Fashion is big business in New York City. According to the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the industry creates more than $2 billion in tax revenue and employs more than 180,000 New Yorkers, 4.6% of the city’s workforce.
Then came COVID-19. Suddenly, the work stopped, the showrooms and the runway shows were shut down, and everyone from models to makeup artists, hair stylists to pattern cutters, were out of work. Eighteen months of solitude gave designers a chance to rethink the way they do business.
Backstage at Spring Studio, right after his Spring/Summer 2022 runway show last month, designer Bibhu Mohapatra, dressed in a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan, “Her Body=Her Choice” talked about how the pandemic and the ensuing shutdown changed the way he looked at a lot of things.
“It gave us a lot of time, well, it gave me a lot of time to reflect on where I have been, where I want to go,” he said. “And I think that change is something that needed to happen, because we can’t take anything for granted, whether it’s health issues, whether it’s women’s rights issues. That got me started on this journey where I’m going to celebrate the women in my life through my craft.”
Naeem Khan designs high-end, elegant evening wear and bridal wear, the kind of clothes, he said, people need to touch, to see up close. He described the pandemic shutdown as “traumatic.”
“There are so many people whose livelihoods depend on what we do”, he said. “Fashion is a labor-intensive business, and this is not just in America itself. You have to think of all the craftsmen in Asia and Europe, the silk mills, who weave fabric and print fabric. And just seeing what was going on in Italy and then here, it was really, really traumatic. And to see your people, who have worked so hard for many a year, to have to let them, to put them on hold, it was horrible. And also, what is the future of the business? What happens to fashion?”
Designers scrambled to keep their businesses solvent and their staffs employed. Many answered the state’s call and turned to making much-needed masks. They held virtual runway shows to showcase their designs, and many, though not all, learned to sell their looks online. But some smaller brands — those without the cash to build brand new online businesses — simply shut down forever.
Erin Hawker founded Agentry PR 11 years ago and started New York Men’s Day in 2014, a place to showcase groups of new designers during Fashion Week who couldn’t afford to show on their own. She said the pandemic hit many of them the hardest.
“There’s a lot of emerging brands who didn’t have digital teams trying to navigate and figure this out,” she said. “It’s been difficult, so we did see, unfortunately, a lot of brands go out of business.”
And then, in early 2021, a big announcement from the Council of Fashion Designers of America: the 2022 Spring/Summer shows would be held live, before fully vaccinated crowds.
Christian Cowan, whose fan base consists largely of modern-day “Club Kids” with cash (Paris Hilton walked in his very first New York Fashion Week show), said he couldn’t wait to get back to the live shows.
In the flurry of excitement backstage before his runway, complete with (slightly) smaller crowds and an attempt at social distancing, he said, “It’s so important to get back to in-person, and as long as we can do it safely, why not? It’s that New York energy that kind of fuels my brand and makes it feel authentic.”
That authenticity comes at a price: on average, it costs between $125,000 and $300,000 for that 12 minutes on the catwalk, so many designers were forced to get creative.
It was just about impossible in the before-times to buy a seat at a NYFW show. This time, some designers partnered with IMG to sell access – what they called “Fashion Week Experiences” – filled with perks for fans and fashionistas who have long been shut out of the front row. Both Christian Cowan and Bibhu Mohapatra took part.
For Cowan, it was about widening the tent.
“Unfortunately, with COVID, we can’t open our doors to everyone and have thousands of people in here,” he said. “But what we can do is have a select few who really, really want to be part of it, and want to contribute and make things happen, come and be part of the fun.”
For Mohapatra, it was about access and practicality.
“You saw that room, it’s about one-fourth the audience because we’re following all the guidelines,” he said. “So, A, it’s to give access to a broader audience who is not in fashion or PR or marketing, and B, it also helps us raise the funds to do this event, which actually employs a huge amount of people.”
Every Fashion Week Experience on offer sold out.
For Naeem Khan, who took the buyers, editors and high-end clients on a trip back in time to a 1940s-style soiree, it was important to “bring beauty back.”
“It was important to me that we come back with guns fully blazing because I feel it’s to show the world that we cannot sit back and let this take over us. We need to move on,” he said.
And that is what designers and fashion houses large and small are trying to do: move on with a business model that looks to a post-COVID-19 world.