What Is Fashion Week?The tents are up, the invitations have gone out, and hotel rooms have been booked for months. As New Yorkers brace themselves for the influx of traffic that marks the beginning of New York fashion week, those not familiar with the industry are asking themselves one simple question:

What is fashion week?

Fashion week is when major fashion designers in cities around the world present their next season’s collection to fashion buyers and the media. They run six months ahead of time, so shows presented in the fall feature clothes for the next spring, and clothes shown in the spring are for fashions to be worn in the fall.

Why do they run six months ahead ahead of time?

Because designers need time to fill the orders department store buyers place during fashion week. Making thousands of copies of each garment takes time – it doesn’t happen overnight. The six month lag also allows fashion magazines time to create their articles and photo shoots and deliver the content at the appropriate time.

Yes, it is confusing as a consumer to see spring fashion week just as fall sets in or look at fall clothes just as spring arrives, but it’s the nature of the industry. In order to deliver for the right season, they have to start months ahead of time.

So why does each major city have its own fashion week?

Because there are only so many magazine editors and department store buyers to go around, and they can’t all be in the same place at the same time. So each city schedules its own fashion week to allow the editors and buyers time to travel from city to city.

The Fall 2012 fashion week schedule looks like this:

New York: September 6-13
London: September 14-18
Milan: September 18-24
Paris: September 25- October 3
Los Angeles: October 14-21

It’s an exhausting for everyone involved, from the designers working down to the wire to get their collections done, to the editors and buyers traveling from show to show and living out of a suitcase for a month. But again, it’s the nature of the business. Fashion is a billion dollar industry, and this is what’s required to sell the kind of volume they do.

Has fashion week always been like this?


Lanvin, c. 1911When the haute couture industry first started in the 1850’s, it was secretive and exclusive. The top designers held fashion shows in their ateliers for their very best clients, and kept models on staff to show clothes whenever a potential client showed up. There were no ready-to-wear collections being sold to department stores, no distribution to “the masses.” Couture apparel – like polo ponies and fine champagne – belonged exclusively to the rich. For 75 years, they saw absolutely no reason to share their world with “the average person” – except to show off how they lived through news reels and magazine stories.

By the 1930’s, there were 30,000 regular haute couture clients world-wide. spending millions on clothes every year. Paris was the center of the fashion universe, and the world’s wealthiest women traveled there twice a year to order complete wardrobes from their favorite couturiers. Everyone was happy – except those who wanted the cachet of designer apparel, but couldn’t afford it. They had to settle for designer perfume instead.

World War II changed everything.

Not only were millions of lives lost, but the world economy changed. Paris was shut down for five years during the German occupation. Devout fashion followers had to look elsewhere – and often turned to their own countrymen. It was a pivotal time in fashion history.

Yes, the Paris fashion scene bounced right back when Christian Dior introduced his “new look” in 1947. But dozens of new American, British, and Italian designers now also vied for couture clients. Ladies from Chicago and Dallas flew to New York instead of Paris. The British royals and aristocrats supported British designers instead of French. The Italians skipped Paris altogether and went to Milan instead.

For the first time in nearly a century, Parisian designers were forced to share the wealth.

They didn’t like it.

Pierre Cardin RTW for Printemps Dept Store, Paris, 1959So they innovated yet again: they started selling ready-to-wear.

Pierre Cardin was the first couturier to create a ready-to-wear line for a department store in 1959. His colleagues were so appalled, they promptly threw him out of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the regulating commission for the French haute couture industry. Cardin was devastated – until the checks started rolling in, that is. He made so much money from his ready-to-wear lines that the other designers couldn’t help but notice.

Within a decade, Cardin was restored to the Chambre Syndicale, and most of the other members were also offering RTW lines. Others, like old-school Cristobal Balenciaga, simply closed their ateliers rather than “sell out” to the masses. By the 1970’s, ready-to-wear lines and licensing agreements comprised the biggest part of most designers’ businesses.

Today, there less than 1500 couture consumers world-wide, and only a dozen or so couturiers still presenting couture shows. The bulk of sales in fashion comes from things the “average person” can afford, like ready-to-wear pieces, licensed accessories, and perfume.

Which is why fashion week has become so important.

When “press week” first started in 1940, it was as a way to get newspaper, magazine, and news reel reporters to cover the fashion industry. It was all still very exclusive, and magazine editors around the world relished being able to be the first to share the new season’s fashions through pictures and editorials. For sixty years, fashion magazine editors were the gate keepers of the fashion industry.

But the Internet changed all that.

Instant reporting. Streaming video. “Looks of the day” websites. Monthly paper editions of anything now seem like relics from the last century.

Celebrities in the front row of the Rebecca Minkoff Fall 2012 Fashion WeekToday, the front row of fashion week is no longer reserved for the best clients or the magazine editor with the widest circulation. Nope. It’s reserved for the people who can reach the masses most quickly, whether it be a fashionable celebrity with 6 million Twitter followers, a fashion blogger with a million unique visitors a month, a celebrity stylist who’s on the speed dial of the most A-list clients, or an Internet retailer who can sell out their inventory just by sending an email.

Since a single “look” can put a designer “on the map” overnight, they’re looking to fill their fashion week shows with the people most likely to make that happen.

It’s a level of speed and voracious consumption unheard of even 5 years ago, but consumers want it and they want it NOW.

As I write this, designer Tracy Reese is garnering accolades for designing the dress Michelle Obama wore to speak in Tuesday night. By Wednesday morning, Tracy was on a national morning talk show, telling people when they could expect the dress to hit stores (it’s from her Spring 2013 collection). Meanwhile, she said, everyone’s welcome to check out the video stream of her full collection when she presents this Sunday at 2 pm.

Creative AND media savvy? These days, they go hand-in-hand.

So, again, “What is fashion week?”

It’s the week in which fashion designers present their next season’s collection to fashion buyers and the media. Too bad they’re planning six months out, though. In our new world of instant images and instant gratification, six months seems like an eternity…

Clothing Quality SecretsWant to learn more about fashion week and the world of haute couture? Delve into Clothing Quality Secrets to learn the ins and outs of what really makes a great buy when it comes to fashion.