For reasons that need no explaining, the Council of Fashion Designers of America was forced to postpone this summer’s season of New York Fashion Week: Men’s. And almost immediately after their announcement in March, NYFWM simply fell off the map. No one seems to have noticed that there’s yet to have been an update, nor that technically, NYFWM is already back up and running as of this week, hiding in plain sight. While a few menswear designers made it onto the official spring 2021 calendar, the only mention of the word “men’s” is New York Men’s Day, which is neither a week (or the industry’s loose interpretation of one) nor a day. It’s a two-hour showcase of 10 designers, and it didn’t even get first billing.
It’s not unusual for Men’s Day, which is run independently by Agentry PR, to come through, and Men’s Week to not. But that wasn’t always the case. The first year or two of NYFWM was something of a hit, with dozens of designers and headliners like Hugo Boss, Public School, and, most notably, Raf Simons. So what happened? Why have the men’s shows faded into relative obscurity? And what will become of them? Here, we’ve spoken to those running the two men’s weeks and sideline experts for an explainer.
What is New York Fashion Week: Men’s?
Eight years into his tenure at the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Steven Kolb assembled what Complex then christened the “menswear equivalent of the Justice League,” a team of buyers from Bloomingdales, Bergdorf Goodman, and Saks, and editors from T, Esquire, and GQ. Together, they worked to address a question Kolb had been asked repeatedly: Why isn’t there a men’s fashion week?
The end result, New York Fashion Week: Men’s, debuted at NYFW’s then official venue, Skylight Clarkson Square, in January of 2015. The quirkily stylized newcomer was timed to align with the international men’s schedule, and catch buyers before they used up their budgets on the main shows. So as not to get lost in the mix of ever-chaotic September, its other season is a standalone in July. Neither has ever actually lasted a week; they’ve alternated between three or four days.
In its glory days, NYFWM was quite the scene—a haven for all manner of street style stars to flex, whether in Paccbet tees and Yeezys or bespoke suits and pocket squares. Other cornerstones of its taxonomy included designers, giddy with rare camaraderie, and so-called “ambassadors”—“members of the creative arts, sports, and music industries” tasked with instilling “a spirit of diversity and collaboration.” Among those brave enough to fill that role over the years are Victor Cruz, Shaun White, Billy Porter, Nate Berkus, Young Paris, and Eric Rutherford. (The latter, a model and NYFWM fixture, has unofficially filled the role ever since.) But even in its heyday, NYFWM was never really acclaimed: “It’s not good yet, but it’s getting there,” the designer Robert Geller told W in 2016.
The energy has always been different than the women’s shows, which Kolb admitted can be “hyper, fast, and overwhelming.” NYFWM, on the other hand, has always been “chill.” The designer David Hart, a New York men’s scene heavyweight, put it more bluntly: “It gets very bro-y,” he said. “We all know each other. It’s a very tight-knit group of people.”
But in recent years, their numbers have dwindled. In February of 2019, the New York Times critic Guy Trebay began that season’s review almost like a moratorium: “Barely three years after New York Fashion Week: Men’s made its debut as a stand-alone celebration of all things sartorial and male, the bold experiment has fizzled.” It made it through the year, but the next February was equally bleak. Fewer than two dozen designers made it onto the calendar, and one of its three days featured just four shows. At that point, Trebay pronounced it “an event that now barely merits its grandiose name.”
What went wrong?
Unfortunately, the plan to align with the international men’s schedule backfired. Most buyers couldn’t be bothered to make the trek to New York ahead of the fashion week slog to come. Things were still going relatively strong in 2017, when NYFWM played host to Raf Simons’s New York debut, but the need for change was evident. That December, the CFDA announced that the next season would merge menswear and womenswear, with menswear introducing the first three of its 10 days. That practice has continued, but the July shows remain a standalone, so as not to get lost in September’s mix.
But designers, critics, and even Kolb openly acknowledge the real issue: funding—or lack thereof. “The money is in women’s,” he said simply. “Women’s attracts a bigger audience and has more of an economic engine, and that’s what sponsors are interested in circling.” And Amazon’s initial multi-season sponsorship only lasted for so long. (When I asked Kolb if it was the one matriarchal sliver of society, he laughed and said “for sure.”)
At the end of the day, Kolb said, it just wasn’t a sustainable business model. So at the start of 2019, the CFDA decided to take a different tack: no more central venue, no more “activations,” and no more production or funding in general. Their focus since has been simple: “just the stamp of a time period,” Kolb said, on an official calendar that gives designers a platform.
Is a binary-based fashion week system even relevant anymore?
By now, it’s common knowledge that gender exists on a spectrum. And regardless of their feelings on binary in general, many industry players now consider gender not as weighty of a factor in the fashion sphere. The most talked-about designer today, Telfar Clemens, has been doing things genderless since 2005. Mainstream brands like Coach are now converts, as is the entirety of London Fashion Week. Gucci launched a genderless section, Gucci Mx, this July. Menswear designers deserve more attention, but perhaps playing into a bygone concept isn’t the way to get it.
And then there’s the matter of fashion weeks’ relevance in general. After becoming one of NYFWM’s early breakout stars, Willy Chavarria joined a growing wave of designers taking a seasonless approach. Dropping things organically, independent of “this crazy fashion thing,” has yet to affect his bottom line. In fact, his shows have gotten even better turnouts; they’ve come to feel like special events. And since each has a message, they also feel more topical. His next, for example, is timed to the election.
Even Donatella Versace has had it with tradition. “We had fashion week in September; men’s fashion week in June, and it never changed for years and years. When something never changes, it’s not relevant anymore, and the most important thing is to keep fashion relevant,” she told Elle on Tuesday, a week and a half ahead of Versace’s spring 2021 physical runway show. “Another thing I want to concentrate on is a seasonless collection. Something very light when it’s snowing outside; it’s ridiculous. This kind of delivery—the wrong season in the wrong season—needs to stop.” Gucci’s Alessandro Michele and Saint Laurent’s Anthony Vacarello feel similarly: Both announced that they’re abandoning the official industry schedule earlier this year.
What men’s “shows” are on this season’s official calendar?
Apart from the Men’s Day lineup, which included the womenswear label Aknvas’s menswear debut, the official calendar initially had only a few menswear listings. (Private Policy, a menswear brand for women and men, was among them, and also comes courtesy of Agentry.) The final edition also features seven or so other brands, including N. Hoolywood, Kenneth Nicholson, and Frère. The grand finale, of course, is Tom Ford, who’s showing men’s and women’s. All are streamed on the CFDA’s new platform, Runway 360, and vary from short films to slideshows to artist-commissioned illustrations.
Why has New York Men’s Day succeeded where New York Fashion Week: Men’s hasn’t?
Before she launched Men’s Day in 2014, Agentry PR founder Erin Hawker’s background was in womenswear. But eventually, she started working with enough emerging menswear designers to know they needed a platform, which she provided a year before the CFDA. The first edition, sponsored by Cadillac, featured just six designers, but the demand was immediate; twice a year, her team combs through submissions, searching for the 10 or 12 they can afford to handle that season. After all, they don’t make any money off Men’s Day. And they only get a four-month break before searching for sponsors and designers, not to mention figuring out logistics, all over again.
“Put it this way—it’s a very selfless thing that we’re doing,” Hawker said with a laugh. Most of the time, Agentry doesn’t even represent the designers; this year, they have just one client, David Hart, out of 10. The pared-down, highly curated approach is much less daunting. And that’s just one reason why Men’s Day has earned a cult following. It’s responsible for much of the praise NYFWM has always gotten about diversity, and takes a more lax approach to the binary. (Two of this year’s labels, Apotts and Carter Young, are genderless.) And the atmosphere is actually inviting; people genuinely seem glad to be there.
But the main reason for the independent agency’s success over the CFDA is that Men’s Day has a much smaller footprint. It’s always steered clear of the type of highly produced shows that NYFWM couldn’t sustain. And that’s worked out in their favor: Their model—laidback, live presentations, featuring six or so designers at once—is what many brands are just now moving toward, out of sustainability (and financial) concerns. And in turn, all that has worked out for the CFDA. Men’s Day and NYFWM have aligned their schedules since the latter began—the July postponement was a joint decision—and are in “constant contact” nowadays. The CFDA has taken a step back, and Agentry, it seems, has been filling in the cracks. “It’s a very solid collaboration between the two,” Timo Weiland, who showed during this season’s Men’s Day, said. “I’m impressed how on it they’ve been in making this virtual pivot.”
Why doesn’t the rest of the main fashion week circuit—London, Milan, and Paris—have these issues?
Unlike New York City, London, Milan, and Paris get government funding for their fashion weeks. “I would say if there’s anybody who’s kind of culpable in a way, it’s that the city doesn’t take this more seriously,” Trebay said, noting that they, like New York, have been struggling nonetheless. “Considering the importance of fashion as an industry in this town, I am startled. It’s a huge business here. It’s an immense revenue driver.” And the city of New York knows it. “Google ‘NYC EDC fashion week stats,’ or ‘Carolyn Maloney Congresswoman fashion week report,’” Kolb said. “They know that Fashion Week has brought in more money than the Super Bowl.” (In 2015, a study found that the annual economic impact of the February and September seasons is $880 million—$380,000 million more than the previous year’s Super Bowl.)
Designers could always try decamping to Europe themselves. But as Robert Geller pointed out in NYFWM’s relatively early days, that’s not the point. “It’s where I live, it’s where I create, it’s my base, it’s where I started my career at Marc Jacobs, I can’t even really think about going anywhere else,” he said. “People have tried it, and unless you’re really big and you have the money to go to Paris and have a real fucking show, they won’t take you seriously, and I don’t want to be like that. I don’t want to be that guy that goes one, two seasons, gets a shitty slot on the thing nobody cares about, and then comes crawling back to New York. I want to make New York big. I want to be part of that.”
So, what’s the future of NYFWM?
The pandemic, of course, has rendered all futures uncertain. But Kolb said that NYFWM will likely go back to its usual dates next year, and continue to share the tool of Runway 360. Because so many brands have combined men’s and womenswear, menswear will have something of a presence in the main fashion week circuit, too. And if NYFWM doesn’t return to a traditional form, it doesn’t necessarily mean the end. The menswear scene lived on in New York after its late 1980s and early ‘90s fashion week iteration came and went.
Of course, fashion weeks can only exist if there are designers to show. And according to David Hart, he and many of his peers are hanging on by a thread. “There’s so much talent in New York City,” he said. “It really makes me sad that people aren’t rallying behind the designers here at home.” Menswear designers in particular can struggle to compete with the European heritage and luxury brands, especially since they started moving toward what Hart reluctantly refers to as streetwear. Customers and retailers are another matter, but does Hart at least feel like he has the CFDA’s support? “To be honest,” he said, “I don’t know.”
The buzz around A Common Thread, the CFDA’s $5 million pandemic relief fund, has all but faded. But the bulk of what they do for designers, Kolb said, is the least talked about: helping out with connections, mentorships, and advice. “It’s really the relationships and the advice and the help and decision-making that are going to drive the longevity or the future of a brand,” he said. “Money goes fast.”
But on one point, Kolb was particularly adamant: “We have not abandoned the American men’s designers or their market week, which is probably a better way to say it than fashion week,” he said. “I mean, all fashion weeks are market weeks, right?”