fashion

Fashion Week Gets Some Breathing Room at the Starrett-Lehigh Building

From the Tibi show at the Starrett-Lehigh Building during New York Fashion Week in September 2023.
From the Tibi show at the Starrett-Lehigh Building during New York Fashion Week in September 2023. Photo: Albert Urso/Getty Images for NYFW: The Shows

Since it became a high-visibility event in Bryant Park in the mid-1990s, New York Fashion Week has walked from runway to runway. Starting in 2010, the expanding event shifted to Lincoln Center, which turned out to be (as one attendee said to me recently) “a shitshow,” and also destructive. In 2018, after a short stint being split among two locations, it resettled at Spring Studios, on Varick Street, a more suitable venue (spacious, indoors) but one that also eventually became overburdened. That led to the deal announced this week with IMG, which owns and operates Fashion Week: The event’s main hub will now be in the Starrett-Lehigh Building, the behemoth industrial-turned-office building between 11th and 12th Avenues and 26th and 27th Streets.

Certainly space will not be a problem. The Starrett-Lehigh Building is immense, covering a full block: Michael Landeen, the building’s general manager for RXR, tells me that he and his colleagues call it “a cruise ship on land.” Nor is this a completely out-of-the-box idea, as the building played host to a couple of individual fashion shows on the building’s 18th floor in 2022 and 2023. “They were very pleased with that. We were very pleased with them. So that helped the conversations, and here we are,” he says. That 18th floor is fitted out as an event space, a flexible white box, and it’s large enough (at 68,000 feet) to handle a lot of activity at once. An extra 17,000 square feet on the floor below will, he says, be dedicated to back-of-the house stuff: logistics, tech, space for staff. It already hosts 12 to 15 big events a year, of varying duration. Even if you have not attended one, you may recognize it if you watch Billions, because it stood in as Taylor’s office in the final episodes. There’s also an expo hall of 5,000 square feet that, presumably, will come into use during the shows, as will other parts of the building like its food hall and a soon-to-be-built restaurant and a big amenities space on the tenth floor.

The Starrett-Lehigh Building on West 26th takes up an entire block in Chelsea. Photo: Richard Levine/Alamy Stock Photo

The building has been trending toward fashion and apparel tenants for awhile. Ralph Lauren has 250,000 square feet of space, and Canada Goose, Zimmermann, and Under Armour are there as well. Landeen won’t reveal the building’s vacancy rate, but presumably it hasn’t been immune to the market forces that the shift to working from home have wrought. He will say that although this isn’t part of an aggressive play toward signing more fashion leases, Starrett-Lehigh has become, somewhat intentionally, a hub for creative industries, and this certainly won’t hurt that identity.

Its strengths for the theatricality of Fashion Week are obvious (enormously high ceilings, vast window area, river views, a lot of fresh renovation) are obvious; so are its potential weaknesses (it’s a long hike from transit, especially in high heels, so one suspects there’ll be a black-car traffic jam outside every day during the shows). The latter will still likely be an improvement on Spring Studios, which couldn’t really accommodate one particular newish aspect of Fashion Week: all the activation points for social media that brands now need to build, and the throngs of influencers that come with them. In recent years, one attendee tells me, you’d see TikTokers walking up and down Varick Street as they filmed; now they’re likely to be a lot closer to the action.

NYFW’s biggest and most extravagant shows will mostly not be at Starrett-Lehigh. They tend to be so theatrical and site-specific, all-encompassing presentations that exist in their own environments. Marc Jacobs, for example, rented the New York Public Library last year; Tory Burch took the former Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank downtown. The tiniest ones tend to take place in the designers’ own showrooms, for reasons of economics, or in unconventional offsite locations, to convey indie cred. This, then, will likely be for the midsize shows where the convenience and support of a prebuilt white box is appropriate. They’re the Off Broadway performances, so to speak, neither Broadway or Off Off — and there are a whole lot of those. Though it wouldn’t exactly be a surprise if Ralph Lauren someday were to show here, given that the company is only an elevator ride away.

Speaking of which: Starrett-Lehigh’s infrastructure solves another recurring problem. At small ateliers or even showrooms in larger old loft buildings — and, yes, at Spring Studios — there’s a familiar dreary ritual of standing around waiting for an elevator that holds only eight people, whereby takes a half-hour to get into a show and a half-hour to leave. Starrett-Lehigh, by contrast, has a whole lot more capacity — even though the very largest lifts, which until a couple of years ago brought entire trucks upstairs, are gone now. In their place, “we added about another 11 elevators,” Landeen says, audibly pleased, “and we do have a large car — not as big as the truck elevator, but you could fit a Mini Cooper on it. It’s about 32 feet by 16 feet wide. And that’s where all the IMG guests will be going up to the 18th floor — we could put probably 50, 60 people on it at one time. Yeah.

Fashion Week Moves to the Starrett-Lehigh Building