By and  on February 10, 2009

If necessity really is the mother of invention, seven young designers are proving the maxim with laserlike focus, cost-cutting initiatives and alternative lines for added income.

Rather than bemoan the economy, these up-and-comers are rising to the challenge without losing sight of the fact that any quick fix could easily mar their brand image down the road once the clouds clear.

Lean and mean seems to be their business model these days, with several touting how their upcoming runway shows will be more edited. Patience is another must, according to Koi Suwannagate and Thuy Diep, both of whom have willingly shelved licensing or signature store pursuits for the time being. Others, like Lela Rose, who aims to wrap up a licensing deal for a yet-to-be-disclosed category shortly, and Richard Chai, who has ventured into men’s wear, are sticking to initial plans.

Chai said the key is to not go into “panic mode and develop this type of business that is not going to work for you. I am continuing with men’s, and it’s important to just carry on and do what is important.”

Phillip Lim took a philosophical tone about these uncertain times. “In human terms, we are like a toddler,” Lim said. “We just finished learning how to walk, feed ourselves a bit when food is placed on the table. It’s challenging but also so interesting in these times. I think all the noise is being stripped and all you hear left is the sound, whether it be music or just chaos.”

At 3.1 Phillip Lim, that means “refocusing more than ever,” the designer said. “You have to be tighter with your budgets and you have to be realistic with your resources. And you have to be patient. You cannot be jumping all over the place.…You hear a lot of people all of a sudden coming out with diffusion lines, but in the end, in order to ride the wave, you have to be intact. You don’t want to be caught in the current of damaging your brand, your brand values and what people think of your brand. Today, it’s about a natural elimination, so why add so much more? Let’s refocus and streamline and do what we do the best way that we can.”

Chris Benz echoed the sentiment. “It’s always been my philosophy to concentrate on doing what you know and keeping it as lean as possible,” Benz said.

He prides himself on being priced slightly below some of his designer competitors, which he said has boded well for him in this climate. But with stores demanding special pieces at even lower price points, he isn’t turning a blind eye to the design challenge. “I think it’s a lot easier to make something special and expensive than to make something more price conscious in terms of design, so it’s an exciting challenge,” Benz said. “It’s really about fabric, design, detailing and finish. I think it will be interesting to see everybody’s approach to that challenge.”

Benz said the overlap of Première Vision with New York Fashion Week means he and his team will try and make most of the fabric appointments with the mills’ U.S. agents later in New York. “It may take a bit longer, but it’s also a blessing in disguise,” Benz said. “It saves the expenditure of going there.”

Diep, the designer behind the Thuy label, also is sourcing her European fabrics through New York agents this season rather than traveling to Paris with a few staffers and has saved $6,000 to $7,000 in the process. Not pursuing handbag and shoe deals has freed her up to focus more on her main collection. Diep said she is thinking more intently about all aspects of her line’s design before she develops patterns to avoid alterations. “Once I put sketches out there for designs to be created, I want to be sure it’s 90 percent complete and it’s not going to change a lot. All those alterations add up,” she said.

She also has scaled back on the number of samples for her upcoming runway show, and the presentation will be more compact with 28 or 30 looks. Pricing is another area she has whittled a bit. Thuy now offers a wider price range so that the collection is within reach for stores that indicated they would like to buy the line if it were more affordable. While a cashmere coat retails for $1,500, a wool version goes for $800 or $1,000. “There is definitely a lot of pressure to make clothes that are very wearable and accessible within this environment,” she said. “I have that in my head, but I don’t want that to be the impetus for design. I want to guard the integrity of my design, but I hear what buyers are saying works.”

Suwannagate recently decided to take sales of her signature label in-house in order to get more direct feedback from the 35 retailers that carry her collection. “It’s important for us to get in touch with our clients and to service them better,” she said.

Trying to be mindful of retailers’ quests for more affordable designer items, Suwannagate is offering select styles that retail from $300 to $500, but most of her collection is more expensive. Jackets, for example, retail for $1,200. “It’s hard because we use fine cashmere, but I do know it’s important to have those key pieces,” she said, adding that her show will feature 15 looks instead of 24 like last time.

Rather than introduce a cheaper diffusion line that would potentially dilute her name, she is ironing out a private label deal with a Target-type store that she declined to identify. Suwannagate has put the brakes on plans to open her first store in Los Angeles, due to the ailing economy and the fact that “so many people are doing that already,” she said.

After dabbling in ready-to-wear and contemporary sportswear, the designer has returned to what her business was founded on — handcrafted, sculptural knitwear. “I can do the rest, but it’s not where my heart is. Since this is how the world is going to be, I decided to move forward with what I know and not be all over the place,” she said.

Jason Wu received such media attention after dressing Michelle Obama for the inaugural balls that he decided to put a fur license with Saga Furs on hold to focus on rtw. Wu said he has been getting many requests for a diffusion line, but decided against the move. “It’s not about doing anything differently, but do what you do and be the best at it,” Wu said. “There is no market for excess. People buy exactly what they need. You need to create demand and desirable clothing people want to buy. The contemporary price point is already a large market, and I don’t feel I would be contributing to it.”

In recent months, Rose has launched a licensed bridesmaid dress collection, opened a bridesmaid dress store and developed a few products for Beauty.com. Now she is trying to wrap up a licensing deal with an unidentified party “for something that really fits in with the brand,” which has been in the works for months. “I would never be interested in doing a licensing deal with something that didn’t make sense for my collection,” she said. “One of the worst things a designer can do now would be to make a deal or a partnership that doesn’t make sense, because when we come out of this, people will remember,” said Rose.

The runway collection she will show Sunday centers on “salable — it’s not about pushing the envelope,” she said. There is also a greater emphasis on daywear and more pick-up separates, due to the decline in cocktail parties and events. The fact that a number of stores are on the lookout for dresses that retail for $900 or $1,000 bodes well for Rose since the bread and butter of her dresses are in that price range, and have details, great fabrics, colors and even embroidery. Another plus is the wave of designer shoppers who are foregoing their typical $4,500 purchases in favor of sharper-priced designer dresses, she said.

Chai, for his part, is embracing the new retail landscape. “It’s a reality, but it makes you be creative in a different way, across the board. It wasn’t my intention to have a secondary line, but I gave a different tier of price points to my collection,” he said.

For the first time, Chai will have pieces that are closer to the contemporary price range, by adding silk jersey and crepe de chine to his lineup, with silk jersey tops coming in at less than $200 at suggested retail, and silk jersey dresses at $600 and $700 at suggested retail. “The challenge is to try and create clothes that are appealing and come in at a competitive price point,” Chai said.

He is not oblivious to the situation, and is more mindful of budgets, by reducing colorways and samples. “In a weird way, it’s invigorating,” Chai added. “It’s [a matter of] ‘What do I have to do? How do I make this interesting and how do I make this work?’”

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