagram influencers. From fashion to fashertainment.
If you measure success during shows simply by viewership, by clicks and buzz, that’s probably absolutely fine. More people may be watching more catwalks. But if you measure success by the ability to bring decision makers to the city because they have to see — for themselves, not through a screen — the way a garment moves on the body, how it can resonate in the memory and change the way an individual may dress so that consumers look to this country for leadership, it might not be.
Insiders are lining up in opposing camps: those who see a crisis and those who roll their eyes at the angst. “I’m really positive about what’s happening,” said Catherine Bennett, senior vice president and managing director for fashion of WME/IMG. “There’s never been a time before when people are so open to trying new things and doing different things.”
And before you dismiss this as an industry-only problem, know this: The New York City economy has almost $900 million a year riding on the outcome. There’s a reason Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, Democrat of New York, has held a series of news conferences detailing the value of fashion week (note: fashion week, not fashion) to the city. Its contribution to the bottom line — in hotels, car services, restaurants, florists, hairdressers and the like — is enormous.
No one is questioning whether American fashion is O.K. It’s doing just fine, retail worries notwithstanding. New brands are born seemingly every F.I.T. and Parsons graduation month. But this particular expression of fashion, the one that represents the soul of American fashion in the global imagination, is a different story.
There are still tent-pole names: Calvin Klein, currently having a renaissance under Raf Simons (although the fact that Mr. Simons won both the men’s wear and woman’s wear CFDA designer of the year awards in June underscores the dearth of competition); Ralph Lauren, who has seized the moment to export everyone to Bedford, N.Y., for his 50th-anniversary show; Oscar de la Renta, where the designers Fernando Garcia and Laura Kim are drawing attention. Mr. Ford will make his return to New York after a season off, and Derek Lam is coming back to the catwalk.
But Sebastian Manes, the buying director of Selfridges in London, told me earlier this summer that Thom Browne was one of the main reasons he came to New York. Now that reason has gone. Alix Morabito, fashion editor of Galeries Lafayette, which will be sending a smaller team to New York this season, said that between the brands that had left the schedule and the rise of see now/buy now, the city had become “less attractive from the buyer side.”
Fashion is a global business, divided more by psychographics than by geography. And in the map of the mind that is the fashion system, New York has lost its identity.
Brian Phillips, president of the creative agency Black Frame, said that the moves create an opening for smaller brands to make a bigger impact, and it is possible that one extraordinary brand could break through and change it all. (The fashion hive mind can turn on a dime.) The street wear scene is still bopping along, though it is unclear whether street wear needs to be seen in person or if the small screen will suffice.
More interesting, the CFDA has teamed up with the American Civil Liberties Union (along with Planned Parenthood, which it worked with last year) to create runway events demonstrating support of the nonprofits’ causes; and WME/IMG is giving part of the profits from its shop to Unicef, and encouraging models to wear T-shirts between shows designed by Prabal Gurung that read: “Model Citizen.”
“We want to be on the front line, not the sidelines, to boldly fight to protect our precious rights and freedoms,” Mr. Kolb said in a news release. Fashion is at its essence about identity politics, but brands have traditionally shied away from overt positioning. New York could assume that mantle of leadership, with every brand interpreting it in its own way.
But out of the cacophony needs to come a core of consensus. Otherwise it risks the worst look of all: irrelevance. Accessorized by parochialism.