Prior to World War II, American fashion didn’t get much — if any — time in the spotlight. Instead, the world looked to the chic city of Paris for sartorial inspiration. Fashion magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar filled their pages with the aspirational attire of the French, even if the styles weren’t readily available to the average American consumer.
This all changed in 1943. As France was fighting in World War II, fashion journalists were unable to get to Paris for their biannual style excursions. A prominent fashion publicist named Eleanor Lambert recognized that this was an opportunity to solidify America’s place among the international fashion community. Through her work at the New York Dress Institute, a group of clothing labor unions and manufacturers, Lambert pieced together a showcase of American designers for the national and regional media. She called the event Press Week.
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According to Vanity Fair, prior to Press Week, regional reporters had been unable to cover New York’s fashion scene without shadowing buyers in their local stores. In an effort to change that, Lambert offered to pay the expenses of any out-of-town journalists who traveled to New York for Press Week. Fifty-three designers’ shows took place at the Plaza Hotel in a block schedule format, unlike today, when shows are hosted all over the city. Every editor received packets with photos of each runway look, as well as press releases, much like today, but the shows were exclusively for the press. Buyers were required to schedule showroom visits to view the collections.
The results were everything Lambert hoped for, and perhaps more. Not only did the editors show up, but also when the fashion magazines released their next issues, their pages were full of American designers. According to Slate, the American styles were praised as being “modern, streamlined and flattering,” and because of the success of the inaugural Press Day, the event continued through the late 1950s at various locations.
For the next three decades, designers continued to stage their own shows throughout New York City, but there wasn’t one unified location like we know today. It wasn’t until 1990, when plaster fell from the ceiling of a loft onto the models during a Michael Kors show, that the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) decided to take action.
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According to Slate, Fern Mallis, vice president of IMG, began to search for a location to host the week-long event. The designers were hesitant at first, but after a test run at the Macklow (now the Milennium) Hotel on 44th Street, they embraced the idea. In the Spring of 1994, Mallis and the CFDA launched New York Fashion Week in Manhattan’s Bryant Park, essentially bringing order to the event once more, at least in the scheduling. Shortly thereafter, the CFDA was able to secure sponsors — such as Mercedes-Benz, for which the event is now named — and cultivate the precious press list, which is almost as impenetrable as the entrance to the shows.
“The Tents,” as the Bryant Park venue became known, were both glamorous and senselessly hectic. As New York Fashion Week attracted more celebrities and fashion insiders, the crowd swelled to immense proportions, with swarms of people crowding the front entrance and lobby area for a glimpse of fashion’s A-listers. The tents eventually could no longer accomodate the event’s year-after-year expansion, and in September 2010, the CFDA and IMG Fashion, the company that produces Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, moved their tents — and the masses — further uptown to Lincoln Center.
Some designers were disappointed in the decision to relocate. “The Bryant Park shows forever changed the fashion industry,” designer Tommy Hilfiger told TIME’s Feifei Sun. “They united designers in an unparalleled situation.” But with the addition of digital check-ins, free wi-fi and 30% more space, Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week was given the stylish space that it always needed, plus room to accommodate new generations of designers, models, editors and buyers who are looking for their big break on one of fashion’s most famous stages.