A Brief History of New York Fashion Week

Photo via WWD

Bryant Park

Although there are currently four major (New York, Paris, London, and Milan) and dozens of minor Fashion Weeks, the one in New York City was the very first. In 1943, the world was at war, which made international travel almost impossible. Fashion editors in New York weren’t able to make it to Paris to see the latest couture collections.

So an enterprising publicist named Eleanor Lambert came up with a solution. She scheduled something dubbed Press Week, where local designers could show off their work to editors and buyers. The week was a hit, and, as a result, journalists started taking American designers more seriously and featuring them in more fashion editorials.

After the first Press Week, designers continued showing their collections during a pre-scheduled week in the fall. At first, the shows were held in venues all over the city, including private apartments. But when the apartment hosting Michael Kors’ fall 1991 collection had a structural accident, the organizers started thinking it might make more sense to have all the designers show at one central location.

In 1993, the first Bryant Park tents went up. 1993 was also the first year that Fashion Week was called Fashion Week. Six years later, NYFW found a major sponsor in Mercedes-Benz and officially became Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. While the new sponsorship meant security and cash flow for Fashion Week, it also resulted in the eventual move from Bryant Park to Lincoln Center.

Despite the upgrade in name and title, not everything at Fashion Week has run smoothly. In 2001, the first day of Fashion Week fell on September 11. After the devastating attacks on the United States that day, the rest of Fashion Week was immediately called off. Since then, although the schedule changes yearly, other cities have agreed to arrange the timeline so that New York never has to host Fashion Week on a major 9/11 anniversary year. (This year, NY Fashion Week will take place over September 11th, but last year, on the tenth anniversary, it did not.)

One of the greatest achievements of Fashion Week has been the way it brought American designers to the forefront. For a long time, Europe was the place that set all fashion and style trends for the rest of the world. Even American fashion magazines wrote predominantly about French and Italian design houses.

But the advent of Press Week and, later, Fashion Week, was highlighting the best of American design. Designers like Betsey Johnson, Tommy Hilfiger, and Michael Kors credit NYFW for helping them catapult their brands into the big time. It’s also where many young models get their first big breaks.  

Fashion Week even accidentally spoiled the first season of Project Runway! The show miscalculated the number and timing of their eliminations and realized that the final three designers would be showing at Fashion Week before the final three were revealed on the show. The result was that fourth place finisher Austin Scarlett was forced to create a last-minute decoy collection that failed to fool most attendees.

Next year will be the 20th anniversary of the New York Fashion Week we’ve come to love. Who knows what fashion and style innovations will happen in the years to come? Either way, we can’t wait to find out.