In 2017, four prominent young American fashion brands decided that they would show their new collections on the runways of Paris.
These were largely business decisions and would mean little to the average customer. But cumulatively, within the fashion industry, they constituted an exodus: confirmation of a broader nagging feeling that New York Fashion Week, which typically had attracted 150,000 attendees every February and September, was losing its cachet.
For the next three years, that narrative persisted: New York Fashion Week was either dying or already dead. (Even after two of those departing brands, Proenza Schouler and Rodarte, came back to New York in 2018.)
Now, one long quarantine later, there are signs of resurrection.
The other half of the departed — Altuzarra and Thom Browne — will return to NYFW in September after three years in Paris. All but Mr. Browne are committed to staying in New York for at least three more seasons.
These unusual commitments are the result of an initiative called the IMG Fashion Alliance, organized by the management company that produces the “NYFW: The Shows” calendar, sponsored this year by the layaway start-up Afterpay.
In exchange for a pledge to remain until 2022, IMG will help fund and provide support for a total of 11 designers’ shows or events, which can cost upward of six figures. The goal, IMG said Wednesday when announcing the incentive program: “Ensuring a bold return and bright future” for New York Fashion Week.
It comes as no surprise that IMG, which represents models, photographers, production designers, stylists, hair and makeup artists and more, wants fashion to return to the runway, after 18 months of collections presented largely through “digital activations” (a lot of short films and look books).
“The success of our business is the success of the fashion industry, so we’re very invested in really wanting to bring the community together, and rebuild a stronger fashion economy,” said Leslie Russo, the president for fashion events and properties for IMG. “New York Fashion Week is still the No. 1 revenue-generating event in New York.”
Despite often being insider events, the shows and parties generate close to $600 million in income each year, which is estimated to be more than the Super Bowl, as Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, Democrat of New York, pointed out in a 2019 report on the economics of fashion week.
Outside the outsize bubble of Spring Studios, IMG’s fashion headquarters, there are more signs of life for New York Fashion Week. The highly anticipated America-themed Met Gala has moved from May to September to close out NYFW. Pyer Moss, arguably the city’s buzziest brand, will also show in September, ending a two-year runway hiatus. Tom Ford, president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, announced Monday that he will present a collection, too.
For Joseph Altuzarra, the decision to bring his runway shows back to New York — much like his decision four years ago to take them to Paris, where he was born and raised — was “a very emotional, personal decision.” He made it while working in the city during the pandemic.
“I felt a really strong kinship with the city that I hadn’t felt as deeply in a long time,” Mr. Altuzarra said. “I missed the energy.”
He felt that despite best efforts, no brand had found a “compelling substitute for a show,” he said. The civility of IMG’s initiative also appealed to him. Several designers, including Mr. Altuzarra, signed a letter last May pledging to adhere to a more reasonable seasonal shopping calendar — a rare show of cooperation in fashion.
“Prepandemic, there was very much a sense that everyone was doing their own thing,” he said. “People are so much more open now to thinking about different models and different ways in which we can do things, and building community.”
But community is less of a draw for another brand that has partnered with IMG: Telfar, the iconoclastic label headed by the designer Telfar Clemens and the artistic director Babak Radboy. Though its last two live presentations were in Florence and Paris, the fiercely independent company is hardly known for traditional runway shows — more like palace sleepovers and after-parties at discount department stores — and recoils from industry associations (including words like “alliance”).
“We want to be able to support New York and young designers who are trying to show in New York,” Mr. Radboy said. “What we’re going to do is keep doing the things that we’re interested in. They can be called part of New York Fashion Week, but we’re certainly not doing a runway show.”
Yet when asked whether Telfar would ever do a runway show again, he responded cryptically . “In terms of the loosest definition of that,” he said. “I think we have one planned for this summer. That’s a secret.”
(As for NYFW in September, Mr. Radboy isn’t saying exactly what the brand has planned, though he offered “television” as a hint.)
For the most part, though, designers partnering with IMG are more entrenched in the industry, and share the view that New York Fashion Week represents something special, regardless of corporate associations. “We are honored to be able to participate in an incredible community of creativity that inspires us to be our best,” the sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte wrote in an email.
Sergio Hudson, the Los Angeles designer who recently outfitted Michelle Obama for the inauguration, held his first-ever runway show a month before the pandemic, at Spring Studios. It was a lifelong dream, Mr. Hudson said, but then “we pretty much made no sales for the season.”
He hopes a revitalized New York Fashion Week will help business. The more editors, buyers and other various decision makers descend on New York to see the clothes in person — to experience the energy of the room — the better a designer’s chance of survival within the traditional system.
But Mr. Hudson is equally driven by the emotion of it all. He sees this as an opportunity “to show the world that yes, we are a fashion capital,” he said. “And yes, we have something to say, as far as how women should dress.”