By  on August 29, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO — The fourth annual San Francisco Fashion Week focused on emerging Bay Area designers and their spring-summer 2008 collections.

The three nights of runway shows and other events, from Thursday to Saturday, underscored the appetite for independent designers. About 700 people paid $36 to $120 each evening to attend fashion week in the four-story atrium of the San Francisco Design Center.

Among others, the shows attracted buyers from Macy's West and at least a dozen boutiques in the city where local labels often begin cultivating their fan base.

"There is definitely a lot of design talent in San Francisco," Macy's West fashion director Tifani Wilt said after seeing the streetwear collection Dcepcion by twins Daniel and David Concepcion. Their collection was a send-up of shirtdresses, denim jackets and hooded knit dresses that Wilt described as surprisingly contemporary.

"It's an eclectic city; you have all kinds of fashion here, from Pacific Heights to Haight-Ashbury," Wilt said, contrasting one neighborhood of cashmere pullovers and Burberry strollers to another where hoodies with silk-screened graphic prints and the latest Vans skateboarding sneakers are the uniform.

Fashion week, started by local fashion and entertainment producer Erika Gessin and her Mystery Girl Productions, has evolved into a showcase for local talent. To encourage participation this year, Gessin lowered the basic entry fee — excluding the cost of models — to $1,500 from $2,500.

San Francisco has spawned several national and international fashion companies, including Levi Strauss & Co., Gap Inc., Jessica McClintock and Eileen West, as well as Esprit and The North Face. The Bay Area also has proved to be an incubator for successful contemporary designers who gained widespread attention by moving to fashion hubs. Their ranks include Alexander Wang, Julie Chaiken, Derek Lam and Erin Fetherston.

Also among them is native San Franciscan Peter Som, the new creative director for the women's division at Bill Blass, and whose collection is sold at Neiman Marcus on Union Square here. On his Web site, Som credits his childhood in San Francisco, "a city known for its easy, relaxed sophistication," for influencing his design aesthetic, along with his architect parents.When Rodarte designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy attended a luncheon at the same Neiman's this year, the sisters said they felt relaxed to be in the Bay Area, where they grew up and still recharge their creative batteries. "We can't wait to get back to San Francisco," Laura Mulleavy said.

Fashion week is " a good way to build a brand," said designer Kaushie Adiseshan, presenting for the second year, who sells her ready-to-wear with a brightly colored Bollywood flair in boutiques locally and in her native Mumbai, India.

Not included in the lineup of 15 runway shows were some established Bay Area designers who have shown previously, such as Lily Samii, Colleen Quen and Cari Borja, all of whom have different priorities this year.

However, to keep a hand in this year's event, Samii and Borja showcased some of their couture designs on mannequins in a special display that also featured Isaac Mizrahi costumes used in Bay Area performances.

Quen's nod to fashion week was in dressing a couple presenters like former Kirov prima ballerina Natalia Makarova. The dancer, who lives in the Bay Area, wore a Quen black and maris French chantilly lace minidress and opened the night by talking about costumes she's worn, including one painted on her by the late David Hockney.

Samii, whose gowns are for sale in Saks Fifth Avenue on Union Square and in her own showroom, said she supports fashion week, but observed that the venue has needed to expand its bench of emerging designers.

"What I want is the next generation of San Francisco fashion designers and the industry to flourish," Samii said, noting how design talent from three local fashion schools often leave the city after graduation.

Until the Eighties, San Francisco was considered a domestic apparel manufacturing hub, and then production went offshore. Although there is still a San Francisco wholesale fashion and accessories market held six times a year, the number of workers employed in the city's fashion design and apparel-making industry has dwindled to around 3,000, from around 15,000 a decade ago.

Samii has joined with Quen and others to start lobbying San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom to spotlight fashion design in the same way he encourages development of high-tech, biotech, digital media and the food and wine sectors. One idea being floated with city officials is creating a fashion design district to combine atelier and store space along Sixth Street, south of Market Street downtown."We're trying to break the ice and show city officials there is a lot of fashion going on," said Quen, who wants to keep a foothold in San Francisco while expanding business to Paris, where with the help of investors she plans a fall 2008 off-schedule couture show.

The effort to enhance San Francisco's fashion standing is similar to more advanced planning seen in other former apparel centers like Chicago and Toronto.

"What we see is an opportunity," said Todd Rufo, an economic project manager in the mayor's office. "Until now we didn't have a real good sense of the depth, knowledge and caliber of fashion talent here."

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