Forty years ago, Fashion Week in New York was focused on the clothes. Not celebrities. Not street-style stars. Not social media. Guests gathered in the often dingy showrooms around Seventh Avenue, and photographers took their places along the runway. And the models walked. They sold the clothes with a knowing nod or jaunty strut.
The audience was filled with retailers, magazine editors and newspaper journalists from all around the country. Back then, there was no digital media, but there was an awful lot of print media representing the big cities on both coasts as well as lots of midsize cities in between — places like Detroit, Cleveland and Kansas City, Mo.
The fashion world was small and clubby. Its members set the style agenda. And the news was disseminated in an orderly, controlled manner. It didn’t matter where you lived. Everyone — every woman — took part in the same fashion conversation.
Today, the industry is global, the audience is expansive and the conversation is lively but fractured. As the fall 2017 womenswear collections roll out this month in New York — followed by debuts in London, Milan and Paris — design houses will roll out their wares to a live audience that numbers in the hundreds. Some shows will be live-streamed and accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. And by the time the last model has sashayed off the runway, the entire extravaganza will be posted to Instagram.
Many of the changes are for the better. More people have access to thoughtfully designed clothes. The industry makes a more substantial contribution to the economy. It helps to shape and define our culture for the future. And it still has the capacity to make people dream.
Fashion is more professional now, but also more corporate. In some cases, it has to answer to Wall Street, and so the stakes are higher. A lucrative new idea is knocked off in the blink of an eye with few consequences. Department stores have consolidated and are under pressure as everything from e-commerce to fast fashion degrades the integrity of the old system. And at a fashion show, you’re more likely to meet a social media influencer from Detroit than a journalist from one of that city’s daily newspapers.
These photographs, taken in March 1980, are a lesson in fashion history. A reminder that a circus did not always swirl around the runways. Hollywood stars used to buy clothes — not borrow them — and got dressed without the continued supervision of a stylist. And designers worried about only two seasons, spring and fall — and perhaps “cruise,” for those exceptional women who regularly spent part of their winter at a spa.
It was a simpler time for the fashion industry. When the pace wasn’t so relentless, the field wasn’t so crowded and there was really only one way to sell a frock. Everything moved at a more measured pace. Women waited until designer duds arrived in stores or the copies turned up a year later at a discount.
Business was different, but it was still challenging and not for the faint of heart. American designers were the underdogs to their more established Paris counterparts, whom critics and customers alike deemed more creative. Designers needed business savvy, too, because even though the big stores weren’t as big as they are today, retailers still had the upper hand. The designers who would ultimately make it — the ones who’d enter our popular consciousness — were more salesmen than artists. They wove a mythology around simple ideas: a Polo shirt, a peacoat, a bodysuit.
The pictures of a much younger Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Donna Karan — each of them in their studio, or in the case of Karan, in the Anne Klein showroom along with her colleague Louis Dell’Olio — remind us that fashion, no matter how corporate or far-reaching, begins with a bolt of fabric, a model and an idea. Look at what they’re wearing or how they are standing and you can get a quick sense of their design aesthetic. Klein wears a minimalist but sexy T-shirt. Lauren has a preppy crewneck pulled over a Polo shirt with its collar popped. Karan’s body language expresses the ease and sensuality of her clothes, which at Anne Klein and, later, her own label, would appeal to so many women building careers outside the home. Karan is draped over a chair, modeling a shoe. Her arms are wrapped around each other. And the late Bill Blass looks jaunty and debonair — a gentleman from another time — in his tailored suit with a cigarette dangling from his lips.
There is also a picture of Perry Ellis, who was known for his youthful, effervescent sportswear and who died in 1986. He is a reminder of how much of the fashion industry was decimated during the height of the AIDS crisis. And also a reminder of what might have been.
These photos capture the years before the supermodels exploded, before the waifs turned a size zero into the standard and diversity drained from the runway. The model Pat Cleveland might have had the legs of a sparrow, but she did not seem breakable or emaciated as she twirled like a top on the catwalk. There were more black models because the designers were more interested in personality than sameness.
And there’s the late Nina Hyde, the former Washington Post fashion editor, who was part of a generation of journalists who covered the frock trade as a business, not just a social dalliance. She, along with women such as Bernadine Morris in New York and Marylou Luther in Los Angeles, were journalists above all else. Hyde chronicled hemlines, but also personalities, profits and losses, fashion’s place in the broader world and its messy, frustrating, captivating humanity.
Before her death in 1990, Hyde moved fashion off the women’s pages of newspapers; she mainstreamed it. Her stories led the way for fashion to be considered in the context of Washington politics, youthful protest, global trade and social currency.
These photos are not a glimpse at Seventh Avenue’s beginnings, but rather a peek at a particular tipping point in society. Fashion was poised to become the cultural force it is today. It was getting ready to make its pact with celebrities and transform into red carpet entertainment. It was rumbling with possibility.
The industry was growing up.