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NEW YORK — If only the economy were better.

This story first appeared in the February 23, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Retailers came to New York Fashion Week sheepishly, knowing their budgets were down and expecting the mood to be somber. Many have slashed their open-to-buy by 20 percent or more after last season’s double-digit sales declines.

But most concluded the week in a reflective, positive mood, despite repeated days of depressing economic news that raised further concerns over whether consumers would even be shopping for clothes come fall, and hopeful about what they saw — spirited collections, a crop of new talent with promise that put the stamp of individuality on the clothes, and some sense of commercial reality.

That bad rap that designers can often be outrageously priced with impractical styles didn’t seem to apply for fall.

“New York designers are not out of touch,” contended Jeffrey Kalinsky, executive vice president and director of designer merchandising for Nordstrom Inc. “I was impressed overall with what they turned out.…These are tough times, no question about that, and that business is challenging. For me, it just means being a razor-sharp editor and finding the best New York has to offer.”

This season, Kalinsky said, designers showed “a lot of product that looks really good and prices that reflect the intrinsic value that the customer is going to be looking for. I haven’t seen all the prices everywhere, but a good designer knows what’s going on in the world and needs to use creativity to get consumers shopping and buyers buying.”

“Ultimately…there was great balance between inspired clothes and realistic clothes,” said Nicole Fischelis, vice president and fashion director at Macy’s Inc. “It’s a lot about fusion — the rough and refined, feminine and rock ’n’ roll, layering and unmatching, tailored with feminine, a bohemian attitude, taking plaids to a new level, winter floral mixes and lots of animal prints.”

“I arrived expecting a depressing atmosphere [but] the shows were very positive and optimistic. Everyone kept the same energy,” said Sarah Lerfel, buyer for Colette in Paris. “I keep adding new names. It’s important to support creativity. I don’t work with budgets and I’ll continue to work the same way.”

“Challenging times seem to bring out the best in Americans and many of us are actually energized despite the prevailing news,” said Linda Fargo, senior vice president, fashion office and store presentation for Bergdorf Goodman. “We’re inspired enough to build new tiers into our business. We found many of the designers delivered some of their most focused collections to date. We particularly applaud the younger guard for both their courage as well as their ability to combine value with desirable design.”

She said Bergdorf’s was keen on one of the season’s prevailing messages. “It’s the new strong woman — broad-shouldered, fierce, confident and looking like she can handle anything.”

“The new guard stepped it up by honing in on their own personal aesthetic and presenting collections that had a strong voice and were very focused. Jason Wu, Brian Reyes, Phi, Thakoon and Peter Som all exemplified this,” said Ann Watson, vice president and fashion director at Henri Bendel. “It is clear these designers have gotten to really know their customers better and are giving her what she loves.”

Though the consensus was the season rated an eight or eight-and-a-half on a scale of 10, a few saw too much darkness on the runways. “Is all black going to help the economy?” Marc Jacobs was quoted as saying.

Watson agreed there were too many dark clothes. “The customer needs and wants color now more than ever,” she said.

Others saw the concern of a world in economic turmoil permeating the mood.

“There was not much energy at the fashion shows. I think the designers are a little bit afraid,” observed Alla Verber, vice president of Mercury Distribution in Russia. While she did say she loved the collections of J.Mendel, Ralph Rucci, Donna Karan and Michael Kors, she felt there could have been more retailers to appreciate them. “There were less people. I understand some people didn’t travel because travel expenses were cut. Overall, the mood of clothes in New York is not the best. Everyone talks about disaster.

“However, I think it makes people feel better knowing that everyone around the world is in this together.”

Retailers agreed the standout collections of the season were Donna Karan, Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors, and among the relative newcomers, Jason Wu and Thakoon.

Here’s more on how the retailers viewed the collections:

Ann Watson, vice president and fashion director at Henri Bendel

Jason Wu and Peter Som were “a breath of fresh air. Each of their collections showcased a mix of colors and patterns executed with a refreshing light hand.” In general for the week, “fashion went into four camps: the ‘aggressive warrior’ emphasizing tough, chic fashion and black leather for a head-on approach to these tough times; the ‘eclectic gypsy’ with printed chiffon dresses and chunky tweed knits for those [contemplating] a walk-about; the ‘refined, elegant lady’ with a covered-up look like high-neck blouses, draped jersey dresses and longer lengths, and ‘the fashion optimist’ who loves color and the Eighties silhouette with big shoulders and full skirts and will not let the current climate get her down.”

Other key trends, as cited by Watson, were: the statement necklace, including Kors’ oversize bicycle chain and Lee Angel’s crystal-encrusted metal necks; status scarves by Marc Jacobs, as well as clutches, wide belts, lace tights, shoulder pads, black leather and skinny leggings; draped jersey dresses; “electric colored” cocktail dresses; short swingy skirts; capes, and strong-shouldered, tailored jackets.



Jeffrey Kalinsky, executive vice president and director of designer merchandising at Nordstrom

“Marc Jacobs was a feast for the eyes and a tonic for the spirit. There were so many great ideas and clothes here. It was sensory overload of the best kind.” Kalinsky also cited Kors for reworking basics and making them ultramodern, ultraluxe and full of sex appeal; Thakoon for a chic, sophisticated collection, including gray coats, tuxedo shirtdresses and simple black skirt suits; Alexander Wang’s tailoring, sexy dresses and leggings, and Jason Wu’s focused approach, despite all his post-inauguration exposure, with “beautiful clothes for women of any age who appreciate quality and good taste.”

Sarah Lerfel, buyer for Colette, Paris

“There’s a very Eighties inspiration, with Marc Jacobs of course, and lots of strong shoulders in many collections.” She also cited futuristic fabrics, at Rodarte and Proenza Schouler in particular, and biker jackets highly visible during the week, like at Alexander Wang. “This is the style of jacket that will be strong for this winter. There are still leather leggings, and Eighties leggings in stretch fabrics. We will carry William Rast. I really liked how they treated the denim and I liked the shoulders in the collections. We will also work with Alexander Wang and Phillip Lim.”

Linda Fargo, senior vice president, fashion office and store presentation at Bergdorf Goodman

“Our list of loves is fortunately long — Alexander Wang, Rodarte, Narciso Rodriguez, Marc Jacobs, Jason Wu, Victoria Beckham, Calvin Klein, Michael Kors, Donna Karan, Thakoon, Rag & Bone and a special thanks to Phillip Lim for all those rockin’ romantic items that we want to wear right now.”




Ken Downing, senior vice president and fashion director at Neiman Marcus

“We’re absolutely charmed by Jason Wu’s prints and beautiful details. The polished looks that defined Oscar de la Renta and Michael Kors are what women will be looking for this fall. We loved Diane von Furstenberg with all the cozy knits and great items layered on top of each other. And certainly Marc Jacobs for all his fall color; Narciso Rodriguez with his razor-sharp jackets; Donna Karan, wow, what an amazing sexy, sensual collection — the clothes women will be superexcited to put into their wardrobes.” Key trends cited by Downing were shoulder play, leggings, pencil skirts, narrow pants, dresses, comfy knits and animal and graphic prints.

“And color is certainly important. There was a little more black and gray than is necessary. We have to remember that customer who is in Los Angeles and Miami and all through the south. Color is very emotional and can be part of why women buy.…As we go into this uncharted territory, great items are going to be very important. Designers did a great job working in great items.”

Colleen Sherin, fashion market director at Saks Fifth Avenue

“The overall mood has really been one of optimism, joy and hope for the future. This is not the season for somber fashion. The use of color, pops of neon brights and jewel tones really created that optimistic feeling. Many of the collections offered polished investment dressing where you could see the quality and the longevity.…There was a feeling of confident dressing offering protection, security and reassurance,” embodied in black leather, a plethora of leggings, cozy textured knits, cocooning shapes and fabrications. Sherin cited Donna Karan for “wonderful” investment pieces for the modern woman; Kors’ “snappy take” on classic American sportswear with pops of neon brights; Marc Jacobs’ “good old Eighties references”; Derek Lam’s sensual draping and furs; Rag & Bone’s long, lean silhouettes, vests, leggings, tailored jackets and shirtings, and Vera Wang’s pared-down, understated sophistication.

Barbara Atkin, vice president of fashion direction at Canada’s Holt Renfrew

The designers showed collections “that were bold and vibrant with lots of choices that had a strong focus on individual items to be worn creatively with a do-it-my-way personal dress code. We saw lots of refreshing color and novelty treatments such as sequins, embroidery and novelty prints. Luxury materials like cashmere, leather and fur looked important and worth investing in. I also liked the return to the great fall classics like tweed and plaid, which were remixed with more precious fabrics for a fresher look. The aggressive shoulder seen on jackets will be the important feature that changes the way we look at silhouettes and just might be the singular most important detail to get customers back into the stores to buy.”

Also on Holt Renfrew’s to-buy list: bright coats; leather, from blouson jackets to skinny pants and skirts; knitwear, especially the sweater coat; fur vests, and short day and cocktail dresses. Atkin said New York’s standout collections were Marc Jacobs, Alexander Wang, Michael Kors, Donna Karan, Oscar de la Renta and 3.1 Phillip Lim.

Nicole Fischelis, vice president and fashion director at Macy’s

“Isaac Mizrahi had the wit we need for the climate we are living in and to stimulate customers to buy. The collection was totally innovative, wearable and full of must-haves. The great thing to see is how Isaac is infusing Liz Claiborne with a new spirit and integrity of design. He can address the high end and the mass customer. I loved Donna Karan for her style and sensuality, combined tailoring and draping and amazing color sensibility. DKNY was at its best with realistic, contemporary clothes and terrific new items.” Fischelis also cited Kors for a “glamorous masculine-feminine approach with true investment clothes; Ralph Lauren for his aesthetic and fusion idea with luxurious clothes; Tuleh’s spirited, luxurious bohemian attitude with print combinations; Calvin Klein’s masterful architectural, wearable clothes; Tommy Hilfiger’s true sportswear classics and affordable luxury; Marc Jacobs’ modernity and nod to the Eighties and ‘Annie Hall’ spirit at Marc by Marc Jacobs, and Anna Sui’s belle epoque spirit.”

Ikram Goldman, owner of Ikram in Chicago

“I think people are optimistic. They’re careful and respectful of what’s going on in this country, but they’re energized by what’s happening in America and the new administration. People are hopeful. I am definitely more careful” with the open-to-buy. “I’m a little more selective from what I buy from every collection, but I haven’t dropped any collections and I’m still looking for new talent.” Among her favorite collections: Proenza Schouler and, among the new talent, she liked Joseph Altuzarra, Fabiola Arias and, for accessories, Fenton.

Sarah Easley and Beth Buccini, owners of Kirna Zabête

They rated the season as “very strong,” citing Jason Wu, Peter Som, Narciso Rodriguez, Thakoon, Proenza Schouler and Alexander Wang as favorites. The shows offered “nothing silly. The shows were edited, on time and well-designed,” Easley said. “We are working harder to buy with absolute conviction. We have to unanimously adore every piece we buy. For better or for worse, we buy more with our heart than with our budget.”

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