In each fashion capital there is an entity that orchestrates fashion weeks and upholds the standards of their country's position in the fashion world: The Council of Fashion Designers of America out of New York, the British Fashion Council out of London, In Milan the Camera Nazionale della moda Italiana, and in Paris, the Fédération Française de la couture, du prêt-à-porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode–That last one is quite a mouthful–And there's another chapter of the authority in Paris, The Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, which presides over the Haute Couture classifications and organization of Haute Couture Fashion Week.
While they act more like men behind the green curtains, they are arguably the most important decision makers in fashion in the big picture sense. These organizations are responsible for the image that is projected on a national level through this multi-trillion dollar industry and maintaining their respective nations' status at the top of the fashion totem pole. This means creating programs for cultivating new businesses and catering to the long established houses to ensure they have what I consider the respect due to the the elders.
When fashion comes down to the bottom line, the goal is to ensure that the major companies on a global scale, like Louis Vuitton to France or Ralph Lauren to the USA, continue to thrive, and that new companies continue to open and find success to keep the economy dynamic and growing.
There is a lot at stake here, far beyond the spectacle of fashion week parties and runway shows. And because of the major publicity tool it has become, has fashion week outgrown its own reason for being? Or has it just taken on a new role?
These are questions for the fashion councils, answers to which we might be seeing in the next few years. Or maybe ten. (For an industry that moves fast, fashion sure can move slow).
Logistically, it is hard to imagine how fashion week ever ran, or how these cities developed the fashion identity we know today without these groups to coordinate the schedules and uphold the creative and qualitative standards of the city's official calendar. CFDA was founded in 1962, The Fédération Française in 1973 (Syndicat de la Haute Couture, however has been around since 1868), the BFC in 1983, and the CNMI in 1958. Then again, the fashion week we know today is far from the private, no cameras allowed showrooms of couture and the early days of ready-to-wear, and is almost nothing like fashion week as it existed even ten years ago. Recent phenomena in particular, such as the internet, then bloggers, then social media, made sure of that.
Evolution continues, but within the unchanging structure of fashion week there is a feeling that fashion week has become too much. Too formulaic. Too crowded. Too messy. Too scene-y. But is that feeling shared across the board by the decision makers? There is little pressure to change when the establishment is so powerful that any challengers are quickly dismissed. Maybe it's a question of changing leadership, fresh eyes, that will ignite some kind of transformation. Maybe it's a question of time, and change coming from the decision of individual designers to break the mold. Think of Oscar de la Renta, for example, reverting to a private showroom presentation rather than producing a full-on runway show.
The recent appointment of Ralph Toledano to replace Didier Grumbach at the Fédération Française creates an oportunity for change, much like the installment of Jane Reve to the Camera della Moda. While Grumbach is a champion of many modernizing efforts to the French fashion industry, and has arguably witnessed and participated in the major moments that have transformed the identity of French fashion, any person in one position for too long can lead to stasis.
While Fashion Weeks are popping up in other cities all over the world from Berlin to Beijing, they have followed the same model and thus add to the content without contributing to the modernization of the system. And so the aforementioned capitols still represent the four pillars of identity that explain modern fashion: Paris, the original fashion capitol, is the hub of the Avant Garde and the no-expense-spared creative artistry; London, the hip and edgy side with a dose of traditionalism and Savile Row heritage; Milan, the home of timeless, understated luxury and family run businesses; New York, the sportswear and street-savvy mega brands.
Across all boards, France remains the city where international designers come in to show on the official calendar, while London, Milan and New York are more nationalistic. I think, in particular, of the Belgian and Japanese designers who represent some of the most exciting moments on the Paris calendar.
It remains the most exciting of all the cities for that reason, as well. The diversity and the creative richness being unmatched & leaving it appropriately as a climax at the end of the long month of running around the globe to runway shows and showrooms.
The barrier for entry in Paris feels higher than in any of the other cities, maybe because of the showmanship required to be considered for the official calendar. In all cities around the world there are off-calendar events, many multi-brand showrooms, and boot-strapping efforts to gain visibility from the traffic brought during fashion week. But until a company is recognized by their country's fashion council, they have to fight that much harder for visibility. And that recognition has to be earned.
While the leaders of these organizations share similar job responsibilities, the structure in each city is quite different, as are the initiatives that they develop to further their country's fashion industry. Among many other things, New York is celebrated for their Fashion Fund and incubator, and also for their legislative efforts in Washington to pass the Innovative Design Protection and Piracy Prevention Act, while Paris has recently introduced the Designer's Apartment showroom and the Mode et Finance fund to influx cash into promising young designer businesses.
Although the Didier Grumbachs and Steven Kolbs, along with their teams, are the drivers behind these programs and the authority behind so many decisions regarding the fashion world, they are surprisingly under the radar for the larger fashion community. A broader look at the boards, however, and some more familiar names appear at the top of the list. In London the Chairman of the BFC is Natalie Massenet of Net-a-Porter fame with Caroline Rush as Chief Executive, and in New York Diane Von Furstenberg is the president of the Board of Directors–and is arguably the most prominent face of the organization because of her celebrity–while Steven Kolb acts as CEO.
What it comes down to is that these people behind the scenes create the space in which fashion is presented and received and born and grows and finds community. The inner workings of individual companies will ultimately determine their longevity and their relevance, but the way the greater fashion community, and public at large, understand fashion, national identity, big brands versus emerging companies, rally behind young designers and anticipate big shows as we count the days off on the official calendars is through the context of these shot callers.
Having a structure does limit the flexibility for change because there are more approvals to seek and more rules in place, but change will come, as change is inevitable. These organizations are vessels for change, and for communication. Maybe the hold up is that we don't know where to go next. And until that question is answered, we assimilate where we should innovate. We continue doing what we know.
A good place to start is for the larger fashion community to recognize the importance of these organizations and to communicate through them. As a centralized force, their influence is wide and the community reactive when that influence is applied. Sometimes it's good for the man to operate quietly behind the green curtain, but sometimes we don't see the big picture until he comes out and talks to us face to face.