September 21, 2009

Getting Past the Red Rope of Fashion: Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week

The Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week recently took place in New York City (September 10-17), and for all those interested, I suggest going to the MBFW website to view sample slides and videos of the featured designers’ Spring 2010 clothing lines. Since I’m interested in the popularity of the Tribal Style and Native-influenced fashion, and in the democratization of fashion, I perused the collections searching for evidence of diversity in fashion, through tribal influences and brown faces.

The New York Fashion Week began in 1943 as Press Week in an attempt to highlight American fashion to the press who would hopefully write about American designers (as opposed to European designers) in fashion magazines such as Vogue. The first New York Fashion Week was a success: American styles were praised as modern and flattering, and American designers were finally gaining the respect previously reserved for European designers. At first, the fashion events were held at Hotels. But during the '70s and '80s, American designers began to stage their own shows in lofts, clubs, and restaurants. In 1994 the events were ‘consolidated’ to one location: Bryant Park. One of the main concerns with centralizing the event came from the designers – they didn’t want their creativity stifled. However, Fashion Week helped American designers reach a greater audience by allowing editors and buyers to see the country's best work at a single time, in a single place. Nevertheless, this centralizing didn’t come without a cost – the event became exclusive, and new designers continue to have a hard time getting in. Furthermore, the limited audience seating is reserved for elite buyers, celebrities, and select members of the press.

In February 2009, three Native American designers, Dorothy Grant (Haida), Patricia Michaels (Taos), and Virgil Ortiz (Cochiti), marked an historical moment and showed their work during the New York Fashion Week. This is the first time in history that Native designers participated in an event in Manhattan during Fashion Week.

The Native fashion event was held at Ramscale Penthouse Studio in February, and was hosted by Gail and Murray Bruce and Michael Chapman. Ramscale offered the space and opportunity for these designers to network throughout the week with various individuals in the New York fashion world. It was a foot in the door. However, the event was held on the fringes of Fashion Week, and it was not at the prestigious, elite, and hard-to-get-into Bryant Park (physically, Ramscale is on the outer limits of the fashion week events, located on West St, which is a few blocks away from Bryant Park). The high ticket price of a slot in Bryant Park ensures that those slots remain reserved for the recognizable names, such as Ralph Lauren and Marc Jacobs. Gail Bruce and others hope that the big name American designers, such as Lauren and Anna Sui, will work collaboratively with Native designers instead of just using Native designs as their own. Though we are only at the very beginning of this movement, these three designers plan to show again at Fashion Week next February, and they are dedicated toward building a Native Fashion Week movement. Patricia Michaels explained that it was difficult to find a market for cutting-edge Native-made fashion, but was hopeful that times were changing. She stated, “When people see something so different and new, it’s kind of hard to take, but now it’s finally happening.”

While these designers were absent from the September event, Indianness was still present as non-Native designers sought inspiration from America’s first peoples. Props to Mara Hoffman for producing a line reflecting diverse inspirations, including Aztec and Native American geometrics and beadwork patterns. But best of all, they were shown on ethnically diverse models as well.

We’ll look to the future as designers push Native-made fashion past the red rope and hail it to be as equally as important as its non-Native counterparts.