April 20 2014

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Lights Up—Again—At The Bryant Park Tents


When the lights at New York fashion week’s Bryant Park tents were set to go out in February 2010, a light in filmmaker James Belzer’s head went on. Since the Tents were pitched in 1993, they had become a launch pad for New York designers and a symbol of American fashion. They also served as the setting for some of the most memorable (some groundbreaking, some horrifying) shows the industry had ever witnessed. As the designers and editors prepared to make a bittersweet departure for Lincoln Center, Belzer went to work documenting the legacy of the Bryant Park era with the help of several prominent industry figures, including Carolina Herrera, Donna Karan, Tommy Hilfiger, Suzy Menkes, and Isaac Mizrahi.

Last month, Belzer screened his documentary The Tents for the first time at New York’s NewFest, in what he hopes will be a prequel to its debut during New York fashion week this September at Lincoln Center. (Belzer and his sales company are still searching for a backer and distributors.) “Fashion is just like any other art, and it needs to be preserved,” says the filmmaker, who is now working on another documentary, about the preservation of New York’s Garment District. “That’s what I’m trying to do with my film—tell 18 years of fashion history in just 72 minutes.” Here, he speaks with about his ode to the Tents.

What prompted you to make this film?
I had been in ad sales forever, with Fairchild and Harper’s Bazaar and such—I had seen the business side of the fashion and magazine industry for a really long time. When Bryant Park was coming to a close, I had already aligned myself with Marcus K. Jones, who was the fashion cinematographer for the project. After I met him, we started our first movie project and by January 2010, I had already thrown myself into this project. We started filming the second to last season at Bryant Park, while I was still at Harper’s Bazaar. We are a four-person operation—most interviews were shot on the red. It wasn’t secret by any means, but we didn’t really put the project out there until very recently.

What were some of the challenges you faced in putting this together?
The challenge we had as filmmakers was fitting all of these stories and moments into one. So many historic things happened during the times there, like September 11 (which shut the tents down), and the same with McQueen, which was during the last season at NYFW, but we wanted to handle those moments delicately without losing sight of the focus of our story we were trying to tell. We had the help, though, of so many amazing people, like Donna, Tommy, and Hal [Rubenstein].

I know you have a lot of strong relationships within the industry, but how did you compel so many great people to get involved?
We pitched the key designers, most of whom entertained or granted us access. Going into this, I knew I needed a mix of designers, backstage people, editors, PR people, and all of the people that made fashion week what it was back then. We wanted to include what we called “The Trifecta”: Calvin, Ralph, and Donna—the people who put New York fashion on the map. It was pretty exciting because you know you have really arrived when Donna agrees to do something. She was very candid and we got an amazing interview. Also, Tommy Hilfiger closed the top of his flagship store for a shoot with us. It was the most amazing moment for me. When that interview was done, I went out on the balcony and thought, “How did this happen?”

For the designers involved in this film and who showed at the Tents, what is that story exactly? Is it the chaotic beauty of the whole experience that you are trying to share?
The real story here with the Tents was that the New York fashion industry came into its own during this period as a global fashion capital, on par with Paris, Milan, and London. The legacy of the Tents really continues now with Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week at Lincoln Center—with fashion now aligned [with] all the performing arts as a top cultural destination and experience that takes place twice a year.

Did you feel that the different designers felt similarly about Bryant Park and the Tents, or did you find they latched on to different aspects of it?
Yes, for the most part, there was a clear consensus among the designers that organizing the Tents in Bryant Park was an important movement to unify the New York fashion business. Their heart and souls were in Bryant Park. There’s a sentimental take because Bryant Park is so intimately connected to the Garment Center. For example, Tommy’s office was on 39th Street right around the corner from the tents for years. They like to promote the idea of fashion week being here for the indefinite future. It was split down the middle, to be honest. There was one key designer that wasn’t keen on the tents at first and said so in the interview.

You screened the movie recently in New York. What was the response to that and what do you hope comes next?
It was fabulous, beyond my wildest expectations. You don’t really know how you are doing until you show it to people, in this case about 200 [people]. We are pushing to show it at Lincoln Center during this September during New York fashion week; it would be quite fitting.

Photos: Courtesy of James Belzer; Andrew H. Walker/ Getty Images (tents)



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