NYFW: The Expectation vs. The Reality

New York Fashion Week spring 2022 is officially in the books, the first in-person season to take place since February 2020 before the pandemic turned the world upside down.

The calendar was jam packed. While the official NYFW schedule was technically shortened by a few days (a rare joint effort by the CFDA and IMG), designers and brands managed to fill the space. Some stayed digital (and others were noticeably absent, like Rag & Bone and Zero + Maria Cornejo). But many returned to the in-person runway show.

Now that it’s done, the question must be asked: Was it worth it?

It was, after all, supposed to be New York fashion’s big comeback, a grand homecoming, a reunion to end all reunions for the industry. One could anticipate all the hugs and air kisses and big, joyful fashion announcing that life was back to normal. In late July, the CFDA announced the calendar, a roster that would kick off with Ulla Johnson and close with CFDA chairman Tom Ford.

But along came the Delta variant. In August, it was announced that the shows would require attendees to be vaccinated — though it quickly came with an amendment that a negative COVID test 72 hours prior would also suffice. There was also a safety announcement, which upon closer inspection only gave a strong suggestion, not a mandate, to wearing masks while attending shows.

When the shows finally happened, masks once again divided people; in this case, it was editor vs. influencer. While editors and many retailers were prim and proper in their mask wearing, influencers, celebrities and anyone whose livelihoods require photos of themselves conspicuously threw them aside. The editor vs. influencer feud had been brewing for years, but this season’s microcosm of a mask debate seemed to fully reignite it.

“Everyone’s upset at influencers, but we’re the ones making it fun,” was a declaration overheard on the front row Saturday at the Jonathan Simkhai show.

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Vogue’s Virginia Smith and Anna Wintour masked up at the Coach spring ’22 show.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Coach

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Other showgoers at Coach spring ’22.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Coach

But any flouting of safety protocol (clearly a nebulous, subjective topic, and a challenge that will only continue to exist that way into the fall and winter) wasn’t nearly as disappointing as some of the other dynamics of the week. Chief among them was the widespread lack of thought given to sustainable and eco-friendly practices this season. Whereas earlier in the pandemic, designers began to more aggressively explore how they might alter their processes, this time around only a handful had anything to say on the matter.

Gabriela Hearst continued to roll out her method of sustainable craftsmanship, adding weavers from the Navajo Nation and renewable cork and raffia in a collaboration with Clergerie to her growing list of sustainably minded details. So did Collina Strada, whose collection was an upcycled fantasyland. There was also former Suno designer Erin Beatty, whose two-year-old upcycled label Rentryage has one of the opening looks in the Costume Institute’s new In America: A Lexicon of Fashion exhibition.

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A raffia and cotton look with raffia and cork sandals in collaboration with Clergerie, at Gabriela Hearst. The designer was one of only few at NYFW continuing a top-to-bottom approach on sustainable fashion.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Gabriela Hearst

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Clergerie sandals at Gabriela Hearst.

But given that climate change is knocking on the door at this very minute (a record-breaking flood occurred in the city just weeks before NYFW, to name just one of many urgent examples), the cumulative lack of effort was embarrassing. There was no mention of it from the likes of Michael Kors, Tom Ford, Tory Burch, Carolina Herrera, Prabal Gurung, and the other big-time brands that made their splashy comebacks. While Coach debuted sustainably-minded pieces such as its Cashin Carry tote made of upcycled baseball gloves, upcycled denim ready-to-wear and reimagined vintage Bonnie Cashin outerwear, singular products are simply not enough now. These brands not only produce the most amount of waste; they are also the most cash-equipped to make a real, large-scale change.

Of course, real change is often incremental; nothing worth doing happens overnight. But in the face of alarming climate change-related natural disasters, the week felt conspicuously tone deaf.

“Is it necessary?” quipped one anonymous masked editor at the Khaite show, referring to the need for runway shows.

That question can pertain to anything from the continuing pandemic to climate change to the Groundhog Day-like feeling of fashion week. Back in the throes of lockdown, multiple efforts were made to rework the fashion calendar, to slow down the frenzy of putting out collections that do not necessarily align with changing consumers habits. There was also extreme pressure on designers and brands to keep churning out — a sustainability question in its own right.

Oscar de la Renta co-creative directors Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia had the right idea when it came to pacing — and the end goal of a fashion brand. The duo opted out of a runway show and instead put forth a splashy video on YouTube, with a Billie Eilish soundtrack and cameo appearance from Kathy, Paris and Nicky Hilton. It was fun and low effort, allowing the brand to focus instead on the event that attracts much more attention: the Met Gala. Kim and Garcia dressed Anna Wintour, Kaia Gerber, Rose Leslie, Kiki Layne, Wendi Murdoch and Lauren Santo Domingo — but their big moment was putting Eilish in a Marilyn Monroe-inspired pink ballgown that stretched the length of the Met stairs, a true highlight of the evening. It was also the perfect opportunity for the pop star to announce that the brand was going fur-free. For a heritage brand looking to capture a new consumer, Oscar de la Renta was an example of how to shift priorities.

Some also shifted their calendars to see-now, buy-now, such as Sergio Hudson, who also collaborated with Aurora James for a Brother Vellies capsule of heels and boots that dropped immediately following the show. But these were the exceptions, and most stuck to showing a spring ‘22 collection, as they would have prior to the pandemic’s conversation on shifting to a new seasonal calendar.

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Model Veronica Webb at Sergio Hudson fall ’21. The designer presented a see-now, buy-now collection that included a capsule collaboration with Brother Vellies – and a live performance from Sheila E.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Sergio Hudson

The only real change that could be felt during the week was the increased diversity on the official NYFW calendar. From Hudson (whose first runway show was fall ‘20, the collection that launched him to First Lady fame) to brands such as Laquan Smith, Peter Do, Willy Chavarria, Marissa Wilson, Theophilio, Junny and Tombogo to name a few, the calendar was full of both new names and those people were finally paying attention to. Victor Glemaud showed his first runway show after building up his knitwear brand for 15 years.

The diversity display was visually impactful — on the runway, too, with an increase of models of color and Paloma Elsesser emerging as the week’s top model. But one wonders what it looked like behind the scenes. Putting on a fashion show is still an expensive endeavor, costing anywhere from $125,000 to $300,000 for a basic runway, not including samples, according to Vogue Business study from 2019. While a fashion show can be a powerful marketing tool, evaluating its ROI is notoriously difficult. At a time when many brands are still struggling to keep afloat, hosting a show right now can feel like a setup for failure. Funds might be of better use now to establish a brand’s production line, research new sustainable materials or solidify a logistics plan.

It would have been helpful to see an example of the fashion show of the future, something that might take sustainability into account both in the clothing, the set design and production, and the pace of it all — human sustainability. The CFDA could have worked with a young brand to help them establish a new formula for showcasing a fashion collection, something beyond the runway show that could eventually be rolled out to larger brands. Or the larger brands with more funding could have led the way in exploring something progressive, not regressive. Tory Burch’s Soho show with a farmer’s market of local independent retailers was a good start in showcasing how a brand can involve a community and support smaller brands along the way.

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The Tory Burch spring ’22 runway, held in a farmer’s market that the designer and team created with local independent retailers.

As the week progressed, it was clear that many were feeling the whiplash of returning to how it used to be, going from zero to 100.

“I don’t know how to do this anymore,” said another influencer outside the Moschino show, where attendees huddled under a tent to avoid ruining hair, makeup and outfits as the rain started. Despite having traveled to Europe this summer four times for events such as the Cannes Film Festival, even the million-plus-follower influencer said that navigating the pace of NYFW’s schedule was exhausting and she ended up missing shows because she couldn’t keep up. “I thought it would be calm because the Europeans aren’t here, but it’s just as hectic.”

Overall, the season seemed to be largely driven by FOMO, not a desire to make change or progress the conversation on what is the future of fashion. While many felt that the industry’s ecosystem was suffering without fashion weeks and the buying, networking, dealmaking, partnerships and celebrity photo opps that come with them, the drive to return to the way it was seemed selfish at best, damaging at worst. Add to it that the actual fashion wasn’t entirely inspiring.

Perhaps New York Fashion Week’s spring ‘22 season will be seen as a grace period, a transitional time in which everyone gets their bearings and then gets back to the work of creating incremental but real change. It may just be that the status quo is all that fashion is capable of now. Let’s hope they’re capable of more next time.

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