Andrew Kelly / Reuters

Tents come down – for good – at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week

Big-name designers and corporate sponsors have opted out, leaving hazy future for the New York event

Something has been missing from the tents at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week this winter: nearly all of the top American designers.

When the schedule was first issued for New York — a highlight of the global fashion calendar — it was clear that marquee names like Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Marc Jacobs, Tommy Hilfiger and even Diane von Furstenberg, president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, would not show their fall/winter 2015 collections in the venue created for just that purpose. (While all but von Furstenberg and Jacobs still showed up on the official Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week calendar, they presented their collections at locations away from the tents.)

Then on arrival at Lincoln Center on Day 1, attendees noticed other things were missing: Major sponsors American Express and Samsung had also fled the tents, along with several smaller sponsors. Gone is the daily bazaar where free booze flowed, big bins were filled with free Diet Coke and guests lined up for free mascara. Mercedes-Benz is set to follow, ending its sponsorship after this season. The car company gave no reason for pulling out, telling WWD only that “our relationship with fashion is not ending. And we do support fashion globally.”

The tents themselves will fold up for good after the final shows Thursday, never to return to Lincoln Center. Fashion Week is clearly about to change.

Tommy Hilfiger presented his fall 2015 women’s collection at Park Avenue Armory instead of the tents at Lincoln Center.
Jewel Samad / AFP / Getty Images

In fact, it already has. During the eight days of New York Fashion Week, there are hundreds of shows and presentations all around town. Small, brand new designers hoping to grab even a little attention show in everything from empty storefronts to studio spaces. Edgier designers with loyal followings, like Wes Gordon, the Blonds and Vogue Fashion Fund winners Public School show under the banner of the tents’ biggest competitor, Made Fashion Week, with venues at Milk Studios and other spots around the trendy Meatpacking District.  

The flight of major designers left organizer IMG with a problem: how to fill the tents and keep revenue coming in. The answer came in the form of emerging designers, many from overseas, turning this New York–centric series of fashion shows into an international event. This season the tents were filled by 69 designers, houses or schools based not only in the U.S. but also France, Spain, China, Japan, South Korea, Bahrain, India, Brazil, South Africa, Mongolia and Romania.

Bahrain-based Noon by Noor, owned by cousins and designers Shaikha Noor and Shaikha Haya, sells in stores throughout the Middle East and now Russia. But, said Noor, “as a young and international brand, we understand and value the power of the U.S. market, and with New York City being such a powerful player in the fashion industry, there was no question for us where to show.”

For Barcelona-based Desigual, showing in the tents at Lincoln Center was about sending a message. “Today one of the big challenges for Desigual is building a global and international brand,” said its creative director, Manuel Jadraque. “And I think that by showing in New York, we are reinforcing that concept.”

Son Jung Wan, one of South Korea’s biggest designers, is thinking global exposure as well, saying, “I love New York. It is a fashion mecca. I want to show my collection globally, and New York is a global city.”

But with the new faces comes what looks like a new event and a new venue — and maybe an uncertain future. Fashion Week has been forced out of Lincoln Center after an agreement in a lawsuit filed by a group of park advocates who argued that New York City illegally rented the center’s Damrosch Park to IMG without state legislative approval.

IMG has been bought by William Morris Endeavour and private equity firm Silver Lake Partners. Combine that with the loss of major sponsorships, and the future looks a little shaky.

According to Ken Downing, the fashion director and a senior vice president for Neiman Marcus, Fashion Week's current state of flux has been a long time coming, spurred on by a possibly misguided desire to make the once elite gathering of designers, buyers and editors more accessible.

“That velvet rope, which can become a hindrance, needs to be reput in place,” he said.

‘This is not a playground. And many people see it as a playground for their red carpet moment in the sun, when this is actually work.’

Ken Downing

fashion director, Neiman Marcus

Fashion Week has a storied history in New York. It started in 1943, when World War II prevented American editors from traveling to Paris and fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert organized what she called Press Week, featuring all American designers, giving them the showcase they needed to take some attention from hugely popular French designers.

From then on, shows took place twice a year in lofts, showrooms and event spaces all over New York City. That is until 1990, when, as Naomi Campbell walked the Michael Kors runway in a raw loft space, the ceiling began to crumble, showering the stylish audience with plaster, a big chunk hitting then–International Herald Tribune writer Suzy Menkes on the head. After she wrote the now famous words “We live for fashion. We are not prepared to die for it,” 7th on Sixth was born, creating one big venue, bringing all the designers together under the same literal roof in a creative, offbeat, health-and-safety-approved environment.

While New York Fashion Week was originally envisioned as a way to feature American designers, international brands like Barcelona-based Desigual have become common at the tents at Lincoln Center.
Joshua Lott / AFP / Getty Images

In 1994 those tents went up in Bryant Park, bringing with them all-important sponsors — first Olympus, then Mercedes-Benz. In 2001, 7th on Sixth sold out to mega–talent representation and sports marketing firm IMG. But the relationship with Bryant Park turned rocky, the crowds began to overwhelm the space, and in 2010 the fashion circus moved again, this time to Lincoln Center.

It was a move that pleased almost no one. Many designers missed the intimacy of Bryant Park. A 30 percent increase in space and $17.2 million a year price tag meant more revenue needed to be generated. Sponsors gained new importance and new power.

The tents were constantly crammed with oddly costumed people, many with only the most tenuous connection to fashion, able to purchase an $80 credential, creating chaos. Increased security and an electronic seat-generating system that worked inconsistently left important editors and buyers waiting in long lines to gain entrance to shows. Gone was the glamorous but business-only atmosphere that Fashion Week was supposed to project.

“This is not a playground,” Downing said. “And many people see it as a playground for their red carpet moment in the sun, when this is actually work. We are not here for the fantasy or to play. We are here to do very realistic business.”

And very expensive business. The cost of renting one of the three showrooms in the tents ranges from $30,000 to $60,000. For that, the designers get the space, use of backstage, lighting, security and a team of volunteers to show guests to their seats. Add the cost of models, production, stylists, PR, trucking and live streaming, and the price could easily top $200,000. That’s for an average 12 minutes on the runway.

For major designers who took their shows downtown — to take more control over the invitation lists, crowds and access to their venues — that cost multiplied. Robert Duffy, president of Marc Jacobs, was quoted in 2011 saying the cost of its catwalk show at Park Avenue Armory was a cool million dollars, as the label now had to pay for every aspect of the show, from security and construction to lighting.

While the press has wondered whether Fashion Week is still relevant for the designers or average people who may not see a connection between the high-priced fashion on the catwalk and the clothes they buy off the rack, it’s certainly relevant for New York. Fashion Week generates an annual economic impact for the city of $887 million, according to the New York City Economic Development Corp.

Unofficially IMG sources say there is no question that New York Fashion Week will go on. WME-IMG is searching for a new home, sponsors with a connection to fashion, and new ways to entice major designers back under its now metaphorical roof. And the company bought out its hipper, edgier competitor Made Fashion Week.

Ken Downing, who has attended Fashion Week for nearly 20 years, said there is no question the annual event is relevant for the designers as well as the customers who buy the clothes.  

“I think there’s a great magic and a great mystique to fashion, and I think a lot of that magic happens with the images that are created on the runway,” he said. “Designers need a place to share their dream and share their vision, and the runway is the most relevant way to do that.”

For Lebanese-born Reem Acra, one of the bigger designers still showing in the tents, Fashion Week will always have relevance. “I have lived and worked in New York for 31 years,” she said. “I am a New Yorker at heart. I am proud of the city, proud of my work and proud of the excitement Fashion Week causes.”

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