Lincoln Center Loses a Bit of Luster

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

c.2014 New York Times News Service

NEW YORK — Nothing fades faster than a shiny new toy.

Four years ago, when Lincoln Center, the usual habitat of operagoers and ballet enthusiasts, opened its doors to editors and buyers as the new home of New York Fashion Week, a mantle inherited from the tents at Bryant Park, it was hailed as the sophisticate of the future.

“Everyone thought it was going to be a more civilized experience,” said Anne Slowey, Elle magazine’s fashion news director. “The downside to Bryant Park was that you’d be tripping over wires getting in the door. It was impossible to hide the production element.” Moreover, the possibility of rubbing shoulders with effete ballerinas, who so often serve as designer muses, or chatting up a world-class tenor crossing the plaza was “sort of thrilling,” Slowey said.

Besides, it wasn’t just looks; the Bryant Park tents were far from perfect. “The backstage was really crowded,” designer Monique Lhuillier remembered. (She now shows at Lincoln Center, where the backstage is roomier and better organized.) “And the traffic was bad. People were really complaining about getting trapped in midtown.”

Fast-forward a few seasons and Bryant Park, however rough around the edges, is fondly remembered, while Lincoln Center has grown from golden child to overgroomed behemoth. Editors and buyers now gripe about the check-in process, which requires a fearsome trek past security guards, street-style posers and sponsor booths. “It doesn’t have that let’s-get-down-to-business attitude that the tents had,” Slowey said. “It feels like Vegas by way of the Javits Center.”

Perhaps fed up, designers have been deserting. After debuting in September 2010 with 89 designers showing on the premises, Lincoln Center is hosting 78 this fashion week. More telling is the quality of talent: Important U.S. designers such as Vera Wang, Michael Kors and Diane von Furstenberg, who is also the president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, left last season for more intimate locations in West Chelsea and SoHo, and all plan to do so again. Others, like Narciso Rodriguez, Derek Lam, Prabal Gurung and Christian Siriano, opted out seasons earlier.

“We were having a hard time getting people to our show,” Siriano said, noting that the Lincoln Center hubbub can be negatively distracting for a young company. “Also, my brand changed — we weren’t as commercial — and it was no longer a good fit.” For designers who need it, Lincoln Center comes with “a massive media list,” Siriano said. “Coming from reality TV, I didn’t need that awareness. I wanted somewhere more special, where it can be more about the clothes.”

In September 2011, he headed to the Eyebeam Atelier on West 21st Street and has shown there ever since. He likes that the space isn’t overloaded with corporate sponsors, and he gets all day to set up, as opposed to the two to three hours he was allotted at Lincoln Center. “We get so much more, and we make our own rules,” he said.

Spurred by the complaints, IMG, which owns and produces Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week at Lincoln Center, started making changes last season. From the outset, the site offered three main runway spaces (the Stage, Studio and Theater) and a presentation room (the Box). Unlike many off-site locations, where every tidbit can be customized, the stark white spaces were relatively fixed from show to show.

Under Catherine Bennett, who was the head of business affairs at the Council of Fashion Designers of America before she joined IMG last year as the senior vice president and managing director for fashion events and properties, and Jarrad Clark, her vice president, the runways (renamed the Pavilion, Salon and Theater) were loosened up. Designers now have more liberty to tweak seating and catwalk setups. The check-in process was also rerouted (to mixed reviews) and a VIP concierge program was quietly rolled out that is expanding further this season.

Yet, those points are not why designers continue to show at Lincoln Center. As much as it’s faulted for being a slick machine, that’s exactly what some designers want. Based in Los Angeles, Lhuillier doesn’t want to spend her time in New York worrying about multiple vendors at an off-site space. IMG is trustworthy and professional, she said.

Or for an indie label, like Mara Hoffman’s namesake line, it’s an unexpected choice that works. “I’m probably the brand you would expect in a weirdo venue, with people smoking joints and playing guitars sitting on the ground,” Hoffman said. At Lincoln Center, where she has shown since February 2011, she happily sticks out. “I am aware it comes off corporate,” she said. “But I use all the positive aspects of that.” Such as, showing at Lincoln Center facilitates sponsorships because “corporate people — the ones who have the money — respond to corporate things,” she said. “They feel safe, comfy and cozy.”

There are other upsides on the balance sheet. At one point, Bryant Park was a designer’s Oz and a slot came with the precious price to match. Generally, brands headed off-site only to cut costs or to stage custom extravaganzas. But designers say outside spaces actually cost more today. Siriano, who is probably on the low- to midrange of the scale, said he spends about $100,000 to $150,000 at Eyebeam. “You have to rent everything,” he said. “You’re on your own.”

Also, costs can quickly scale up because there are no fiscal parameters, said Michael Maccari, Perry Ellis’ new head designer, who is taking the brand to a West Chelsea industrial space on 11th Avenue for its first show in three years. Meanwhile, Lincoln Center’s prices come in neat packages. For example, Hoffman is showing at the Salon (the second-largest space after the Theater), which cost her $48,000 to book this season. (Editors may pillory the corporate sponsors littering the lobby, but they keep the prices down for designers, Clark said.)

But for all of IMG’s deep pockets, it surely must recognize that shows are not just about the clothes anymore. Instead, runway footage and photos are repurposed for social media, trunk shows and look books, a total branded moment. Many of the shows to see now have “a Hollywood-quality set as opposed to your logo on a white backdrop,” said Jennifer Blumin, chief executive of the Skylight Group, which is offering three fashion week sites this season.

And it’s not only show budgets that have bulged; the entire industry has ballooned in recent years, with Lincoln Center as its mirror. Where shows were once a rarefied world (“I miss the intimacy and creativity,” Slowey said. “I feel like people took more chances when it wasn’t such a big business”), they are now a spectacle. Thus, Lincoln Center, still the hub of fashion week, makes for an easy target for aspiring bloggers, homespun photographers and hangers-on who crowd the outside walkway. “We only have so much control,” Clark said. “It’s become part and parcel of the industry.”


Slowey would agree. She recounted a story (“It caps off my disillusionment”) of one evening at Lincoln Center on the way to the Anna Sui show. She saw 12 little ballerinas take off screaming across the plaza.

“I thought ‘Oh, my God, it must be Baryshnikov,'” she said. “I turned around and it was Leandra the Man Repeller. I love her, but my heart sunk a bit.”