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Why young designers are fleeing New York Fashion Week for London

By Jackie Mallon


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Fashion |Opinion

Carly Mark at her final NYFW runway show Credits: Don Ashby

It’s impossible not to feel a slight pall settling over the conclusion of New York Fashion Week. Carly Mark, founder of the five-year-old artsy downtown label Puppets & Puppets, announced that she will be ceasing to show at NYFW and moving operations to London. Monday’s show was her parting gesture and the runway looks will never be put into production. The theater, irony, and playfulness of a Puppets & Puppets show was a sheer delight compared to the cynical corporate-led posturing of much of the US industry’s more successful brands.

The splash and polish, the celebrity front rows at the shows of Tommy Hilfiger and Michael Kors attract plenty of press, but they are not representative of the future in a city as scrappy and thirsty and striving as NYC. The announcement of Donna Karan’s relaunch doesn’t make one break stride on these mean streets, especially when Marc Jacobs has just celebrated 40 years in business, and even Altuzarra has been around for fifteen. As the US enters an election cycle that looks set to pit two octogenarians against each other for the highest office in the land, is it surprising that fashion is reflecting that? Like a mammal mother, New York Fashion Week is abandoning its offspring shortly after birth, selectively culling the most vulnerable to ensure the strength of its fittest because it doesn’t have the means to nurse both. How do we re-establish the bond with mother?

Runway looks from Puppets & Puppets fw24 Credits: Don Ashby

Why can’t New York hold space for the small independent creatives?

In a New York Times article about Mark’s departure entitled, “A rising star in fashion who sees no future in New York,” Julie Gilbert, fashion consultant with the Tomorrow Group is quoted as saying, “The greatest misstep is that there’s no one really aggressively investing in young designers.”

Step up, investors, because this city needs youth but the cost of running a young fashion business in this city is beyond a joke. Most designers starting out often live where they work, have freelance jobs, consultancies, family support and are burning through any savings they might have just to make their debut. Sustaining comes later. Designer Jackson Weiderhoeft of Weiderhoeft started with 25,000 dollars made up of family donations and the proceeds from selling his Thom Browne retail uniforms on The Real Real. It quickly disappeared as he told The Cut: “A PR consultant for press and outreach, but mostly it went toward making 40 pieces of clothing. I had been saving fabric scraps through the years, and friends would come to my apartment and help sew. I was like, ‘I can’t pay you, but you can sew rosettes and bows and I’ll buy you lunch.’”

The cost of patternmaking, sampling, and grading runs into tens of thousands of dollars. Even when stores make an order, if they buy small quantities but of many styles, the designer will incur a manufacturer's surcharge for not meeting minimums. The manufacturing cost doesn’t take into account the cost of raw materials, or hiring a fit model to test the garment. Wiederhoeft broke down the expense of one jacket design: “The finished price of the pattern will be 1,500 to 2,000 dollars plus 300 dollars for the model. Then 700 dollars for the factory to make two mock-ups. That’s like 2,600 dollars, and you haven’t even gotten to the cost of actually making the samples.” A decade ago it was not unheard of to receive sponsorship to cover a 300,000 dollar NYFW runway show, but those budgets are a thing of the past. Now a designer must pay for the venue, seats, security, insurance and any permits, models, hair and make-up, and catering themselves. The value of getting a celebrity like Dua Lipa or Doja Cat to wear your clothes to ensure a viral moment that will then attract clients has proven to be illusory at best.

Puppets & Puppets popular "Cookie Bag" Credits: Bergdorfgoodman.com

NYFW is flatlining as a fashion hub

Saint Sintra’s designs evoke a sexy youthful attitude that resonated both with the influencer set who preened in the front row of her runway shows and Dua Lipa. But founder Sintra Martins spoke of the double edged sword of celebrity endorsement, and how impossible it is for small brands to compete with established fashion houses. “They’re able to send out thousands and thousands’ worth of merchandise because one of them could pay for all the others,” she told The Cut. “It’s a game of volume. At the time, I did not have the capital. I couldn’t afford to send out hundreds of thousands of dollars of clothes.” When a celebrity is photographed in a young brand’s designs it is a vanity project, a lovely public vote of confidence. But it doesn’t keep the lights on. Saint Sintra’s most recent NYFW show was for fall 2023.

“There’s a certain energy — it’s the thing you can’t really put on the business plan,” Gilhart said about Mark’s vision. “You just feel it.” Graduates from all fifty states make the annual pilgrimage to NYC to tap into the city’s inexhaustible creative pulse, carrying portfolios of designs and hearts filled with hope. But even hope is too expensive to hold onto in NYC, explained Mark, “You hope for the best. But if you’re not infusing money into the brand and you’re also not increasing sales, even if your sales are close to 1 million dollars, you’re still not making it work.”

We wish Carly Mark the best of luck. Because, while London has always been known for cultivating and inspiring bounteous quantities of emerging design talent, much of it emanating from its internationally renowned fashion schools, it has also been notoriously delinquent in nurturing it. Most of London’s young designers relocate to Paris or Milan to find respectable careers, that is, to make money. So, to quote Dorothy Parker, what fresh hell is this, when we are now seeing NYC designers eye London as the place to grow their business?

Puppets & Puppets