Last year, during New York’s annual fashion week, Josh Patner—former assistant designer for Donna Karan and co-founder of the popular label Tuleh—answered a few questions posed by the Slate staff: Just what is fashion week about, anyway? Is it, as one editor put it, “a snooty scam perpetrated by New Yorkers on poor slobs elsewhere”? Or is it an occasion for designers to present their artistic ideas? This year, we found we still had questions: How do you get your own fashion show? Why do the models walk like that? And do they eat at all? So we asked Patner back for another round.
1) How long is a fashion show? Are there refreshments? Do they start late or are fashion designers known for their punctuality? Do fans wait outside the shows to try and get a glimpse of their favorite models/designers?
A show can be as short as 7 minutes or as long as 20. The length really depends on how many looks are shown and the extent of the spectacle that accompanies the fashion. Sometimes designers open their shows with a brief film—say, the quasi-political montages favored by Kenneth Cole. Some houses, like Imitation of Christ, favor theatrics. Last season’s show began with grating patriotic music. But while these extra bits can help round out the show—it is, after all, a show—they are more often than not annoying distractions. (Remember that it’s hot in those venues, which are usually flooded with lights for video and television.)
Sometimes champagne gets passed around, or finger food. But rarely. Editors and buyers sometimes go to 10 shows or more a day, so they want to get in and out as quickly as possible. And some venues seat more than 1,000 people; that would be a lot of champagne.
Some shows begin promptly; some don’t. Often the delays have more to do with changing the models’ hair and makeup between shows than with the designer’s grandiosity. Of the 30 models cast in a show, five of them might be the season’s “top girls” who do five or six shows a day. Another 10 likely do four or five shows. The shows are not always in the main tents at Bryant Park (located in Midtown Manhattan). Designers show all over the city in gallery spaces, museums, and clubs. That means that the models—and the hair and makeup crews—have to hustle to be on time. And even models get caught in traffic.
Fans do wait outside shows, especially in Europe, where fashion has more of a cult status than it does in New York. But fans (fashion students, mainly) are likely waiting for an editor to pass them a spare ticket so they can see the actual show rather than just waiting for a glimpse of the designer. For most fashion fans, the clothes are the real star. It is an unspoken tradition among insiders to pass an unneeded ticket to the best dressed groupie. And sometimes fans forgo the ticket altogether and sneak past the bulky guards and army of PR people to see a show. It’s considered a badge of honor to sneak into the shows of cult designers like Jean Paul Gaultier.
2) How do you apply to get to do a Fashion Week show? Is there some fashion board?
There is a fashion board: The Council of Fashion Designers of America, or CFDA, is the not-for-profit governing body of the American fashion industry. A trade organization, CFDA promotes the efforts of its member designers, works with nascent brands with an eye toward helping them to expand, and holds a yearly award ceremony. Their prize is the top prize offered in fashion, and considered a huge honor.
However, CFDA does not organize the fashion shows. 7th on 6th, an arm of the mega-marketing corporation IMG, coordinates the shows, the venues, and the calendar. (See last season’s FAQ for further explanation.) Venues range from $22,000 to $42,000 and are offered according to availability. So, in theory, if you can write the check you could have a show. Of course, there are some limitations: The anchor brands of American fashion are accommodated first, and many designers have held the same time slots for seasons. With approximately 150 designers showing over seven days, space is very limited. Some designers do not show in the 7th on 6th tents, and sometimes shows overlap.
3) Tell us about the models. Where do the models learn to walk? Does their agency teach them? And why do they walk like that? Why can’t they just walk normally? Do the models really not eat? Do they diet before the shows?
You may have seen Jay Alexander, who works with Elite Plus in Paris, on America’s Top Model. He’s famous for teaching models to walk and is rumored to make quite a bundle doing so. But not every model takes walking lessons; some have a natural sense of presentation. “It depends on where the models are from,” according to Andrew Weir, a New York casting director. “If they’re from Brazil or South America, the walk is innate. The other girls have to watch the Brazilians for a season or two until they catch up.”
There are a few walking styles. “If you say to the girls ‘Do a Versace walk,’ they know what that means—a va-va-voom, shake-it-like-you-might-break-it walk,” says Weir. ” ‘Street’ means no swish. It’s strong, like the way people walk down a New York street.” Most shows now use a near-natural street walk, described by Weir as ” ‘Street’ plus a little bit more.” That means a pretty natural stride with no hands on hips or posing. But the walk is still slightly exaggerated: Some extra swagger makes skirts swish dramatically and gives tailored looks a bit of extra power.
Although people don’t like to believe it, models are not big dieters. They are blessed with fast metabolisms.
4) What does a fashion editor look for at the shows? What does an editor do with what they see at the shows?
People often think that the job of a fashion editor is completely mysterious. And, to the extent that theirs is the business of trafficking in taste, it is. But fashion editors are also journalists looking for news such as a novel silhouette or a new talent. They are looking for incipient trends, and are thinking about how best to bring them to life for their readers. While watching a show, they might jot a few ideas down, and many make tiny sketches of the clothes to trigger memories later. As the shows build from day to day, trends become clear. There is similar news at every important show, as though certain ideas are in the ether. The trench coat, let’s say, or satin shirts.
In addition to looking for specific trends, editors are in search of what might best be described as a “mood.” Fashion communicates something about a way of living. So Marc Jacobs’ slightly retro silhouettes can recall the childlike exuberance of playing dress-up while Albert Elbaz, designing for Lanvin in Paris, favors erotic colors like apple green and acidy violets that make his classic lines roil with sexual tension. Editors suss out a prevailing mood, usually the one that seems most contemporary. That mood will then set the tone for the photography and the content of the magazine for the entire season.
Everything that follows is a matter of scheduling. Editors at a given magazine or paper hold fashion meetings, decide what to photograph, what location to photograph it in, and which models should wear it. They choose a photographer they feel is suited to the theme. They map out when to publish certain stories. Shopping habits are taken into consideration: A woman is likely to buy a new fall dress earlier in the season than a heavy coat. The stories fall in line.5) What does a stylist do?
A fashion show is essentially a parade of outfits (or, as they are known in the business, “looks” or “exits”). In many cases, these outfits are put together by a stylist. The role of stylists as creative counselors to designers is understandably confusing, given that the depth of their impact on a designer’s work varies from designer to designer. But a stylist’s role is basically twofold: He or she works with the designer to put the various separate elements—jackets, pants, skirts, blouses, dresses, coats, and accessories—together in a way that best expresses the designer’s vision for the season. The stylist also oversees the casting of the show, selects the models’ outfits (and directs hair and makeup), and determines the order in which the clothes will be shown. So the stylist’s taste—their personal sense of proportion and color, their knowledge of history and pop culture, their ideas of what seems fresh and modern—can have nearly as much impact on the fashions as does the designer’s own taste.
Why would a designer need a stylist? A good stylist acts as an editor. They can refine diamond-in-the-rough ideas, galvanize a stalled mind, find the gold in the stacks of sketches that are all equally beloved by their creator. Remember, too, that the clothes shown on the runway often constitute only a small fraction of what is actually available for sale in a designer’s showroom. A line might have 10 jacket shapes for sale, each of which might be made in five fabrics—that’s 50 jackets!—but only three of which are shown on the runway. In short, collections can have thousands of pieces, so the selection of pieces for the runway show, which ultimately translates into international exposure that generates sales, is no slapdash affair.
6) What is the relative importance of the various fashion weeks? Is there a hierarchy? For example, is Paris more prestigious than New York? Does each week have different participants? Its own flavor or mood?
Fashion week occurs twice a year in New York, London, Milan, Paris, and Los Angeles for both men’s and women’s collections. There are also fashion weeks in São Paulo and Tokyo. * Designers show in only one of these cities and not necessarily in their country of origin: American designers, like Rick Owens, show in Paris, as do British designers such as Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney. While it’s true that each city has certain connotations—Milan is the commercial heart of fashion; Paris the seat of originality and innovation; the designers who show in London are often less established and edgier; and New York is known more for sportswear than for high style—the relative importance of a given fashion week is somewhat based on which city has more big name designers showing at any given time, and more major retailers and members of the press in attendance. Still, it’s important to remember that commercial traffic is not necessarily equal to creative quality; and often the more obscure and less popular commercial collections are the most interesting.
7) Is it considered inappropriate to boo at a fashion show? How do you express dislike? Only catty comments afterward—or during the show?
It’s hard to imagine a cattier business than fashion. While most insiders carefully consider a designer’s work, it’s hard not to snicker when the clothes being shown are pretentious or downright ugly. Neither is uncommon. And so while no one boos like they might at a sporting event, nasty comments can fill the tents like Naomi Campbell’s bust fills a bikini. Fashion insiders would be dishonest if they did not admit to enjoying the disapproving glance shared with a colleague across the runway when a dud look trots by. I admit I’ve even passed a note or two. But sometimes a bad show is compelling, like watching a car wreck, and you can’t tear your eyes away. But when a show is great, that’s when it’s truly compelling. There’s a real thrill in beholding the work of a master craftsman or a canny provocateur.
8) Are there certain critics/writers whom designers love or loathe? Do designers read their press?
In the fashion world, there are only three influential critics (of those writing in English): Suzy Menkes of the International Herald Tribune, Cathy Horyn of the New York Times, and Bridget Foley of Women’s Wear Daily. While other major newspapers cover fashion in a service-oriented way—that is, they suggest what to buy—the writers are not critiquing fashion as they might film or books.
Surely some designers secretly loathe their critics. And some critics secretly loathe certain designers. But the relationship is really one of co-dependence. Critics write, designers show, and neither can do their job without the other. Suzy Menkes, for example, was often very critical of Tom Ford’s work for Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, but it was also clear that she respected him as a hugely influential talent. Designers—though they may deny it—care about the reviews. Even if they refuse to read them—and many do—they know when the reviews are bad. Friends tell them; they feel it in the air. And show me a designer who can resist reading a great review?
9) If I see an outfit during fashion week that I like, is it OK for me to copy it? Is it copyright infringement if I buy my own fabric and sew it myself?
Good luck. Can you draft a pattern? Can you sew? Make a buttonhole? Clothes are difficult to make—especially the styles you see on the runway. Even if you were a killer seamstress, you’d likely have a hard time matching the fabrics many designers use: They are often expensive and hard to come by in a fabric store. But there’s no harm in copying the silhouette of a designer; fashion thrives on the imitation of ideas. Should you really manage to copy a designer’s work, however, be warned: G. Thompson Hutton, a Manhattan attorney specializing in the fashion business, says, “In the U.S., you might be an infringer if the design had a design patent. But many designers fail to protect their designs and therefore their designs end up in other collections.” And though designers rarely trademark their work, it would be hard to determine if the one you’ve decided to copy has done so.
10) Tell us a little more about the things or people one might see at a fashion show. For example, who are the famous fixtures? If you had to take a neophyte to a fashion show, who or what would you point out?
It’s often said of fashion people that if their industry didn’t exist they would find themselves unemployed. Who are these women wearing towering heels in the snow? Or the men in floor-length fur coats? Why do they have on sunglasses inside? Why do they look so mean? And why, for god’s sake, are they kissing each other on both cheeks, European-style, on the corner of 38th Street and 7th Avenue?
Fashion is indeed a comic world, filled with overblown characters that are tantalizing to some and odious to others. While it’s easy to see the people under the tents as one-dimensional cartoons, who they are and what they do is obviously more complex than any cartoonlike depiction—or brief description—could do justice to.
But were you at the shows, a few people might stand out: Anna Wintour, the chic and steely editor in chief of Vogue, likely dressed in Chanel couture, or Anna Piaggi, a longtime contributor to Italian Vogue who makes getting dressed a piece of performance art, often wearing an itty-bitty hat perched over her brow, like a circus clown. Or you might notice the difference between the magazine editors—dressed top to toe in the latest trends—and the retailers—usually dressed all in black, or in business suits. Maybe you’d see a TV star or two, or young Hollywood royalty like Sofia Coppola at Marc Jacobs, for whom she acts as muse.