History of NY Fashion Week – and the Women that Made it Possible

Brenna K. Sculley

by ELYSIAN Magazine

New York Fashion Week – four words that inspire designers across the world and fuel their creativity to create memorable designs and impactful runway experiences.

Today, NYFW features more than 300 shows and is attended by an estimated 230,000 people. This iconic event, which takes place over nine days in total, happens twice a year – once in February to feature the Fall/Winter collections, and again in September to feature the Spring/Summer collections. 

The iconic moments are enumerable, from Kate Moss to Isaac Mizrahi, Project Runway to Marc Jacobs, Helmut Lang to Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty. But without two women in particular, these might have been moments that only fashion buyers and insiders enjoyed, rather than become universal cultural touchstones for us all. 

The NYFW story started in an effort to bring attention to American designers away from the dominant French fashion scene, which was inaccessible and at a standstill during World War II. Eleanor Lambert, an iconic art and fashion publicist, developed “Press Week.” This first week showcase was held at the Plaza Hotel in 1943 and was an immediate success, with Vouge recognizing the designers featured and establishing American fashion thought leaders. 

Lambert was a true leader and had a sharp mind even beyond fashion. Born in Indiana, she made her way to New York City and innovated on behalf of the art and fashion industries. She was responsible for developing the International Best Dressed List, establishing the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), and helped with founding the Museum of Modern Art. In 1965 she was appointed to the National Council on the Arts, and in 1959 and 1967 she led presentations of American fashion in Russia, Germany, Italy, Australia, Japan, Britain, and Switzerland on behalf of the U.S. State Department.

Throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, while American designers still had credibility and high-quality shows attended by celebrities and covered by new outlets, the schedule was individualized for each designer and without an international recognition of excellence. At the time, it seemed as though London, Paris, and Milan were more dominant, coordinated, and impactful.

Seeking to change this narrative and American fashion designer showcase chaos, the CFDA made a concerted effort to have the fashion unfolding across New York City make a more powerful impression on the global stage in 1993. Led by their Executive Director, Fern Mallis, CFDA created the backdrop for designers to showcase their wares in a state-of-the-art way. With iconic large tents and high-quality production teams at the ready in Bryant Park, CFDA coined this centralized effort as 7th on Sixth. For the first time, the fashion shows on display were international news

Dedicating resources and using collective bargaining to elevate the fashion runways was – and still is – more important than just putting on a good show. As Ms. Mallis said at the time, “Fashion is the largest manufacturing industry in New York and the largest employer… I shudder to think what would happen to the New York economy without Seventh Avenue.”

Born in Brooklyn, Fern Mallis worked her way from a guest editor contest at Mademoiselle magazine into a career shaping the New York fashion scene. She was senior vice president of IMG Fashion from 2001 to 2010, has served as a guest host for leading fashion television programs like America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway, and is still making waves, currently as the president of her own international fashion and design consultancy, Fern Mallis LLC.

Back in 1993, Ms. Mallis and CFDA were able to confirm fashion heavy hitters, immediately bringing confidence in their endeavor. Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and more were featured on the big stages across Bryant Park. Vouge, MTV and other media outlets and fashion buyers all bought into the event of the season and crowned NYFW as one not to miss.

NYFW is now a well-oiled machine, producing high-quality shows, iconic moments, and daring fashion designs, season after season. With pandemic lockdowns preventing fashion shows from taking place, there was a momentary sway to virtual fashion showcases, and an unknown future for in-person fashion features. 

Without Fern Mallis and Eleanor Lambert, there would be no Project Runway. There would be no headlines and memorable moments, no thriving American fashion leadership.

These women did not just inspire an industry; they inspired the world.

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