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Another Season Arrives And Designers Bemoan Fashion’s Bipolar Blues

It seems lately that fashion designers are happy one minute and miserable the next, but that's just the tip of the iceberg in their mental disorders.

NEW YORK — Oh, cheer up.

Fashion is a world of many emotions, but lately it seems to be centered around its extremes — sheer elation or utter depression. Tom Ford is depressed about leaving Gucci Group and Alexander McQueen is depressed he’s being considered for Tom’s job. The fragrance business is always being described as depressed. Even Ally Hilfiger, daughter of Tommy, had a memorable bout of televised depression recently during an episode of MTV’s “Rich Girls,” in which the spontaneous preparation of a Mexican meal led to a near nervous breakdown.

But on the other hand, reports of late indicate there’s a luxury turnaround on the doorstep and the spring collections, including those of the aforementioned depressed designers, were about all things pretty and optimistic

So what gives? Creative types are naturally susceptible to bipolar disorders, but even by their own standards, designers are feeling a little erratic.

“I understand the depressiveness of fashion right now,” said Alice Roi, a young designer with a bright future, who’s put a lot of effort into improving her personal outlook over the past year. “It is a turning point. Right when I started out, before the new Millennium, everything was fun and exciting and experimental, right there with Miguel Adrover and Imitation of Christ. It took a weird turn in the last year or so, and now I can’t stand to hear the words ‘clean’ and ‘luxurious’ any more.”

A lot of designers feel like Roi. Although they might tell themselves they’re happy, they desperately long for the days of rambunctious fashion spirit, not conforming to the demands of Wall Street or public opinion or whoever owns their company this week.

But there are a lot of factors impacting the designer business right now, from the lingering effects of terrorism and war to the depressed value of the dollar — yes, it’s depressed, too — to the dismally cold winter weather. There are moments of personal joy, like Perry Ellis designer Patrick Robinson’s new baby or Michael Kors getting revved up about his Michael launch (“and I’m not depressed about leaving Paris,” he said, in a sly nod to Celine). But professionally, it’s been a little tougher to keep a straight face.

When Tom Ford showed his last men’s wear collection for Gucci on Jan. 14, the first of his four farewells, there was a melancholy sense of tragedy in the air. “Obviously, I’m very sad,” he said then. “I have had many sleepless nights. I’ve been incredibly depressed, but right now, I have to focus on doing the best job I can until the day I leave.”

To put this in context, Ford earned a salary in 2002 of $4.7 million, plus a guaranteed bonus of $1.85 million. In April and May of 2003, Ford made $38 million by exercising his stock options, and in 2002, he made about $23 million in similar transactions. And in a textbook example of avoidance, during the three weeks prior to the men’s Gucci show, Ford went skiing with Valentino in Gstaad, Switzerland, and then hopped over to Mustique in the Caribbean for a vacation on one of Lawrence Stroll’s properties.

Who wouldn’t be depressed?

Clearly not McQueen, who is the most widely rumored to succeed Ford at YSL Rive Gauche and made $22.3 million when he sold his company to Gucci. Yet he told The Tatler of London that he might give up fashion altogether, saying, “I need to take stock of everything I’ve done and think.” The money has been as much a hindrance to happiness, he said, as “when you’ve got money and your friends don’t, sometimes you want to pay for them. But sometimes, they get a bit peeved and don’t want to think that you’re buying their affection. That’s the hard thing about having money.”

The mental health of the fashion industry has never been all that stable. Just think of Halston’s tirades, Calvin’s dependency issues and Yves Saint Laurent’s numerous psychological maladies. Virtually every designer on Seventh Avenue has flipped their lid once or twice — or, in Randolph Duke’s case, made a sport of being rough on the staff. So they all get labeled as “crazy” by their employees, who then propagate the various designer neuroses as they move from job to job trading tales of manic depressives, obsessive compulsives, schizophrenics and a high occurrence of designers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, usually right after their shows.

One factor influencing what seems like an unusual number of cases of depressed designers is the competition. Ever since the luxury market went bad three years ago, designers have had to cut back on expenses and staff, and a lot of them picked up the slack doing their own research and design. On top of that, retailers have become increasingly involved in encouraging designers to ramp up their productivity, creating additional collections and exclusives for each store to get consumers — who’ve been depressed with fashion for years — back into the mind-set of buying luxury goods at full price.

“I’ve been bouncing off the walls, so to speak,” confessed Ellis Kreuger, designer of Tocca. “I think the burnout rate has really increased over the last couple of years. There are certain friends or people I know who are taking a break or rethinking what it means to be in fashion. No matter what level you’re at, you’re continually designing. It used to be that you could have a break between the seasons, but now the retailers have forced us into doing all these things — resort and holidays and transitional things all have to be designed. That causes stress in a lot of people.”

Kreuger said he is able to maintain his sanity in large part thanks to having a boyfriend who is not in the fashion business.

“He’s taught me not to take the job home with me,” Kreuger said. “Before I was living, breathing, eating, sleeping fashion. It’s very easy to forget it’s not 100 percent of your life. My advice is to marry somebody who’s not in it.”

One thing that is clear when probing designers about the current mood of their profession is that most of them say they’re just fine. Of course, denial is a symptom of many mental disorders, which makes such responses suspect. However, their responses do tend to reveal an interesting pattern in the way designers think, which is that they maintain one eye on the collection in front of them and the other on all those still to come.

“The mood of a fashion designer is kind of like a student on the night before the big examination,” said Roberto Cavalli. “It’s something between nerves and tension. I work like a student, because every six months there is a new examination, so I think the life of a fashion designer is actually much shorter, because we measure them in seasons. Someone says, ‘How old are you?’ and I say, ‘Forty-two collections.’”

“Creative people in general feel this,” concurred John Varvatos. “The question is always how far can you push it, and what are you going to do 17 seasons into it and still be new. There is so much pressure from being under the magnifying glass, that you’re constantly dealing with it. It definitely can have an impact on my psyche, but because I’ve been around for a while, I feel like I have a little more maturity in knowing that it’s not going to break me if somebody doesn’t like it. Having worked for Ralph and Calvin, and seeing that, you want to try to understand why people react the way they do. But there are also guys like Paul Smith. I don’t think anything is ever going to rile him.”

Designers also have had to suffer through some major disruption recently, not the least of which are the global ramifications of Ford’s departure from Gucci. A lot of designers have been approached by the head-hunting firm looking to replace Ford in his roles at Gucci and YSL, leading to a lot of excitement and potential disappointment that has been prolonged due to the secrecy of negotiations over the past three months. And the funk might only increase if, after all that effort, Gucci’s majority owner Pinault-Printemps-Redoute does what’s widely rumored and goes for insiders.

There also have been a lot of big financial deals in the works over the past year that either failed to come to fruition or remain up in the air — Varvatos is for sale, and so is Badgley Mischka, while Narciso Rodriguez has been looking for new backing for a while. For many of the designers, it’s like getting dumped with no closure.

“It’s just the cycles of fashion,” said Robert Duffy, president of Marc Jacobs. “When things don’t work out the way you want, it becomes very frustrating. Everything is like that.”

Yet some designers seem to maintain a sunny disposition no matter what the circumstances. Take Oscar de la Renta, who even when he’s feuding with another designer or a journalist, does it with style and a sense of humor. That’s one of the reasons he’s been around for so long.

“My mood is great,” he said. “In all the years that I’ve been in business, I’ve never been as successful as I am now. All I can tell you is about myself, and this is just a marvelous moment for us.”

But it’s hard to be positive all the time, even Oscar would give you that. The act of creation is inherently stressful, as artistic types are frequently prone to strong cravings for acceptance and approval. What is unique to the fashion business is that designers work off-season, showing spring collections in the fall and fall in the spring, creating a confusing pattern of ups and downs that are in contrast to generalized seasonal reactions.

“Maybe that’s why there’s that giant fabric store in the garment district called Mood Fabrics,” said Cynthia Rowley. “That is the cliché, that of the temperamental, narcissistic, bipolar designer. But the fashion industry really is a very stressful place. There are not that many other industries or jobs where you have to reinvent the wheel twice a year and be scrutinized by your peers. The creative process brings out all sorts of emotions and it does kind of have that emotional roller-coaster, Liza Minnelli-concert feeling. It’s just that you can be so thrilled with something when you dream it up and then so frustrated when it doesn’t work out the way you envisioned it.”

Rowley found herself oddly comforted by Saint Laurent’s description in a documentary of the completely miserable and draining process of putting together a collection, to conceptualize it and then execute such an extensive body of work.

“It all has to come from inside of you,” she said. “You have to be forward-thinking, yet it’s such a personal thing, too, that it just takes everything out of you. It’s easy to get depressed when you’re doing it. I was completely miserable to be around a week ago, waiting for it all to come together, waiting for things to come in from around the world, waiting for enough pieces to come into place to realize and visualize what I’m working with here. Sometimes you don’t think you’re going to get to the next step.”

Following up on his debut collection for Perry Ellis, Robinson said before his show Friday that he was feeling mixed emotions over the positive reactions to his first collection. Because production concerns require him to work far in advance, his second season was nearly completed by the time his first was reviewed, so there was little room to turn around and change things based on the initial reaction.

“I think I’m damned depressed,” he said in jest, although it could be a case of using humor to mask a more serious situation. “I’m actually nervous and crazed and happy at the same time. Actually, I’m excited. I also really try to put myself into a good spirit, because that’s what this whole brand is about. I can’t get all down and wear black clothing and be depressed, because that would just put myself out of a job and I’ve got a kid to feed.”

On the other extreme is Bradley Bayou, the Halston designer who considers his optimism to be extreme, and it sounds like he’s taken a page or two from a few self-help manuals. “I’ve never been happier in my life,” he said. “I choose to be optimistic because I have the choice. I’m not a cynical person. I do not have negative people in my life. I simply get rid of them.”

Actually, Bayou said, he uses a test when meeting anyone for the first time. As they approach, he asks himself, “How do I feel right now?” And when they walk away he asks the same question.

“If I feel worse, I tend to exclude that person from my life,” Bayou said. “It’s not my job to make everybody happy. I can only help people who want to be helped. In the world of creativity and fashion, there are swings of optimism and pessimism. I know there’s war going on and there are things that drag people down, but if you choose to be happy and optimistic, it kind of gets you through that. It’s called the new optimism.”

Well, a lot of it is personality. Roi keeps her footing firmly within the glass-half-empty camp.

“Fashion is not looking for that rah-rah, hoo-hoo excitement right now,” she said. “It’s just standing back and looking to make things a little more reality-based. And that’s depressing.”

And for everyone in the middle, working out whatever problems they’re facing, Rowley has the perfect prescription: “There are drugs for these kinds of things.”