What fashion week’s big changes mean for the CFDA’s business

The fashion calendar needs to evolve or die. The Council of Fashion Designers of America, the not-for-profit trade association that purchased the rights to it from founder Ruth Finley in 2014, is tasked with keeping the bedrock to the fashion industry relevant.

Over the past year, new in-season shows, following the “see-now-buy-now” formula, have emerged to cater collections directly to consumers, rather than the typical attendees of press and retail buyers. Designers are deciding for themselves what variation of a fashion show, and what location, makes the most sense. Some designers, like Tommy Hilfiger, Rebecca Minkoff, Rodarte and Proenza Schouler, have opted out of New York Fashion Week for different backdrops.

“For us, we’re just a scheduler,” said Mark Beckham, the business director of fashion weeks for the CFDA. “We want to present designers with the resources to do what’s best for their businesses, but there’s always going to be designers showing here. It’s OK if there’s fluidity — we’re supportive.”

That’s because for women’s fashion week, the CFDA isn’t involved in show production. The group makes up the women’s fashion week schedule every year through an application process: returning designers, if they choose to show in the same time slot as last year, are grandfathered in. If they want to change their time slot, that’s arranged through a separate process to ensure that similar designers don’t overlap. New designers are admitted based on years in business, existing editorial coverage and past off-calendar showings.

(Certain designers — ahem, Kanye West — try to bypass the application process, and schedule a New York Fashion Week show on their own terms. Beckham said that must have been because West didn’t understand the process. The CFDA team, in response, worked with West and overlapping designers to figure out a schedule that fit everyone.)

For new and returning designers, there’s no application or participation fee. The CFDA makes its money instead from annual subscriptions to the official fashion calendar schedule, as well as the schedules and information around other fashion industry events throughout the year. It leases that information out to PR agencies, retailers, designers, casting agents and the media for $325 a year for individuals and $925 for businesses. Designers who are CFDA members get a discounted rate, and a new subscription rate for students will be announced this month.

Beckham said that while the number of annual subscriptions fluctuates, there are about 1,000 active subscribers each year. In its 2015 annual report, the most recent available, the CFDA announced its total revenue for the fiscal year ended at $11.8 million, up from $10.6 million in 2014. Membership fees accounted for $1.5 million, or 13 percent of revenue, with money raised through educational scholarship and fundraiser events accounting for a combined $7.3 million, or 62 percent. The rest is made from special events, including the CFDA Fashion Awards. According to the report, 88 percent of revenue is put toward membership programs.

The CFDA’s business isn’t predicated on what designers are showing in New York, likely because it swooped in after a major shift in the fashion week set up. When Mercedes-Benz announced it would no longer be sponsoring fashion week in January 2015, ending the longstanding tradition of the centralized tent for every show, the CFDA put in motion its plan to overhaul the organization of the event. That included bringing the calendar online-only, behind a subscription wall, and preventing scheduling conflicts for the 150 official fashion week shows.

“We consider it a central location online, so that whatever is going on, designers aren’t in the dark,” said Beckham. “It’s a sensitive time for designers when they’re releasing collections, so we act as air traffic control to help them make the best decisions.”

For designers, the loss of a centralized location meant more freedom to produce the show they wanted. IMG, the entertainment agency that put together fashion week shows under the Mercedes-Benz tent, now hosts shows at Skylight Clarkson Square, which is designated for designers with fewer resources to put on a big production. Designers with more money can do whatever they please to fit their vision — be that a carnival-themed fashion show, a hotel presentation or an opt-out altogether.

“The long-term strategy is really a budget consideration for designers,” said Laurie De Jong, a fashion week producer who operates LDJ Productions. “If the brand can sustain a big stunt every season, they’ll put out the resources to do so. But designers are seeing a lot more options than there used to be, and it’s overwhelming.”

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