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Fashionable History: Fashion Week

October 26, 2009



As the photos of this season’s shows have been rolling in, I’ve channeled Carrie Bradshaw and “couldn’t help but wonder” when this tradition began.

Well, while the Fashion Week we would recognize today didn’t start until the early nineties, fashion shows have been documented in America since the early 1900s. What many people believe to be the first fashion show was held at a New York speciality store called Ehrich Brothers in 1903. The spectacle was meant to attract lower middle-class women into their stores. By 1910, many department stores were holding seasonal fashion shows of their own. These early shows were far more theatrical than what we’re used to today. Usually, they were centered around a theme and were accompanied by narrative commentary. The tradition soared in popularity, and was officially mainstream during the twenties, drawing in thousands of spectators. In fact, the shows were so popular, that New York City started requiring stores to become licensed to use live models and police threatened to shut them down altogether due to disruption of the peace.

The tradition was threatened during World War Two when German occupation of France disabled the American fashion insiders from travelling to Paris for their inspiration and guidance. The world was skeptical that the United States would continue to have a fashion industry at all without being able to copycat their Parisian counterparts. However, one person had faith. A well-respected fashion publicist, Eleanor Lambert, wanted to thrust American designers into the spotlight who, up until this point, were largely ignored. In 1943 she organized an event called Press Week that invited a number of designers to show their collections to the press all in one place. It was a huge success and continued to be held biannually well into the fifties. The shows alternated between being held at the Plaza and Pierre hotels where, unlike the chaos we know and love today, the shows came to the audience, not the other way around. (Buyers, however, were not invited to the shows and were instead invited to the designers’ showrooms for a sneak peek.) Thankfully, Lambert’s plan was working. High end publications like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar started featuring and applauding American designers by name, and the American fashion industry began to garner international respect.

While the concept of Press Week was fizzling in America, other fashion centers began to follow suit. London organized its own version in 1961, Paris’ began in 1973 and Milan was the last to catch on with their fashion week coming onto the scene in 1979. Meanwhile, back in the States, designers decided to take their newfound popularity back into smaller, independent shows in separate venues. Although there were still two main seasons, the shows were scattered around hip Manhattan clubs, lofts and restaurants. This continued on for a few decades. (It was 1988 when a newly crowned editor-in-chief of Vogue, Anna Wintour, attended her first series of fashion week shows.)

It wasn’t until Fern Mallis, head of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, feared for her safety at a Michael Kors show in a sketchy downtown loft that she decided to rethink things. At this fateful show, the bass caused plaster to fall from the ceilings onto the heads and laps of strutters and watchers. The very determined models kept on keeping on, but the spectators quietly filed out of the room. After a few other similarly destructive events, Mallis thought it best to bring the shows back into one, sturdy venue. After an experimental run in what is now the Millenium Hotel, Mallis got into talks with Bryant Park, who agreed to open up their property to hold the shows. A year later, the Spring 1994 shows were organized into one weeklong event under the watchful eyes of the international fashion community and Fashion Week as we know it was born.

I’ll leave you with a sappy fun fact: Eleanor Lambert, the founder of Press Week, attended her last Fashion Week shortly after turning 100 in 2003. She died a month later.

Originally written September 16, 2009

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