What's the Point of Fashion Week?

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New York’s Fall Fashion Week is winding down, but this year it included 97 runway shows and attracted an estimated 100,000 visitors to its new Lincoln Center home. Some say the event has become glitzier than ever, and drifted further from its roots as a trade show. But if you ignore the flashbulbs, you can still observe business getting done.

At the Donna Karan show, in a converted West Village garage, social butterflies wave to their friends, and wallflowers sit in their assigned places waiting for the show to begin. Someone whispers, "There’s the editor of French Vogue!"

No one is paying any attention to an ultra-thin woman in a Stella McCartney tuxedo blazer with a warm, occasionally goofy, smile. Which is funny, because Colleen Sherin is one of the most influential people in the room. She's the women’s fashion director for ready-to-wear at Saks Fifth Avenue, but you can think of her as a retail tastemaker. If she likes what she sees, Colleen Sherin has the power to stock 50 upscale department stores with lots of Donna Karan designs.

"We’re here to see what she has up her sleeve for Spring 2011. And ultimately to edit it down for Saks Fifth Avenue," Sherin says.

The lights go down, the music starts. In 11 minutes, 41 models march by, leaving Sherin about 15 seconds to take in each new look. When it’s all over, the crowd disperses. But Sherin remains in her seat, huddling in hushed tones with three colleagues from Saks. Then, two well-dressed women swoop in, and Colleen has a lot to say to them. Apparently they work for Donna Karan.

"We were discussing our advertising looks," Sherin says.

She may be interested in snagging some of the outfits she saw for a print ad campaign, and for the Saks catalog. She has to act fast to get an exclusive before Bergdorf’s or Nordstrom’s gets there first. Later this week, the Saks team will visit the Donna Karan showroom to talk details.

Now, it’s on to a deli to grab a mortadella sandwich before Sherin's next appointment.

This is what New York Fashion Week is all about — retailers running around, meeting people from fashion labels, as many as possible, for eight days, grabbing a sandwich on the go. All in the service of the domestic apparel business, estimated at $290 billion a year, according to IBISWorld, an industry research firm. At the high end, a lot of those sales are still made in department stores.

But some observers say the original purpose of the shows — to introduce buyers and sellers — is being lost. Michael Londrigan teaches fashion merchandising at LIM College. "I think fashion week now has evolved more into a media event, it’s more of the buzz," Londrigan says.

Big name labels talk constantly with the department stores, so when they put on a show, Londrigan believes it’s more about building brand awareness with the public, which in turn, can boost money makers like licensed perfume and sunglasses.

"Particularly if you look at the brands: Tommy and Ralph and Lacoste, DKNY," Londrigan says.

And what’s wrong with a little marketing and promotion? Nothing, says David Wolfe, creative director of The Doneger Group, a fashion consultancy. But if you’re going spend a half million dollars or more on a runway show, do you really want to promote looks for spring and summer of 2011 in September of 2010?

"I mean it’s still hot and the clothes would be absolutely perfect," Wolfe says, if they were available today.

But the looks on view this week won’t be in stores until January, at the earliest. "They’re six months out of sync!" Wolfe says, adding that the Internet has played havoc with the Fashion Week calendar.

Wolfe is urging his clients to junk the old system. So far, they are not taking the advice.

Jacqui Wenzel is president of North America and Europe for a fairly new label called Ports 1961.* She says a runway show in New York is still the best way to connect with buyers and grow the business. "You get to create a mood and an image of the woman who our designer is envisioning," Wenzel says. "You need to see that. You cannot always just intellectualize fashion in words. It's a visual business."
For good measure, Wenzel is wearing her own label all this week. She says she never passes up an opportunity for promotion.


* Update 9/17: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Jacqui Wenzel as CEO of Ports 1961.