Is New York Fashion Week Worth the Effort? It Depends on the Designer

NYFW has evolved into an offline and online spectacle, but its long-term health is in doubt.
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Francis Scialabba

· 5 min read

In 1993, the Council of Fashion Designers of America's (CFDA) first modern New York Fashion Week was intended to showcase the biggest trends in the industry for department store buyers and fashion editors. Since then, NYFW has evolved into an offline and online spectacle where runway productions ring up CVS-length receipts—but its long-term health is in doubt.

NYFW’s value has been undermined over the years by...

  • Opposing strategies for selling the merchandise displayed at NYFW. Some make runway items available to shop immediately after the show; others don't sell collections for another six months.
  • Fleeing designers. Made in the USA talents like Alexander Wang, Rodarte, and Altuzarra have jumped ship to show their wares at London or Paris Fashion Week, leading some experts to say there’s a dearth of talent at NYFW.
  • Homogeneous models and backstage talent at shows. Designers have faced heightened criticism, especially from the tweet gallery.

No matter how many punches NYFW takes, designers cough up cash to partake

Designer Tanya Taylor says that participating sets her company back at least $100,000 per season. “I’ve tried everything to try to get under that number,” she tells me, “but that’s our gauge of what we need to...put forward a quality effort that speaks to how much we care about the brand.”

Other designers harvest whole money trees. Christian Siriano told Vogue Business that his shows cost between $125,000 and $312,000 to produce. Forbes estimates that the “average” show cost at least $200,000. In 2011, Marc Jacobs reportedly spent at least $1 million to showcase his fall collection. That’s $1,750 per second for a show lasting under 10 minutes.

“When our investors go through the numbers, it’s really hard for them to see actual return,” Siriano said earlier this year.

The payoffs are more immediate for designers who follow the see-now, buy-now model. Within days, they’ll know if their pieces have resonated with consumers. “We like to make sure we’re not just doing this for an ego boost—it’s actually leading to tangible results and sales,” Rebecca Minkoff, a womenswear designer presenting at NYFW this season, tells me.

Customers’ wallets are more attracted to practical items than the capital-F fashion seen on high-end runways. Tanya Taylor agrees that the show is worthwhile if customers buy the items from her runway six months later. “I think a lot of brands have a tendency to show runway looks that look so different from commercial looks, and that’s really not what I want my brand to be built on,” she says.

Designers have another motive

Some say direct sales are secondary to building brand affinity with customers online. It doesn’t matter if the clothes sell—customers just need to see the garments and learn the designer’s name.

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Enter: excess. When showing collections, designers try to engineer Twitter moments with guerilla celebrity castings (Alexander Wang, prior to its NYFW departure), or dresses that double as memes (Viktor&Rolf). Most often, it’s a set, a stunt, or a combination of the two. In one memorable example, Calvin Klein buried its entire runway in popcorn. (Calvin Klein shuttered its runway division in March because it was too costly to maintain.)

According to a Launchmetrics study, Ralph Lauren’s 50th anniversary campaign during last September's fashion month generated $38 million in media impact value (MIV), a measure of the value of impressions an event amasses on social media.

Exposure increased even more when famous faces lined the front row. Celebrities with brand partnerships are paid undisclosed amounts to post from the shows they attend. Launchmetrics reports that Nicki Minaj had the highest MIV of NYFW’s spring and fall 2019 runways, generating $8.9 million. Good to know we’ll still have her outfits if she retires from music for good.

Mass retailers are making their own catwalks

Exclusion from the CFDA hasn’t stopped mass retailers from hosting NYFW Lite, where the runway looks a little bit more like your average Sunday mall run.

  • DSW hosted a “Runway Redone” show on Wednesday featuring a more size-inclusive cast than you’d see on the official runways.
  • Target is re-releasing its 20th anniversary collection of items from previous designer collaborations nationwide on September 14, shortly after NYFW’s close.
  • H&M debuted its budget Moschino collaboration with a live streamed fashion show last October. Three Hadid children and Naomi Campbell walked its runway.

Consumer goods brands have even engineered Instagram-bait NYFW activations. Exhibit A: the inaugural “Flamin’ Haute” fashion week experience hosted by Cheetos on Thursday. (All press is gouda press.)

The big takeaway: Despite all the baggage NYFW carries and the costs of getting on the schedule, companies find its benefits gloss over its pitfalls. If success can be counted in views and likes, new customers are one carefully calibrated post away.

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