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Around the World in 80 Fashion Weeks

Sweaters! It's almost time guys. And while there will always be room in our hearts for giant, crewneck pullovers, we have some #thoughts about ways you can get more daring with your knits this fall. (AKA, new and exciting ways to be cozy.) 

First up though, a very comprehensive piece by our reporter Eliza Brooke about all the fashion weeks you've never heard of, and what they're doing to change that. 

Around the World in 80 Fashion Weeks
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Story by Eliza Brooke

Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia takes place in the Moscow Manege, a Neoclassical building that sits at the heart of the city, a few minutes west of the Kremlin and south of the Bolshoi Theatre. An underground shopping mall is nearby, as is Red Square, which fills up with tourists taking pictures during the day. At the Manege, street style photographers and young women dressed up in their fashion week best stand outside doing much the same.

I spent most of my time at the Manege when I attended fashion week in Moscow last October. It all felt familiar to me: the dark, club-like atmosphere zhuzhed up with purple lights, a car display, and free drinks. For all I knew, I could have been at Lincoln Center back in the days when Mercedes-Benz was New York Fashion Week's title sponsor, a relationship that ended in 2015.

On the other hand, I definitely wasn't in Midtown anymore. In New York, I don't have front row seats at most shows I attend, nor is it particularly easy to wrangle designers for interviews during the week. I certainly don't have my own personal assistant tasked with helping me navigate the schedule and handle any language-related complications. In Moscow, all that was mine, plus as many Red Bull vodka cocktails from the VIP lounge as I could stomach. (Zero.)

Founded in 2000, what is now known as MBFW Russia is a regional event with aspirations to become a more significant player on fashion's global stage. In some regards, it's making headway. It has a big-name sponsor and attracts international press. In Moscow, I met writers and editors from Hunger in London and Highsnobiety in Berlin. A Vogue staffer had flown out the season before and would return the following spring.

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This roll call of foreign media, a status-affirming exercise for MBFW Russia, comes with a big caveat: I was there not because my employer at the time felt it prudent to pay for a plane ticket and accommodations so I could explore the Russian fashion market, but because it was free.

For me and everyone I spent time with, this was an all-expenses-paid press trip, a beloved and ethically-fraught tradition in the fashion industry that gives editors license to work (with varying degrees of intensity) from cushy locales. Brands regularly invite staffers from magazines and websites, as well as self-employed bloggers, to, say, tour G-Star Raw's Amsterdam factory with Pharrell or spend a heavily Instagrammed weekend in the Hamptons. The result is generally positive coverage; fashion writers are good at highlighting the best of what they see. And so the theory goes that in order to get hype's positive feedback loop whirring, relatively nascent fashion weeks need to buy some eyeballs too.

In very recent history, major fashion publications have reported from fashion weeks in cities as varied as Seoul, Medellín, Copenhagen, Sydney, Berlin, and Tbilisi, often at absolutely no cost. As with fashion week in Moscow, these events are younger and smaller than their establishment counterparts in New York, London, Milan, and Paris — the "Big Four," which draw fashion heavyweights and A-list celebrities, not to mention drive the industry's economy and conversation as they're home to the world's most powerful brands.

The Big Four weren't always so big, of course. It's not unreasonable that what are now second-tier spectacles might work their way up to the big leagues, too.

Before fashion shows became the high-speed, highly publicized affairs they are now, they were intimate salon performances.

Charles Frederick Worth, an English designer whose House of Worth was based in Paris in the mid-to-late 19th century, is recognized as one of the first to show his creations on live models. Clients in attendance at his private presentations could order their favorites made-to-measure. That model spread: France's Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture has organized twice-yearly shows since the early 20th century.

The first American fashion show is said to have taken place in 1903 at the Ehrich Brothers specialty store in New York — a move likely inspired by the French — and other, bigger retailers nationwide quickly realized its utility in marketing to middle-class shoppers. But it was the occupation of France in World War II that kickstarted fashion week as we now know it.

Because American editors couldn't travel to Paris, still the dominant fashion city, the publicist Eleanor Lambert launched a showcase for Stateside designers called "Press Week" in 1943, setting in motion not only the ascendancy of American designers but the event that would later become New York Fashion Week. (She would go on to found the Council of Fashion Designers of America, or CFDA, in 1962.) Lambert's strategy for establishing Press Week sounds familiar: she offered to cover travel expenses for any out-of-town journalists so they could attend the inaugural shows.

Aided by trade organizations looking to promote designers' work, the development of the Big Four picked up speed in the latter half of the 20th century. Milan Fashion Week is said to have gotten its start in 1958, the year the organization that later became the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana was founded. The ready-to-wear shows of Paris Fashion Week began with the inception of the Fédération Française in 1973. According to the British Fashion Council, which was founded in 1983, the London Fashion Week we know today launched in 1984. Former CFDA executive director Fern Mallis consolidated New York Fashion Week into a single location in 1993.

As their origins would suggest, runway shows are ultimately about business, and as brands' sales models shift to accommodate a changing market, so must fashion weeks. Thanks to digital platforms and social media, runway imagery hits the internet before a show has even concluded, which means that consumers are often tired of collections when they reach stores six months later — possibly because they already bought the rapid knockoff version at Zara. Ironically, the long-standing practice of delivering a new season's collection to stores well before the weather turns is also out of step with the contemporary shoppers' inclination to wear what they buy immediately.

With these problems in mind, numerous brands in New York and Europe have been reworking their approaches to the catwalk. At London Fashion Week later this month, Burberry will combine men's and women's into one seasonless show and put product on sale right after it ends. Public School has opted out of New York Fashion Week entirely, and now shows in June and December.

Thakoon Panichgul has reoriented his eponymous brand toward a direct-to-consumer business model, effectively cutting out department store and boutique buyers from his sales strategy; he'll show fall 2016 this New York Fashion Week, when other designers are presenting spring 2017. Misha Nonoo, who experimented with putting a lookbook on Instagram last September rather than holding a runway show or presentation, is planning a Snapchat show this year. She, like Panichgul, has taken her business totally direct-to-consumer.

Depending on how pragmatic or technophilic you are, digital initiatives like Nonoo's might make you wonder if the fashion show isn't totally obsolete. But for up-and-coming fashion weeks not on the Big Four circuit, there's still a strong case for getting people's physical butts in physical seats. Unexpected knowledge gaps make themselves apparent when editors get on the ground.

Erin Cunningham, a senior fashion editor at Refinery29 who attended MBFW Australia in May, expected that the majority of brands she saw in Sydney would be new to her. But she was surprised to discover that some labels were already sold at retailers she knows well, like a sexy-cutesy line called Dyspnea that is stocked at Nasty Gal.

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"I consider myself to be pretty well-versed in designers," Cunningham says. "Then you go there and meet people and assume it's their first collection, but they've been showing for five years."

Fashionista deputy editor Tyler McCall went to MBFW Australia at the same time as Cunningham. She told me that she'd never heard of the brand Romance Was Born prior to touching down in Sydney, but quickly gleaned that it was one of the most hotly anticipated shows of the week. (Cate Blanchett has worn the line.) She wound up enchanted by its show, during which models walked through the rooms of an old estate and emerged onto the lawn to pose for photographers.

That's not to say organizers of smaller fashion weeks don't invest digitally. Fashion Week Stockholm brought together members of the country's tech and fashion industries to launch a new digital platform at its shows in late August. Alexander Shumsky, president of MBFW Russia and executive president of the Russian Fashion Council, is strict about shows never starting more than 15 minutes late — positively early compared to some designers' presentations in New York — because he wants to optimize the live stream experience for those who can't or don't yet want to fly out to Moscow. Last October, Shumsky brought over a team from the New York-based virtual reality startup YouVisit to film the action in three dimensions.

But for all the good digital and social media does in enabling labels and personalities to burst into our line of sight, the internet is oversaturated, and relying on its populist power to surface interesting finds is an imperfect system. Some things just have to be done in person.

Though seemingly every local fashion week is seeking to develop a global following, it's difficult to characterize them broadly since their organizational structures are so varied. One omnipresent player, however, is Mercedes-Benz. The German automaker has been sponsoring fashion weeks for 21 years now, and is currently involved in 50 such events around the world, either as the title sponsor (Mercedes-Benz China Fashion Week, MBFW Madrid, MBFW Amsterdam) or as a co-sponsor (Paris Fashion Week, London Fashion Week, Milan Fashion Week).

Using its huge marketing budget to flood the fashion scene reinforces Mercedes-Benz's status as a luxury brand and gives it access to, as a company rep explained to me, "new target groups." It's not the only car company to have figured out this equation. Cadillac supports certain CFDA initiatives, and Lexus stepped in as the official sponsor of New York Fashion Week when Mercedes-Benz withdrew from the event.

Although its name doesn't appear in lettering quite as large as Mercedes-Benz's, the events and talents agency company IMG is perhaps the most important force in launching new fashion weeks around the world and in reworking or generating more publicity for those that are already up and running. IMG wholly owns, operates, and produces events like MBFW Berlin; MBFW Australia; MADE New York, Los Angeles, and Berlin (IMG acquired MADE in 2015); and New York Fashion Week: The Shows, which accounts for a significant portion of the presentations that take place during September and February.

Catherine Bennett, the senior vice president and managing director of IMG fashion events and properties, leads this effort. When Bennett landed at IMG in the spring of 2013 from the CFDA, where she was the trade organization's head of business affairs, her first task was to reposition New York Fashion Week. That involved relocating the shows from Lincoln Center to two new spaces downtown, Skylight at Moynihan Station and Skylight Clarkson Square, rebranding with a fresh logo, and creating new offerings like pop-up stores where everyday consumers can shop looks fresh off the runway.

"Now we are really focusing on the rest of the world," Bennett says.

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In addition to owning a number of fashion weeks, IMG consults on many others, helping organizers find commercial opportunities and partners. Those include London Fashion Week, Milan Fashion Week, MBFW Russia, Tokyo Fashion Week, and Shenzhen Fashion Week in China. IMG declined to disclose any financial figures when I asked whether it makes a profit on these events, as it is a private company.

For Bennett and her team of roughly 50 people, this work is a mixture of investigating potential markets — Asia is still full of opportunity, she says, and Northern Europe is of particular interest — and fielding outreach from local organizations and designers.

"Sometimes we get approached by a fashion week that already exists in a country, that is ready to have more international exposure, or is ready to elevate their event to a more international standard," Bennett says. "We get approached oftentimes by a government body or a tourist body who wants to bring more attention to the event."

It's easy to understand why a tourism bureau would get involved: fashion week coverage doubles as promotion for the city itself. Although not every reader is going to book their next vacation purely for the shopping opportunities, it undoubtedly helps in ways that aren't directly measurable.

Erin Cunningham from Refinery29 had her trip to MBFW Australia sponsored by both IMG and Destination New South Wales, the tourism and events wing of the New South Wales government. Unlike other reporters who were there purely by invitation of IMG, Cunningham had hosts who orchestrated activities for her like breakfast at Bondi Beach and a trip to the zoo.

MBFW Russia is owned by a communications and public relations company called Artefact Group, which worked small sightseeing excursions into our schedule too. Lunch most days involved clambering into a Mercedes-Benz van with other foreign reporters and a few publicists and driving to a restaurant for a prix-fixe meal subsidized and arranged by Moscow Restaurant Week. These sort of perks aren't unique to my trip to Russia — they're standard for fashion's propaganda machine — but they did feel peculiar in a country where journalists are fired, or even killed, after criticizing the government.

One night, a woman who worked for MBFW Russia offered to show me and another writer around the Bolshoi, home of Moscow's opera and ballet. We sat in a darkened back row to watch a rehearsal and wound our way through fluorescent-lit hallways to stand on one of the establishment's other stages, looking out into the red and gold maw of the empty theater. Then we got lost in the bowels of the building for what felt like a solid hour before finding our way back into the cold air.

Even with the knowledge that press trips are engineered to curry editors' favor, you'll find that being allowed to lurk around a beautiful, infamous, chandelier-filled theater on a frigid near-winter night can engender some real romanticism toward a city. These tactics, they work.

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