Last week, women in fur swing coats and Balenciaga bags braved the icy weather to zip around New York City, attending one designer presentation after another, stopping only occasionally to stomp the muddied city snow off their Louboutin booties. New York Fashion Week — the biggest American fashion event, held biannually in October and February — attracts everyone from front-row movie stars to standing-room-only journalists like myself.

NYFW marks one of many trips that I have taken back to New York since completing my stint there in fashion marketing. Too often during these visits, I find myself defending my new hometown to ignorant, Northern counterparts — many of whom cannot fathom life below Houston Street, let alone in South Carolina. In these arguments, I boast of Charleston’s obvious advantages, such as the weather and friendly people, and of the Holy City’s cultural offerings, most relevant among them — and most surprising to outsiders — being Charleston Fashion Week.

I attended CFW for the first time last year, and despite the vestiges of my New Yorker skepticism, I was thoroughly impressed. While there were, of course, things that needed to be developed — such as the local retailer runway shows which felt like aggrandized store commercials — most everything, from the emerging designers to the runway music to the tent set-up in Marion Square, exceeded my expectations. 

Now, coming into its fourth year, CFW has successfully garnered national attention, generated two Project Runway semi-finalists, and is headed toward industry respect and legitimacy. Thanks in part to CFW, Charleston is poised to usurp Atlanta as the Southeast’s fashion capital. This year, however, just as the event is gaining respect and momentum, it seems to have changed course. 2010 is shaping up to be the most commercial CFW yet, with several reality show-style competitions, such as the Rock the Runway Model Search and a new Emerging Designer Competition format that involves a senseless, eleventh-hour designer challenge.

This is not the Bravo channel. Such shenanigans detract from the event’s authenticity and distract from the central purpose of a fashion week: to showcase upcoming fashion talent. If CFW is to garner valuable, long-term industry respect and attention, it should focus its energies on consistently discovering and debuting outstanding designers. 

Having just returned from NYFW, I am more keenly aware than ever of the potential CFW holds. From industry respect to regional fashion dominance to economic stimulus, a fashion week’s creative energy invigorates both the people and local economy, all of which would benefit Charleston.

Despite the glamour and vitality of the recent NYFW, it’s clear that the event is changing. The recession has made the overblown runway productions that characterized NYFW seem outdated and even inappropriate. The focus has returned to the craft, and an increasing number of designers, including big names like DKNY and Marc Jacobs, are opting for scaled-down, intimate events in unique spaces around New York rather than at Bryant Park, the traditional runway show location.

Additionally, the function of runway shows has been brought into question by the widespread availability of online media; why spend valuable dollars sending your trend forecaster to fashion week when you can get free, detailed images on each look on, and bloggers are tweeting runway play-by-plays from the front row?

Charleston has something to offer the institution of fashion week that New York doesn’t: freedom from long-standing traditions and sentiment. Unrestrained, we can redefine the event on our own terms. The first step toward achieving this is to democratize the event.  In its current form, CFW is controlled exclusively by Charleston magazine. The craft cannot flourish in this predetermined format.  

Imagine CFW’s potential if — like the Piccolo Spoleto Festival — it is embraced by the entire city. The unique history and culture of Charleston could be used to further the event, ranging from fashion history exhibits at the Gibbes Museum to avant garde collection installations in abandoned antebellum structures to stages that replace catwalks upon which garments are twirled about on Charleston Ballet Theatre dancers instead of models.

The shifting purpose of runway shows and the role of the fashion week institution provide an exciting opportunity for Charleston to establish itself as the Southeastern fashion capital. Charleston magazine put the ball into play, and now I challenge the city to run with it.

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