On the evening of Sunday, July 12, in a room at the Art Institute of Portland, Chris Cone and Tito Chowdhury laid it all out. As the two principal figures behind Portland Fashion Week (PFW), they had scheduled a forum to open up conversation with a community that has sometimes been at odds with the event. The candor was overdue, and the past years of work on the annual showcase have been a learning process for everyone involved. The presentation and Q&A helped clarify some of the questions and doubts that have dogged the organization, and more importantly, allowed insight into where PFW is headed.
One of the earliest issues raised by PFW was a perceived division between those designers who participate and those who don't. PFW has matured into its identity as a marketing tool, explicitly stating that it is not intended for small artisan designers making primarily one-of-a-kind garments—much of Portland's apparel industry identity has its roots in just such artisanship, but I get the sense that they're not trying to be completest anymore, and I don't blame them.
"We're not trying to be pedantic at all," said Cone as he launched into a basic explanation of how designers can use PFW to market themselves. For 2009, official photography is being handled by Fashion Wire Press, a New York-based company that specializes in runway photography at major fashion weeks worldwide. This was met with chagrin by Portland photographers in attendance, but arguably justifies the cost of participation in the event (starting at $750, plus an additional $350-500 to buy the photos).
Speaking of money, they also put any rumors of making large profits from the event to rest by opening the books. Last year's event cost $456,791, about $62,000 of which was not covered by sponsors. The total income came to $71,270, leaving them less than $10,000 from breaking even.
This year they've thrown their resources into attracting buyers (they've assembled a buyer relations team and are organizing a "buyers' hour" to increase contact between designers and the buyers they want to pursue); have established print sponsorships with Spin and Surface magazines as well as Lufthansa's in-flight publication, and are negotiating with the Portland Business Alliance on a pop-up shop project that would feature Portland designers running temporary shops in unoccupied downtown commercial spaces through the holidays. They are also adding an emerging designer showcase to the event, where up and comers can participate at almost half the cost.
"Exposure, Respect, and Revenue" are the key words propelling Portland Fashion Week's current agenda, and as Portland Fashion Synergy President May Tee put it after the forum's conclusion, "I think Portland Fashion Week is moving in the right direction."