By  on April 17, 2007

NEW YORK — Free from the posturing that often arises whenever more than one designer takes the same stage, last week's "Fashion Life Now" discussion was one with no holds barred, thanks to the candor of Narciso Rodriguez, Maria Cornejo and Ralph Rucci.

Moderator Cathy Horyn of The New York Times kept the conversation jumping with her own insights, including the occasional offhanded ones. Dream jobs, design tricks, logomania overkill, irrepressible "It" bags, red-carpet dressing's downsides and the fallout from fashion's lackluster advertising were among the many topics tackled by the designers before an attentive audience at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.

Despite their varying design styles and work habits, Cornejo, Rodriguez and Rucci share an indie spirit that no doubt stems from having the luxury of calling the shots. Of course, that freedom is not without a price — namely the amount of time they find themselves dealing with business issues. Rodriguez is the only one who is not entirely independent, although it has been widely reported his relationship with Aeffe, which owns half of the operating company controlling his business, is strained.

In her introduction of Rodriguez, Horyn noted the slipdress he designed for his friend Carolyn Bessette Kennedy's wedding triggered 80,000 copies by one knockoff artist alone. More recently, he has been inspired by such diverse subjects as car paint and Thomas Ruff's book of nude photography.

Cornejo takes a more abstract approach, routinely starting a collection with an idea that was not realized the previous season. Getting things made in one piece is an obsession, and she is a stickler about eliminating seams and minimizing construction.

Cornejo, who tends to design dresses she would wear, said, "I'm not interested in trends. I don't look for inspiration. Yeah, sometimes things pop into my head, but for me, designing is like a whole mathematical problem."

Horyn, whose first article as a cub reporter at the Detroit Free Press was about Rucci, referenced his early days. She described his 1981 debut runway show at the old Westbury Hotel as an homage to Madame Grès, with Rucci using the same guest list Grès had used for an annual New York benefit. "He invited Jackie O and Diana Vreeland. Well, why not? You're only as good as your ideals in this business," Horyn joked.

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