Just a few days before Laura Mulleavy and her sister and co-designer Kate show their collection, Rodarte, for the very first time in New York, she’s still learning how to pronounce the name of her biggest sponsor. “Hashet-tay Felee-pay?” she hazards, referring to the French publisher Hachette Filipacchi. “Something like that. They make Elle.” The delicate rose-colored invitation to their show arrived accompanied by a piece of heavy-stock paper listing all eight companies—including Moët & Chandon, Belvedere vodka, and modernorganicproducts shampoo—the Mulleavy sisters appealed to in order to get their dresses, inspired by the Sequoia National Park, in front of the press, the buyers, and rest of the nice-smelling Fashion Week crowd.
Somewhere between the nonstop cable coverage and weekly celebrity ’zine coverage, Fashion Week is becoming as mass as NASCAR—and the runways as spackled with brands as the hood of a stock car. The explosion of new designers is occurring just as the expense of staging a fashion show is higher than ever—a tent at Bryant Park rents for $26,000 to $46,000. Add models, hair, makeup, and music, and the tab is well into six figures. The spiraling costs are being offset by marketers. Even if the designers themselves have only a vague notion of their patrons (much less how to pronounce their names), the tents now house a carnival of product placement, with most of the money directed toward much-sought-after “young designers” who will attract “influencers”—and free media attention. (UPS, for example, has erected its own tent in Bryant Park and is showing a dozen young designers for free.)
“It’s the reason I chose to start my own line now,” says Richard Chai, who last season won a $25,000 prize from the wine company Ecco Domani. “I’m not really a new designer, but I’ve gone out on my own because there is so much support available out there.” There are 180 shows on the fashion calendar this year, up from 68 in 1995. These days, it’s only the grand New York one-namers who foot their own bills. Everything else gets paid for by non-fashion brands like Tampax Pearl tampons or the Maurice Villency furniture company. Sari Gueron, who will show her first runway collection this year, managed to work crystals into her eveningwear to win Swarovski’s help. “The designs with crystals wound up being my favorite,” she says.
The Ecco Domani grant might have Zac Posen as an alum, but the holy grail of young-designer awards is the Vogue CFDA Fashion Fund, now in its second year. Proenza Schouler won its $200,000 jackpot last year. “It’s not even just the money,” says designer Cat Swanson, who made it to the semifinals. “It’s a recognition kind of thing.” But recognition alone won’t pay the bills. She got the bulk of the funding for her show from Newgen, a cell-phone company. “It’s Japanese,” she says, “or Korean. I’m not sure. But they’re launching these little phones that look like compacts and are very feminine.”