The Death (and New Life) of New York's Fashion Week

It's the Tuesday night before New York's Fashion Week and the scene is pretty much what you expect. Robbie Myers, the editor in chief of Elle, is circulating around a room full of skinny young women who are holding glasses of champagne with one hand, while using their other hand to shoo away waiters carrying hors d'oeuvres. Modern rock music is pulsing; lights are flashing to a static beat and the white couches scattered around the room are crowded with New York socialites (The real ones, not those that you see on MTV's "The City."). All this begs some questions: Aren't we in a recession? Who still has the wherewithal to throw bashes like this?

The Answer: JC Penney.

"They're the only ones that still have money," says a junior editor at an elite fashion magazine who doesn't want to have his name published because he doesn't want to get fired. More than 20 designers have canceled this week's runway presentations and fashion blogs have sounded the alarm: "Stop checking you in-box, these invitations aren't coming," wrote Sharon Clott on New York Magazine's fashion blog. Classic labels like Bill Blass and new stars like Obedient Sons have been forced to close their lines, lacking the capital to run the business. And earlier this month, it was reported that Bryant Park--the home to Fashion Week since 1993--would no longer be hosting the shows.

At this point, you're probably saying, "Who Cares?" Perhaps you don't live in New York. Perhaps you don't care about clothes. Perhaps you realize, like I do, that there are far more important consequences stemming from the downfall of the banking industry, or the auto industry, or the real estate market. But the obvious point here is that we all get dressed each morning. And whether it's leggings, or plaid shirts or women choosing whether or not to wear blazers to work, much of that originates on the runways of New York, the most commercial of the trifecta of fashion weeks that happen biannually in New York, Paris and Milan. More than 100,000 people attend New York Fashion Week, making it one of the largest marketing events in any industry.

It's these runway shows that have made household names out of once-obscure designers. It's the one week each season that designers, buyers, fashion editors and fashionable Americans gather to help determine what styles and trends best capture the American Zeitgeist. Shows are praised or panned, samples are made, fast fashion retailers like H&M or Forever 21 take note, and suddenly there's a slew of new styles.

But suddenly that's in slow motion: to cut back costs, huge names like Calvin Klein and Marc Jacobs are dialing back their audiences, making the shows more exclusive. Vera Wang and Betsey Johnson are opting out of the Bryant Park tents, putting on smaller presentations. Models, once 90s glamazons with big hair, are learning how to work for trade or not work at all; recently, the brand Alice+Olivia cleverly cut prices by saying they'd be using paper mannequins. (Maybe it's just me, but I'm not sure women should wear clothes that haven't been displayed on the human body.) Meanwhile, PR Firms and designers are finally telling the truth. A outspoken publicist named Kelly Cutrone told her up-and-coming clients to talk openly about the state of the business to the New York Times, which produced this quote from designer Andrew Buckler: "A lot of people in this industry just want to lie like everything is fine."

Of course, clothes won't go away. But the creativity and aspiration that comes from America's most, well, expensive designers -- the sort that Michelle Obama mixes with J.Crew -- just might. "They made me come to this," groaned the junior editor as he watched JC Penney present their five new young-designer collections by Charlotte Ronson, Kimora Lee Simmons, Nicole Miller, Allen Schwartz and Michele Bohbot. "We have to start keeping our eye on the lower markets," the editor says. That's because these lines might save the industry. JC Penney will be running commercials showing off these new collections during next Sunday's Academy Awards, using the tag line: "We're stepping up our style … because quality and price matter."

And that may be the limelight of Fashion Week's disappearance: As designers realize that expensive frocks aren't selling, they're looking to participate in diffusion lines like JC Penney's new program or H&M's guest designer program, which puts designers like Chanel's Karl Lagerfeld in reach for the regular customer. Target has already introduced some of the hottest young designers (see: Thakoon, Rogan, Erin Fetherston) to the masses with their GO International fast fashion lines. They'll step up their game this week with French couturier Alexander McQueen, the first participant in their new fashion series dubbed, quite simply, "Designer Collaborations."

But before these young designers made it to the combed-over racks of your favorite stores, they proved they had talent on the runways of New York. That's where H&M and other stores find their inspiration; it's where buyers from local boutiques to department stores pick their brands, and it's the same place from which our fashionable First Lady found her style - whether that was Jason Wu, or Patrick Robinson's newly-redesigned Gap. Without a showcase for new, young, designers, Mrs. Obama might as well be cycling through the clothes she already has in her White House closet. Though, in these times, that might make her America's most fashionable role model.

PopVox will blogging the best and worst of New York Fashion Week. Stay tuned!