By and  on December 3, 2009

For the past few seasons, New York has become a hotbed for young talent.

But when the economy headed south last year, so did much of the mood in the showrooms of emerging designers struggling to make a name at a time when most stores are reducing their vendor matrix and keeping inventories low.

Designers generally agreed the challenges of 2009 will continue through 2010. With no definitive recovery in sight, they are working on maintaining their businesses — with the added advantage of a year’s worth of experience in difficult times.

“The challenges in 2009 will still exist for the beginning of 2010,” Doo-Ri Chung said. “So many of the stores had to reduce their budgets. I think 2009 was extremely difficult because it made us really take a look at stores that we have, and how we can grow that.”

Working closely with retailers will be key, according to Chung, as will a stronger focus on merchandising.

“Before you would sell goods, they would get to the store and you didn’t think much about it,” Chung said. “Now it’s a completely different circumstance, where your responsibility is not just to [wholesale] clothes, but to see how they perform and be a partner with the vendors.”

Jason Wu, whose career saw a major boost this year thanks to First Lady Michelle Obama wearing his designs, said the key challenge next year will be maintenance.

“I think the big challenge is maintaining the growth that I have had in the last three years,” Wu said. “We have been growing steadily from 2008 to 2009, and are set to accomplish that for 2010 by growing in a very strategic way. It’s about maintaining that growth without going too fast and too slow.”

Wu added the times call for conservation in some areas to funnel funds into others that will serve the company in the long term. The designer, for instance, added a pre-fall delivery, and is creating a capsule collection for cashmere company Tse. In January, he will also relocate to a new showroom on West 35th Street, which will increase his space from 2,000 to 9,500 square feet. As for Wu’s hopes next year, he said, “I am trying to work in five days of vacation next year. I didn’t do it this year.”

Alice + Olivia founder and designer Stacey Bendet said one of her biggest challenges in the new year will be finding enough hours in the day to accomplish everything she has planned for the growth of her brand. While her sales were flat this year over last, she has big plans in 2010. She said she is heavily focused on marketing ideas for the new e-commerce area of her Web site.

“There are so many new and exciting ways to market things and create online buzz. It’s really a whole new world, and I look at it as a real challenge in a good way,” she said.

In addition, Bendet said she plans to move into her new offices in the Highline building in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District in the first half of the year. She said the company has outgrown its space at 80 West 40th Street.

“I am excited for the creative design process of the space and finally having a headquarters and home,” she said. “On the business front, I am also looking forward to expanding our retail stores into different locations.”

Rag & Bone owners Marcus Wainwright and David Neville said because they are still relatively small, they have considerable room to grow in 2010. The company plans to launch e-commerce next year, but that will be just one piece of the puzzle.

“Next year we hope that growth comes in the form of increased distribution and possibly new categories of merchandise,” Wainwright said. “People want value, and that’s what Rag & Bone strives to offer in everything we make.”

Neville added: “It’s important to maintain the highest levels of integrity and quality in order to grow.”

Many designers are looking for growth opportunities in alternative markets and even some nonapparel areas.

“We are always looking for a new business paradigm and ways we can expand the business and new ways of doingbusiness,” Natalie Chanin, designer of Alabama Chanin, said. “We are branching our business out in a new way.”

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