Last week I went on a trip to New York to visit a good friend of mine. While preparing for the trip I had a long list of places to visit from museums to a garment district walking tour to the stores of all my favorite NYC-based fashion brands. It got me thinking about how NYC became such a hub for fashion and culture while my home, San Francisco, is also a known culture hub but lacks a recognizable fashion influence. I wanted to look into how fashion capitals are born and why (or if) they’re still relevant in the world of modern fashion.
What Makes a Fashion Capital
A fashion capital is a city that has a major influence on international fashion trends and is a place where design, production, retailing, and fashion-focused events generate significant economic output. These cities are generally great culture hubs and include notable art scenes and major fashion/art universities. The traditional fashion capitals also have contributed to the history of textile production.
The Big Four: New York, Paris, London, Milan
Paris has traditionally been the world’s fashion capital as it not only holds a major fashion week but also the only couture week. Many of our favorite heritage luxury brands and most influential designers like Louis Vuitton, Yves Saint Laurent, Dior, and Chanel have their headquarters in Paris. Paris has been a capital of culture and fashion since the reign of Louis XIV in the 17th century; the Sun King’s court was legendary for its commitment to fashion and decadence. Paris’s formidable fashion reputation was reinforced in the early 19th century when Charles Frederick Worth, considered the first fashion designer (as opposed to solely a dressmaker), started his business in Paris. Though he was born in England, he knew he had to move to Paris to start his fashion business.
New York became a major fashion capital significantly later than Paris though it has been considered more important in recent years due to the emergence of new designers. World War II was the surprising catalyst for New York’s emergence as a fashion capital for two major reasons. First, the garment district in NYC was put to work making garments, parachutes, and the like for the war effort. Second, the major fashion press couldn’t travel to Paris as they normally did for obvious safety issues. At this point, there weren’t many original fashion designers in America; department store owners and fashion press would travel to Paris to see the latest designs and either buy them for their stores or shamelessly copy them. Since fashion professionals couldn’t travel to Paris to see the new designs (and most fashion houses had closed down due to the war), they set up the first fashion week called “Press Week” and the New York fashion industry exploded after the war.
London’s status as a capital is even more recent than New York’s despite being the home of one of the most relevant luxury houses: Burberry; and its major historical significance in textile production. London’s recognition as a fashion capital didn’t really take off until the 60’s and 70’s. I don’t know about you but whenever I picture the 60’s I think of mod clothing, gogo boots, the famous Twiggy, and the Beatles, all of which originated in London. London’s international fashion reputation exploded after this and continued through the 70’s with the prevalence of punk rock culture and the famed Vivienne Westwood. London is also home to the premier fashion university, Central Saint Martins, with famous alumni such as Stella McCartney, John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Phoebe Philo, and Christopher Kane. London’s fashion week didn’t begin until 1984 and has been growing considerably ever since.
Milan is the oldest fashion capital and dates back to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in terms of cultural importance. Due to its prominence as a city-state, it had great political power throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The city actually got its name from the English word "milaner" or "millaner", meaning “fine wares like jewellery, cloth, hats and luxury apparel” due to the importance of making luxury goods in the 16th century. Many Italian fashion design brands are based in Milan even though they were actually founded in other cities in Italy - Dolce & Gabbana, Versace, Giorgio Armani, Valentino, Prada, and more.
The Future of Fashion Capitals
The tides show signs of changing though. Fashion weeks are showing up all over the world from Miami Fashion Week (swimwear) to Portland (eco-friendly) and Bangalore (festive wear). Designers are even starting to do one-off shows in other cities such as Los Angeles, Seoul, Shanghai, and others in order to appeal more directly to their target consumers. Karl Lagerfeld showed Chanel resort wear in Seoul; Dior shows in Shanghai; Tom Ford and Burberry have shown in Los Angeles. Major fashion hubs are starting in Tokyo, Shanghai, and Berlin as influxes of new designers are staying in their home cities as opposed to traveling to Paris like Charles Worth did two hundred years ago. Hedi Slimane of Saint Laurent moved his creative headquarters to Los Angeles (though it sounds like the new couture collections will still be back in Paris). Paris hasn’t produced as many new, innovative fashion brands as other cities like New York, Berlin, and Tokyo.
Streaming has allowed people from all over the world to include themselves in major fashion events. In 2010, Burberry showed live streams of its fashion show in various cities around the world -- in 3D. So what’s next for these major fashion capitals? With more cities trying to make their own fashion weeks and more designers deciding to show off the beaten path, the calendar has gotten so cluttered and impossible to see everything. The system is bound to pop.