By  on September 15, 2008

NEW YORK — Safe but a general lack of zing.

That was buyers’ overall view of New York Fashion Week, which wrapped up Friday. While the commercial looks that packed the runways should have set retailers’ hearts aflutter, many of them were disappointed. Difficult times like these, they say, call not for the tried-and-true, but for wow-some looks that will lure nervous consumers to the stores, like bunnies out of the bushes.

“The shows didn’t really live up to my expectations,” said Julie Gilhart, senior vice president and fashion director of Barneys New York. “There were some great ones, but for the most part, I think it was hard for designers to put their finger on exactly what we need and what inspires us during this period of change.

Barbara Atkin, vice president and fashion director of Holt Renfrew, agreed. “We’re all examining and stepping back,” she said. “When there’s economic instability, people question their purchasing.

“This is a time when we’re really looking at the new guard of designers,” said Atkin, noting some iconic American design houses are floundering without their namesake designers at the helm. “There’s a lot of confusion at Bill Blass and the problem with Halston is, what does it mean anymore? It’s got to go beyond the name on the label. It’s just got to be fantastic clothes. The clothes have to have substance and the identity of what the brand is has to jump out at you.”

That’s what Atkin is looking for in all collections. “If we don’t get that, everything we purchase fades into a blandism on our floors.”

Jim Wetzel and Lance Lawson, owners of two Jake boutiques in Chicago and one in suburban Winnetka, Ill., said, “We did feel collections looked a bit the same across the board and felt some designs seemed more phoned-in than inspired.”

Of course, there were exceptions. Marc Jacobs and Rodarte were singled out by several retailers for their creativity. “Maria Cornejo, Alexander Wang, these are the new guard,” said Atkin. “A new generation is coming up quickly.”

“Overall, I think it will take some intense picking and choosing from each collection, but there is enough uniqueness and individuality out there in the clothing,” said Beth Buccini, co-founder of Kirna Zabête. “All the elaborate shoes and jewels are the really pretty icing.”

There were those, particularly at the larger stores, who left the week feeling upbeat, however. Nicole Fischelis, Macy’s vice president and fashion director, said she was pleased with the “fashionable and realistic” clothes she saw. “This is the best way to stimulate our buyers and our customers,” she said. “We are extremely confident about the season to come. Our business is strong because we know what we are doing and we know who we are. Give them fabulous color, give them the new item, present it in an aspirational way. If the product is right, consumers don’t even look at the price point, and fashion pieces always go first.”

The one trend most retailers agreed could go away: Harem pants.

Here’s what else they had to say:

Stephanie Solomon, vice president for fashion direction of Bloomingdale’s

Favorite collections: Marc Jacobs moved us toward the future while referencing our past. It will take something special to get women to open their wallets. Everything in Marc’s collection was special. That’s exactly what we’re looking for, that special thing that will help us escape this economy. Ralph Lauren can still make a fashion director excited. Zac Posen was always a fledgling designer, but this collection brought him into the arena of world-class designers. I take him very seriously. Lela Rose did a great job. Diane von Furstenberg, Milly, Rebecca Taylor, Nanette Lepore and Anna Sui were standouts. Francis by Christian Francis Roth was so fresh, so right on and so happy in a climate where everybody’s taking everything so seriously, and Leifsdottir is doing very well. The novelty details and attention to detail are so important to the American customer. I’m not going to be cautious in my spending with the designers I saw this week.

The trends that are keepers: Harem pants, but not extreme harem pants; boyfriend jackets; jumpsuits; chiffon blouses, and dresses.

Jeffrey Kalinsky, executive vice president of designer fashion at Nordstrom

Best fashion moment was: Being at Marc Jacobs’ show Monday night felt like I was witnessing something that doesn’t happen very often — a triumphant night for fashion.

Favorite collections: Kate and Laura Mulleavy had their strongest show yet. Taking all of their unique ideas that have become expected at Rodarte and adding on even more layers, they created something that was tough chic, but with an angelic side. Michael Kors’ collection was full of fabulous clothes. The colorblocking, polkadots and color palette were happy and optimistic. Oscar de la Renta’s polished and refined glamour [showed] he is a true master who always somehow manages to get better and better. Narciso Rodriguez always turns out a solid collection and he seemed to have taken yet another giant leap forward.

Michael Fink, vice president of women’s fashion direction at Saks Fifth Avenue

Overall impressions:
I was truly excited by so many moments. I loved the collections that oozed a relaxed, urban sophistication and monochromatic layers of weightless fabrics that draped around the body

Favorite collections: Richard Chai, Derek Lam and Brian Reyes were spot-on with their supercool layering ideas. Oscar de la Renta’s minimal looks were some of my favorites of the week, as well as a new direction for his woman whose closets are filled with florals, ruffles and ethnic prints. Phillip Lim and Carolina Herrera wooed us with ruffles. I liked Michael Kors’ take on dots and stripes and we will sell those scuba dresses all day long. Marc Jacobs’ celebration of all things American was truly over-the-top good fun.

New talent I discovered: Christian Siriano gave a well-balanced and beautiful first collection.

Trends that are keepers: The vest, in all lengths from cropped to below the hip, is the new jacket for summer. Everyone will need a sequined “something” for day and evening. And if you haven’t done it before, this will be the time to test drive a jumpsuit.

Anne Watson, vice president and fashion director of Henri Bendel

Favorite collections:
From the new guard, Elise Overland, Jason Wu, and Juan Carlos Obando.

Trends that are keepers: Irreverent pairings of prints and fabrics and the manipulation of fabrics through techniques such as pleating, draping, folding and twisting. Leather for spring is going to be very important for our customer and is a trend that we will go after. Hanii Y had great leather. Also, jumpsuits from Elise Overland and Thakoon. The new version of the cocktail dress, a textured sheath dress from Alexander Wang and Brian Reyes. I liked the wide-leg denim by Diane von Furstenberg and Milly.

To accessorize or not accessorize: There is no question that accessories continue to be an integral part of the wardrobe. Marc Jacobs’ use of accessories will surely have a halo effect on the rest of the accessories market, from wide belts, to the cummerbund effect with sashes, to the continued importance of statement-making jewelry.

Linda Fargo, senior vice president, fashion office and store presentation at Bergdorf Goodman

Favorite collections: New arrival Jason Wu looks promising, and Alexander Wang delivered a strong, edgy collection. Accolades to Francisco Costa at Calvin Klein for his highly innovative folding collection. Vera Wang struck just the right balance between her artistic side and clean easy pieces, not to mention her exceptional accessories. Also, Narciso Rodriguez’s mix of softness with graphics as well as his body-baring looks and Rodarte for their poetic, enchanting fantasies. Ralph Lauren’s show was exceptionally beautiful.

Trends that are keepers: The tough girl, with so much asymmetry in bodies and hemlines, petal layering, slouchy pantaloon pants, and aggressive statement shoes; athletic body dressing with scuba, corsets, bandeaus, midriff cutaways, and crisscrossing graphics, especially in black and white, felt fresh. It was nice to see the evolution of ruffles.

To accessorize or not accessorize:
Designers are wisely maximizing accessories as a category and an opportunity, stimulated by the success of statement jewelry for fall.

Nicole Fischelis, vice president and fashion director of Macy’s

Favorite collections: Ralph Lauren’s “Safari of a Thousand Nights,” Donna Karan’s style and sensuality and the purity of the Isaac Mizrahi collection with key looks such as the new trench, the corset and asymmetry. Also, the sportswear glam of Michael Kors, Marc Jacobs, Marc by Marc Jacobs, Francisco Costa for Calvin Klein, Tuleh and Derek Lam.

New talent I discovered: I loved Christian Francis Roth. We are so happy he’s back on the scene. The young generation is developing its own style.

Trends that are keepers: Color creates an emotion to buy. The continuation of the print is remarkable. We like this whole new fusion combining feminine and sport, the new volume and the new shine with iridescence and sequins. Fabulous new items included the jumpsuit, motorcycle jacket, vest and feminine blouse. We like the importance of accessories, with big handbags and shoes. There are a ton of options.

Barbara Atkin, vice president and fashion director of Holt Renfrew

Favorite collections: Michael Kors because he understands who his woman is. This season, he walked away from the uptight lady and gave us American sportswear in classic Bal Harbour colors and it worked. He also had wonderful scuba sexy dresses, which I think will bring in a new customer. Rodarte was fearless in their expression and whether you can wear it or not, I think it was art. They established themselves as American designers with a world-class point of view. Also, Jeremy Laing, a Canadian, did beautiful, billowing, simple clothing and worked with interesting under slips and openwork. Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera gave us quality and security and consistency. At that price point, you want that. Marc Jacobs summed up where we are today. He showed so strongly what I call the DIY look. You pick your clothes to suit your personality. When Marc mixes up the plaids with the damasks, evening with day and grunge with Asia, he’s saying take these items and create your own style.

Trends that are keepers:
Romantic bohemia, monochromatic designs with clean lines that give more longevity to clothes, transferring details from the athletic world to couture shapes, papery leather, a variety of pant silhouettes and fabrics with glazing and sheen and shine.

Julie Gilhart, senior vice president and fashion director of Barneys New York

Favorite collections: Hands down, Rodarte. Alexander Wang’s show was filled with great energy and a lot of saleable items and Narciso Rodriguez displayed an elegant evolution with some edge.

New talent I discovered: Juan Carlos Obando, who had a great first show, and Erin Wasson + RVCA was a cute collaboration.

Trends that are keepers:
I think the bondage details will make women feel sexy. Most important, there were lots of choices, from a rocker-type aesthetic to feminine and light.

To accessorize or not accessorize: Everybody’s trying to do a lot wherever they can get it. If you don’t have shoes, someday you’re going to have shoes. If you don’t have bags, someday you’re going to have bags. Proenza Schouler had a lot of accessories, which they’ve never had before. Alexander Wang had a much more developed handbag collection and Marc Jacobs had a lot [of everything].

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