NEW YORK CITY—Throughout Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week here in February, one question more than any other was on the minds and lips of long-time attendees: “What’s going on?”

Gone was the festive atmosphere, a hallmark of the nation’s biggest celebration of fashion. Inside the fashion week tents at Manhattan’s storied Lincoln Center, the crowds were thinner and the usual buzz little more than a low murmur. After­parties and freebies, once plentiful and flowing, were fewer and farther between. There were more holes than usual in the show schedule, and at numerous shows there were an alarming number of empty seats.

RIBBON CUTTING—New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz of the 2012 Super Bowl championship team joins model Kate Upton (third from right) and Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week representatives in a ribbon-cutting ceremony to kick off show.

The eight-day event was like a leathery old latex balloon pricked by a pin and left to slowly, anemically deflate.

I had arrived thinking that my 25th New York fashion week might be memorable in a pleasant way, but I left feeling like a penny waiting for change. I’ve seen significant change over the last 13 years, having attended more than 1,500 shows at consecutive fashion weeks every February and September since 2000. By the time the February 2012 event ended, it was clear that fashion week in New York was at a major crossroads. There are signs that it is unraveling like a hem on Kmart khakis, and here are five likely reasons why.

The recession

Some fashion designers and brands have filed for bankruptcy or gone out of business entirely, and others continue to struggle financially under the weight of a tenacious recession felt around the globe.

The economy impacts every aspect of fashion week. For example, fewer of the biggest names in American fashion still participate through IMG, the presenter of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. This deprives them of direct access to the many media and other industry types who officially register for fashion week, but apparently many feel the monetary savings are worth it.

So, in ever-increasing numbers, designers are choosing to stage presentations somewhere other than the official Lincoln Center venue. They locate alternative venues, sometimes collaboratively, and show their collections for a fraction of what it would costs at the tents.

The venue change

In time for the September 2010 shows, organizers moved the official venue from its long-time home at Bryant Park in Midtown to Lincoln Center on the Upper West Side. The move had logistical, political, and financial considerations.

The new site is more spacious and luxurious, but Bryant Park had symbolic and sentimental value because of its proximity to the city’s garment and fashion district. The Lincoln Center site is a more residential neighborhood with fewer public transportation options and fewer hotels with convenient access to the tents, which give out-of-towners more reasons to stay home.

A major leadership change

Fern Mallis is rightly credited with being the brains behind the New York fashion week’s rise to a globally recognized cultural event on a par with London, Paris and Milan. The face of New York fashion week for nearly two decades, she stepped down two years ago after helping ensure the transition from Bryant Park to Lincoln Center.

In an interview in The Daily Front Row, a kitschy tabloid published each day of fashion week, she sounded like a Dr. Frankenstein whose creation had disloyally turned on its creator. Once a front-row fixture at every show in the tents, her appearance there has become as rare as A-list celebrities.

Corporate greed

With Mallis’ experienced, passionate hand no longer at the till, fashion week seems to be at the mercy of profit-obsessed bean-counters.

Here’s an example of how that dynamic plays out:

Press and other industry professionals pay a fee to register for fashion week. Registering gets your name on a list that is sent to participating designers—with no guarantee of invitations to their shows—and an ID that grants access to the general tent area.

Another tangible benefit of registering is an official commemorative bag containing treats and mementoes from sponsors and advertisers. The bags had gotten smaller in size and fewer in number in recent years until finally, in February, there was no bag to be rationed out to those lucky enough to score a voucher. However, the hundreds of individuals who registered were not made aware of this until after they had already paid $80 or more to register.

Even before this season, there was a growing trend among regular attendees toward not registering, instead directly contacting designers for show invitations. Given the decreasing benefits of registering, fashion week organizers are likely to take a huge financial hit in September as many attendees conclude that registering is no longer worth the price.

Cultural stagnation

Along with losing a healthy balance between business enterprise and social-cultural event, fashion week has become harder to enjoy as show-by-show entertainment.

With the decline in readership of traditional print media such as newspapers and magazines, the number of fashion journalists covering fashion week has dwindled. Simultaneously, the ranks of bloggers has swelled out of proportion. While many bloggers have little writing skill and even less technical knowledge of fashion, the pictures they snap with digital cameras and smart phones and the praises they lavish on their favorite designers provide instant gratification for designers desperate for free publicity.

It has become difficult to enjoy a show because your view is frequently blocked by cell phones, flip cameras, and other recording devices hoisted at eye level. Add in the arms that are raising them and you have obstructed views everywhere you attempt to look.

Finally, it is worth noting that while the roster of designers has become more culturally diverse—along with the media corps and audiences—the runways generally remain color-resistant. Zang Toi, who showed at the inaugural Pittsburgh Fashion Week in 2010, is one of relatively few designers who go beyond tokenism in hiring models of color. As a result, Black models still get work at token levels.

Meanwhile, the endless procession of Caucasian wind-up dolls with zombie-like expressions is tired and outdated. The failure of models in general to excite audiences and sell the clothes—a sign of designers’ insecurities—has become even more noticeable in the absence of anything else truly exciting about New York’s fashion week.

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