Born out of the Second World War, spanning nightclubs, halcyon Halston days, crumbling ceilings and ‘90s grunge, Vogue discovers the history of New York Fashion Week.
As the merry-go-round of fashion month prepares to spin again, New York is readying itself to lead proceedings. It’s been the first of the “Big Four” fashion capitals ever since Helmut Lang, relocating to New York in 1998, decided to entirely reshape the fashion year by showing in September rather than the traditional November. Other designers followed suit and, from then on, the Big Apple set the mood of the season ahead. However, the history of New York Fashion Week stretches right back to the Second World War, spanning nightclubs, crumbling ceilings and plenty of spectacle along the way.
When did NYFW begin?
NYFW wouldn’t exist without Eleanor Lambert. Born in Indiana, she studied sculpture in Indianapolis and Chicago before she moved to New York in 1925—and subsequently changed the course of American fashion. A forceful presence who began her publicity career in the art world, in 1941 she helped to set up the New York Dress Institute. This was followed in 1943 by another innovation: press week. Before the advent of the Second World War, Paris had been the epicentre of fashion: where buyers and press alike flocked to, keen to know what the couturiers were producing next. The French capital powerfully dictated trends, with plenty of US-based fashion labels copying what first appeared across the Atlantic. However, as war continued across the globe and Paris remained under German occupation, an opportunity emerged for the Americans to establish their own design credentials.
Lambert’s premise was simple. Press week would be held in a centralised location—The Plaza hotel—with press from both New York and further afield in attendance (she paid for reporters from elsewhere in America to join). And it was only press. Buyers had to schedule separate visits to showrooms. The plan worked perfectly. Homegrown fashion talent was finally taken seriously, with American designers—Claire McCardell, Hattie Carnegie and Norman Norell among them—finally acknowledged in magazines including Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Two years later in 1945, Ruth Finley would begin the tricky task of coordinating what became known as the Fashion Calendar: ensuring that designers’ show times didn’t clash and providing a handy, pink-paged schedule for attendees. It was a role she would hold for almost 70 years.
Models backstage at designer Norman Norell’s fashion show in 1963. Image credit: Condé Nast via Getty Images
How did NYFW change?
Over the next few decades, this increasingly packed schedule of shows helped to establish America as a serious fashion force, spawning many of today’s big names, from Oscar de la Renta to Ralph Lauren. As silhouettes changed, hemlines rose and cultural currents took new directions, the nature of the shows transformed too. The presentations became more scattered: each designer choosing the best setting for their vision. At first, this mainly meant department stores and showrooms. Over time it expanded to include nightclubs, lofts and galleries.
Lambert was still involved, helping to set up the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) in 1962, to ensure recognition of the US fashion industry both culturally and economically. And the shows just kept getting bigger and better. From Lambert’s protégé Halston’s events—attended by the likes of Bianca Jagger and Liza Minnelli, and deemed “the art form of the 1970s” by Andy Warhol—to Diane von Furstenberg showcasing her now ubiquitous wrap dresses, the 1970s saw plenty of glitz and innovation. And as the 1980s rolled in, the music got louder (see Betsey Johnson’s raucous shows) and the shoulders ever larger, thanks to designers including Donna Karan, with her 1985 collection of Seven Easy Pieces for the streamlined, modern woman.
Why did NYFW change location?
By the early 1990s, press and buyers alike were exhausted. With every show taking place in a different venue—now ranging from small-scale apartments to industrial buildings—fashion week required its attendees to dash frantically around the city. These frustrations reached their high (or rather low) point in 1991 when part of the ceiling collapsed at a Michael Kors show: chunks of plaster debris dusting, among other things, Suzy Menkes’s indomitable quiff. In the aftermath of this incident, as press complained about how hazardous their jobs had become (there had also been incidents with stuck elevators and electricity outages), Fern Mallis—then executive director of the CFDA—decided that NYFW needed a new direction. And crucially, a new location. And so it was back to centralised viewing as two white tents were erected in Bryant Park to host the majority of shows.
Kate Moss walks for Calvin Klein during New York Fashion Week in 1992. Image credit: Getty Images
The rest of the 1990s yielded plenty of memorable moments, from Marc Jacobs’s infamous, grunge-inspired spring 1993 Perry Ellis show to Kate Moss sauntering down the catwalk at Calvin Klein. And, aside from the supermodels, this was the decade that marked the rise of celebrities seated front row: Julia Roberts, Leonardo DiCaprio, Drew Barrymore and Mariah Carey among them. The move to Bryant Park also led to corporate sponsorship opportunities, the biannual event rebranded Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in the late 1990s.
What is NYFW like now?
After weathering the storm of a new millennium (quite literally, given the hurricane of 1999, which provided an appropriately dramatic backdrop for Alexander McQueen’s New York debut), the 2000s brought new possibilities and challenges. In 2001, for the first time ever, the shows were cancelled in the aftermath of 9/11 (Fashion Week is still arranged now to ensure that it doesn’t fall on any significant anniversaries). The years that followed were a time of great advance, with a slew of upcoming designers, including Rodarte, Thakoon, Jason Wu, Prabal Gurung and Alexander Wang.
Shalom Harlow sprayed with paint by robots during the finale of the Alexander McQueen show during New York Fashion Week in 1998. Image credit: Getty Images
The global explosion in street style and blogging also fundamentally changed the nature of fashion week, expanding the way fashion was broadcast and disseminated. Hordes of photographers followed in Bill Cunningham’s blue-jacketed shadow, and figures including Tavi Gevinson and Bryanboy entered the scene. This also coincided with a change of location. By 2010 the schedule had expanded to nearly 300 shows, and the Lincoln Center, which offered more space for this now gargantuan week, seemed like a good move. However, NYFW’s tenure there was short-lived, an advocacy group suing New York’s parks department four years later, claiming it had an adverse impact on the next-door Damrosch Park.
These days it’s situated in Tribeca’s Spring Studios, but more and more designers are returning to off-site presentations and installations of their own. From Tomo Koizumi’s mesmerising puffball dresses, to Pyer Moss’s sharp cultural commentary, to Eckhaus Latta’s clashing textiles—the pulsing ingenuity and pace of NYFW shows no sign of abating.