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Staying Creative in a Crisis

NEW YORK —?In a garment industry that is full of parables, Seventh Avenue can’t decide whether to follow the lead of the Little Engine or Chicken Little.<br><br>For every naysayer there is a pragmatist when it comes to predicting the...

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NEW YORK —?In a garment industry that is full of parables, Seventh Avenue can’t decide whether to follow the lead of the Little Engine or Chicken Little.

For every naysayer there is a pragmatist when it comes to predicting the business climate in 2003, after two years of working diligently to simply survive an unpredictable economy that turns on hairpins at every dark corner — particularly in the luxury and bridge career categories, where a wrong move can be especially costly.

Designers are finding themselves reacting to conflicting daily expectations of the worst holiday retail season in a decade followed by reports of surprisingly strong post-Thanksgiving sales to the point that their only common expectation for business has become a refrain of more confusion.

To put it in moralistic terms, some would say the sky is falling, but others see a silver lining in every cloud. Yet on a practical level, there are also widely varied opinions about whether spring sales will lean toward extravagant fashion items or value-minded classics, item-driven sales or full-collection shopping, even between the miniskirts-of-the-moment or just more pants.

There are plenty more mixed messages to be found, but for designers and business executives looking toward 2003 as the beginning of a financial recovery, learning to live with uncertainty has become a fact of life and its toll on creativity could be greater than initially expected.

“I feel comfortable right now,” said Catherine Malandrino, among the more vocal designers who have addressed the impact of Sept. 11, the economy and the potential of war in their collections. “Everything that happens in the world affects my design. I am affected just as a result of what has been surrounding me. It’s just a reality. Designers are very permeable to the world.”

Stores have been extremely lean in their designer buys for spring, citing the obvious concerns that another dismal holiday selling season would result in a glut of inventory going into the new year. But with early indications of a potentially decent selling season through January, there is some anticipation that retailers might also bump up orders for spring. However, gauging just what looks customers will gravitate toward and where designers should be focusing their production at the moment tends to be a big gamble.

Malandrino is betting on urban and poetic looks such as blouson or cropped jackets, hand-crocheted sweaters with dip yarn, straight-edged miniskirts made of satin and cotton, and a rough pair of zipper pants with hardwear and patches on the pockets, hips and bottoms.

At Marc Jacobs, it is evening dresses; Anne Klein is selling feminine suits; Donna Karan is pushing tailored jersey and feminine printed dresses; while Ralph Lauren’s top-booking items include a blue printed-cotton tiered skirt, a faded wallpaper motif silk skirtsuit, a white stand-up collar jacket with a sheer tulle skirt and floor-length gradated denim skirt, according to the companies.

Designer Peter Som said bookings are lead by more unusual items, continuing a theory that during a tough economy, consumers look for novelty at the high end, while shopping for basics in more value-priced collections — and that plays out in how he continues to approach the design process and business planning.

“The industry itself is crazy,” Som said. “As a designer who’s starting out, you learn to become prepared for these bumps in the road, despite all the bad news. It’s always disconcerting and disheartening when other designers are going out of business, but I keep trying to keep a tight ship.”

Since John Bartlett pulled the plug on his men’s business last month and Miguel Adrover could not secure backing to produce his spring collection, there continues to be a pervasive mood of concern that other designers will fail in the coming months, an even more likely scenario if the country enters another war.

While Polo Ralph Lauren has maintained its position in recent quarterly reports, big companies like Donna Karan and Calvin Klein are in the midst of important steps to secure the future success of those brands. Karan’s business is being restructured by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, while Klein is once again entertaining offers for a potential takeover of parts or the whole of his fashion empire.

Meanwhile, statistics from NPDFashionworld present a similarly depressing picture for the $11.5 billion bridge and designer segments, which represent 16 percent of total women’s apparel volume, considering sales dropped 4 percent through October, according to Marshal Cohen, co-president. With a lack of emerging trends and given the high cost of selling goods in the luxury market, Cohen said volume for next year will remain relatively flat, with a slight decrease of about 1 percent and a continued margin-profit loss for designers.

“I’m always concerned about sales, but perhaps it’s time to be a little more concerned than usual, since there’s no denying that specific events, such as war with Iraq, will adversely impact sales,” said David Guez, president of the French bridge company Votre Nom, who is counting on key items to drive spring business.

But it’s not all gloom and doom.

Gordon Finkelstein, president of Tocca, said: “It’s just not as bad as people are saying. The economic indicators are not as bad as people expected them to be. Stores are in business and they need product. Instead of watching the indicators, we’re focused on our selling reports every Tuesday morning.”

From Tocca’s spring collection, Finkelstein said separates have become an increasingly important category for the company, with upbeat colors and embroideries leading sales.

Robert Duffy, president of Marc Jacobs, said the designer’s women’s collection has been booked ahead by 45 percent compared with a year ago and that trunk shows at Bergdorf Goodman and Jacobs’ stores in New York, San Francisco and Japan have all been exceptionally strong. The company is continuing its retail expansion in Asia, with new collection stores at the Landmark in Hong Kong and the Regent in Taipei, and a Marc by Marc Jacobs store in Hong Kong’s Pacific Place. Another is near completion at Taipei’s Breeze Center. The company is also exploring locations in Beijing and Shanghai, as well as its first uptown location in Manhattan.

“We don’t usually have a Christmas business and we’ve even had a Christmas business this year,” Duffy said. “We’ve been having several great months and I think it’s much better out there than people expected.”

Other designers reported that by taking measures to improve early deliveries and quality controls, they have managed to continue to build sales. Michael Soheil, for instance, recently moved his studio from his Greenwich Village apartment into a garment district building at 330 West 38th Street and is attempting to move as much production as possible in-house, with a goal of maintaining a stricter overview on quality. As stores are more interested in well-merchandised collections rather than items, it becomes more important to manufacture them all in one place.

“Buyers who look to younger designers really want rare and beautiful pieces, but they also want a collection to be well merchandised with a whole story,” Soheil said. “Items don’t really work for a higher price point because customers don’t want to buy something and then spend another three months looking for something to wear with it.”

While designers to some degree have changed the look of their collections in response to what retailers expect or what they anticipate customers will need in a changing world, it’s debatable whether shoring up their business in a tight economy affects their ability to be creative.

“Creativity, fortunately, has nothing to do with the economic and political climate,” Belgian designer Dries Van Noten said. “I feel more creative than ever. In a difficult climate, it’s important to have more interesting items and to respect the personal, individual aspect of dressing.”

Martine Sitbon agreed. “In this environment, I feel even more urgency to express myself. It’s important to reinforce one’s individuality — the individual has become more important.”

Sitbon added that the atmosphere of world events always influences creativity.

“But in the storm of creation, it’s difficult to know how it has influenced the process,” she said. “It’s only in retrospect, when the collection’s finished, that I can look back and understand. Nevertheless, it’s hard to work in the current environment. Everyone would like it to be different. It’s important to express confidence now.”

“When times are tough, you have to push yourself even more to create an exceptional collection,” Paris-based designer Andrew Gn added. “When people go out and buy something, they want to buy something really special.”

Gn recalled that minimalism was the trend in fashion after the Gulf War — which he said would not be a good idea today.

“I don’t think it’s a time to go back and do simple eight-ply cashmere sweaters and a black coat,” he added. “I’m sure people still have those things from 1995.”

Some feel that the bridge market, making a moderate comeback in the past few years, is better positioned to weather any further economic downturns than are luxury designers. But the category’s increasing focus on a well-designed product also runs a risk of increasing prices — something of which all designers are mindful.

“I think spring is going to be good, but tough,” said Anne Klein designer Charles Nolan, who said romantic and girly clothes with a slightly retro feel are expected to be the strongest performers. “The worst could be behind us now, but if we’re going to be at war, it’s hard to judge whether that will resonate with customers. When I design late at night at home, I try to be in a completely different head, but it’s not about shutting out the world. By making clothes, you are commenting on the world, but you try to distill out the madness.

“When people are talking about gloom and doom, you want to make things that are happy. We’ve all been working with military details because we’ve been talking about saber rattling for so long.”

Mariclare Van Bergen, vice president of sales for Eileen Fisher, added that fabric developments continue to be a way to entice bridge customers, pointing to the company’s recently introduced range of washable stretch crepe that has been expanded for spring from mostly pants and skirts to a wardrobe of jackets as well, while knits are also becoming more lightweight with new textures and shapes.

“The trick is going into the spring season clean,” Van Bergen said. “Right now, our business has been good, but we’ve got another big month to go. As long as we keep the product out and as long as the consumer keeps the pace up, we’ll go into the season feeling very positive.”

Stretch cotton shirts and items with natural embellishments, such as knits and a bias-cut skirt detailed with shells, are expected to be strong items from Lafayette 148, said Aileen Dresner, executive vice president, noting that the increasing sense of confusion in the market has led the vendor to remain conservative in its long-term outlook.

“Our plans were and continue to be a conservative 10 percent increase,” she said. “But we might have an opportunity because we make such a high percentage of our clothes in New York that if things really improve, we can take advantage with our quick-turn production.”

Dana Buchman’s top sellers are expected to include blouses with bat-wing sleeves, a soft ankle-length skirt dip-dyed in levels of color, knitted ponchos and prints in general. Other companies are focusing on building strength in specific classifications. Principe Group, founded this year by Joseph and Debra Greco, has built up its leather and suede offerings with items appropriate for warm weather, such as perforated jackets or reversible, lightweight, laser-cut blazers. Votre Nom’s Guez also predicted that cargo capris, jeans and novelty T-shirts such as mesh Ts, rugby styles and shadow-striped shirts would enliven spring sales.

“While there is caution in the air, it is encouraging to see also a good degree of confidence coming from the market,” added Antonio Haslauer, vice president of marketing for the Brazilian sportswear company Tufi Duek, which specializes in many novelty items such as beaded cotton knit tops and ripped jeans and pants.

“Despite mixed messages, people still shop,” Haslauer said. “What we are seeing is a client migration scaling down their budget, but not their fashion appetite.”

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