Though the significance of fashion week has come under scrutiny recently, there's no doubt that the event is still important to one very important group of people: the designers showing. And, more specifically, the first-timers.
For many aspiring fashion designers, NYFW is a dream that they've had ever since drawing their first sketch. It's the dream place, where they're able to showcase their work to people actually hungry to receive it. So, even considering the risks of putting on your own show (i.e. spending money with no promise of return on interest, logistical nightmares, designing a full collection, etc.), what can be gained (i.e. recognition, publicity, the satisfaction of pulling it off) outweighs everything else.
Ahead, we chat with five designers about popping their NYFW cherry. Some are recent fashion school graduates, others have been around for some time now and decided to see what the big event was all about. All had the same response to the question: "Why did you feel now was a good time for your debut?" And it was the very valid counter question: "Why not?"
If Rhoda Wong had to sum up her NYFW debut in one word, it would be "surreal." Even though she started her own line a couple of years ago, this was her first time showing her creations on a platform of this caliber. Add to the fact that she was less than a year out of graduating from Parsons and you could even call it a full circle moment.
Wong started her brand midway through her freshman year and has been fine-tuning her pieces and vision ever since. "I've always been working on it through school, and so, then, I met Allison [Collins the founder of AM:PR], and I started working with her because I knew PR was a big part, and I just don't know that world." Collins was not only instrumental in handling the business aspect of things, but also in getting her a spot on the NYFW calendar. "I had a contact from working with prior clients, so I emailed them to really show off Rhoda's collection and past collections to show them that, even though this is her first NYFW collection, she didn't decide, Hey, I'm going to be a designer yesterday or something," Collins explains. "So, I showed the past collections, talked about the past press, and submitted all the information." They then gave Wong the thumbs up and put her on the calendar.
The presentation technically took place the Wednesday before the real hoopla of fashion week started, which was intentional, Collins explains. "We decided strategically to do it on Wednesday because she is still a newer designer and it's her first one, so we didn't want to have to compete with full fashion week," she says. "We felt like Wednesday was a perfect time to give some breathing room and give people time to meet with her." Wong and her team went with a presentation over a runway show because it makes for a more intimate setup. "It seemed a little bit slower paced because I could be there up until the last second and also be there when it's happening, be able to talk to people," Wong says. "I think maybe, just in my mind, a show is a bigger production.
One adjustment for Wong was the number of items she was expected to create. During school, she says, her collections were much smaller and, after learning more about sales and buyers and what they want to see, she decided to expand it "to satisfy both the creative and also the business side of fashion." She created 50 pieces total, a mixture of simple classics in neutral and prints, though not all of the items were shown during the presentation.
The biggest challenge, Wong says, was putting everything together at what felt like the last minute. "I'm the type of person who likes to do things way, way in advance," she says. "But then, for fashion week, venues are being booked pretty close to the day, and models are also booked a week or two max before." It didn't help that she had to find a new venue when hers fell through, or that certain models she wanted weren't available. What ended up being Wong's biggest source of stress, though, turned into her biggest takeaway: the value of being able to roll with the punches. "I need to be flexible, and not get too upset or disappointed," she says. "At the end of the day, we figured everything out, and it was fine." She also learned to live in the moment. "Being able to separate the work that was happening for so long before this and being able to enjoy it for a couple hours was important," she says. You only debut at NYFW once, after all.
Caroline Hu is also a recent fashion design college graduate. She graduated from Parsons in 2017 where her collection was one of the most photographed during the school's annual fashion show. So, she was a little more seasoned than Wong in that sense, but a collegiate show and a real-world presentation are still totally different. "It's definitely challenging putting on my own show, having to manage and solve all the logistical matters," she tells us. "It's like dividing myself into a whole team in order to handle the different aspects of production." She adds: "A lot of people saw my clothes at the Parsons MFA show, but it's different this time around. I've invested a lot of energy, time, and, money without knowing how the collection will be perceived."
Hu worked for a few brands after graduating, but she realized that she wanted to launch a label of her own "that reflected more of my design aesthetic and creative vision… I wanted that emotional connection with my designs." For her Autumn/Winter 2019 collection, she was inspired by romanticism and, specifically, paintings like Henri Matisse's "Woman Reading."
"This painting evokes a calm, relaxing atmosphere with a girl captured in her own world of imagination, reading in a quiet, sweet manner," she tells us. "I felt a strong sensual and sublime connection, which I referenced for the collection." She showed in a private space and created nine looks, which were styled by Karen Kaiser.
Hu's collections involve a lot of different fabrics—in some cases up to 20 different kinds, including velvet, silk, tulle, lace, etc.—that would otherwise be really expensive to produce, especially for a newbie. She says to help cut costs she used as much leftover fabric as she could, combining them to create her own "unique fabrication."
"It helps me be economical, but I am mindful of sustainability when it comes creating my pieces and preserving the global ecological balance," she says. "And along with sponsors, I am able to keep the cost down."
Although Hu is something of a fashion rookie, she felt like now was the right time to put herself out there. "I'm letting life take its course," she says. "I want to prove to my family and also myself that I can make a career doing what I am passionate about. For me, following one's passion is the right thing to do." She already has her eyes set on the future, telling us that she wants to release two collections this year and have the second one debut in London or Paris next season. "My plans for the next five years are to build a strong brand identity by the third or fourth season, establishing key point of sales and my own clientele."
Accessories designer Susan Alexandra got the idea for her debut presentation after bringing her mother to NYFW last season. "I remember her reflecting to me, she said, 'The models are so unhappy… They're just standing there. They aren't interacting, they aren't engaging,'" Alexandra says. "I was just like, 'Yeah, mom. They're always just standing there during presentations. They pretend that they're in a different place, that's just how it is.'" She wasn't planning on participating in NYFW at that point, but seeing the world of fashion through someone not immersed in the industry made her want to get involved—and to warm things up. "I don't want the models to have to be behind an imaginary wall. I want them to be interacting," she says. "There was something about it that struck a chord, I was like, Things don't have to be the way they've always been. At that moment, I knew that when I did my thing, I was going to do it by my rules." Plus, if you've ever seen Alexandra's brightly colored beaded bags, a blasé presentation wouldn't exactly be on-brand for her or her pieces. So, instead, she held a party in a Brooklyn diner complete with food and shakes and dancing. It was a fun reprieve to an otherwise cold, snow-filled day.
Alexandra is in a unique position in that, with the popularity her brand has gained on Instagram, she didn't necessarily need to put on a physical show. But, she wanted to, and that want was enough. "It's always been a dream of mine to be involved in Fashion Week, so I was like, Wow, I can do this, I can pull it off," she says. "It was like being in a car without brakes. Once I decided, I was like, Now I have to do this."
It wasn't easy though by any means. First, because she's an accessories brand and not ready-to-wear, she found out that she wasn't able to register with the CFDA to appear on the official calendar. "They said the accessories couldn't be listed, but I would still be competing for a time slot with all different categories," she tells us. "When they told me I couldn't get on the fashion calendar, I was like, Oh shit, I'm not going to be able to do this." Thankfully, though, she started working with a PR agency that handled the time slot and invitation details. Next came the venue. "I took a chance and reached out to a restaurant that was really close to my apartment," she says. "I love the women who own it, I love that it's a women-owned small business." Then, Alexandra started recruiting models the 2019 way: on Instagram. "Some of them I hadn't met in real life, and I was just a fan from afar," she says. "I reached out to them and asked them if they would want to do something for fashion week, and they all immediately said yes. They didn't even ask about payment, they just wanted to be a part of it. It meant so much to me because everyone involved cared so much about the brand and that came through in the energy in the room."
Doing things like finding a venue and models the DIY way—or "scrappy" way as she says— saved Alexandra some money, but she says the cost of everything was still a major source of anxiety. "You have to put a ton of money into it, these things cost a lot, but you have to trust that the return will be great," she says. "You're putting this good into the world, and your intention is good, and good things will happen because of it." Overall, good things have happened, and Alexandra says she has no regrets. One thing she did learn is what kind of people she wants to work with and what kind of environment she wants to create. "It's like your wedding day, you don't want unnecessary drama and things like that on such a special and emotionally charged day," she says. And like your wedding day, though there's a chance you might walk down the aisle again in the future, the first time will always be special. "Next time I show, there will be a whole new thing I'm putting into the world." And yes, there will be a next time.
Japanese designer Tomo Koizumi has one of those only-happens-in-movies stories about his journey to NYFW. As he tells it, at the beginning of the year, designer Giles Deacon posted one of his hard-to-miss pieces to his Instagram; founding LOVE editor-in-chief Katie Grand saw it and proceeded to slide into Koizumi's DMs. A couple of weeks later, he was on his way from Japan to NYC for his first ever fashion show.
It's easy to see what drew Grand to Koizumi's designs. The pieces, made from Japanese polyester organza are loofahs on steroids, over-the-top '80s prom dresses dipped in rainbow colors. Add the standout nature of the collection with the fact that Grand and her star-studded team (Marc Jacobs, hairstylist Guido Palau, makeup artist Pat McGrath, nail artist, and models Bella Hadid and Joan Smalls) basically put the whole thing together, and Koizumi was a shoo-in for the buzziest show of the season.
The time between Grand reaching out and Koizumi's debut show was all of the time he had to pull together a collection. So, three weeks to be exact. He tells us that he only created four original pieces here in the States and everything else was either from his archive or from his "main collection." He had a bunch of pieces shipped from Japan (which wasn't cheap) but, he says, he had to bring what he considers the best of the best: "It was worth it, I think so."
Other than the designs, Grand and Jacobs took care of a bulk of the logistics, which helped with stress and nerves. "I wasn't that super-nervous because they are really supportive and they are professionals," Koizumi says. "I don't have many friends here, but I met many new people, and it's really inspiring." Next, he says, he wants to work as a costume designer for international singers and actresses. "Also I want to try a capsule collection for ready-to-wear," he says. "I'll try, it I think."
This might be the first time No Sesso popped up on the NYFW calendar, but the brand's reputation far precedes this season. Pierre Davis has been creating genderless clothes in L.A. for a couple of years now and has put on a number of shows—held at museums like The Getty and The Underground Museum—but, she says, the L.A. fashion scene and the NYC one are totally different. "We like to put more into an art space and make you think a little bit more about fashion and art and sculpture and texture and what not," she says about L.A. New York, meanwhile, is a different ball game. "I feel like New York Fashion Week is more high-fashion and people are looking at the collections ready to purchase garments; it's more of a fashion scene," she says. "It's been a goal of mine to show at New York Fashion Week, I always wanted to do that."
It also helps that the CFDA reached out to the brand asking if Davis and co-founder Arin Hayes wanted to show. After they were accepted, the work began. Davis says she started designing the collection—which she describes as business glamazon: "a little bit of fantasy mixed with real-life situations"—way before she even knew they were going to show at NYFW. "We knew we wanted to show at Pier 59 studios, that's like the iconic place where lots of brands show for New York Fashion Week," she says. "So we wanted to have that Pier 59 moment." Hayes handled the casting, which included models from L.A. who they've worked with in the past, and some of their "New York babes and friends that we know," like singer Kelsey Lu. The rest were cast via Instagram profile-surfing.
Though No Sesso was already established before the debut, Davis says one of the biggest challenges was finding funding. They found some eventually, but, she adds, even if you can't find some brands willing to spend some money on you, showing during NYFW is totally doable. "You can make a show really bad with what you have," she says. "I just feel like a big misconception is people feel like it's way impossible to do and I'm just like, Do it. If you want to have a fashion show or you want to have a runway moment, then no one's going to stop you. You just have to prove yourself so that other people see it and want to put you on."
Davis' back in L.A. now, gearing up for Japan in March and hopefully fashion week again in September, but she says she's still riding the high of NYFW. "I still feel like it's a dream honestly," she says. "The experience itself was just beautiful, and I'm still living in it. It hit me but didn't hit me that I showed at New York Fashion Week. I'm just very thankful and humbled for the experience."