By  on September 13, 2005

NEW YORK — Many retailers, designers and other fashion insiders differ about how Hurricane Katrina will affect the desire of Americans to shop, as well as the disaster's overall economic impact.

Comparisons are difficult because the scope of death, destruction and human tragedy across the Gulf states from this single event is without precedent in U.S. history, as estimated damages reach $125 billion and counting and the Congressional Budget Office reported the loss of about 400,000 jobs.

And, unlike the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, after which Americans were encouraged to spend money to bolster the economy, the hurricane has renewed, for many, questions about materialism.

Still, the business of business continues, particularly during fashion week here.

Before his wife Diane von Furstenberg's show Sunday, Barry Diller, chief executive officer of IAC/Interactive Corp., said Katrina "has to have a big effect on the economy, on retail, on everything. I don't think this is like 9/11, when there was an angry reaction for life. This one hasn't made anyone feel good."

Donald Trump, commenting after Oscar de la Renta's show Monday, said, "The economy will take a hit and it's going to be substantial. Fuel is going to kill the economy. Unless we tell oil-producing states what life is all about, the economy will take a significant fall."

Former Bloomingdale's chairman Marvin Traub, who now heads Marvin Traub Associates, was more optimistic. "I don't think it will be severe. Clearly, there will be some impact. Three economies in three states have been devastated. That will affect retail, fuel prices, real estate. The side impact of rising fuel prices doesn't help."

Before Carolina Herrera's show Monday, Burt Tansky, president and ceo of the Neiman Marcus Group, said, "My reaction to this terrible tragedy is that the destruction is just unbelievable, but it has also allowed Americans to show their humanity and softer side by rushing out to help people. As the weeks go on, normalcy will return to New Orleans and throughout the country. I don't anticipate any change at retail in our business."

Another retailer, former Saks ceo Phil Miller, said before Kenneth Cole's fashion show Friday that he expects any cautious spending to center on the Gulf region. "I don't anticipate that it will have a large national effect, as far as shopping goes," Miller said. "What happens in the long run with taxes and all the deficits may be a more difficult question."He noted that Federated Department Stores has a major charitable initiative under way for hurricane victims. "We don't want to cast a pall on the idea of what this is all about, which is fashion and selling clothes," Miller said.

Mark Badgley said during an interview last week that he suspects the destruction in the South will have an impact on retailers approaching the New York collections to a small degree, "but they still come in looking for beautiful, beautiful pieces. But it could have an influence on their budgets and their open-to-buys."

Neil Cole, ceo of the Iconix Brand Group, Badgley Mischka's parent, said, "From a business perceptive, I think that the disaster has definitely had a very short-term effect on the retail industry. Some people have become slightly more cautious, but in a short time, business will be back to usual. I believe that they will not only rebuild the region, but make it stronger."

Asked if he thought people would curb their personal spending since so many have lost so much, Stevie Wonder said: "Probably not." After his wife Kai Milla's show Sunday at the New York Public Library, Wonder said, "This is really a case of using what we have to help those who have nothing. People will do what they do, but it may be a matter of not buying that dress or suit.

"This is a time, obviously, when a lot of people are in pain from the destruction that happened after Hurricane Katrina,'' Wonder continued. "But we must take that pain and concern and put it to good use throughout the year because we're all one family. If you don't know that, you'd better ask somebody."

Others who attended the Milla show shared Wonder's outlook. Another entertainer, Brandy, said, "I definitely feel like we're all one and we should do everything we can, whether that be sending money, food or clothes."

On a more personal note, she said she decided to not buy a pair of Chanel sunglasses after it occurred to her that "a lot of people in New Orleans don't have anything to wear." The singer said next month she will visit relatives in Mississippi and she plans to work in a few special appearances to help the victims. "A lot of people love to see other people and just want to have conversations. I think what Oprah is doing is amazing," referring to the talk show host's tour of the Gulf region.Janice Combs said, "People aren't going to stop shopping," but they will be more conservative about spending money on themselves. She has not asked her son, Sean Combs, if he is concerned that about the impact of Katrina, but she noted that "everyone is doing different things because they don't know how this will effect their businesses."

Greek shipping heir Paris Latsis, who is engaged to Paris Hilton, said he doesn't expect any downturn in the economy. "Most people don't have enough forethought to think about things in general. I only pray that it won't happen where I live."

After the Luca Luca show Sunday, hip-hop mogul Damon Dash said he doesn't expect retail to take a hit. "Whenever there is a tragedy, the things that you think will be affected aren't,'' he said.

As for how the hurricane may or may not impact his own business, Dash said: "Those things don't become relevant to me when the majority of the world and my immediate culture is not treated well."

His wife, Rachel Roy, said she is going to hold off on buying items on her fall shopping list, especially accessories. "The hurricane is absolutely weighing on my mind. Spending money on something you love takes on a whole different perspective."

The singer Amerie agreed, "When you realize so many people have lost all of their necessities, it does make spending a lot of money on luxury items kind of frivolous."

Mary J. Blige said the disaster has made more people aware of the bare necessities — clean running water, fresh air, soap, toothpaste. That said, she understands that commercialism motors on. "If you're going to donate and shop, great. If you don't, don't. But I don't think people should feel guilty about shopping."

Another Luca Luca show goer, rapper Cam'ron, said his company, Diplomat Records, has made donations to hurricane victims and will send more. But he doesn't expect shoppers to back off in light of the situation, "I don't mean to be cruel or anything else, but New York fashion doesn't really stop. A lot of people are still going to go shopping in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and other cities. Me, I went shopping today."The rapper said he is going forward with plans to launch a women's and men's collection called Vavoli in 18 months.

Venus Williams wasn't about to speculate about any economic fallout. "I haven't had economics since 10th grade," she said. Her sister, Serena, said she is still looking for a manufacturer to produce her eveningwear collection. The only catch is that the company must not compete with her sponsor, Nike, on any level.

At the Rag & Bone after party, Drew Barrymore said she doesn't draw the line on shopping "as long as people continue to give money to good causes. That's the most important thing."

Though she was hesitant to speak about such a weighty subject in a party setting, she said: "Fashion is beautiful, but there is something going on in the world that is very dire. And if people are aware of that and do something about it, that's a good thing."

At Joanna Mastroianni's show Monday, a few guests talked about their responses. Tony Award-winning actress Heather Goldenhersh said that as lovely as it is to be invited to fashion shows and other functions, she feels guilty. She plans to make special appearances.

Grace Hightower De Niro said she and her children and stepchildren have agreed to forgo many Christmas toys to make donations to the hurricane victims. "It's definitely weighing on people's minds. When so many people have lost so much, it's important to help them regain material things," she said.

Stephen Burrows said at his show Saturday, "This is our business, so we go on with it. I don't expect to stop buying T-shirts at H&M. We need clothes to wear.

"It's a business and you've got to keep your business going," he said. "It's a horrible thing that happened in the South. These things happen in life. But it's a natural thing to rebuild life."

Asked at von Furstenberg's show if she thinks people will be more conscientious about spending because of Hurricane Katrina, Fran Liebowitz said: "I think if more people were conscientious, what happened in New Orleans never would have happened."Another guest, hotelier Andre Balazs, said, "I hope this makes people more conscientious about what politicians are doing. I hope people become aware of the unbelievable discrepancy in our country between the wealthy and the destitute people."

Sandra Bernhard said, "I think people still have to get dressed up and eat and enjoy themselves. People with a lot of money can always afford to do both [shop and make donations]. But in terms of how it will trickle down in terms of gas prices and joblessness, of course, it affects those who have less more. In a broad sense, they will pull back on any extras."

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