The story of fashion week

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Since the inception of New York Fashion Week (NYFW) in 1943, semi-annual fashion weeks have come to be the seminal events of the fashion calendar. Indeed, fashion weeks are the place where brands and fashion houses officially unveil their latest collections to the world, both to the magazine and press crowds but also to fellow designers and cultivated consumers.

However, the concept of a “fashion week” and its catwalk shows and presentations pre-dates the founding of NYFW and, to some extent, the origins of what we think of as mainstream fashion itself. As any fashion historian can relate, the idea of catwalk presentations originates in private salon shows for the very rich in the 18th and 19th centuries. Couturiers would arrange for private presentations of the latest fashions to individual aristocratic clients hungry for new frocks to show off their wealth and social standing. These presentations, which took place either in private residences or in a designated room in a designer’s salon, involved models wearing the designer’s creations for aristocratic clients to view.

Not surprisingly, the salons of France dominated the fashion design market as early as the 18th century, though they faced some competition from the impeccable tailoring of British designers in the aftermath of the French Revolution. From Marie Antoinette to the Empress Eugénie, the glamour of the French queens and empresses had a significant impact on international fashion, which was supplied by highly-skilled couturiers. This reputation of French fashion as the pinnacle of design continued into the early 20th century.

Indeed, while haute couture initially referred to the bespoke work of Englishman Charles Frederick Worth (of Woolworth’s fame), the term was embraced by French designers in the late 19th century and later syndicated with formal criteria by the Chambre de commerce et d’industrie de Paris in 1945.

While the glamour of Hollywood brought fame to some American designers, the first serious threat against French fashion came in 1943 with the organisation of New York Fashion Week by publicist Eleanor Lambert (founder of the CFDA) in a deliberate attempt to attract attention away from la mode de Paris. Lambert created an organised “Fashion Press Week” to introduce the collections of American designers to the world when the fashion world was unable to travel to Paris because of the war. Due to the success of this event, Lambert later helped created a coordinated system of similar press events in fashion capitals around the world.

Over 60 years later, fashion weeks now operate on a coordinated schedule of events for Autumn/Winter collections in the early part of the year and Spring/Summer collections in the latter part of the year beginning in New York, then London, Paris, and finally Milan. Haute couture shows in Paris take place on a different schedule. The notion of a “fashion week” is clearly a marketable concept, especially as many cities and towns across the world have latched upon this idea to present the work of local designers.

Until the past 10 years or so, the big four fashion weeks were invitation-only events for the press, magazine writers, fashion designers, and celebrities. The unveiling of a fashion collection arguably retained somewhat of the exclusivity of a 19th-century salon, though on a much grander scale. The fashion-loving consumer generally had to wait for the next issue of Vogue or their favorite fashion mag to catch next season’s creations. This approach to the big four Fashion Weeks has rapidly changed over the past few years, as fashion has acknowledged the presence and influence of bloggers and the online media-sphere.

However, big changes are on the horizon again, given the recent announcement by IMG that it would be limiting blogger access to NYFW in an attempt to return some “exclusivity” to the event. These comments, of course, have raised ire on both sides of the catwalk, yet many questions remain.

In 2014, what is the continuing relevance of “fashion weeks” to the fashion consumer and to the fashion industry itself? Is this limiting of access a good or bad thing? Do fashion designers lose any of their artistic edge with the removal of this protective layer of exclusivity? Or do the efficacy and desirability of a fashion collection actually increase through this type of publicity?

With many designers, including Michael Kors and Diane von Furstenberg, moving their shows out of the tents at Lincoln Center, it is certain that the nature of NYFW at least is changing, though its impact remains to be seen.

by Jessica Quillin

Illustrations by Valeria Escalona