It’s easy to feel pessimistic about the fashion industry in New York these days. It’s no secret that the industry is faltering, in crisis. When you walk down the streets of Soho and many Manhattan neighborhoods whose empty storefronts recently hosted established retailers, it would be hard for anyone to argue that retail and the fashion industry are healthy and strong. It’s even easier to feel pessimistic about the prospect of entering New York’s fashion industry as a designer. Each week you hear news of houses shedding staff and designers, or companies shutting altogether. When jobs stem from relationships that stem from unpaid internships in a city where reasonable rent is an oxymoron, it can seem impossible, or even foolish, to get into the game.
And there’s no shortage of voices warning about the alternative ‒ setting up one’s own label. The industry seems to be more saturated than ever with young, independent designers who can easily find an audience courtesy of Instagram and social media, but who struggle to make it all work as a business. America’s youth grow up believing that New York is where you go to be an artist, to live a creative life. But, as Manhattan’s blocks became more indistinguishable, with the ubiquitous Starbucks, bank branches, Rite Aids and Duane Reades, and with new luxury condo buildings sprouting every week, it can seem like New York’s financial and commercial spirit, which has always been prominent, is eclipsing and snuffing out its creative spirit.
In order to afford staying in New York, artists who once created art and ideas to counter ‘the man,’ are now leveraging that ‘cool’ factor into commercial enterprises. Has my generation of New York artists sold out? Has New York simply become too expensive for pursuing a creative life? Have the real artists left for Texas, Los Angeles, and Berlin? Still, I believe this is the perfect time to be a young fashion designer in New York.
“Has my generation of New York artists sold out?”
The industry as we know it is in crisis, but this presents the perfect opportunity for people trained and valued for their creativity, and unburdened by decades of the industry’s methodology, to establish new ways of doing things. As the current configuration of the business falters, who will step in to redefine, reconfigure, and reconstruct a better way of doing things and doing business? It is the new generation, not the old guard, that transforms and builds new systems and paradigms. And it is often in the face of great challenge and struggle that great ideas and new models are born, and that true determination and hunger emerges. My generation of New York designers has this extraordinary and rare opportunity to design and to be the solution.
More than anything, New York has been about embracing the new, being the natural home for outsider ideas, the mavericks, the trailblazers. New York’s fashion industry didn’t take hold by replicating the established fashion system found in Paris. New York’s fashion industry instead emerged by embracing its own definitions and models: sportswear and mass-production. But while fashion has always been incredibly responsive and quick to adopt new visual and aesthetic ideas, the industry has always been much slower to shift its structure and respond to the changing world. While it sometimes feels like New York is becoming more and more commercially driven to the detriment of real artistic innovation and creativity, it’s commercial impetus has always been about capitalizing on the new, and embracing the vanguard. My generation of young designers has no allegiance to the way things have been done and is ready to redefine the industry and how the business of fashion could and should work.
“My generation of young designers has no allegiance to the way things have been done and is ready to redefine the industry.”
This generation of New York designers is not only interested in executing our creative visions, we feel compelled, out of necessity and conscience, to design new ways of doing business. The political, social, and environmental state of the world now demands more of fashion. Fashion can do more, and be about more than inspiring design. As the established industry stumbles and becomes increasingly outdated, my peers are seizing on the opportunity to harness their creativity beyond the studio and into the realm of business. As this generation of designers expands the notion of what fashion is, what it does, what it has to be about, there is an understood mandate to redefine its function and purpose beyond doing whatever it takes to sell. Not only are my peers engaging in the business in their own way ‒ staging presentations and performances to show their work instead of being wed to the show system, and creating work on their own timelines instead of adhering to the collection schedule ‒ they are also orienting their work in response to and in conversation with the pressing issues shaping our world today. These designers see their work as being vehicles for the social, political, economic, and environmental change that must come.
“The new generation is not wed to these systems, the industry is. And the industry isn’t working.”
While the massive fashion companies might be interested in, and their existence depends on, redefining how they do business, it is the small and nimble companies, and the independent designers ‒ those fresh with new ideas, unburdened by decades of institutional baggage and frames of mind ‒ to wholesale redefine how fashion works. There is already a grassroots field of independent labels and companies that are doing things differently. Not buying into the show system, the collection system. The new generation is not wed to these systems, the industry is. And the industry isn’t working. So, while it becomes increasingly prohibitive to even land in New York as a young creative, and as hard as it is to make one’s way in New York, it is where fashion’s heart beats in America.
Amanda Brown is a recent Parsons MFA graduate and is currently working as a freelancer in NYC.
Image Alastair McKimm for 1 Granary Issue 5