Has Fashion Week Overshot the Runway?

Photo: Marcus Bleasdale

There’s no cash-for-clunkers initiative to save the fashion industry, which has been going through a Detroit-style panic. The sales-slump crisis in the $373 billion national clothing business is dire. For one thing, people will want and need better cars, but no one has ever gotten better mileage out of a new purse. As this fall’s Fashion Week hits its leggy stride, the question arises if the runway show—that hybrid of convention, opening-night party, and paparazzi scrum—is really just the SUV in the room.

Start with the simple fact that they’re showing clothes you can’t even think about wearing for a good six or seven months. Meanwhile, the clothes in stores now were shown half a year back, to now-forgotten hype. These days, we shop for a new winter coat in November, a swimsuit in July. But by then the clothes have been languishing in stores for so long that, like day-old bread, it’s time to put ’em on sale.

Some industry stalwarts, notably Donna Karan, have long bemoaned this bizarre calendar—which dates from a time when it took much longer to produce and distribute not only clothes but ideas. These days, everything moves so quickly that what was fashion-forward ends up fashion-backward. Designers spend at least $100,000 on a runway show that broadcasts to the world in an instant, thanks to the Internet, what you hope they’ll buy in half a year. The copycats set to work, and whatever original was there is sorely diluted.

The problem isn’t with the designers, who have had plenty of success in imagining what people will want—or, at least, creating desire for their wares. Still, just how big the gap has grown between fantasy and reality became crystal-clear not just once but twice in the last year. First, at New York’s spring 2009 shows last September, just as Lehman Brothers imploded, the moods and the looks were cheerful and opulent. Of course, if Hank Paulson didn’t see it coming, you can’t expect Marc Jacobs to have done better. But then when all those pretty, upbeat frocks arrived in stores in February, no one was feeling chipper about anything. In this dark hour, the shows were overcautious, providing too many basics and too little excitement for this fall. As Vogue’s Sally Singer puts it, “No one needs another pair of black pants. If you ask me, there should have been more marabou, not less.”

So what’s to be done to get people shopping? One of fashion’s elder stateswomen—Norma Kamali—is probably most ahead of the curve. On September 17, she’s launching her very own iPhone app that will sell her signature line as well as mass-market offerings for Wal-Mart and eBay and automatically update when new looks come out. And where is her show? The Apple Store.

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Has Fashion Week Overshot the Runway?