To the armchair fashionista, it may seem puzzling that a metropolis that's home to so many fashion designers, stylists and companies that churn out a variety of things from blue jeans to ball gowns is entering its third consecutive year without the kind of tightly organized, highly visible and media-saturated cadre of high-caliber runway shows that are staged twice a year or more in other cities.
Culver City tents in October 2008 (and that wasn't even in Los Angeles, technically), a professionally produced, industry-focused fashion week capable of consistently attracting the time and attention of the media that matter most — fashion editors of the glossy monthly magazines based in New York — has proved elusive.
Instead, each of the last three seasons brought a grab bag of low-budget, high-frustration runway shows, presentations and events haphazardly spread across nearly a calendar month that generated little beyond local interest. The fourth such season begins this week.
The Los Angeles situation can seem all the more perplexing because the ranks of fashion weeks have swelled over the last few years to include those in Portland, Ore.; Scottsdale, Ariz.; and Alexandria, Va.
But if IMG, which successfully stages fashion weeks in cities around the world (New York, Berlin and Mumbai, among them) couldn't make it work here, is it a forgone conclusion that America's dream factory is somehow simply incapable of — to borrow a term from the entertainment world — getting this particular project out of turnaround?
Or for that matter, why does Los Angeles even need a fashion week? And what's at stake if nothing more organized ever materializes?
"The real question you have to ask is: 'Why not here?'" Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said. "And I think the answer is that it's only a matter of time. If they can get Sarah Jessica Parker to show up in New York, imagine what we can do here."
Villaraigosa says about three years ago he was approached by leaders of the city's fashion community and asked to help draw attention to that industry. His past efforts have included attending fashion shows, hosting a fashion week mixer at the official mayoral residence and, most recently, getting behind the global one-day shopping extravaganza known as Fashion's Night Out. He can quickly rattle off statistics that underscore the size of L.A.'s fashion business, and he sees promoting the work of Los Angeles designers as part and parcel of his recently announced "shop local" initiative.
Timing and economics
Historically there have been two hurdles in efforts to establish a world-class fashion week here: timing and money. Timing is an issue because L.A.'s traditional spot on the calendar comes at the end of an already monthlong marathon through the major shows that begins in New York and ends in Paris. (Next season, a new group called Fashion Los Angeles has addressed that issue head on, shifting the showing of the fall and winter 2011 collections here to a Feb. 1-7 berth, before the New York run of winter shows).
The other consideration is economic. A designer who spends the time, energy and money to mount a full-scale professional runway show in Los Angeles still won't get the level of media exposure he or she would in New York, which is attended annually by 232,000 writers, editors and the like from 30 countries.
That's why the IMG-Smashbox shows ended up as a de facto farm team, with the cream of the crop showing just one or two seasons before bolting to the opposite coast. Left behind were less-established brands, celebrity clothing lines, lingerie shows featuring the Pussycat Dolls and acres of tattoo-emblazoned street wear. The kinds of designers who craft elegant red carpet gowns and cater to the ladies who lunch found it increasingly difficult to maintain brand cachet.
"By the end I just didn't want to show there," Sue Wong said. "It would be my line and [porn star] Jenna Jameson. It wasn't how I wanted to showcase my collections."
Next week, Wong will present her spring and summer 2011 collection to about 400 members of the fashion media and invited celebrity friends in her 6th Street atelier. "I can control everything about it — right down to the furniture — which I designed myself," she explained. That's where she showed her previous collection, too. The season before that she showed in her home (the Cedars, the historic former home of Norma Talmadge, Jimi Hendrix and Dennis Hopper, among others). Although she says that's been as effective, if not more so, in generating media impressions, as she expands the Sue Wong brand she has her eye set on New York. "I think I'll show my spring-summer 2012 collection there a year from now," she said.
Although showing in New York instead of Los Angeles may be the better option from an individual designer's perspective, there are economic benefits to a well-organized, cohesive Los Angeles fashion week for the city at large. According to the New York City Economic Development Corp., each fashion week results in $233 million in direct spending on hotels, meals, cab fare and the like in that city (making for $466 million annually.)
A money magnet
Los Angeles Fashion Week has never been as big or had the scope of New York's or London's, but a 2005 study conducted by Los Angeles Economic Development Corp. provides a snapshot of what the fashion flock can bring to the city. According to the report, the five industry-only market weeks each year (as opposed to the theatricality of the fashion week circuit, which is geared primarily toward the media, a market week is when the actual business of fashion is conducted, buyers survey trends, view clothes up close and write orders) draw a total of 53,000 buyers and exhibitors and $49.7 million in direct spending into the city.(Although the data are five years old, Kent Smith, executive director of the L.A. Fashion District, which commissioned the study, says it's an accurate benchmark for the current year.)
Villaraigosa points to those LAEDC statistics. "[Fashion week] makes so much sense," he said. "But it's not something the city is going to drive. Once it exists we'll be right here, doing whatever we can as far as permits and venues and that sort of thing." Asked what it would take for the city to get involved, Villaraigosa had two words: "critical mass." "It won't work if it's a small group. It needs to be a critical mass — with all of the industry leaders involved."
Until that happens, Los Angeles' designers have adapted. Some show in New York. Some, like Sue Wong, will go it alone. Still others will turn up on the collection of catwalks across the city over the next few weeks. And then there's the positively peripatetic Kevan Hall, whose brisk schedule for the next couple of weeks includes trunk shows and personal appearances in a variety of places — including the aforementioned Scottsdale Fashion Week.
Unlike the shows in the major fashion capitals, most, if not all, of these regional fashion weeks are consumer-oriented affairs, with a marquee designer's participation underwritten by sponsors and ticket prices that can range from $25 to $165. Even though it may lack the cachet of a major-market event, Hall says that by planning trunk shows, luncheons and other events around his participation in Scottsdale Fashion Week, he manages to get his gowns in front of prospective clients — and interact with them at the same time.
Since Hall has presented his collection in just about every conceivable format, what would he prefer if given an unlimited budget?
"I think a large-scale runway show is a great way to do it," he said without hesitation. "There's a vast audience, there's lots of energy and excitement, the room is packed. There's really nothing that beats an incredibly produced fashion show."
After a second, he added: "On the other hand, there's something lovely about being able to show your collection in an intimate setting in your atelier.
"There's not just one right way to do it — there are lots of ways."