Stumbling Down the Runway
By Joseph Gordon Cleveland
When you think of Boston fashion, maybe you think Newbury Street. Or the luxury brands Bottega Veneta, Chanel, Valentino, and Hermès, all of which have recently invested big bucks to make a big mark here. Or the celebrated local independent boutiques that have thrived—Riccardi, Alan Bilzerian, and Louis—now considered among the nation’s leading independent retailers within their niches. You’re in good company. When asked about the city’s fashion scene for this story, Project Runway’s Tim Gunn said, “I think of Boston as being very sophisticated, a very elegant city.” Comparing Boston with other similarly scaled cities, he says, “Fashion-wise, this is an A-plus-plus-plus. I mean it sincerely. Boston gets it.”
I’d agree. I began my fashion career in Boston some six years ago, first as a producer for Styleboston, a lifestyle program that aired weekly on WCVB. During my nearly four years with the show, I interviewed industry heavyweights—Zac Posen, Joe Zee, Cynthia Rowley, and Christian Siriano, to name a few—and local up-and-comers. I’ve covered the industry in the Improper Bostonian, Boston magazine, and Coup Boston.
In short, I’ve made it my business to know the business. And while the volume and quality of Boston’s fashion talent continues to impress, in my role as an ersatz designer confidante, I’ve also been privy to countless criticisms of the annual October event dedicated to showcasing their work.
If you’re one of the familiar few who attends Boston Fashion Week, perhaps you enjoy its stacked calendar of soirees proffering free cocktails. Perhaps you enjoy sitting among the puffed-up faux-cialites while a questionable remix of a song popular five years ago begins its incessant throbbing. But if you’re not one of those people, allow me to let you in on a little secret: You’re not missing much.
Christopher Muther, the Globe’s longtime fashion columnist, had a lot to say about Boston Fashion Week’s failings during his many years on the beat. His offhand comments now amount to a precious catalog of wry observations, including: “With just a handful of single-designer shows on the schedule, but parties at every turn, there were times that the week felt like it was more about fizzy drinks than fashion” [September 2008]. “Scan through the 22-page schedule and events include Dr. Bill Adams offering a seminar on nonsurgical cosmetic procedures or a lingerie chain store putting models in teddys [sic] and parading them around and through the aisles” [October 2009]. “Designers’ collections were often lost in the crush of partygoers who were more interested in getting to the bar than looking at clothes” [April 2011, the first year of a two-year partnership between BFW and Boston magazine]. “Boston Fashion Week went back to feeling like a smattering of hit-or- miss parties” [December 2012]. “Without a central location, Boston Fashion Week flopped around the city and into random hotel lobbies, restaurants, and clubs” [January 2014].
It’s not all terrible, of course, but for every polished designer—every Luke Aaron or Daniela Corte, for example—there’s an equally enthusiastic army of amateurs sending a sad parade of models teetering down a makeshift runway. Here you’ll witness inexperienced nymphs wearing clothes so poorly constructed that seamstresses sometimes need to sew them into the garments five minutes before showtime. Behind the scenes, near-naked women in dime-store stilettos clumsily stomp their way into silk or chiffon, taking out a seam in the process. And flitting all about are the self-described “designers,” who can neither sketch nor sew, fussing over their stapled and Scotch-taped “visions,” fulfilling all the egomaniacal tropes they absorbed from watching Project Runway reruns.
Together, they form a confederacy of self-congratulatory dunces more interested in their own celebrity than in their craft.
The truth is that Boston Fashion Week has been so ineptly run since its start that, 20th anniversary or not, there’s little to celebrate. The Globe acknowledged this year’s milestone with a mere 55 words. And Muther? He changed his beat to travel early in the year.
All of which begs the question: Why can’t the city’s biggest fashion event get its act together? Turns out, I wasn’t the only one confounded by the sad spectacle.
If there’s one fashion-world truth out there, it’s that it’s a fiercely competitive industry. “You have to be relentless,” says Daniela Corte, a leading local designer with a Newbury Street boutique. Getting attention from the media is more than half the game, which is why designers put on these shows in the first place. Even designers in New York City, America’s undisputed fashion capital, once struggled to snatch press and buyers away from their competition in the far-more-established fashion capitals of Paris and Milan. Back in the ’20s and ’30s, the pages of New York–based Vogue were filled almost exclusively with French designs—that is, until fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert launched “Press Week” in 1943, an exclusive runway calendar event that finally brought together U.S. designers, buyers, and fashion journalists.
Press Week was such an efficient model that by the early ’90s, American designers commanded considerable international clout. But along with that distinction followed Press Week chaos: More than 100 brands were spread out across the city each season, forcing buyers and journalists to spend the week scrambling between events. After a catastrophic Michael Kors show in which the venue (a rundown loft space) literally fell to pieces, Fern Mallis, then the executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA)—the industry’s most formidable not-for-profit trade association—recognized that the week needed standardizing and streamlining. In response, she spearheaded the single-venue format that continues to this day.
After witnessing New York’s new centralized setup, Jay Calderin—a former designer who’s now the director of creative marketing at Boston’s School of Fashion Design—returned to create a Boston parallel: a weeklong, multi-event schedule that would bring together the design community in celebration of local talent. He launched the first Boston Fashion Week in 1995.
Unlike New York’s event, however, BFW was to be, by Calderin’s own description, an inclusive “civic initiative.” Events would be held at venues throughout the city, independent of one another, and would be open to the public. Calderin’s adaptation was convenient, given his limited resources. In New York, Mallis’s role as the head of the CFDA gave her the credibility to convince top designers to participate while ensuring her access to the myriad partners, sponsors, and media outlets critical to success; the most Calderin could hope for, those first years, was to wrangle a motley cast of characters into participating. He was creating something from nothing.
Fortunately, there was plenty of talent in Boston worth celebrating, including the late Alfred Fiandaca, an acclaimed couturier who, during his 50 years in business, designed for Audrey Hepburn, Julie Andrews, Joan Kennedy, Nancy Reagan, and Ann Romney. Other local designers included Denise Hajjar, David Josef, and Daniel Faucher, who have maintained ateliers in the Boston area for decades.
If all he wanted to do was cultivate buzz, Calderin’s egalitarian approach initially made sense. Calderin limited his responsibility to publishing the calendar, leaving BFW’s success to the individual event coordinators who had volunteered to participate. Some shows might be great; some might bomb. As long as people came, it didn’t really matter.
Unfortunately, this laissez-faire approach does little to bolster the commercial needs of those industry professionals willing to participate in the event. Fashion shows are astronomically expensive to put on, so if they don’t generate press coverage and orders, why bother? For years, designer Daniela Corte’s shows were considered the highlight of Boston Fashion Week— blockbuster affairs with top-notch production values that cost Corte upward of $35,000. She’d grown her brand from a closet-size shop into a two-story boutique on a prime block of Newbury Street, offering ready-to-wear retail on the first floor and a by-appointment atelier for custom designs on the second.
But Corte, frustrated with the week’s scattered schedule, lack of press attention (“We don’t even have that many people writing about it. At least write about it!” she says), and, most important, lack of buyers, now skips BFW altogether. “A show is successful if you attract buyers,” she says. “It’s all about the sales.”
Like Corte, the lack of buyers at BFW turned off Marie Galvin, the celebrated South End milliner. Though she put on shows in events past, she says, “I realized after a number of years during Boston Fashion Week that I had become an entertainer at a nightclub. I had to make a business decision to stop doing shows…. There wasn’t an official hosting venue to attract potential buyers looking to place orders. It was financially fruitless and exhausted all my energy and resources.”
Speaking to me in October after wrapping up his 20th Boston Fashion Week, Calderin said that while his group handles most of the press around Boston, he relies on “joint efforts with the many PR agencies in town that are involved in the week by way of individual events being produced by their clients.” He emphasized that the event “is not a business. It’s basically a civic initiative. The idea is to get people to step up and do, not just talk. For people to come together and say, How can we pool our resources? How can we engage other people to support the effort and ultimately present something that’s really representative of what’s happening in town?”
“What’s happening in town?” I asked. Calderin paused for a moment, then answered, “Every year it’s totally different.”
In fact, one of the things that’s happening is Luke Aaron, a designer the Globe dubbed “the closest thing to a fashion phenomenon that Boston has seen in years.” Aaron set up shop in 2011 in a richly appointed North End showroom, offering his collection of gowns, dresses, and separates—all handmade in the States. He exudes the calm, confident polish one expects from a focused professional.
Aaron’s BFW presentation this year was similarly confident and certainly polished. His eight-look collection was well edited and sharply tailored, offering a new take on his architectural silhouettes, and the venue—the Union Club—made the perfect host. “It’s all about craftsmanship, quality, execution, and fabric. And it was all there,” gushed Elisha Daniels, a personal stylist at Neiman Marcus’s Boston store.
Yet for all its polish, it’s difficult to know whether Aaron’s show gained him much in the way of economic or brand engagement. “Who was at that show that’s actually going to get him into Barneys or Neiman Marcus?” Daniels asks. “Who was at that show that actually ordered a dress?”
Yes, where are those elusive buyers? Boston’s independent retail community is fairly small, and, by all accounts, it shouldn’t be difficult to engage. Jane Schlueter, a co-owner of the Beacon Hill boutique Dress, explains away her BFW absence almost apologetically, saying she and her business partner, Martha Pickett, support the event but that “it mainly comes down to bad timing. Because BFW occurs so late relative to the other shows, it often coincides with the tail end of completing the next season’s orders, which is always a frantic time for us. Budgets for the next season have already been booked with some deadlines up to four weeks before BFW, leaving little to nothing open for additional orders.”
David Chum, the Boston designer featured on the ninth season of Project Runway, sums up BFW’s failure to focus on business thusly: “You can’t have a fashion show without the fashion. The community needs to understand this and support us. If we’re being treated as entertainment, then maybe we should start charging a cover for entry into our shows.”
At the very least, Boston’s designers deserve more consistency, a problem that’s haunted Boston Fashion Week since its launch. New York Fashion Week’s calendar is controlled by CFDA, which selects designers who are likely to take their productions seriously, keeping the quality of the week at impossibly high levels.
Yet Calderin dismisses the idea of curating the shows. In Calderin’s opinion, what makes Boston Fashion Week unique “is that we’ve kept a certain amount of integrity when it comes to [BFW] being about the local talent.” BFW has always welcomed “anybody who wanted to do pretty much anything. We wanted to make it very open.”
In this case, Calderin seems to be mistaking inclusiveness for integrity.
A free-for-all creates one big mess of a problem: Student designers and recent graduates (more and more the bulk of the week) end up regarding their work not as a marketing tool but as entertainment, the big party Muther often referenced in the Globe. As a result, established designers, cautious about brand positioning after building their companies from scratch, are increasingly wary of BFW’s amateur-hour shenanigans, so they opt out altogether.
Boston’s shows are so uneven that the city’s fashion reputation is virtually being held hostage by Calderin’s fashion-family get-together. Rachel Moniz, the general manager of the Liberty Hotel and creator of the hotel’s long-running Fashionably Late series, intimated as much when she told me that in recent years, “we haven’t done anything in terms of sponsorship, and that’s been by design.”
The ultimate irony is that BFW may not be as inclusive as Calderin contends. MassArt is the only Boston-area institution to enjoy continuing status as a CFDA-participating school, but MassArt’s students are often overshadowed at BFW by Calderin’s own students from the School of Fashion Design. Case in point: BFW’s annual inaugural event, the Launch, is intended to showcase work coming out of Boston-area fashion programs. This year, four of the five designers at the Launch attended or currently attend the school that employs Calderin. I asked him about the submission and selection process, and then about the curious absence of Erin Robertson, an absurdly talented MassArt student who beat out designers from the nation’s top 20 schools to win the CFDA/Teen Vogue Scholarship in 2013. Her work had been praised by industry titans like Eddie Borgo and Lela Rose, not to mention a crew of Teen Vogue editors.
Calderin blanked at her name.
One person paying close attention to Boston Fashion Week’s failings has been Rosanna Ortiz. After working for years in marketing and PR in Boston, she grew frustrated with the BFW scene, one she describes as a “glorified cocktail event.” In response, she founded Providence’s StyleWeek in 2009.
StyleWeek would be different. Modeled after New York’s event, StyleWeek is a single-venue series of shows vetted by a production team to ensure the event presents salable collections to attendees. All aspects of the show—from hair and makeup teams to models to seating to guest check-in—are handled by the StyleWeek team.
From the start, Ortiz understood that to execute StyleWeek and sustain it, she’d need a lot of support. She hounded then-Mayor David Cicilline until he granted her a meeting, then she stressed the economic angle: As a trade event, StyleWeek had the potential to bring tourism dollars into the city—and grow the local economy by helping Rhode Island businesses. The city of Providence supports StyleWeek through a modest grant.
Unlike Boston Fashion Week, StyleWeek holds two events per year: one in the spring and one in the fall, mirroring the industry-standard show seasons. Its shows tend to run in advance of the prominent fashion weeks—New York, London, Milan, and Paris—so designers can get their wares in front of buyers before they’ve committed their cash elsewhere.
StyleWeek has become an economic engine in its own right: “It’s a very serious fashion week now that includes respected and emerging designers,” says Cicilline, now a state representative. “The economic impact has grown tremendously, in terms of the number of people participating.” He says that StyleWeek has “put Providence on the map in terms of a place that people start to think about when they think of design and fashion.”
Steven Kolb, CEO of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, agrees that the exorbitant cost of shows demands that designers, even the big ones, get some kind of return on investment. “Press exposure is a benefit and, in the case of the fashion capitals, buyers buying is key,” he says. The regional shows, he says, are most effective when presented as “consumer events” supported by marketing designed to drive sales, particularly when in-season collections are shown.
In March 2013, Alison Tomisato, the marketing and public relations manager of the W Boston Hotel, worked with Ortiz and her team on StyleWeek Interim, a three-day Boston test run of StyleWeek’s model. For Tomisato, the difference between Boston Fashion Week and StyleWeek was clear: “StyleWeek tends to be press and industry with room for the community, as available. But that front row is very much occupied by press and industry because there are buyers there; they’re people who can really make or break these designers’ careers, and the purpose of that is to further the growth of the fashion industry in New England,” she says, concluding, “It’s a very targeted approach.”
Chum agrees: “StyleWeek is centralized and focused. The whole city knows it’s happening because it’s in their faces everywhere they go. Every time I’ve participated, I’ve been a little surprised by the amount of local media coverage I get in New England. They really drive the event for the designs and do what they can to help us get the media coverage and business we need.” Kolb has noticed, too: “[Because of] the close proximity to New York and prominent creative institutions…StyleWeek has the authenticity, enthusiasm, and creative energy to connect emerging talent with retailers and press in an effort to celebrate style and fashion in the [Northeast].”
But Ortiz is realistic. She doesn’t promise designers that buyers will be clamoring for their garments. Instead, she says, “A lot of young designers think that after that fashion show, that’s it…I don’t have to do anything; I’m going to get buyers; my phone is going to be ringing. But that’s when the work begins! Designers have to make sure they have their look book and their line sheets and get out there and call the people who attended. They have to work!”
There’s hope yet, if not for Boston Fashion Week, then for those Boston designers who plan to build or grow their businesses here. In January, Daniels will assume her role as codirector of Fashion Group International’s Boston chapter, alongside industry veteran Nash Yacoub. Together, they hope to realign the Boston chapter with a commerce-focused mission, offering professional development and education through programming that will include monthly conferences and panel discussions to help designers and industry professionals—whether in PR, beauty, photography, or design—with all different facets of the business.
Daniels is also quick to acknowledge Calderin’s work over the 20-year history of BFW: “His heart is in a great place, but it’s a certain place, and it’s not about the business of fashion. I give him credit, we all do. He picked up a baton that probably nobody else wanted.”
And then there’s StyleWeek. In April, the organization will launch a Boston expansion that’s been in the works since its three-day test run at the W Boston Hotel in March 2013, bringing with it a laserlike focus on the business of fashion.
That commitment to the business of fashion is precisely what Boston Fashion Week, despite its myriad iterations, has failed to deliver…for 20 years. For the sake of Boston’s fashion-forward denizens, it’s time for Calderin to pass this responsibility into more-capable hands.