By  on September 6, 2008

f ever there was a time for interesting, distinctive and well-made clothing, itwould appear to be now. With the economy sputtering, it will take more thanbasics to get consumers to loosen their purse strings, and the price of agarment will have to be justified by its visible quality.

Falling oil pricesdid little to help retailers in August, as the majority reportedcomparable-store sales declines on Thursday for the month. Saks Fifth Avenue wasoff 5.9 percent, Nordstrom was down 7.9 percent, and Neiman Marcus  reportedcomps slid 0.4 percent. And yet, at the start of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week,optimism abounds.

“I’m hoping to see clothes that have a strong point ofview,” said Ann Watson, vice president and fashion director of Henri Bendel.“I’m looking forward to seeing clothes that are distinctive and have thatspecial ‘wow’ factor.

“Trends that change seasonally are what we call ‘fasttrends’ and they really set the tone for the season. It is this element of theunexpected that keeps us on pins and needles waiting to see what the designershave tapped into this season.”

“Anything new and different is going to seemvery appealing,” concurred Julie Gilhart, senior vice president and fashiondirector of Barneys New York. “I think the bigger, already established brandsare going to have a tougher time unless they do things they haven’t done before.We need fresh approaches that are more conscious, innovative and fun. Thisspirit will drive business.”

Customers have changed their buying habits, saidJim Wetzel, co-owner of Jake, a women’s and men’s boutique with two locations inChicago and one in suburban Winnetka. “There is a different practicality thatour clients are adapting to with less fussy trends, bright colors and luxefabrications with which they are familiar such as tweed and rinsed denim, headded. Jennifer Loporchio, co-owner of Dighton-Rhode in Greenwich, Conn., saidthat even the wealthiest of women are exercising a degree of caution today,whereas 18 months ago they seemed less concerned with prices.

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