What makes a city a fashion capital? This question will be the over-arching topic at the Global Fashion Capitals Conference at the CUNY Graduate Center on Tuesday, October 13. I’ve been speaking to my colleagues Joe Hancock and Travis Haglin about this as we prepare for our conference presentation, “What Makes a Fashion City?”
Hancock, who teaches at Drexel University and writes about branding, will bring in popular culture and discuss how styles define a city, and how this ties in to brands and decisions made by brands on product promotion. He is going to connect James Dean, Milan and Levi’s. Hancock thinks we need a new definition for fashion because, today, fashion is much more driven by media communication and, he says, is the victim of shoppers and of retail domination. Travis Haglin worked as a divisional director of retail at Ralph Lauren and is now teaching at LIM. He says, “for a city to be a global fashion city it needs to have an identity and that identity comes from a mix of culture, commerce and creativity.” “Fashion evolves,” he believes “into a style of self, or in this case the style of a city, and becomes the beacon of that individual city.” Lisa Small is Curator of Exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum and her contribution to this panel and to the conference is sure to be a highlight.
I will discuss New York as a fashion city, drawing on findings from Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney and the Joint Economic Committee’s report on the economic impact of the fashion industry, which is huge – New York City’s fashion industry employs 180,000 people and generates $10.9 billion in annual wages. Fashion Week, alone, contributes about $850 million a year to the NYC economy. I will also look at how the networked presence of an economic, cultural and technological infrastructure – department stores, museums, the media, theater, trade shows, tourism, the garment district, as well as symbolic associations – glamour, modernity, and multiculturalism, create the conditions for a fashion city. Indeed these spheres of influence in dynamic collaboration make it possible for New York itself to be a fashion brand.
Fashion is the information or the currency transmitted through these networks. It can also be viewed as the force by which they are driven. Fashion is based on the ephemeral: a constant logic of change, and yet it is grounded in a variety of autonomous yet intersecting fields. Fashion attains a presence, a materiality, and indeed a monetary value powerful enough to drive markets. New York as a fashion city has an aesthetic and a commercial presence, a material existence and an emotional, cognitive, discursive and interactional presence in the lives of its inhabitants.
A fashion city generates social representations that are comprised of collective and social meanings that generate certain ideals, values and images. There is a certain code or blueprint from which diverse forms emerge and yet there is some common denominator that bespeaks a New York style, lifestyle and way of being. Claire McCardell, Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan each have their own style, yet there is a distinct New York sensibility that incorporates an ease and practicality in a more casual approach to clothing design. This easy practicality stands New York apart from Paris, Milan and London fashion, even in the face of globalization. Some core of national identity vis-à-vis fashion centers that generate these styles remain even as decades and silhouettes change.
There is a spatial and symbolic identity that defines New York, a situated-ness that absorbs distinctions and differentiation. I remember my Brooklyn College students Sam Cohen and Veronica Khatimskaya’s study of the Louis Vuitton flagship in New York. Their discussion with customers from the Midwest, China or Brazil revealed that this iconic French brand became, for them, a manifestation of their New York City shopping and touristic experience. This semester students in my Business of Fashion course at the Graduate Center are partnering with students on several international campuses in Europe, India and Africa in a fashion and location project that compares the styles on their campuses and seeks to answer what constitutes style, and how identities are performed and situated within cities and on individual campuses.
Visit the Global Fashion Capitals Conference website for more information about the conference, which begins in the morning at FIT with a fashion show and student fair and continues in the afternoon at the Graduate Center.