New York Fashion Week Past and Present

Feb 1, 2016

Eleanor of Aquitaine

New York Fashion Week 2016 for the Fall fashion preview takes place in New York City from February 11th through the 18th and is one of the major fashion events in the world. From New York it will move on to London, Milan and Paris. During Fashion Week international fashion collections are presented — often in elaborate runway productions — for buyers, the press and the public. The events comprise a huge extravaganza splashed all over every media outlet, print and online.

Fashion Week is very much on my mind right now because my new book, Lily of the Valley — An American Jewish Journey, has a fashion motif running through it. It’s about five generations of American Jewish women and the American Dream they share. The very first Lily toils away in a sweatshop and imagines designing beautiful gowns. That dream is passed on through the generations, but at the turn of the 20th Century no one could have imagined what the modern-day Fashion Week would be like.

Few of us, myself included, know how it all began. So I looked it up (no, not online – they actually have books about this). Many of us know that Paris had long been regarded as the fashion capital of the world. But how, I wondered, did that get started? The French, it seems, were the first to make an industry out of fashion. Many historians of such things say that it all began in the 17th Century with the extravagant fashions of Louis XIV’s court. We do know that the fashion press started in his reign, establishing the notion of fashion “seasons.” Certainly for centuries the highest quality fabrics and materials were found in France, and the first couturier houses were established in the 19th Century in Paris.

But the truth is, fashion as a phenomenon goes way back before that. A case could be made that the first fashion shows date to the Middle Ages, although you didn’t travel to the shows, the shows came to you! It happens that noblewomen long ago wanted very much to be fashionable, and that meant following what the royal court was wearing. But if you lived in a castle or manor house in the countryside, how were you to know? You couldn’t exactly check out Instagram, or even the latest edition of Vogue. Travel was risky, uncomfortable and extremely time-consuming. And so the queen and her ladies, well-attuned to their role as fashion arbiters, would have duplicates made of their magnificent gowns. The duplicates would then be put on mannequins mounted on wagons and the wagons would tour the countryside, so noblewomen could see them and have their own dressmakers copy them. I suppose this was the origin of the knock-off, except that it had royal sanction!

Perhaps France being considered the fashion capital of the world can be traced to one of the first fashion icons of record, the beautiful and indomitable Eleanor of Aquitaine. Having grown up an heiress in the ruling family of Aquitaine, she was used to splendor and culture. But when she married the future King Louis VII of France in 1137, she found Paris to be rather bleak and uninspiring. So she set about transforming it into a city of culture and beauty, and introduced fashion into the court. Her idea of fashion included sumptuous fabrics, elaborate designs and extravagant jewels. Nothing has ever been the same since. And when she had her marriage annulled and married the future King Henry II of England, she brought French fashion to the English court. Of course she did.

Interestingly, the beginning of the end of French domination of the fashion world actually originated with another Eleanor. During World War II Eleanor Lambert was press director of the American fashion industry’s first promotional organization, the New York Press Institute. Once the Nazis occupied France, American fashion journalists could not travel to Paris to see French fashion shows (surely the least of the problems at the time, but that’s another story.) So in 1943 Lambert created the world’s first organized fashion week, which she called “Press Week.” The intention was to showcase American designers with their clothing constructed from American materials to editors who were used to looking to Paris as the epitome of all things couture. The concept worked and Press Week eventually became New York Fashion Week, with not just editors but buyers, stylists, celebrities, paparazzi and bloggers coming to see the runway shows. Once held in lofts, galleries, hotels and other available venues throughout the city, then for a time in tents in Bryant Park, today the extravaganza takes place at Lincoln Center.

My daughter Abi is a stylist who attends Fashion Week as the guest of several designers. She describes the experience as a great deal of fun and very exciting, but says that besides all the glitz and hoopla, besides the invitation-only runway shows, there is something else going on. The Lincoln Center Atrium becomes a gathering place for all sorts of creative people. There are fashion students, photographers, bloggers and spectators. There are people wearing wonderful, creative and varied interpretations of what’s in style and what’s coming. Fashion is alive and vibrant, and the evidence is outside the official venues as well as inside.

The very first Lily of my story would have been dazzled and overwhelmed by Fashion Week. But her great great granddaughter, also Lily, would feel right at home.