By Ellen Wulfhorst
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Fashion followers and fans descend upon New York this week for shows by designers - from edgy newcomers to influential veterans - who say, despite its faults, Fashion Week is key to sartorial success.
The semi-annual fashion spree has faced a growing chorus of criticism over its role and relevance in the industry, yet thousands of designers, stylists, editors and photographers make the trek to runways in New York to unveil, assess and promote the newest looks.
"Fashion Week has become this massive, massive thing, and it's outgrown its traditional boundaries," said Eric Wilson, fashion news director at InStyle magazine. "It's a question of how it's going to manage its growth at this point."
Fashion Week years ago assembled a small set of intimate shows reserved for top store buyers and fashion editors. It has evolved into an unwieldy splay of hundreds of shows, some by designers appropriating the job title with little more than chutzpah and a trust fund, critics say.
"One thing I hear again and again is just how overwhelming Fashion Week has become," said Abby Schreiber, an associate editor who covers fashion at Paper magazine.
"The number of people interested in Fashion Week has ballooned," she said. "It's not as exclusive anymore."
Some buyers now wait to see collections privately, leaving seats at the shows to be filled by fashion school interns, reality television show stars and barely known celebrities.
Customers meanwhile shop online, taking up-to-the-minute tips from fashion bloggers and not waiting for sage advice from glossy style magazines or glittering store displays still months away.
Nevertheless, the dizzying array of back-to-back fashion shows across the city gives designers an incomparable platform, said Jay Godfrey, a designer showing in New York this season for the first time.
"You've got bloggers from Japan and India and fashion street-style photographers from Russia. You're exposed to the entire world by showing at New York Fashion Week," he said.
Adding to that broad exposure is the immediacy of social media, he said.
"We can show during New York Fashion Week at 1:30 p.m. on February 6 and by 1:31 p.m. on February 6, those images are in the most far-flung places you can imagine."
New York City, more than other fashion meccas of the world, nurtures such new designers, due in large part to being both a fashion capital and a media capital, said Wilson.
"For young designers right now, anyone looking to make a mark, this is the place with the biggest bullhorn to make a debut," he said.
Sheila Aimette, vice president of North American content at fashion trend forecaster WGSN, said the city's openness and reputation as a melting pot offer unparalleled opportunity to designers.
"No one embraces new design talent like New York," Aimette said. "There is that connotation of 'If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.'"
At the core of New York Fashion Week are giant tents set up at Lincoln Center, where most of the shows are presented.
That central showcase has been redesigned this season to address needs of designers seeking smaller show spaces, said Jarrad Clark, vice president and global creative director for IMG, which organizes and produces the tent shows with Mercedes-Benz as official sponsor.
"Designers really wanted to bring the size and scale of the showrooms down," Clark said. "Emerging designers have a place in our tents now."
Even well-established designers are scaling back, Schreiber said.
"The designers are looking at who really needs to be here," she said. "So many sites are pumping out runway shots that you really don't need to be there to see the clothes quickly."
Clark said some 2,500 members of the media have registered to attend this season's Fashion Week, which officially kicks off on Thursday and ends on February 13.
Last season, more than 3.7 million viewers watched live streamed shows from the Mercedes-Benz tents, and Clark said the live-streaming reached about 190 nations.
(Additional reporting by Alicia Powell; Editing by Gunna Dickson)