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New York Fashion Week 2014: a non-fashion person's guide

Models walk in a Givenchy fashion show in Paris
Models walk in a Givenchy fashion show in Paris
Francois Durand
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

On Thursday, New York City will celebrate Fashion Week — one of the special times in the year when good-looking humans dress funny and somehow dictate to the rest of the world what it means to look good and fashionable. For many, it's a joke. For some, it's a livelihood. But whether you hate it or love it, Fashion Week is, undeniably, a global event.

What is Fashion Week?

Fashion Week is a designated period of time when designers present their spring/summer or fall/winter lines to an audience. New York, Paris, Milan, and London are considered the big four fashion week cities.

New York's Fashion Week begins today. It's followed by London and Milan, and the season concludes in Paris at the beginning of October. Designers show clothes for the season ahead, so this week's fashion will feature designers' spring and summer lines. In the spring, it all starts over, and there will be Fashion Weeks to show off fall/winter clothing.

Why is Fashion Week important to designers?

Models walk the runway during the Alexandre Vauthier show as part of the Paris Fashion Week (Getty Images)

At the heart of it, it's business.

"Fashion Week is a trade show. It's a glorified trade show," Lauren Indvik, the editor-in-chief of Fashionista, told me. "It's a chance to get in front of buyers and press."

Buyers represent fashion stores like Barneys and Bloomingdale's and are in charge of stocking store shelves with pieces from designers. The press, of course, means editors like Vogue's Anna Wintour, Harper's Bazaar's Glenda Bailey, and Elle's Robbie Myers, who determine what is shown in the pages of their influential fashion magazines.

"Showing at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week is a pivotal moment," Joanne Arbuckle, Dean of the Fashion Institute of Technology's School of Art and Design, explained. "It's a culmination of your season's work. It's your moment when you're presenting it to the world."

Arbuckle explains that the attention is significant because a good fashion week can be a breakthrough for a designer and make them a household name. If an editor likes something on the runway, they may feature it in a magazine. That trickles down to buyers, who want to keep their stores stocked with the hottest trends.

"Fashion Week is a time for buyers to interpret a designer's message as a whole and take the most important parts of it to the store level, so a customer understands and desires to take home a spirit of the brand," Daisy Yu, a sales manager for the Nina Ricci fashion house explained to me.

Yu's job is to look at the artistic statements being shown on the runway and translate that into meaningful presentations for buyers.

"The runway collection, specifically, is always more of an artistic statement by a designer. The price-points are higher, the pieces are more exquisite and more elevated in terms of fabrics and embroideries," she added.

How did Fashion Week start?


Arbuckle says that American editors and buyers would fly to couture shows in Paris. It was around the time of WWII that Americans began designing their own high couture stateside. "That was really the birth of the American designer. They would show their collections and their lines in their showrooms," she explained.

The woman who started Fashion Week in New York City, Arbuckle said, was Fern Mallis. Mallis, a former top gun at IMG Fashion, galvanized designers and brought the tents — the places where fashion shows took place — to New York City's Bryant Park in 1993.

Why is Fashion Week important to models?

Models are essential to fashion week. A model makes a garment look good and can showcase how it drapes on a human body. (Granted, models have atypical physiques. But that's the idea.) There's an incentive for designers to book the best models — ones who can walk, ones who get tons of press, ones who can show off the garment:

Mariacarla Boscono, a legendary model, is known for her runway walk.

For models, Fashion Week is a way to drive up value. In the days leading up to Fashion Week and during the event, models go to casting sessions, where they are seen by directors, designers, assistants, publicists, and stylists.

Models want to get booked for A-list shows (e.g. Marc Jacobs, Prada, Dior, Givenchy etc.). They're not necessarily making piles of money by walking in these shows, but they are getting themselves in front of important gatekeepers. These editors and casting directors could eventually help models land lucrative advertising campaigns and important magazine spreads.

Joan Smalls, one of the top models in the world today, got her first big break walking in the Givenchy couture show in 2010. From there, she walked in shows for Anna Sui, Gucci, Burberry, and Prada, shot editorials for Italian Vogue, German Vogue, American Vogue, and French Vogue, and signed a Gucci contract within the next 12 months. Smalls now has a reported net worth of $9 million.

Why is Fashion Week important to editors?

Andre Leon Talley (Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images)

Editors and critics at newspapers like The New York Times have traditionally written reviews and buying guides, and created editorial spreads. Through these pieces, they, more or less, tell people what to wear, who is promising, and who isn't. Until earlier this year, Cathy Horyn was the chief critic for the Times. She was famous for her scathing reviews.

"Mr. de la Renta is far more a hot dog than an éminence grise of American fashion," she wrote in a review of Oscar de la Renta's work in 2012 — a review that the designer didn't really care for. A few designers have had beef with Horyn, and the debate over who the final judge of fashion is culminated in Lady Gaga taking to the pages of V Magazine, and changing up a song to give Horyn a piece of her mind in 2012.

Indvik tells me that things have shifted a bit. In the age of social media and the internet, fashion has been democratized. Fashion shows aren't exclusively for editors to tell readers what's good anymore. The photos of each look in a show are posted within hours, and thanks to Twitter and Instagram, sometimes, those looks are posted in an instant. Thus, Fashion Week followers have become critics, too.

"They want to look at images," Indvik said of Fashionista's readers, explaining that her readers are also interested in the news of the show, like what row Anna Wintour is sitting in or if a streaker sneaks in.

"You can kind of follow it piecemeal on Twitter," Indvik explained of the real-time aspect of Fashion Week today. At Fashionista, Indvik will be overseeing her team's coverage, where the site will operate more like a liveblog of an awards show or a sporting event.

What are the biggest criticisms of Fashion Week?

A model has makeup applied during Fashion Week (RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images)

The criticisms that come to the forefront aren't ones that are particularly new or novel to the fashion industry. The two biggest ones are the images that the fashion industry perpetuates and the lack of diversity in the fashion shows. They're closely related.

For many years, there's been a hefty amount of criticism about models promoting unhealthy representations of beauty and suffering from eating disorders. There are also complaints about using underage models (who are also unrealistically skinny) and that these underage models are being taken advantage of by adults who don't have their best interests in mind.

Even though there are laws being pushed and initiatives in the fashion community to curb these transgressions, enforcing them is much easier said than done.

"[S]eason after season, we still see models who appear to be dangerously thin or, here at the beginning of another New York Fashion Week, models who are as young as 14," The New York Times's Eric Wilson reported in 2012. "Even though designers and modeling agencies have pledged not to cast girls younger than 16 in the shows. If you believe them."

The fashion world is very powerful and to some degree, has power over what people find beautiful. And seeing young men and women be dangerously thin, as Wilson puts it, could push someone, models included, toward an eating disorder or an unrealistic body image.

This also plays into the idea of diversity. Again, the fashion world dictates beauty. And oftentimes, that beauty only means white men and women. Jezebel has done a good job of tabulating Fashion Week's lack of racial diversity over the years. This February, the site reported that "of all the models who walked [in New York Fashion Week for Fall/Winter 2014] 78.69 percent of them were white."

WTF is this?

A model walks the runway at the SANKUANZ Spring Summer 2015 fashion show during London Menswear Fashion Week. (Getty Images)


Is Fashion Week a little silly?


A lot of that silliness comes in the form of letting people know how important or unimportant they are — something that can be seen in who sits where. Seats at a fashion show are usually arranged in rows. The most important people sit in the first row, the second most important in the second row, and so on and so on, until you get to the swirling maelstrom of mediocrity in the upper rows.

"It's totally a status thing," Indvik said, explaining the row system. "Fashion loves hierarchy. … [Editors, celebrities, insiders] see this [the seating chart] as an affirmation of their personal status."

Perhaps the silliest thing to come out of fashion week in recent years was the diarrhea-gate of 2013. Like an Oregon Trail journey gone sour, many fashion insiders were hit with bouts of severe diarrhea. The cause, some doctors believe, was from fashion insiders eating too much of the trendy vegetable known as kale.

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