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Is New York Fashion Week Still In Style?

In many ways, 2020’s version of New York Fashion Week was much like any other year. Designers, models, fashionistas and social media luminaries descended on the city for a series of shows by the biggest names in design, aiming to let the world know what will be “in” this year, and what is “out.” For the record, according to the experts, the rising trends include bright colors, uptown punk, cutouts, Victorian frills, over-the-top glamour and precise tailoring.

Bonus points to the influencer who can find a way to combine all of those design elements into a single outfit – the team at PYMNTS just can’t wait to see that conglomeration on the streets of Boston this spring.

There was even the usual wash of celebrity appearances and stunt casting. This year, the celebrity doing supermodel gig work was Miley Cyrus, who made a surprise appearance at the Marc Jacobs show, walking the runway in a black bra top that got a lot of praise (and plenty of imitation). The metallic bralette-as-shirt seemed to be this year’s Fashion Week uniform for the famous – and represented impressive dedication to style, considering that the average temperature in New York last week was below 40 degrees.

But for all of the pomp, hype and hypothermic midriffs that made an appearance in the Big Apple last week, the post-mortem question about 2020’s Fashion Week is whether the yearly style festival was missing one critical accessory this year:

Relevance.

Among the experts, the rising question is whether Fashion Week still has the power to move collections and mass styling as a whole. Do consumers really care about what happens there?

Historically, of course, the average consumer never cared about what happened at Fashion Week to start with. In fact, the consumers’ awareness of the event is actually something of a modern phenomenon. Fashion Week itself is pushing 80 years old – it was invented in New York during World War II because Paris was occupied by the Nazis, and Americans are nothing if not willing to seize a retail opportunity. The idea not only succeeded in New York, but it ignited and went global after the war ended.

While Europe may consider itself the world’s fashion center of gravity, every Fashion Week held outside of New York – including in Paris, Milan and London – are all just knock-offs of a Manhattan design.

It wasn’t until almost 40 years later that musicians, actors, entertainers and social luminaries began attending Fashion Week – in the late 80s and early 90s – that it went from being mostly an industry event to something that was part of the public consciousness. And even then, the average consumer might have known that Bono wore leather pants to Fashion Week and sat next to a Kardashian at the Valentino show – but what was actually on the runway, as celebrities looked on and rock stars accompanied the models down the catwalk, was still a bit removed from the average person’s mind.

But, as Meryl Streep explains as the character of Miranda Snowe in the movie “The Devil Wears Prada,” just because a customer didn’t know Fashion Week was influencing their style choices didn’t mean they weren’t being incredibly influenced by it.

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For those who can’t watch the clip, the takeaway is that what appears at Fashion Week is then filtered through other designers, through corporate buyers, through the department stores and all the way down to even the most deeply discounted corners of the mass market, in a chain that is invisible to the average consumer – and also wholly determinative of their fashion life.

Or at least it did. Fashion Week 2020 indicates that might not quite be the story anymore – at least not in New York.

According to reports, some of the biggest names in American design – like Virgil Abloh and Heron Preston – ditched New York entirely this year in favor of doing bigger shows in Europe for their spring collections. Tommy Hilfiger reportedly nearly sat out Fashion Week, and only put a show together at the last minute.

And Tom Ford, the chairman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), had a New York Fashion Week show, but not in New York. He took his highly praised, celebrity-packed and ornately produced show on the road to Los Angeles – where, coincidentally, the Oscars were going on during the kickoff weekend of New York Fashion Week.

The move was particularly eye-catching since Ford was instrumental in the biggest change NYFW saw in 2020: its truncation from an actual week into just a five-day event. And even those five days were cut into by the Oscars this year. The Academy Awards event presented a host of designers with a tough choice: Go to L.A. to mingle at the biggest event of the year for their core customer base (the rich and famous), or stay in New York for a seasonal show dedicated to fashion.

Except, reports note, that choice is not quite as balanced as it once was. Department store buyers don’t have the relevance they once did at Fashion Week, because department stores at all levels are struggling in a digitizing market. Fashion “seasons,” as they once existed, no longer quite hold sway a decade into the fast-fashion movement that truncates those seasons from months to weeks – particularly given the rise of DTC fashion firms that have the ability to curate “seasonally” appropriate dress, right down to the specific region in which the consumer lives.

Most critically, the drivers of the decisions that influence consumers’ purchases has also changed. Instagram influencers, YouTube reviewers, TikTok personalities and millions of other self-made fashion experts on social media channels are serving as the final arbiter of what’s “in.”

And while a tiny fraction of those actually have wieldable influence at scale, there is a lot of noise in the world of fashion, and many challenges involved in leading a commercial infrastructure that is increasingly supportive of thousands of sub-niches.

NYFC is moving to adapt to those changes. The influencers have long since been invited into the tent to signal-boost the event, everything is streamed live, and technological advances make it possible to order the looks seen on the runways in real time. Fashion Week knows the future is coming – and it’s time to do things differently. This year’s tech collaboration with Visa, for example, brought a visual search element and highlighted female designers and innovators with a custom shop.

How much all of that has changed the landscape remains to be seen – influencers have the tendency to cancel each other out when they all appear en masse.

And the good news is that there’s always another season coming – and another opportunity to make it work.

We’ll see if New York manages to get itself back on trend this fall.

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