It's 9 p.m. in Saint Petersburg, Russia, and I'm watching a fashion show by a designer I've never heard of. It's the fourth fashion show by a designer I've never heard of that I've seen tonight, and according to the schedule, there are two more to go; they run the shows back-to-back here at Aurora Fashion Week, shuttling attendees up and down the stairs of a town-hall type of building near the center of town. The designer is called Alina Muha, and actually, her clothes aren't bad. But not for the first time this week, I find myself wondering: What am I doing here?
On a factual level, I know the answer to that question. I was invited to attend Aurora Fashion Week and to speak at one of its offshoot events, and given that my lifelong love affair with Russia had been unrequited until now, I jumped at the opportunity. My days are filled with the Hermitage, and tracing Raskolnikov's anxious steps up and down Sadovaya Street, and practicing my terrible Russian on curbside pierogi vendors, and eyeing Saint Petersburg's rather remarkable-looking techno-goths. I'm having a grand time, in other words. Then night falls, and it's back to the back-to-back Aurora Fashion Week shows. I have the distinct impression that the Aurora directors want me to report on these shows, or review the collections. I wouldn't be doing anyone any favors if I did.
Aurora is a relatively new event on the fashion calendar, and it's only to be expected that it's still riding with its training wheels on, as far as organizing and programming a fashion week is concerned. There was a whole naïve "let's put on a show!" enthusiasm about the event that I found rather winning, in fact. And as a fashion journalist, I'm always keen to find talent in unexpected places—one of my very favorite collections last season was from Maki Oh, a label based in Lagos, Nigeria. I don't believe for a moment that New York, London, Paris, and Milan have a monopoly on fashion. I do believe that the fashion weeks in these cities serve a very clear purpose. In case that purpose isn't self-evident to anyone reading this, here's my take, in a nutshell. Twice a year, the best, most innovative, and most commercially important fashion brands convene, in these four cities, to preview their upcoming collections for fashion editors and retailers. The retailers come to buy; the editors to report and to get ideas for fashion editorials and the like. Throw in some parties and some street-style paparazzi and a lot of very hungry people trying to get taxis, and that's fashion week. It's work. And so when I ask myself the question "What am I doing here?" at Aurora Fashion Week, what I'm really asking is, "Is this work?" And further: "Is anyone here working?"
I don't think so. In the past decade, as the audience for fashion has grown more global, there's been a synchronous advance of the idea of fashion week not as a venue for work but as a form of entertainment. And cities everywhere want a piece of that action. That's led to the proliferation of a new kind of fashion week, one in which the spectacle of catwalk shows is treated largely as an end in itself. Let me be clear: I'm not talking about fashion weeks like the ones in Tokyo, or Sydney, or São Paulo, or Mumbai, which serve regional fashion industries and are working events like the ones in the established fashion capitals. I'm not talking about the fashion week in Miami, which is focused on swimwear. Nor am I talking about Copenhagen Fashion Week, say, or the fashion week in Berlin that starts tomorrow and kicks off Style.com's expanded global fashion coverage. Again, those are events that serve discrete and distinctive fashion scenes.
No, the kind of fashion week I'm talking about is of another kind entirely, and maybe a rundown of the situation in the former Soviet Union and its bloc will help illustrate the point. Aurora Fashion Week was held at the same time as a fashion week in Moscow, which I presume to be a working event. It was also held a few days after a fashion week—two, in fact, running simultaneously—in Kiev. A few days later, there was a fashion week in Almaty, in Kazakhstan. There are also fashion weeks in Minsk, Belarus; in Riga, Latvia; in the republic of Georgia; and in the Polish city of Lodz. Among others, I have no doubt.
"I went to one fashion week, in the city of L'viv, that's on the border of the Ukraine and Poland," recalls photographer and Livin' Cool blogger Emanuele D'Angelo. "It's a very beautiful city, but quite small. They held the fashion shows in a meatpacking center. You could literally smell the meat."
D'Angelo is one of a number of bloggers who are making the rounds of these small, ultra-regional fashion weeks. He spends much of his time on the road and, by his own admission, treats attendance at these events as a ticket to visit places he might not otherwise get to see. I met him in Saint Petersburg. D'Angelo's take on the small-fashion-week phenomenon is that these events serve to inspire people in the area who have an interest in fashion but who wouldn't necessarily have the chance to participate in it, if not for the local shows.
"Think about it this way," D'Angelo says. "If you're a young person living in Riga or Kiev, and you want to design clothes, these fashion weeks give you an incentive to do something. Maybe you dream about showing in Paris one day, but for now, there's a fashion week in your town, and being part of that, it seems possible.
"And when they invite people from the international press to come to fashion week, and to speak, or to report," D'Angelo adds, "that's inspiring. It makes people feel like they're a part of something people are noticing."
If organizers of all these off-the-beaten-track fashion weeks really do want to foment local creativity, they should consider following the example of Charleston Fashion Week. Launched on a whim, pretty much, by the good folks at Charleston magazine, the five-year-old event has evolved into something of a real-life Project Runway.
"Initially, we just thought it would be something fun to do, and a way to showcase local designers and retailers," explains Misty Lister, CFW's director of marketing. "Then, in our second year, we launched our emerging-designer competition, which has now essentially taken over the whole event. It's a huge program, and we're open now to candidates from 21 states."
Lister goes on to note that by running the competition, Charleston Fashion Week has been able to carve out a unique niche for itself.
"We know this isn't an industry event," she says. "It's a social event. People come to our shows to enjoy themselves. It's a great thing for Charleston, because it attracts visitors and brings money into the local economy. And for the designers who are competing, it's an amazing learning opportunity. For them, Charleston is a pathway to showing in New York. We know that. We know," she asserts, "what we're doing here. We know what we're about."