Producing a fashion show is a notoriously stressful experience for designers.
“It’s sleepless nights and it is a lot of stress,” said Mia Vesper, 32, a New York City-based fashion designer whose fans include Beyoncé, Machine Gun Kelly and Pete Davidson.
She received a shipment of garments in October for what was supposed to be a ready-to-wear-collection – clothes that are mass-produced for consumption – only to discover that everything had been made with the wrong fabric.
And with a show just seven days away, Vesper said she had to scramble to find another plan.
“I just burst into tears and I was like, I can’t do this anymore,” she recalled.
New York Fashion Week kicks off on Friday, and is a period when designers unveil their ready-to-wear collections for store buyers, editors and influencers in elaborate fashion shows.
This year’s roster of over 90 participating designers includes a mix of big names like Jason Wu Collection, Ulla Johnson, and Coach, as well as newer brands like Theophilio – but it won’t include Mia Vesper.
And while Fashion Week’s glamour often makes headlines, for some designers like Vesper, the costs far exceed the rewards – which aren’t guaranteed.
A cornerstone of the fashion ecosystem
Industry experts interviewed for this article all agreed that participating in Fashion Week is a gamble for any designer. While they said it can serve as a launching pad or a publicity boon for an up-and-comer, they added that it can also be a financial drain and an enormous stressor, particularly for designers who lack hefty budgets.
Vesper said the bills, mental stress, and the inability to make sales while organizing her September 2022 Fashion Week show and a subsequent show in October made her reconsider participating in Fashion Week, even if it could potentially expand her brand.
“Participating in Fashion Week says that you are serious about your craft,” said Shawn Grain Carter, a professor at the Fashion institute of Technology who teaches courses on sustainability and corporate social responsibility.
But Grain Carter added that “in terms of financial benefits, that’s a different conversation,” and one that each designer has to evaluate for themselves.
Kanika Talwar, who covers consumer trends and e-commerce for the Business of Fashion, said Fashion Week can be effective for designers seeking investors or press.
“If you’re trying to be on a bigger scale, it obviously is a great place to be,” she said.
But, she said, if you’re a designer with a customer base and no plans to expand, then it might not make sense.
She noted that many designers today sell directly to their consumers.
“They don’t need to go through the press, the stylists, the buyers, all of that to be seen,” Talwar said.
“I was watching my bank account dwindle”
Vesper’s built a devoted following since she started designing her eponymous brand in 2016, which included ready-to-wear collections.
She garnered industry attention after organizing a fashion show outside of a Marc Jacobs show in New York in 2017, which was inspired by guerilla-marketing tactics.
Vesper said her sales skyrocketed after Beyoncé wore one of her dresses in the 2020 musical “Black is King.” Vesper created a ready-to-wear version of the dress around that time, and asked her web-designer boyfriend at the time to redo her website and list new products.
“I was like, this might be our moment,” she said, adding that she saw the opportunity as her last chance at success. “On the day the film dropped, I started to run ads on Instagram and it really really took off.”
Vesper said she first participated in New York Fashion Week on the official calendar in September 2022 because of how “momentous” the event was.
She said she experienced a slew of “last-minute disasters” on the day of the show, including unreachable models and late-arriving props.
Another established brand’s show had also run late, causing spottier-than-expected attendance at her show. She said editors she’d expected to attend “might’ve been sick,” and added that her show didn’t receive “that much press.”
“There was almost no conclusion to that experience that was going to make the financial responsibility worth it at that point,” Vesper said. She estimates she spent somewhere between $50,000 and $75,000 on the show.
“I was watching my bank account dwindle, and there was nobody else that was going to give me that money. It was gonna come from sales, but I didn’t have time to concentrate on sales.”
“I realized something needed to change,” she said. “This was not a structure that was going to work for me.”
A “wildly unstable” industry
Designers who participate in Fashion Week typically show two collections a year, each at least a season or two ahead.
“It can get really unwieldy,” said Alexis Romano, a Parsons School of Design professor who teaches courses on fashion writing and history.
“It’s based on this concept of an old lifestyle and a system that was put in place to be profitable and to grow, but fashion has grown at a really at a rate that is incredibly problematic for the environment and for human rights,” she said.
Romano also said it’s hard for up-and-coming designers to compete with established names, who are typically more financially stable, in terms of producing a fashion show.
“The fashion industry is just so wildly unstable from a financial perspective,” she said.
Grain Carter said that for designers, just showing at Fashion Week – which can cost at least $75,000 to host – doesn’t make a brand successful.
“Your brand is successful when you are making gross margin profits, period,” she said. “Our business is about profitability, and if you’re bankrupt, then you’re not successful.”
The rise of social media creates another wrinkle in the equation.
Fashion Week is typically considered a way to be seen by industry’s gatekeepers – including fashion editors.
But in 2024, “that’s up for debate,” Grain Carter said, noting that designers are able to promote their brands on platforms like Instagram and TikTok – often at a much lower cost than staging a high-stakes fashion show.
“Keep my eyes on my own paper”
Vesper said she’ll continue to focus on creating “few of a kind” pieces through her new brand, Vesper Obscura, which launches in March, rather than producing ready-to-wear collections for a mass consumer base.
Her main goal is to “keep my eyes on my own paper and not look sideways.”
She said that although she doesn’t know if she’ll ever show at New York Fashion Week again, she’s grateful that she did.
“It’s all led to me honing my understanding of what’s realistic for me as a business,” she said.
For her, the path forward is online.
“You can reach millions of people online and you can only reach however many people stop in your store that day when you have a brick and mortar,” she said.