NEW YORK - Since 1993 and the founding of “7th on Sixth”, designers have gathered every February and September under what was for years literally a tent, first in Bryant Park, then in Lincoln Center, to present their spring and fall collections to an excited gaggle of buyers, the fashion press, a few scattered celebrities and, eventually “influencers”, bloggers and whoever was lucky enough to grab a golden ticket, an elusive invitation to a runway show.

Well, nothing lasts forever. 7th on Sixth was sold to IMG, and, in 2015 New York Fashion Week was forced to pack up those tents and hit the road in search of another venue big enough to provide multiple runways and a common area that could serve as a sort of bazaar, hawking sponsors’ products, from cosmetics to free booze.

But this is New York City and space is a commodity, meaning dozens of designers had to seek venues outside the now more metaphorical “tents”, the large-ish studio spaces that became the hub of Fashion Week.  And plenty of venue owners were more than happy to oblige.

One of them was Pier 59 Studios, a part of the Chelsea Piers complex along the Hudson, at 18th Street. Founder and CEO, Federico Pignatelli, knew he had a space that ticked all the boxes.

“It is a unique space,” he said, sitting out COVID in his native Italy.  “It’s really large, open, with high ceilings.  When I saw the space I understood that it had tremendous potential.”

Pier 59 boasts 110,000 square feet of customizable photography and multi-media studio space that easily could be used for runway shows and presentations, with plenty of room for backstage areas and hair and makeup rooms. It’s a bare-bones space, absent the overpriced cafes and pop up hair salons, but with a bar and restaurant and a celebrated outdoor deck overlooking the river.

And the clients came running.  For the Fall/Winter 2020 shows back in February, Pier 59 hosted 30 shows with more than 10,000 attendees.  

So, you would think that the loss of the fashionista crowd, at least for the September shows, would have Pignatelli fretting.  Actually, not so much.

“Not at all,” he says, “because the studios that we have, the spaces that we are not giving up for Fashion Week we are renting for the production of advertising campaigns.  In fact, we’re making more money than we did with fashion shows.
We are renting our spaces to clients we had to say no to in the past because of Fashion Week.”

And, he says, some designers have been using the space to shoot their virtual shows, presentations and the “look books” they will send to buyers and editors.

But for the photographers who pack the risers season after season, there are mixed emotions for a nearly all-virtual Fashion Week.

Theano Nikitas has been traveling to New York from her Maryland home for 15 years to cover the shows.  For the past several seasons she’s been shooting for Zuma Press Wire Service, which provides photos to a host of national and international outlets.

“At the end of every Fashion Week I wonder if I really want to come back the following season, “she said.  “The work is exhausting and you spend more time waiting for a show to start than actually shooting it.  Sleep and food don’t come easy.  And there’s always the jostling for the coveted center spot on the riser.”

But she does keep coming back, “because, despite everything, shooting runway is exciting and fun, as well as an opportunity to make a few dollars.”

Roy Anthony Morrison, a 10-year veteran of the “pit”, what the photographers call the riser at the top of the runway, says there were signs that things were changing long before the pandemic.

“It has become a lot harder to get access,” he said.  “Credentials and invitations from designers and PR companies have become harder to get.  Many veteran photographers who used to get credentials are no longer granted them.  Preference is now given to major media outlets.”

Anton Brookes, who has been shooting Fashion Week for more than a decade, agrees that access to the shows was dwindling, as was the opportunity to sell professional photos. And, he says, that’s probably by design.

“IMG has its own photographers, and they also have a relationship with Getty Images, which is a major supplier of Fashion Week photos” he says, “they would be just as happy to be the only ones who sell images.  So independent photographers have had to work harder for a spot on the riser. COVID might just give them the excuse they need to exclude other outlets from the shows they control.”

Morrison agrees that COVID-19 may have forever changed the game for the hundreds who have filled the risers, snapping as fast as they can as the models make their way down the runway.

“I can’t imagine going back to the old setup any time soon,” he said.  “Being packed on a riser jammed up against 100 people isn’t going to work anymore.”

Pier 59’s Pignatelli, who also founded The Industry Model Management, says, in fact, he believes Fashion Week had already lost a lot of its luster.

“We are very happy to have contributed to Fashion Week but the shows which were a glamorous thing to have are not as glamorous as in the past.  There is far less money to spend on fashion shows as there was, so it is not as economically viable as it used to be. There is not as much work for the models and modeling agencies out there either.  Fashion Week was already changing.”