NEW YORK — Forget international diplomacy — scheduling the September fashion shows has become a matter of survival of the fittest.As if a record player had stopped in a lopsided game of musical chairs, New York’s fashion designers are in the midst of a battle supreme over their seats. They’re all trying to sit in the prime spots — while leaving the less desirable ones vacant.All the big players in town are planning shows during the firstthree days of the official Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, which begins on Wednesday, Sept. 18, leaving the ensuing weekend shows unanchored by the kind of designer that would encourage the press and buyers to stick around town before heading to Milan the following Tuesday. The mid-week start is unusual and was a compromise forged between the fashion capitals as a way of avoiding having shows on the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and on Sept. 11.What’s worse, according to show organizers, producers and designers, is that the smaller fish are responding by booking shows on Sept. 17, a virtual act of treason against their London counterparts, who after months of international debate, had relocated their shows on the calendar. London gave up its dates to move to Sept. 12-17. Now, New York is claiming the 17th, too.“If this is true, it’s disgraceful,” said Suzy Menkes, fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune, when informed of the development. “I will not be getting on a plane the night of Yom Kippur [Sept. 16]. It’s an important time for me and my family.”Furthermore, Menkes expressed dismay at the blithe attitude of American designers. She said, “I don’t see how it’s possible to change the arrangements and be the start of New York if they change. I sometimes wonder whether New York designers ever travel — except by Concorde.”Seventh on Sixth, the division of the international licensing agency IMG that produces the twice-annual Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week shows in Bryant Park, is also now facing a daunting challenge in juggling the venue requests of dozens of designers with the time slot reservations that were made by the big leaguers weeks in advance. But even the major designers are also bickering over the scheduling, considering many of them are slated to show back-to-back, raising the potential for model and venue conflicts bigger than the Oscar de la Renta-Balenciaga blowout that took place in February that resulted in a lack of top models at the de la Renta show.“My hope is that given the difficulties of rescheduling this week in light of the commemorative events surrounding 9/11, that everybody, before it’s too late, will remember the spirit of cooperation of what it means to do something in New York together as an industry,” said Fern Mallis, executive director of 7th on Sixth. “I hope people will reconsider showing on the weekend.”Peter Arnold, executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, which represents the American fashion community, said the organization is reaching out to its members to encourage a resolution to the calendar conundrum.“Trying to cram everything into Wednesday, Thursday and Friday is not going to work,” he said. “But this has been difficult without the anchoring of a major designer at the end of the week. It’s very difficult, when you come down to the fact that you’re talking about your business and your show, to always be wonderfully altruistic.”The organizations are facing scheduling controversies on a number of different fronts. Among them:l At least 10 designers are planning to stage shows in New York on Sept. 17, the last day of the London collections, expecting few American buyers and press will attend those shows or that those who do go will not stay there for the entire week. Diane Von Furstenberg, Nicole Miller, Imitation of Christ, James Coviello, Douglas Hannant, David Rodriguez, Michael Soheil and Behnaz Sarafpour have all booked showtimes that day. They will be blacklisted from Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week’s official schedule, even though many of them have typically been 7th on Sixth participants in the past.l Some designers, since moving their presentations back into their showrooms, are claiming multiple time slots on certain days. Ralph Lauren, for instance, plans to show at 9, 10 and 11 a.m. on Sept. 20, while Donna Karan has collection shows planned at 3 and 5 p.m. that day, plus DKNY on Sept. 18 at 5 p.m. Smaller design companies are accusing the megabrands of hogging the available time, but few are willing to compete against them with shows at the same time, considering the slim chances of drawing big models for their catwalks and editors for their front rows.l Helmut Lang still has dibs on the 2 p.m. slot on Feb. 20, even though he has repeatedly dropped hints that he will take his women’s collection back to Paris. The problem, according to several fashion executives, is that Lang’s production company, KCD, has promised the time to Zac Posen, despite an existing waiting list at 7th on Sixth that is currently headed by Vera Wang.l Even where there is currently no major dispute, the potential for conflict is rife. Calvin Klein and Narciso Rodriguez, for instance, are currently scheduled at 7 and 8 p.m., respectively, on Sept. 19. Considering KCD produces both shows and both designers will likely use a lot of the same models, they are working on an alternative schedule, although there appear to be few viable time slots remaining.While New York’s proposed fashion week is scheduled to run until Monday, Sept. 23, the calendar for its last three days remains wide open. Designers said their primary concern about showing on those days is that they fear attendance will be weak during the weekend because few people would be willing to work on Saturday and Sunday. There are also concerns that several prominent publications and stores will send their staffs ahead to Milan to preview collections scheduled to hit the runways beginning Sept. 24.However, several regular attendees polled this week at the couture shows called those concerns unfounded and said they typically work through weekends during the hectic, four-city fashion show marathon. But they would take into consideration what happens with the scheduling in London, New York and Milan before finalizing their plans.Anna Wintour, editor in chief of Vogue, said that she won’t change her plans, considering she already made a commitment to go to London, “and I wouldn’t want to backtrack on that.”“[The London organizers] were so wonderful to agree to switch,” she said.In any event, Wintour held out hope that most of the London shows would take place during the earlier part of the week, which would minimize the impact of potential overlap. Saks Fifth Avenue executives have also promised to go to London.Cathy Horyn, fashion critic at the New York Times, said she would decide on a show-by-show basis.“I’m giving serious thought to covering London this season,” she said. “I haven’t covered it for two seasons and I think it’s important to stay in touch with the London market.”As for New York coinciding with the beginning of the Milan collections, Horyn remarked that Milan “typically doesn’t get going for a couple of days. Of course, if a house like Prada shows on the first day [of Milan] it will be important to get there.” Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director at Neiman Marcus, said she hoped that none of the “majors would show early in Milan.”“That would be a whammy for the Americans,” Kaner said. “As for the smaller people, we can always send someone to see them.” Kaner said that she dreaded a New York logjam of shows on the first days, adding, “It looks like we’re in for a couple of hectic days.”Julie Gilhart, vice president of merchandising at Barneys New York, said she won’t finalize her travel plans until the calendar’s dates firm up.“We’re planning to cover London, but we also have to cover New York,” Gilhart said. “Sometimes things overlap and you just have to choose. For the retailers, the shows are important, but they’re mostly geared to the press. It’s really tricky for everyone.”Seventh on Sixth is considering a couple of major promotional events to be scheduled on the evening of Sept. 23 that would potentially encourage the press to stay in town, but even if there’s a full house in New York over the weekend, some executives pointed out the latest show snafu relates to a bigger problem: designer egos.Many smaller firms are concerned that if they show after Donna, Calvin and Ralph, who happen to be among the biggest advertisers in the American fashion industry, there won’t be any room left for editorial coverage of their collections. That’s a particular problem when considering daily newspaper coverage, they theorized, because those publications will likely be moving on to the important Milan shows next.“We were desperate not to have a spot over the weekend,” said Bud Konheim, chief executive officer of Nicole Miller. “I’m not concerned with London, Moscow or Leningrad. The only thing each designer should be focused on is ‘What are you doing about your show?’ We don’t need the 20 million fashion retards we used to get coming to our shows at the tents. We have two statements we make a year and we want to get it out before everyone gets blitzed.”It’s never good for a smaller house to show late in the week, he said, because “if you show on the weekend, you’ll get one line out of the 143 shows reported in a paragraph. That’s a bad strategy if you intend to get any kind of press at all.”There seems to be little sympathy among American designers for the plight of London’s fashion week, mostly because of the financial stakes involved with these shows, considering a basic, professional setup runs a minimum of $100,000, including modeling and production costs. Moët & Chandon, which is funding Sarafpour’s show this season, discussed the potentially political statement that showing on Sept. 17 makes, but ultimately decided there was no alternative.“This is our best option,” said Evelyn Dallal, a partner in Ogan/Dallal, which represents Moët. “We have to do it in the beginning, when it’s fresh in everyone’s mind. We’ve always found on the weekend that you don’t get the same amount of attendance, and certainly the television crews, since they are all on budgets, do not always work on weekends. The major people don’t have to worry about that, but the smaller companies do.”Others, like Diane Von Furstenberg, wanted to maintain their traditional time slot. She has opened the New York shows, typically on a Sunday evening, for the past few years, and has scheduled her spring show on Sept. 17 at 6 p.m., early enough not to conflict with the New Yorkers for Children benefit that evening, which draws a large fashion crowd. Asked about the message that sends to London, a spokeswoman for the firm said, “No matter how you slice it, there had to be a loss in some way. We did the best that we could.”Some producers were even glib about the resulting overlap, as one show producer pointed out that editors still have the opportunity “to do a day of shows in London and be back in New York in time for shows that Tuesday night.”As for the larger designers, there seems to be little interest in relocating their shows to Sunday or Monday to act as an anchor. Representatives of Lauren, Karan and Klein did not return calls or did not have comment on that possibility.Several American companies are also planning to focus their private appointments with retailers to sell the collections in Milan this season, rather than splitting between New York and Europe showroom appointments, so they are looking to pack their collections for Italy as quickly as possible after their runway presentations here. That indicates the likelihood of an escalating crisis between designers taking place in the coming weeks as final preparations are made for show week.“It hasn’t come to a point where there is any drama,” said Pierre Rougier, principal of PR Consulting, who represents Narciso Rodriguez’s show. “Everybody is trying to make it work, but the whole season is going to be a nightmare. It’s going to be easier for shows like Donna, Ralph, Calvin, Marc Jacobs and Narciso to find a space, but for smaller designers who have a name, but little power, it’s going to be much more difficult.”At last count, there are more than 20 designers still waiting for word about when they could show.