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NEW YORK — According to the old-school rules of the runways, designers should open a collection with their strongest look of the season. But these days, it’s the very last look that counts the most — when the designers themselves take their bow.

Can it be just a coincidence that designers have suddenly been talking nonstop about their diet plans, their face-lifts, their new hairdos and workout regimens? Not when Donna Karan looks 10 years younger, Narciso Rodriguez has become a six-pack and Tommy Hilfiger is sporting a buzz cut. It’s a delicate issue, for sure, but let’s face it: Fashion designers are going through a major makeover moment.

This story first appeared in the September 22, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

In a world where observations on the delineation of famous people’s “before” and “after” have become something of a journalistic sport, where celebrities of all kinds are facing microscopic scrutiny of their personal behaviors and appearances, it only makes sense that designers would start to feel the pressure, too. After all, designers are celebrities in their own right, tied into their brands as the physical manifestation of a lifestyle or logo, like Tom Ford is as sleek and sexy as Gucci, and John Galliano is as mercurially theatrical as Christian Dior.

But fame, as they say, is a bitch. The nature of being a celebrity has shifted enormously over the past decade — thanks to the diarrhetic propagation of information channels — making the Who Wore What, When and Where, endlessly accessible through the internet, style magazines, television stations, reality programming and supermarket tabloids. So the celebrities face constant pressure to keep up.

“Fashion people have to look at themselves on television and in pictures all the time,” said Michael Kors, who has maintained a sunny persona that’s been fairly consistent throughout his 20-year professional career. “Sometimes it’s hard to see yourself as what you are, so you reinvent yourself. It comes down to being vain, and we’re constantly under the microscope.”

Kors is a Star-reading, Bonnie Fuller Fan Club member who, thanks to her publication, can deliver the blow by blow on Barbra Streisand’s post-op face-lift perp walk, just like millions of celebrity-obsessed Americans across the country. That infatuation has actually helped him better understand the public curiosity that trails him as a fashion designer. Eating at Da Silvano recently, a woman approached Kors on behalf of her daughter, who recognized him from a television interview. Retelling the story, Kors put on a phony southern accent, and said, “‘My daughter knows that you’re a designer, but she can’t remember if your name is Michael, or if it’s Randolph.’”

People are watching wherever they go — even if they mistake them for someone on QVC. Last week, Us Daily lampooned the perkiness of Zac Posen, a relative newcomer, but one whose instant celebrity merits a photo montage depicting his various stages of happiness with a corresponding Prozac meter. In its September issue, Ocean Drive ran a full-page picture of a shirtless Narciso Rodriguez in a swimming pool. Randolph Duke, the former red carpet-friendly designer, turned up in Hamptons magazine this summer wearing sleeveless lumberjack shirts and sporting triple-D sized pecs the dimensions of a Billy Doll. Sure, designers are as famous as they were in the Eighties, when Calvin Klein could draw a crowd of thousands to a fragrance launch, but it’s a different kind of fame today, one that’s more like watching the “stars” of a reality TV show competing for a million-dollar prize, only it’s on “Full Frontal Fashion” and the way to win the public’s attention is to be the youngest, richest, thinnest, most beautiful designer out there.

What makes it more difficult for designers is that they, basically, are famous because they’ve paid for billboards and other ads with their names on them — à la Judy Holliday in the 1954 classic movie, “It Should Happen to You.” Their names are on clothing labels, sure, but it’s not like they’ve discovered a new planet or starred in a major motion picture or released a top-selling album.

Ironically, designers today are competing with those types of celebrities, who, up until now, have simply dressed for the red carpet. The establishment of collections by J.Lo, P. Diddy, Gwen Stefani and Russell Simmons has changed the public’s perception of what it means to be a fashion designer, from the tortured creative genius who disseminates the trends to the mechanically styled pop star whose taste can be manufactured for the masses. Customers aren’t looking to designers to tell them how to dress, they’re looking at MTV. To keep up, designers will have to, more than ever, mold themselves into the public image of their brands, or associate themselves with the stars who now set the cultural and fashion agendas. For example, Betsey Johnson based her spring collection on Russell Simmons’ hip-hop style.

Is it any wonder that in an image-oriented business aimed at hip, young, affluent customers, designers would be so concerned about their own image?

“If I feel good about myself, it shows in everything I do,” said Karan who, like a butterfly shedding its cashmere cocoon sweater, has emerged over the past year into an infinitely talked-about beauty. Her green juice diet plan, her two-plus hours daily on the yoga mat, her new wavy Ric Pipino hairdo, and, yes, her face-lift, have been the talk of fashion parties all summer long. Karan, as one of the few female designers to achieve major commercial success over the past decade, is well aware that the public at large associates her image with that of the collection, and so she shares the details of her personal life frequently in magazine interviews and in the company’s own publication, Woman to Woman.

“A personal journey overlaps into the collection,” Karan said. “It’s not just about the clothes. It relates to the person.”

There’s a flip side to that. When Karan talked about some of the kookier aspects of her spiritual journey in the Nineties, and when she showed her collections to a soundtrack of drum beats and chanting monks, consumers started putting that overly mystical connotation on the collection, too. For some, it was just too out there. But now that Karan’s been thinking about her foundations, making it easier for women to dress for their personal and professional lives, it’s a natural transition for her to drop all those furry cloaks from her personal wardrobe, dumping Urban Warrior Donna in favor of “Goddess” Exhibit Donna.

Similarly, as Hilfiger’s company began to flounder under the weight of its sporty Americana motif in recent years, top executives started bailing out and the designer’s stock price took a plunge. When Hilfiger regrouped to announce a new chief executive and a new competitive strategy in the better market with his H collection this year, he did so with a youthful buzz cut, not the traditional center-parted style he’s been sporting since his rock ’n’ roll adolescence in Elmira, N.Y. Intentional or not, his appearance subtly underlined just what the company is after: A younger image.

“Hey, when I was a child, I got a new haircut like this every summer,” Hilfiger said. “One day this summer, I just decided to cut it. I think that people, and not just designers, like change. It’s fun. When you get into a stagnant phase, which we were in, eventually you get bored. You have to move on.”

Stagnation and aging are not favorite topics of conversation among designers, but it’s a reality of life and one that’s become increasingly pertinent to the fashion industry, as a generation of America’s greatest designers have recently approached or passed retirement age. Recent years have witnessed the deaths of Bill Blass and Pauline Trigère, and the passing of batons at Yves Saint Laurent and, last week, at Calvin Klein. Those who remain active as designers well into their 60s are now facing increased competition for attention, both by consumers and the media, from a new roster of designers who are really young and, more often than not, picture perfect. It wasn’t long ago that the literary world was caught by a storm of photogenic writers (remember hunky Sebastian Junger?) and now designers are exploiting the public relations benefit of a good-looking front man, as well. And it’s more overt than when Blass or de la Renta were using their charm to entertain and sell the Ladies who Lunch, or than when Calvin Klein and Tom Ford were using their sexuality as selling points.

Case in point: Proenza Schouler. Their talent is undeniable, but the looks of designers Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez can’t have hurt their chances of success, either, and that’s a lesson that has not gone unnoticed by the rest of the industry. Some of the biggest buzz-generating designers are ones who are growing up right in front of the media spotlight, like Zac Posen, who is 22, or Esteban Cortazar, who is 19. Despite great reviews for his first collection, and good fortune in cheekbone structure, Posen suffered an early setback when editors perceived his off-the-runway antics and appearance as too pretentious for his young station in life. He has since refined his image to great improvement. Dropping the magician’s cape, for one, has made him appear subtly more mature, lending an extra patina of polish to his collections at the same time.

The connection between a better self-image and a better-looking collection is hard to dispute. Karl Lagerfeld and Alexander McQueen lost lots of weight and they’ve been getting the best reviews of their lives. Narciso Rodriguez has been spending hours in the gym, and, hello, here’s one of the hottest designers in America.

Rodriguez’s recent signature collections have really thrust the designer back into the limelight, after he toiled away on too many other lines in Europe while living unhealthily on too much airplane food. Now he’s a sex symbol, to both women and men. At his fragrance launch at Saks Fifth Avenue this month, a line of fans mobbed his appearance, walking away with autographed pictures — 8-by-10 glossy head shots of the fashion designer. Rodriguez, who declined to comment for this article, has said in the past that his recent weight loss and attention to fitness relate to his move from Europe back to his home in New York, where he’s become more grounded and happy. It certainly shows.

“Narciso looks great,” said Alvin Valley, a designer who was known until last week to wear his curly hair in styles similar to that of Gary Oldman in “Dracula.” Now Valley has cut his hair off into a neat, conservative, banker’s style.

“On a personal level, we want to make ourselves look better,” Valley said. “Narciso looks amazing and it shows in his collections. And I’ve seen him naked in the gym. Trust me.”

“Because of his new fabulous gym body, he can position himself as a Latin hunk,” added Simon Doonan, the creative director of Barneys New York, who also has seen Rodriguez in the gym. “Not only is he buff, he’s ripped! Gone are the days when you could look like Christian Dior and wear a white cloak. Narciso and Donna are photographed at all the events.”

But where can all this lead? Will Marc Jacobs drop the geeky glasses for contact lenses? Will Mark Badgley and James Mischka spin themselves off as the Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen of eveningwear? Will Cynthia Rowley get implants?

“Fashion is all about transformation, and the more they get carried away, the better,” Doonan said. “I’m sure we’re going to soon see a few people Wildenstein-out in the community, which only adds to the entertainment value of the fashion landscape.”

If Rodriguez’s marketable talent is enhanced by his looks, that’s a relatively new component in the formula for success in the fashion business. “Madeline Vionnet was no oil painting,” Doonan pointed out. And Diane von Furstenberg conversely argued that designers are as famous today as they ever were, but the focus on appearance comes from a change in the public’s perception of what it means to be famous. Donatella Versace caught on early, putting herself on the cover of Versace The Magazine, and joining in on a spoof of her platinum lifestyle on “Saturday Night Live.”

“The word celebrity was never used before, but I’m sure Dior and Balenciaga were very famous in their day,” von Furstenberg said. “Now, it’s more like, celebrity! celebrity! celebrity! We’re all following Andy Warhol’s 15-minute legacy, and, yes, John Galliano looks a lot better than when he started, but it’s not tied to designers only. It’s ceo’s. It’s television stars. It’s everybody.”

“We’re in fashion and we want a new look, too,” added Karl Lagerfeld. “People think I’ve had a face-lift, but I’ve never been away long enough to have one. I’ve been too busy doing collections. Not that I have anything against it. You go to the hairdresser when your hair is too long, so you go to the surgeon when your skin is too long. But for men, I must say it’s much easier.”

Kors would agree with that point.

“I haven’t changed my look since I went from the Peter Frampton look to the Steve McQueen look in the Eighties,” he said. “But the only thing we all have to know in this business is the same thing that motivates people to shop and to get into fashion in the first place. Unfortunately, it is insecurity. We’re in a youth-oriented business, and it’s hard to look like a middle-aged person and sell to younger people. We all want to be younger, taller, thinner, richer.”

Designers must spend more time looking in the mirror than anyone else. De la Renta said his wife thinks he’s obese, but he doesn’t bother to change his weight because he doesn’t want to invest in a lot of new clothes. Fine thing for a designer to say, but at least it’s coming from one with the suavest image on Seventh Avenue. Don’t think he doesn’t know it.

“I don’t think it’s been a detriment to my career for customers to think I’m a nice guy with a Latin twist and maybe sort of good looking,” de la Renta said. “If you’re creating beauty, why not try to present yourself in a similar way? Being in the fashion business is like being in the movie business. It’s like Nicole Kidman, who always looks impeccably dressed. It’s wonderful to be true to the image the public wants to see you look like. I hate it when I see a movie star dressed like a slob.”

Don’t be surprised to see other designers start to spiff up their image. Douglas Hannant went with an ear-length haircut this summer after years of wearing it long. He’s stopped unbuttoning his shirt to the navel and he’s not wearing his cuffs loose any longer.

“I felt that it was time to be a little more cleaned up,” said Hannant, who has repositioned his ready-to-wear collection to target a more sophisticated crowd of socialites. “It’s something you feel. You have to change with the times or you really fall behind. Everyone’s cleaning up a lot more. Maybe it’s not even fashion, really, but something in the air that makes everyone feel differently.”

There will be many designers who take issue with the argument that personal looks are becoming more important to their success. They can currently be found at the beauty salon.

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