Vanessa Friedman: "New York Fashion Week Has Lost Its Identity"

In our State of the Industry series, fashion's most respected critics, editors, designers, publicists, and entrepreneurs discuss the biggest challenges and opportunities facing the industry today. Here's The New York Times' Vanessa Friedman, in her own words.

New York Fashion Week is an issue. I think it has lost its identity and that's creating a lot of the confusion and perhaps the negative feelings. I think you’ve got a fashion week that’s full of very different kinds of brands, so there’s no kind of critical cohesion to it.

There is a legitimate commercial reason for [designers] to go to Europe if they feel like European buyers are not coming to America or if they want to be noticed because they want to be candidates [for jobs] that they’re not candidates for at the moment. Being put in the frame of Paris — which retains this reputation as the seat of fashion, the core city of fashion — is a statement if you consider yourself a designer driven by aesthetic creativity. I think the Chambre Syndicale has been very effective about reaching out to these designers, inviting them in, and making them feel wanted and making them feel legitimate in their platform, which has got to be nice for the designer ego. I think they’re migrating to Paris for commercial reasons, creative reasons, and branding reasons. I think the question really becomes, will it make a difference for Rodarte or Proenza Schouler to be at couture? Historically that hasn’t worked: Yohji Yamamoto did that and then he came back. Will it be good for Thom Browne and Joseph [Altuzarra] to be there during ready-to-wear? It’s quite hard for American designers to make an impact in a schedule that is as crowded by giant global brands as Paris is. You saw that in reverse when a bunch of British designers went to New York, they kind of went nowhere.

The buyer of Selfridges came to New York to see Thom Browne. Period. And Thom Browne is no longer here. Is that an argument that it’s possible that Selfridges will not come to New York? Yes. Then you get caught up in this weird spiral or self-fulfilling prophecy where not as many foreign buyers or foreign press come to New York because they feel like the designers they needed to see on the catwalk, which is different than they need to see in the showroom, are not on the catwalk anymore. Then the designers who are left say, ‘How come the foreign press and buyers are not here, I’ve got to go to Europe where they are,’ and then you get locked into a vicious cycle.

I get excited by Fashion Weeks that give me something to write about, that give me something to think about because I have to write something every day, so it’s easier when a designer has really thought about what’s on their runway and I can react to it — that tends to happen most often, I find, in Paris. So despite the fact that Paris is really heavy lifting in terms of the schedule and the amount of designers and all that, I find it more exciting to write about because I feel like there’s more material.

I think [see-now-buy-now] may be a good idea for some brands, I think it’s really not a good idea for most brands. I don’t agree with [Neiman Marcus's] Ken Downing, as he knows, that the fact that shows end up on Instagram makes consumers think that they’re over the clothes by the time the clothes get into stores. I think a bigger problem is that the clothes end up on celebrities because even if they’re not real people, they’re more real people in a context that most viewers can get their head around, and they’re wearing the clothes—they’re actually wearing them. I think that does create a sense in consumers's minds that you must be able to access them somehow and so they do seem old three months later. I think that’s a bigger mind switch than the show itself ending up on Instagram because most people know what a runway is, they understand how to think about that, they do not expect to be able to buy it the next day.

I also think if you’re genuinely moving things along creatively, it takes a while for your eye as a viewer to get used to it. It takes six months for it to seep into your head and for you to want it. The first time I saw Stefano Pilati brought back the tulip skirt on the Saint Laurent runway I was like, ‘Ah! Get that ‘80s stuff out of there, I don’t want that, don’t bring that back’ and six or eight months later after a bunch of other collections had done it too, suddenly I was like, ‘Hm, tulip skirts. Yeah, why not?’ I think that’s not uncommon.

I have a real issue with pre-collections as marketing tools because I think there’s so little cohesion in terms of how brands approach the season. For us, it’s really hard to figure out how to cover it because it doesn’t make any sense to our readers. If you’re trying to create a narrative out of a season, it’s almost impossible. How do you explain that and everyone just throws their hands up and goes ‘God knows!’ And then some people don’t want to show and some people do, some people have big shows and some people have little shows, so I think that’s a bit of an issue.

I’ve been saying this for a while, there’s way too much stuff in the world. There is way too much product and that tends to get carriaged in or come up in discussions of sustainability, but I think it has as much to do with the sustainability of the industry as it does with the sustainability of the environment. I think the reason people talk about designer burnout, the reason people complain about too many seasons is too much stuff. It’s all tied up together, and if we produce less and valued the things we produced more, then a lot of those other problems would actually go away. The reason the department stores are having the problems they’re having is they have too much overstock. People are not buying it the way they used to, so I think if people buy less at a certain point you have to make less. People now are merching the runways from here to high heaven and do we need it all? What fast fashion has done is to teach us all that we need more stuff. I’m a very broken record about this, but I think the reason fast fashion began, this idea that style should be available to everybody no matter what the price was a great idea, but it somehow evolved into this constant flood of product and sort of impression of disposability and it skewed everything. It’s spiraled upwards and it’s part of what’s driving department stores’s desire for more stuff, which is what designers blame for their need to make more stuff and it’s become very detrimental to everybody.

The independent designers who are still successful like Dries van Noten and Rei Kawakubo are quite good models. They do what they can do to the extent of their ability to do it. They know what they need to do to keep their businesses running, to be able to pay their employees, to have nice but not crazy extravagant lives that they can handle as individuals who are designers helping run their companies.

I think that one of the difficulties in any industry, not just fashion, is as society evolves, as technology evolves, as the economic system evolves, things don’t work anymore. You need to have new ideas for that and we’re in that situation. Clinging to the way it used to be or trying to figure out how to fix the way it used to be as opposed to taking what you have and thinking about how to make it work for now is the wrong way to do it.