As New York Fashion Week approaches its 75th year (the first official shows, massed under the heading of Press Week, were held in 1943), with 151 shows spread over nine days, many designers are questioning the future of this semiannual gathering. “We are facing the end of an era,” the designer Diane von Furstenberg said in a recent interview. “But there is nothing nostalgic about that. The future will be more exciting.”
The future may well be exciting, but for many in the industry, the past is one to savor and celebrate. Here, a crowd of fashion notables reflect on their experiences: the good, the bad, the awkward and the forever memorable.
DIANE VON FURSTENBERG
I went through my first fashion week without even realizing it was fashion week. It must have been 1973, and we were at the Pierre Hotel. I still have a picture from that time of me in one of my wrap dresses, the one with the snakes. I was with Jerry Hall and my kids. They were very tiny.
My first show was in 1981, at the Metropolitan Club. We had live music playing Cole Porter, and all New York was there: Diana Vreeland and C. Z. Guest mixing with Nan Kempner, Jerry Zipkin, Consuelo and Rudi Crespi. Bianca Jagger and Steve Rubell were there. They didn’t allow Steve in at first because he didn’t have a tie, so he went to Bergdorf Goodman, bought a tie and came back.
My first show, in the fall of 1984, was at the Tower Gallery at 18th Street and Sixth Avenue, where Bed Bath & Beyond is now. The day of the show, I walked into the gallery, the artworks were up, and walls were royal blue. That blue literally gave me a nervous breakdown. I asked the gallery owner if we could take down the art, paint the gallery white and rehang the art the morning after the show. He said yes, but no one told me that the smell of the paint could basically asphyxiate the audience.
It was 1974 and I had just got the call that Anne Klein died. [Donna Karan and Louis Dell’Olio were the Anne Klein designers.] Nobody had wanted to tell me how sick she was. I was furious, but in those days people did not discuss cancer. My daughter was born the same week. I was in the hospital, and they called me, and it was, “When are you coming back to work?” I said, “Would you like to know whether I had a boy or a girl?”
My first show was for spring 1969, at the O Boutique on Park Avenue South. The boutique was started by James Valkus, the artist. It held a collection of paintings, sculpture and my clothes, all of which were made in the basement of the store. The show was presented in the street-level window. The atmosphere was electric, being that we had R&B music. People stood inside, and others watched from outside on the sidewalk. A lot of the clothes were unisex, patchwork leather and suede tops and pants, chiffon and jersey tops, shirt and T-shirts, all of which could be bought the next week in the store. My team was upstairs running things, and I was in the basement. I never saw that show.
In February 2002, when I showed my first collection, I did the setup preshow in my parents’ living room. I had done the collection with small seed money that was generally lent by friends, family and with my savings from the lemonade stand that I had started as a kid on Spring Street.
Our first fashion week show, for fall 2007, was in a Chelsea warehouse. It was hectic backstage. I remember our casting director freaking out because all the models and dressers (who also happened to be my best friends) were eating greasy pizza, and the director was like, “Where’s Alex?” I was right there eating pizza, too. I guess I didn’t know any better.
Quentin Crisp was my neighbor. We used to have breakfast together in the diner. He told me many times that he never cleaned, that the dust in his room was a part of life. When I heard that he died, it was heartbreaking. Later, when I saw an old mattress in front of his house, I realized, “Oh, my God, this has got to be the mattress from Quentin.” We took the mattress to my basement and pulled it apart. The outside probably wasn’t dusty, but it was dusty inside. There were insects everywhere. We all developed a rash. It didn’t matter. I was always trying to repurpose things. It was my answer to a world that was very disposable.
The first time that I showed at fashion week was fall 2009. We had a grand total of $3,000 for the whole production. We found a small art gallery in Chelsea, and we made a deal. We would pay the owner a tiny bit of money, and we would also give his assistant a dress. The backstage was very small, more like a storage room with a toilet. We had about 15 models and 19 looks. My mom made cookies that she brought backstage for the models. That was the catering.
What I love to claim as my first show was my Washington Square Park show in September 2014, for spring 2015. It was a very public show. I had been spending a lot of time in Washington Square Park. I’d made friends with a lot of the acts that performed in the park (they came on regular days), and I ended up using them in my show. Bongo players, cellists, gymnasts, break dancers — they were all there. The energy was awesome. It felt very New York.
We had our first New York runway show, the fall 2006 collection, at the Ukrainian Institute on 79th Street and Fifth Avenue. It was very difficult to get people to come, to go outside the locations where most of the shows were held. But because we were from California, we didn’t know that. We didn’t really know the city. And we didn’t know how to do a show. We were up late at night in our hotel room, puzzling over: “How do you style a collection? How do you organize it?” We felt like we had stepped into an abyss.
The turning point came in 1985 when I left Anne Klein. At the time I said to my bosses, “I have this vision for a little company.” Women in those years were wearing shirts and little ties to the office. I asked myself: “Where is the sexuality? Where is the comfort? Where are the clothes that go from day into night? How do you travel with your wardrobe in one bag?” And that’s how the Seven Easy Pieces came about.
A pivotal moment for me was the birth of the sleeping bag coat. It was the 1970s. I was with a hippie-dippy guy who was gorgeous, and we were always going on camping trips. At night in the woods it was cold, so one of those nights I wrapped myself in my sleeping bag and got up to run to the bathroom. As I was running, I was thinking, “I need to put sleeves in this thing.”
When I got back to my studio, I took the zipper off that bag and laid it out flat. I wanted to use every piece of it, and I did. It became the inspiration for generations of puffers and jackets.
In the aftermath of 9/11, we were making sleeping bag coats out of every piece of fabric that we had. They sold. You would see people sleeping in them in airport lounges and hotel lobbies. That coat at the time was the item that kept us in business.
The hairdresser at that first show was a friend of mine who had never done a fashion show. He had no idea there was such a thing as a hair and makeup test. He gave each model a totally different look. There was no uniformity at all. But these girls — Iman, Dianne deWitt and Mounia — were very supportive.
We only had six pairs of shoes for the models, so when the first girl would come back, we gave her shoes to the next one. If that girl was a different size, we padded her shoes with Kleenex. We spent the entire presentation on our hands and knees.
Backstage that day was crazy. I bought three pairs of black Maud Frizon flats at Barneys and three pair of Charles Jourdan high-heeled pumps at Bergdorf Goodman. That was it. We rotated those six pair of shoes throughout the show. We would have to wait until one girl got off the runway, get the shoes off her feet and put them on the next girl.
We had no lighting, no sound, no heating. Basically I was with my stylist and a friend, a photographer who came in two hours before the show and helped wire a light so it would shine wherever the models were coming out. The sound was a boombox.
Stylist turned desgner
New York in the early ’90s was the moment of supermodels and celebrity designers: Calvin, Donna and Marc. Stylists in those days were definitely in the background. We didn’t have much influence. And nobody knew who we were. That was fine: I had set out to be in the background always.
Then, by happenstance, circumstance, pop culture and my relationships in Hollywood, that changed. I moved to the front row. That was in maybe 2003 or 2004. I was still a very starry eyed, fashion-obsessed girl. Stylists were in demand. They were stars in their own right. But I never thought that my presence had any special significance. Even now I’m the kind of person who goes to a show and assumes that nobody will remember me. Recently, I told the person next to me, “Hi, I’m Rachel.” She gave me a look and said, “Yes, I know.” I felt kind of stupid.
Back then there were no video cameras, so you stood backstage and couldn’t see the audience. But I could hear the applause after each exit. I later found out that Polly Mellen, who was an editor at Vogue, was always the person who would break the silence, clapping.
Afterward people went crazy, clapping, cheering, even throwing things into the air. It felt like a football game.
At the end I came out to see everyone standing — there was no seating. It was a very sweet moment.
In those days, I walked out at the close of the show with the models. The audience roared, and the girls with me were cheering, smiling and clapping. Now it’s hard for people to actually be present at the show. They’re too busy looking through their iPhones.
It was February 1991. It was the time of the supermodels. Naomi and Linda and all my friends stepped in. Steven [Meisel] and Paul [Cavaco] were pushing me through the whole process. During the show, André [Leon Talley] was talking the whole time, commentating on the outfits and the girls. It all went so fast. I remember it like a dream. At the end, I remember making eye contact with Paul, and we both just started crying.
For my first presentation, for spring 2005, we showed in a photography studio on 18th Street in West Chelsea. The place was small, and the time slot wasn’t ideal. I worried that I wasn’t going to get anyone to turn up. But Julie Gilhart, who was the fashion director at Barneys, had been telling everyone, “Thakoon is the one to watch,” and Sally Singer wrote a blurb at Vogue. We did get a lot of attention.
In 1999, Vogue had taken two items from my first collection: a miniskirt made from a Louis Vuitton bag, and a dress made from anaconda. It was raw skin — like, 14 meters long. It was smelling pretty bad, too. Those pieces got photographed by Steven Meisel. When they were being returned from the photo shoot, they disappeared. Vogue gave me 12,000 bucks to make up for that loss. With that, and my father, who loaned me some money, and Lee [Alexander] McQueen, who also lent me some money, I could pay for my second show.
Bill Blass helped me find models, great ones: Iman, Alva Chinn, Dianne deWitt. The show was very glamorous, but the ’80s, you know, were all about elegant women not being afraid of being called elegant.
In September 2008, we presented our spring collection. We had gone off-site at a gallery called Exit Art. It was the first time Anna Wintour came to the show. All my fantasy retail accounts came in. Michelle Obama’s team reached out. That was before she was first lady. I made three pieces for her, and she wore all three. One was a white cotton-linen dress with little black dot embroidery. She wore that at Thanksgiving during a Barbara Walters interview. That was, like, wow.
I remember being invited in the early 1970s by Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta and John Weitz to show with them in Eleanor Lambert’s fashion event for out-of-town press. I was making men’s clothes, and I think I had just started making women’s. I was so young. My show was a success. Afterward, Bill turned to Oscar and said, “If you want to be noticed, never invite dogs or kids.” I was the kid.