Twice a year, dozens of stone-faced models march down the runways of New York Fashion Week wearing marvelous clothes that very few of us can even begin to afford. Fewer still will be invited to grace the front row seats of the runway spectacles themselves (hint: be rich, powerful, or a Real Housewife). Regular folks need not apply, though there’s usually enough media coverage to tide over most casual observers. Trends may come and go, but Fashion Week remains a high-visibility, low-access affair.
During this year’s Fashion Week, however, all New Yorkers get a front-row seat – a bicycle seat, that is. From September 8 – 15, the Fashion Center Business Improvement District (BID) is sponsoring Tour de Fashion, a limited-time bike share program that makes a fleet of 30 bicycles available to the public for free 90-minute rides around town. The bicycles have been creatively (and in some cases outrageously) customized by some of New York City’s best fashion designers, including industry superstars like Diane Von Furstenburg, Isaac Mizrahi, Betsy Johnson and Elie Tahari as well as up-and-comers like Prabal Gurung and Project Runway winner Gretchen Jones.
The non-profit Fashion Center BID created Tour de Fashion as a way to bring attention to the city’s Fashion District and to the local talent it breeds and supports. “The Fashion District is where American fashion as we know it emerged from, spreading throughout the five boroughs and eventually across the country,” explains Fashion Center BID president Barbara Randall. “The movement of these bikes will be symbolic of that very same movement.”
As custom-designed objects (made in New York City by Bowery Lane Bicycles), the bikes also symbolize the high-skilled labor associated with apparel manufacturing. New York’s Fashion District is one of America’s last remaining inner-city manufacturing zones and its concentration of specialty services — from fabric stores to pattern-making and hand-beading — has long been under threat from the pressures of low-cost overseas production.
In recent years, many of the designers involved in Tour de Fashion have also participated in efforts to stop New York City’s government from removing special zoning laws that protect that manufacturing-related uses of buildings in the neighborhood. Designers like Nanette Lepore and Yeohlee Teng have spoken out alongside other activists against the marginalization of the Fashion District as irrelevant to the city’s economy. They’ve stressed the inherent (and now-obvious) danger in prioritizing real-estate development at the expense of other sectors with job growth potential like local manufacturing.
New York’s development wars are fought on a crowded battlefield – every neighborhood has its own conflict. Even so, the Fashion District cause has managed to gain a good deal of attention. HBO premiered a documentary on the subject and, in 2010, a well-publicized research project initiated by local non-profit Design Trust for Public Space concluded what many designers already knew: despite the low volume of goods produced there in relation to overseas factories, the Fashion District is still responsible for the production of the kind of high-end apparel that sashays down New York’s runways every spring and fall. In other words, it helps make New York City a global fashion capital.
The neighborhood’s future may be uncertain, but some aspects of the city’s fashion industry hold true: if the District disappeared, not only would established designers have a harder time preparing their collections, but young designers would find themselves struggling to produce pieces on small budgets without the clustered services of the neighborhood. This is not something the industry should allow to happen: fewer young designers in Manhattan means the city’s status as a fashion innovator is at risk.
Bleak prognostications notwithstanding, young talent is flourishing in the District. For Tour de Fashion, seven of the 30 bikes are decorated by current and past tenants of the District-based CFDA Fashion Incubator, a program designed to support up-and-coming fashion designers by offering low-cost studio space, business mentoring, seminars and networking opportunities. After September 15, Tour de Fashion bikes will be auctioned off with proceeds going to support the incubator, thus completing the cycle.
Or should we say: bi(cycle)?
For information regarding bike-share locations and hours, visit http://tourdefashion.com.