America’s heartland probably isn’t the first place you think of when you consider high fashion.
For many working in the fashion industry, getting to New York is the pinnacle of success, but the Big Apple can be prohibitive. It’s notoriously expensive — everything from design studios and retail spaces to the fabrics themselves cost a pretty penny. Add to that the cut-throat competition and accelerated pace, and it makes sense that the nation’s fashion capital has a reputation for hanging emerging designers out to dry.
For better or for worse, fashion shows are a necessary marketing evil for new and established designers alike. Though the structure and the fashion calendar itself continue to transform, spotlighting new looks on the catwalk is a requirement to attract buyers and press, and thus make money.
While Los Angeles has emerged as a secondary locale to New York in recent years — with designers like Tommy Hilfiger and Rebecca Minkoff, who traditionally show on the east coast, taking their talents out west — regional fashion shows have percolated across the nation. Though smaller in stature, and by and large featuring little-known names, these shows are becoming the accelerators to New York, as well as London, Milan and Paris. At the same time, they help drive business to their local communities by providing work for local vendors and models.
“By taking cues from the ‘Big Four,’ the local industry organizers are able to create a platform for emerging designers,” said Rachel Young, show director and producer at LDJ Productions, a fashion production agency that works with several designers on their shows in New York. “The smaller regional shows are important to create opportunity for emerging designers, and bring focus to art and design as a whole within communities that would not necessarily have this available to them.”
The great fashion migration
Berny Martin, founder of Midwest Fashion Week and a Brooklyn native, was wrapping up his senior year at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana in 2001 when he decided Indianapolis needed a fashion week.
It was the worst fashion show of all time, Martin said. No one showed up. He realized he had a lot to learn about the culture of the Midwest, which, unlike his Brooklyn hometown, is a bit more hermetic and less keen to explore the trends and events in neighborhoods outside their own. So he graduated and went on to a corporate gig, but couldn’t shake his fashion ambitions. One day, he quit his job and decided to start his own clothing line, which involved an independent runway show.
Unlike his first go-around, this one went remarkably well. Martin realized he could actually make a career out of fashion and went to New York to take a course at the Fashion Industry of Technology. By the time he graduated in 2006, the design and manufacturing community in New York had changed dramatically. The once thriving Garment Center located in Lower Manhattan was dwindling, as production was increasingly outsourced overseas. This was in part due to high-profile worker exploitation cases and the busting of illegal sweatshops. It was the dawn of the fast-fashion age, Martin said, and it wasn’t boding well for aspiring designers like himself.
“A lot of my friends in the industry advised me not to stay in New York,” he said. “They said, ‘Go ahead and start your own stuff.’ It was the truth. Between those years, there was a lot more marketing of fashion in New York City, versus garment making. There was a lack of jobs and a lack of opportunities.”
He took their advice in stride and went west. By 2007, Midwest Fashion Week was born.
A place for emerging designers
The rise of the regional show happened a bit faster for places like Boston, as a result of their proximity to New York.
In 1995, Jay Calderin started Boston Fashion Week, following several years of working in fashion in New York. Calderin was intent on making this a different type of event from New York’s, which traditionally focuses on buyers and press. Instead, he wanted to make it an egalitarian, democratic process for new designers to sign up and showcase at will.
“We knew we weren’t going to get buyers to travel to smaller cities,” Calderin said “Since most of the designers were smaller scale, as well, this was a way for them to build their customer base, and it was for the public. It was very grassroots and meant to be this civic initiative.”
Like most of the smaller regional shows, BFW operates as a non-profit, though designers can opt to sell tickets to shows in an effort to make a profit. The draw for most of the featured artists, however, is the platform for visibility.
Lubna Najjar, founder of Lubna Designs in Columbus, Ohio, credited her ability to leave her corporate job and pursue fashion full-time to her 2015 show at Fashion Week Columbus. Within a year of the show, she had enough business to dedicate her focus exclusively to her brand and has since held two shows in New York.
She said that, though Ohioans are not traditionally risk-takers when it comes to fashion, they want to be on top of trends. On choosing to stay in Ohio rather than New York, she said the competitive nature of the industry on the East Coast is a deterrent from heading to Manhattan.
“[New York] seems like such an unattainable industry to be a part of,” Najjar said. “I’ve had [fashion weeks of] smaller cities invite me to do their shows, but they’re not really big enough. Now I feel like I have my wings, so I can be picky. But before, I would have said yes. It’s a great opportunity.”
Masha Titievsky, founder of the Chicago-based contemporary women’s wear company Varyform, echoed Majjar and said New York’s exclusive atmosphere and high prices makes it difficult for her to consider leaving Illinois. She showed her collection in her first MWF show last year.
“I like being in Chicago first and foremost,” she said. “There’s a lifestyle. It’s the Midwest. It’s everything you associate with that. People seem to be more friendly, and it’s more relaxed. Still, in a big city like Chicago, the clientele still has the willingness to buy designer garments, and there’s less competition.”
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Slower pace, slower fashion
The economic recession of 2008, which led to the decline of major fashion brands like DKNY, also served as a catalyst for members of the fashion industry to leave New York. By that point, Martin was in the throes of leading Midwest Fashion Week, where his goal was inclusivity, a challenge given the vastness of the region.
MWF hosts shows in four cities: Chicago, Indianapolis, New York and Paris — the latter two are the result of connections Martin forged while working in the industry. “I really wanted to showcase the looks to New Yorkers,” he said. “Don’t think that the Midwest is just about corn, my friend, there’s a lot going on.”
Just because regional shows are in smaller markets, that doesn’t mean they’re any less glitzy or laborious to plan than New York Fashion Week, said Young. LDJ also runs Miami Fashion Week, which is centered on swimwear. In comparison to New York Fashion Week, it tends to include more looks per show, plus it features panel discussions, buyer trade shows and industry competitions.
The key for smaller shows, she said, is big name sponsorships. This has helped drive the success of the top regional shows, which after Los Angeles, include Charleston Fashion Week, Kansas City Fashion Week and Atlanta Fashion Week.
“As more sponsors come on board, they will have a better opportunity for growth,” Young said. “For example, Charleston Fashion Week has a local division of Lexus as their main sponsor. Having those types of powerhouse sponsors behind you opens up exposure. Also, when they invite major brands to show, or use featured designers as a tool to promote your platform, it assists in solidifying the local markets.”
Cities like Columbus, Ohio — which already has a rife fashion center as the home to L Brands, the holding company of Victoria’s Secret and formerly The Limited, as well as the headquarters of Abercrombie & Fitch — work to leverage local connections for their own fashion weeks. Thomas McClure, founder of Fashion Week Columbus, said that each season, he aims to secure one or two well-known successful fashion designers.
As a result, FWC has experienced consistent growth. In its first year as a three-day event, it drew 300 people, but it has since expanded to a full week, with more than 1,000 people attending the finale. However, McClure knows Columbus is not synonymous with fashion. His hope is that by expanding his event, he can change its perception.
“It’s no secret that Columbus has an image and identity problem,” he said. “We don’t know how to identify our city. What is Columbus known for? When you say Columbus, what do people think about? Even today, people [here] don’t think about fashion, unless they’re in fashion.”