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NEW YORK — New York could be at risk of going the way of London.
As a generation of designers like Isaac Mizrahi, Todd Oldham, Stephen Sprouse and Christian Francis Roth has disappeared from the runways for one reason or another, editors and retailers in Manhattan have turned up the pressure to find the Next Big Thing. The desperation for hype has reached such a degree that many believe the designers are being endangered with self-destruction.
The situation is such that the biggest buzz in New York this season isn’t about the global megabrands but instead, a band of young designers, including one not yet old enough to legally consume alcohol. There hasn’t exactly been a void of upcoming talent in New York since Mizrahi and Oldham closed their businesses, but the problem is that New York fashion, like the rest of the city, keeps moving on, building up hits like Daryl Kerrigan, Miguel Adrover and Imitation of Christ one season and then knocking them down the next.“Our mantra is to find what’s new,” said Ed Burstell, vice president and general manager of Henri Bendel. “But at the same time, we are pushing them too fast. If these designers are not skillfully trained or apprenticed, all the buzz can work in the reverse situation and only make them look worse when they fail. I’m a retailer and I need to get new news, but at the same time, I don’t want to manufacture news.”While New York’s specialty retailers like Jeffrey New York, Kirna Zabete and Barneys New York have become increasingly competitive in battling for exclusives on new or break-through collections, they also recognize that demanding a designer sell only to them increases the chance of their ultimate failure, since the stores alone often can’t offer a designer enough business to complete production. Despite this, other stores are stepping up their own efforts to associate and market themselves with the hottest new names. Saks Fifth Avenue, for instance, set off a verbal war with Bendel’s this summer when it published trade announcements for “Open See Days” to look at new designer collections around the country, stepping on the turf of its cross-avenue competitor’s traditional events. Following a cease-and-desist order from Bendel’s, Saks acquiesced, but hasn’t abandoned its new talent search.“I don’t believe the industry has changed that dramatically,” said Christina Johnson, president and chief executive officer of Saks Fifth Avenue Enterprises. “The pressure to perform exists today very much as it did 20 years ago.”Of course, Esteban Cortazar, who shows for the first time in New York on Sunday at the Metropolitan Pavilion, wouldn’t know that. The Miami native is only 18, but his collection has already been featured in the windows of Bloomingdale’s 59th Street flagship. And everywhere one looks in New York and other fashion capitals, there’s another young designer looking to make it big — like Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez, both 23, of Proenza Schouler, and Emanuele Cristofoli, who at 20 is still studying fashion in Milan, but has launched a collection, Laccio, that has been championed by the Kuwaiti retailer Villa Moda. “I see life as very short,” Cortazar said. “I don’t see why you should wait. I’m so nervous, though, because I didn’t think it would happen so fast. I’m not thinking about fame or money, but this is my dream.”While their ambitions are admirable, it’s only natural to question what kind of pressure is being applied to these designers and whether it’s wise for them to put themselves in front of the international press at such an early age. All they have to do is look at what happened last year to Miguel Adrover and Daryl Kerrigan, both of whom had a lot more experience in the business than this season’s crop of new names. Clearly there is cause for some restraint in mounting elaborate runway shows that cost thousands of dollars, given the risk of an embarrassing act of naïveté. But that hasn’t stopped these designers from charging full-speed ahead. Cortazar has been doing that since he met Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction for Bloomingdale’s, about five years ago when he was charging his way into swanky parties in the Hamptons and crashing fashion shows. “I’ll never forget the horror of seeing him at a show making a beeline for the chair next to [Vogue editor in chief] Anna Wintour’s,” Ruttenstein said. “We had to give him lessons in fashion etiquette.”That’s not to say these designers are without talent. McCollough and Hernandez, for instance, have yet to make a critical misstep and have been championed by everyone from Wintour, who met them on an airplane, to buyers from top stores like Bergdorf Goodman, to hiring a high-brow publicist, Pierre Rougier. Twenty-one-year old Zac Posen, meanwhile, avoided the sophomore curse Thursday when he showed a spring collection that impressed even vocal critics of his youth. The young designers also have been quick to adapt to the sometimes diva-like behavior of their elders, as a spokeswoman for Posen, now represented by the slick spinsters at KCD, requests journalists not to refer to him as a “young designer.”“The balance is not quite right between the hype and the reality,” said Sarah Easley, a co-owner of Kirna Zabete. “Take an amazingly talented designer like Benjamin Cho, who shows amazing pieces each season, but has not to the best of my knowledge ever delivered a collection to stores. The gap between runway to reality is just too big.”The feeding frenzy going on in New York over young designers partially stems from the city’s bruised ego. Apart from the obviously emotional aftermath of a city badly hit by terrorism, New Yorkers have been developing an inferiority complex lately thanks to their Parisian counterparts, who have been gloating in the recent triumph of its Diors, Chanels and the return of Helmut Lang.It’s made New York even more desperate to turn out something hot, fresh and young.“It had seemed as if we had not seen a lot of young designers in a long time in New York, and now we’re seeing a lot of them,” said Robert Burke Jr., vice president and senior fashion director at Bergdorf’s. “A number of them need to get a little more seasoned. At the end of the day, we need clothes that sell and aren’t just creative. When there’s been a void of new designers for a while, and then you see a few talented ones, retailers vie for them quickly and that can create at times an inflated interest.”From the designers’ perspectives, the pressure is intense, but they’re quickly catching on to the ways of the New York machine and responding with a serious, business-minded approach. Alvin Valley, for instance, offers each store exclusive pieces from his collection, but not the whole thing.“The pressure that I’m feeling is that there are lot of young designers who are not set up to sell, and that takes away a lot of attention from designers who are serious,” said Valley, who will show his second collection on Saturday. “We create informal exclusives, because you have to be accessible to customers, but not dilute the image of the product and the brand.”“With all the press, some people think you are bigger and more successful than you are,” added Peter Som, 31, who was nominated for a Perry Ellis Award this year. “The reality is I wake up, trip over a bolt of fabric on my floor and go to work. You get all the press and don’t have enough money to take a cab.”The real pressure, however, stems from retailers that are “nervous about their dollars” and are under the gun to have strong sell-throughs. “It seems retailers have more at stake because they have to sell what they buy. In this very shaky economic climate and the whole past year, stores are really nervous. They’re offering more and more support because they’re looking for something different. But when it comes down to it, people still want what will sell.”Michael & Hushi, designed by Michael Sears, 31, and Hushi Mortezaie, 30, has been received well critically, but the designers said stores have pressured them in two conflicting directions: retailers want them to get a lot of press by luring even the most jaded editors with edgy clothes, but at the same time, they want the designers to create more salable merchandise.“What’s really difficult is we make everything ourselves and that can be difficult financially,” Mortezaie said. “Also, we want to show something beautiful and outdo what we did before. We’re meticulous and detail-oriented and that gets stressful.” “Sometimes stores want something just because of the buzz around it,” Sears added. “It doesn’t matter if it winds up selling well. They just want to have it.”