The city’s fashion scene has taken a beating in recent years. Now, New York’s fashion flock is pondering what — or whom — is needed to reenergize its efforts.

One of the most dangerous facts that is perhaps unique to the fashion industry — since it is one that bases both its art and business on the promotion of superficial appearance — is that the slightest perception almost always wills itself into reality.

The mere whisper of a downturn in a designer’s fortunes will reverberate into an echo that can extinguish a career, just as rumors of an editor’s imminent downfall will frequently contribute to their eventual disgrace. But in fashion — where it is not Darwin, but a lemming mentality that rules — the perception theory of self-fulfilling prophesies can be applied to almost anything. Cities themselves rise and fall as fashion capitals based on a perception of the collective heat of the designers who show there and the cultural zeitgeist.

At the height of the supermodel phenomenon in the Nineties, when a new aura of order and purpose surrounded New York’s shows, the city dominated the global fashion calendar for the first time as the place with the most energy, the best parties and the most visible designer shows. But as a handful of remarkable new design talents were introduced in Europe in recent years — at the same time the couture industry entered its modern renaissance — the tide, having originated there anyway, quickly returned to Paris. New York, after finally looking so grown up, looked instead, to some, as if it had grown old.

If it appeared that way, then it must be. Away went the big European designers, the Armanis, Versaces and Helmut Langs, back to their old haunts in Paris and Milan. American stars who confounded the old axiom that New York clothes had to be commercial, like Isaac Mizrahi, Todd Oldham, John Bartlett and Stephen Sprouse, left the runways, ironically to pursue more lucrative product endorsements at mass-market temples like Target. And at the moment when the New York fashion world began to ponder its creative fate, wondering within its insular little vacuum who could save it, the city itself suddenly was in need of a rescue.For all that New York has suffered, its fashion scene is not yet over, and designers here point to a number of factors that could help revive its reputation over time. America still has enough establishment designer houses — Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Tommy Hilfiger, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Carolina Herrera, Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors, Anna Sui and Narciso Rodriguez, among them — to draw the top international press and retailers to its seasonal fashion weeks. But there are also external factors that could help them along: Rents are down. The weak dollar makes the city a more hospitable place for foreign travelers. There’s even some signs of a debaucherous underground nightlife making its way back, an indication that New Yorkers have not taken their city’s financial woes or pending ban on public smoking too seriously.

But New York’s greatest loss has been something far less tangible. It’s what Tocca designer Ellis Kreuger calls "a little nucleus of energy that flips around" from city to city.

"It’s not a hype, but more like a magnet," he said. "There’s this secret source of energy, or some kind of agreement about what is cool, and suddenly this group of important people migrates there."

Stereotypes abound, but New York’s not the only victim there; London, Milan and Paris are stigmatized too, each by time-worn preconceptions. They suggest that New Yorkers spend far too much time obsessing about the nucleus of creative energy and how to get it back — but not in an obvious way, like designers in London, who, of course, always overplay their talents with showy club clothes and obtuse references that can look clownish; or in a needy way, like designers in Milan, who really expect to be appreciated for their craftsmanship; or in a condescending or obnoxious way, like the French, who naturally hate Americans right now, so why bother to impress them? So much for the stereotypes.

Instead, New Yorkers approach the issue the same way they design their clothes, with an eye for the practical and skin thick enough to deflect the criticism. Who asked ’em anyway?

"Paris is for lovers," sniffed expat Catherine Malandrino. "New York is for livers.""It’s all about perception," added Donna Karan. "Everybody loves New York. I don’t see anybody moving to France or Italy, so why do they all live here if they don’t love it? I love Central Park, I love all the lights and the movies and the theater. I love the view!"

How about you? Oh, but it’s not as simple as a Gershwin tune. The competition between cities has been tough on New York lately, and last season, Paris clearly left its rivals in the dust with happy, rainbow-colored collections infused with that darned je ne sais quoi that seemed to come from an entirely different planet of inspiration than those in New York, where designers continued to wonder about the fallout from 9/11.

"New York has a slow energy right now," conceded Bill Blass designer Lars Nilsson. "The competition is higher in Paris than New York, but maybe that’s because the French are taking bigger risks than you can here, where it’s always in the back of your mind that what you design has to be commercial. Everybody in New York is concerned about the situation in the world, the economy and what is going to happen. Paris is a little more upbeat and you can’t just change that. It has to come in a natural way. C’est la vie."

The pragmatic wearability of the New York collections used to work in their favor when the city closed the international calendar, acting as a palette cleanser to the wild fantasies of Europe. But, since moving to the fore, all the diverse voices here tend to produce a sound more like that of a belch of the previous season’s trends. American designers have questioned their own creativity, their chains to commercial conventions and even the generally schizophrenic culture of a nation inculcated by campaigns for the next "American Idol" and the next world war. So who can blame them if their game’s a little off?

"It is really tough, right now," Karan said. "We are constantly looking at fantasy versus function, and does it all even matter right now? The world we’re living in is really scary. I find it fascinating that stylists say that American designers shouldn’t show jewelry. In France, they expect a certain amount of hoopla."New York’s designers have learned to live with those expectations and now tend to fall into two categories along the debate over the New York-Paris rivalry. The majority, which sometimes confuses pragmatism with pessimism, feels that Paris’ connection to the couture gives it an insurmountable advantage, and thus accept their inferiority complex.

"For the artist in all of us, showing in Paris means a certain kind of freedom, whereas showing in New York reflects the kind of grounded realism that helps us stay tuned to the women who ultimately will be wearing our clothes," said Anne Klein designer Charles Nolan, making a case for responsible utilitarianism before slipping into the lower half of the glass: "I don’t think New York should even consider this a competition."

Nicole Miller, too, is a defeatist. "How can you beat couture?" she asked. "That workmanship, the ateliers, there’s nothing like that here. I don’t think anybody has the money to put on an extravaganza like that here, let alone get away with it."

Sacre bleu! She even defends the French! "Everybody loves to criticize what they don’t know or when they’re uncomfortable," Miller said. "When people go to Paris, they think French people are rude. Americans often mistake their behavior as rudeness, but that’s just the way they are."

Yet there is another element of the fashion community that is more optimistic about New York’s prospects, fueled by several new labels that have made their debut here recently and shown they could become the foundation for the city’s next generation of talent. Young designers like Zac Posen, Jess Holzworth and the teams behind Proenza Schoeler and Bruce — OK, some of them are really young — at least show a level of maturity in their approach to business that is sometimes greater than that of the stores and press.

"What’s special about New York is that it’s the crossroads of the world," said Diane Von Furstenberg. "It’s where everybody comes to sell what you have to sell. People pooh-pooh it, but gradually, that is changing. America is so much a target right now that it may be a little more fragile, but it is still so important."It’s not as if the fault lies entirely at the designers’ hands, either. "Maybe it shouldn’t all fall on the shoulders of designers," said Cynthia Rowley. "Maybe it’s all the restaurants and clubs that need to be new and exciting. It’s just a case of being all dressed up with no place to go. The sexy nightlife that goes with the image isn’t really keeping up with the fashion."

Malandrino also reminisced about the apex of New York nightlife, those days seen through rose-tinted glasses oflegendary haunts Studio 54 and the Mudd Club. "Fashion is a big party," she said. "It’s time to think again what is really fashion and how much we need it. From all over the world, people come and want to make it here and that gives the city a feeling of having so much energy on this little island. This is a city of the future."

Despite all the criticism, there remains a strong feeling among its designers — not surprisingly — that New York’s fashion week continues to have its advantages over Paris, and that some day, the fashion cognoscenti will be saying that the nucleus of energy has come back. Or maybe not.

"What for? What’s the purpose?" asked Donna Karan. "They’d just look at it and say we copied it."

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