New York's Fashion Week was mid-way into its back-to-back rounds of
shows, parties, and schmoozing when the World Trade Center attacks
occurred. On Monday, September 10, filling front rows, meeting buyers,
and reading reviews were top priorities and grounds for PR warfare. By
Tuesday afternoon, world war was the topic of discussion, and many in
the business refused to even discuss fashion, dismissing it as
Others wondered how the business would move forward without the exposure
offered by the Mercedes-sponsored Fashion Week, and in a larger sense,
how something as seemingly frivolous as fashion could maintain the
public's interest in a time of crisis.
"It devastated the fashion community on a lot of levels," says Kelly
Cucrone, a partner with People's Revolution PR, which represents design
and accessory powerhouses Paco Rabanne and Bulgari.
Fashion Week is vital to US designers as a means of reaching both media
and store buyers. It is the main venue for editors to scout for future
stories and trends, and for lesser-known designers to make impressions
that could lead to national exposure. Landing in the pages of womens'
glossies is income-producing cache that many couturiers - both known and
new - count on.
Fashion Week also brings buyers from around the country and the globe
together in one central spot. Although many collections are sold well
before the slick runway shows, simply having the buyers assembled in one
city streamlines the sales process. New York's Fashion Week is
especially vital because it's not only the largest US event, but also
the first fashion show of the season.
A fashion disaster
In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, confusion seemed to be the
uniting element. But within hours, event organizers 7th on Sixth
canceled, leaving many designers with a dual crisis: how to sell their
lines to scattered buyers, and how to promote to the media in the wake
of a national disaster.
While those concerns took a back seat to the tragedies at Ground Zero,
many designers face dire economic troubles if their spring collections
fail to connect with consumers. The American economy - especially the
retail sector - has been teetering on the brink of recession all year,
and most economists agree that the events of September 11 pushed it over
the edge. In recent days, top retailers such as Kenneth Cole and
Tiffany's have lowered their earnings estimates. On a smaller scale,
some emerging designers had invested everything in the New York shows,
even taking on debt against the gamble of success. Then there's the
trickle-down effect: No sales for designers means less work for
advertisers, PR firms, and other support services.
"Everybody in this economy is going to be hurt a little bit," says 7th
on Sixth executive director Fern Mallis. "The young designers are always
lowest on the totem pole, but given what happened, we don't know how the
business is going to go even for the big designers."
Without a central US event to draw buyers together, designers are now
being forced to visit different regional markets in an attempt to make
sales. That adds costs in terms of travel, and may force designers to
hurry and produce new sample lines (high couture is produced for New
York Fashion Week, which may not be appropriate to show in some
regions). It also makes it difficult for PR people to build hype around
Stitching up relations
That's the case for Kerry Jolna, president of Jolna Design Group. A
season kickoff party was planned in Jolna's New York showroom during
Fashion Week for his line of denim clothes and "sexy sweats" called
Bella Dahl (which sells in upscale stores such as Fred Segal in Los
Angeles), but the event was postponed after the attacks. Despite initial
plans to reschedule New York Fashion Week for late October, Jolna didn't
think it would draw enough attention to meet his sales quotas, so he's
been personally visiting buyers in secondary markets such as Atlanta,
Dallas, and Chicago.
"We think regional markets are going to play a very strong role this
season," he says. "People aren't going to want to travel to New
York.That desire to stay close to home may actually be a boost to
fashion weeks in other locales, such as the November 2-6 event in Los
Angeles. The LA show has been struggling to build a higher profile, and
some involved in this year's event say that they are finding more
attention and better sponsors as the media and businesses look for
alternatives to New York.
BWR's Henry Eshelman handled Perrier's presence at New York Fashion
Since two events were canceled, he's looking for alternatives - such as
more tie-in to LA's show.
"People are going to be scrambling to do other things within the realm
of taste," he says. "I'm more likely to say yes to events in other
cities now that I don't have the other things to do."
Worries about what's appealing
Even when designers manage to connect to buyers, they are facing another
problem: Many spring 2002 collections had a fun, upbeat feel. That
aesthetic has changed for shoppers, leaving many collections out of sync
with the national mood. Jittery buyers - and editors - are tending not
only toward big names with proven appeal such as Gucci, but are also
buying lines with patriotic motifs. Jolna says buyers have been
especially interested in his sweats that come in flag colors and have a
star on the seat. Profits from that line will go to relief efforts.
Another winner is Tommy Hilfiger, whose company image is based on
"If you think American, Tommy Hilfiger pops into your head," points out
Rogers & Cowan's Stephanie Rudnick, who represents the designer. While
she is quick to stress that Hilfiger does not want to capitalize on the
tragedy in any way, she says that people have definitely expressed an
interest in any clothing that has an "American" feel.
Mallis adds that while the number of editors calling her organization
hasn't changed since the attacks, the questions have. Fashion
publications are slanting their coverage toward stories about those
patriotic collections, relief efforts, and designers' alternative
The shows go on
A month after the tragedies, fashion is slowly getting back on its feet,
with European shows in Milan, Paris, and London, and alternative plans
for promoting lines in the US. Even though Seventh on 6th considered
rescheduling New York events for late October, it found that major
designers such as Calvin Klein, Oscar de la Renta (whose models wore
American flag armbands), and Donna Karan were staging small events for
buyers and editors in their private showrooms only a week after
European shows in late September and early October went on as scheduled,
but most cancelled their parties and saw significantly reduced
Fashion Wire Daily reported that the number of buyers at the Milan show
was down 15% from last year. That number sank to 20% for US buyers, with
many of those who did attend arriving late in the week.
Attendance was also down for the media. The state of the economy had
already convinced many magazines and retailers to scale back their
travel plans, say industry insiders, and the terrorist attacks pushed
some to cancel altogether. Designers cancelled as well - such as Rebecca
Moses' Milan show, and London shows by Burberry and Paul Smith. Helmut
Lang dropped his Paris event, and showed in New York as a sign of US
For those who did attend, the atmosphere had a somber and low-key
Giorgio Armani and Prada, along with numerous others, changed their
catwalk presentations to reflect the new mood. Prada also canceled a
celebratory store opening in Monte Carlo, and declined to distribute its
much sought-after gift bags.
Despite the partial success of European shows, the decision not to
reschedule New York Fashion Week has been an especially devastating blow
to younger designers, many of whom don't have their own showrooms to
host events or resources to travel abroad. However, a group of 11
up-and-comers got a boost when Vogue and style.com hosted a show of
emerging designers at Carolina Herrera's midtown showroom on September
21 to address that problem, and give a boost to fashion coverage. The
designers even got their collections onto the style.com website, which
is notoriously difficult for lesser names to get on.
Another major blow to the US fashion industry is the loss of the
rescheduled 53rd annual Emmy Awards, say industry insiders. Like New
York Fashion Week, the Emmys are a kickoff event. The show not only
marks the start of a season of awards shows, but also offers designers a
prime chance to get coverage off the back of a celebrity
"That's going to hurt designers, because for months afterwards the
magazines usually publish pictures of stars in those clothes," says
The coming months pose a challenge to designers and PR people to come up
with creative ways to grab headlines while remaining sensitive to
current events. But most industry experts agree that the fashion
industry will rebound, and light-hearted sensibilities will slowly
trickle back into the mainstream. But the coming race to promote
collections may be more suited to tennis shoes than couture heels.
"Those that get out there and chase their business will get their
business," thinks Jolna. "They're just going to have to work harder."