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No Show Business: Designers Prosper Without the Runways

NEW YORK — It’s not always the show that counts.<br><br>For those designers who, for one reason or another, opted out of showing their spring collections in traditional runway venues recently, the biggest concern among them has been the...

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NEW YORK — It’s not always the show that counts.

For those designers who, for one reason or another, opted out of showing their spring collections in traditional runway venues recently, the biggest concern among them has been the old adage of being “out of sight, out of mind.”

However, as they finalize retail orders this week for their collections, shown to stores and magazines through look-books and showroom appointments, the designers are finding that stepping out of the fashion week microscope for the season has actually paid off. Apart from the obvious savings of mounting even a modest fashion show, designers like Wynn Smith of Wink and Daphne Gutierrez and Nicole Noselli of Bruce — two collections typically shown during New York’s fashion week, said taking a runway hiatus has helped them focus on production, as well as allowing a refreshing reprieve from the seasonal chaos.

On the other hand, generating press coverage of their collections hasn’t been as easy, so they’re not willing to give up fashion shows for good — and most will probably be back on the runways next season.

“This is an industry that is completely fickle and of-the-moment,” Gutierrez said. “You constantly have to feed the press with eye candy, and it does affect things if you started out doing shows and then take a season off. But we still finished our collection just like any other season.”

The Bruce collection has earned a loyal following in its five years and the designers won the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Perry Ellis Award for women’s wear in 2001. Moving their collection to The News showroom recently allowed them to continue to present the line to key press and stores, showing a continuation of the soft, romantic feeling they presented for fall with charmeuse dance skirts and light fabrics.

“Not having a show did not necessarily change the way we approached the design process,” Gutierrez said. “In a way, it helps you focus, because there are no distractions. When you have a show, you don’t have the luxury of separating yourself from production and all the elements that come together at one time during a show. It’s kind of good for a designer to take time off from showing in one way, because it really is about the clothes at the end of the day. You don’t want to get stuck in one routine.”

Maria Cornejo, who signed a production and distribution contract with Onward Kashiyama USA for her collection called Zero last year, expressed a similar sentiment and also opted not to show on a runway in New York this season, citing the overcrowded schedule that was condensed due to the ramifications of the Sept. 11 anniversary. She instead presented her spring line in an installation on mannequins at the Gavin Brown Gallery in Chelsea recently, showing washed cashmere sweaters, circle jersey blouses that wrap around the neck and balloon tops inspired by African textiles and her husband’s favorite clothes.

“I wanted this to be about the clothes,” she said. “It’s not about the personality of the model who’s wearing them or the feeling of a big show, but it is about whether or not you like the clothes.”

Skipping a big runway presentation would be an unlikely occurrence for many of the more established designers, considering the enormous amount of press coverage that is generated strictly from the shows each season. But smaller designers often find themselves at a disadvantage, considering the vast number of designers they are competing against. A common complaint among them is that large advertisers receive the bulk of the attention, particularly in a depressed publishing market.

For instance, Stephen Fairchild, who showed his third collection in Milan this season, said the chaos of the Italian schedule has turned him off from the runways, at least for now. After bringing his collection to the Ellegi Showroom in New York recently, Fairchild said he would prefer directly working with editors and stores as he focuses on an expansion into American specialty stores.

“My reality is that I want to sell,” he said.

With as many as 100 shows taking place in each of the fashion capitals every season, buyers and editors have their own complaints that they are spread too thin between seeing existing vendors and searching out hot new labels. And despite the fears of some designers that not showing during fashion week would adversely impact their sales, they have instead found that retailers seem to be making a stronger effort to protect and encourage new designers in a tough economic climate.

“Sometimes there is more emphasis than there should be with young designers on runway shows,” said Robert Burke, vice president and senior fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman. “Hearing their thoughts on a collection is sometimes more helpful than having a flashy runway show.”

Even smaller walk-through displays or video presentations can work in a designer’s favor, said Ed Burstell, vice president and general manager at Henri Bendel, which is adding several new collections for spring, including the relaunch of Daryl K. Among the designers who have been picked up at the Fifth Avenue store are Antonio Marras and Jonathan Saunders from Milan, Shami Senthi from London and Ingwa Melero, a Harlem-based collection that showed with Gen Art.

“Sometimes when you see a collection in another way and you have more access to the designer, quite frankly, it’s a time saver,” Burstell said, noting in the case of Bernard Wilhelm, who showed retailers his spring line on a video in his showroom and not on a runway. Bendel’s still bought the collection.

Jaqui Lividini, senior vice president of fashion merchandising, communications at Saks Fifth Avenue, added that the argument for runway shows is that they clearly present the full vision of the designer, but that in the case of new designers, “a runway show is probably more important for the press than it is for retailers.” Stephane Parmentier from Paris and Ermanno Scervino from Milan are two of the designers who didn’t show on runways, but were picked up by the store for spring.

Backing up that argument is the case of Proenza Schouler, the design team of Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough who have received enormous media attention with their debut fall collection, but have not yet had a full-scale show — and retailers are still clamoring to get a piece of the action. Barneys New York will continue to carry the line exclusively in New York for the spring season, which has been a sticking point for the city’s other large retailers. (One major local retailer balked on carrying the line in its other stores when it couldn’t get Proenza Schouler in its flagship.)

There are also more practical reasons designers have for not staging a show, such as justifying the enormous expense in the current economic climate. But designers still need to generate buzz and have come up with some clever ways to do so this season.

Wynn Smith of Wink, for instance, created a more elaborate look-book than in past seasons, staging a photo shoot based on a Denis Piel story that appeared in GQ that evoked a similar lustfully romantic he intended to convey with his spring collection. By skipping the show, Smith, who also presents his line through The News, was able to complete his collection much earlier than normal and maintained his U.S. sales as a result, while also developing his business in Japan, where the line is now represented by Oiso Sangyo Co.

“I think this spoke to more people than a normal fashion show audience of editors,” said John Vertin, creative director. “The one thing you do miss out on is not being on Style.com, and you don’t get in the international runway books, but at our price points, they’re not so much swayed by the runway. You really have to have the goods to deliver and we were pleasantly surprised by the reaction, because people loved seeing something so quick.”

Other designers tried to present look-books that would catch the attention of editors and buyers in their overcrowded mailboxes. Los Angeles designer Alicia Lawhon spiced up her look-book with love poems written to her by her husband, David Gordon, that reflected the romantic feeling she had in mind with the collection. Charles Chang-Lima, who sells through Mao, styled his collection with bullhorns and a human skull: “Everything in this season felt so sweet and sexy, so I felt like I needed a contrast so it [wasn’t] so bubbly. I didn’t want to make it any sweeter than it already is.”

Samantha Treacy’s collection also featured looks she said were “a bit on the pretty side,” so she enlisted a friend with shaggy black haircut and a rose tattoo as a model to give it an edge. She launched a signature collection at the Denise Williamson Showroom in New York this year, but Treacy said her company is too young to risk the financial challenges of a runway show. Still, she has landed accounts for spring at Boudoir and Dernier Crie in New York; Louis of Boston; Sharon Segal at Fred Segal in Los Angeles; Galle in Athens, and several Japanese stores.

Eveningwear designer Marc Bouwer, whose fall runway show earned some of the best reviews of his career, also opted not to show for spring. “Financially, it’s just not the right thing to do,” he said. “It’s important to remain current, but fashion shows are an excruciating thing to do.” To help keep his name in the public eye, however, Bouwer dressed Shania Twain for her latest video, “I’m Gonna Getcha Good,” as well as for her recent awards appearances. In the video, Twain wears a tight lace catsuit in one scene and a harder “glamour Goth”-inspired bondage ensemble in another.

While it doesn’t relate exactly to the designer’s spring ready-to-wear collection, there are parallels — the same catsuit lace was used in a blouse for spring that most customers would find more approachable.

Gregory Parkinson, who designs under his surname, has not been part of a fashion show since moving from New York to Los Angeles, where he was able to locate better production resources for his collection. Last year, he hosted a small installation at Linda Dresner’s New York store during fashion week, but found that the general traffic jam of shows resulted in more excuses than appointments.

“In this day and age, when the press has its priorities with its advertisers and covering what is new, I think my collection would kind of get lost,” Parkinson said. “You have to figure out what your priorities are and not get caught up in the ego, flash-fantasy part of it. It’s about getting your business to the next level in a cold, hard-numbers way, rather than fulfilling an editorial fancy.”

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