NEW YORK — No real breakthroughs, no color, no nonsense — but great for retail.

That was the general consensus among retailers about New York Fashion Week. According to executives from top stores, most designers delivered what customers have been crying for — something different, but nothing over the top. The collections provided some hope that fall 2002 selling will be better than last fall, when everything seemed to go wrong. Stores got stuck with racks of merchandise, and price cutting, order cutting and cost-cutting swept through the industry as a result of the recession and Sept. 11.

After that washout season and with the sustained luxury downturn, the guess would be that open-to-buys would shrivel up. Nevertheless, most retailers said the buy on designer goods is flat against last year, since there’s some expectation the economy will improve in the second half, and perhaps some pent-up demand. “Cautious and conservative” was how they characterized the planning, though a few executives said there is enough financial flexibility built into the budgets to seize upon potentially hot items.

“The collections had a surprising amount of news and sophistication,” said Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction at Bloomingdale’s. “There is a big statement for individuality, clothes that don’t have a mass produced look, but more of an artisan individuality.” He said that even with an absence of color and too much concentration on black and white, requiring retailers to do some heavy-duty editing, “the clothes looked very salable.”

Ruttenstein also saw lots of layering in the collections, which hasn’t been around for several seasons, and a “subtle statement” on longer lengths and wider pants.

Sue Patneaude, Nordstrom’s vice president of designer apparel, saw plenty of beautiful gowns and evening pieces, which are perfect for the new consumer mood. “The designer customer will be dressing up for fall,” she said. “They’re looking for individual, special pieces and there were many of them.”

“Designers didn’t play it safe at all,” added Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director at Neiman Marcus. “They all did their own things.”

Ralph Lauren, Marc Jacobs, Narciso Rodriguez, Klein and Oscar de la Renta received the most kudos, along with Zac Posen, the surprise newcomer who exhibited dresses with subtle colorations and beautiful cuts. On the other hand, there were differences of opinion on Donna Karan, Helmut Lang and Balenciaga. But retailers, as always, found at least an item or two to like in almost every collection.

Among the key trends: Thirties and Forties-inspired retro looks, comfort and less structure, layering, folkloric patchwork, bootleg pants, cropped pants, corduroy, black, and winter whites.

“You couldn’t help but go into the week with this sense of anticipation,” noted Jaqui Lividini, senior vice president, fashion merchandising, at Saks Fifth Avenue. “It’s the first normality for our industry since last September and it was the first cultural barometer on how Sept. 11 affected the way designers were designing.”

Lividini saw two overall trends: folk luxe, or sophisticated heartland-inspired looks emphasizing patchwork, ornamentation and layers, and urbanite-modernist, with clean lines and less embellishment. “Oscar de la Renta’s collection fell into folk luxe. It was exquisitely executed,” she said. Among the long list of collections that appealed to her were Marc Jacobs, Marc by Marc Jacobs, Narciso Rodriguez and Bill Blass designed by Lars Nilsson. “Lars brings his sensibility to that collection. It was Americana, but with a twist. It’s nice to see some of his personality come through with folkloric accents in the collection.”

Lividini also liked Ralph Lauren’s collection. “There were certain elements of authenticity, with its details. It was done in a very luxurious way.” She cited such items as the utility pant, lace-up boots, tulle skirts and fit and flare coats, and a “beautiful white blouse.”

The week’s winners were clear for Robert Burke, vice president and senior fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman. “The winners in my mind are Narciso, Oscar and Jacobs. Badgley Mischka also had a beautiful show. Some people in the contemporary world showed very directional shows — Catherine Malandrino, Diane Von Furstenberg , Tracy Reese, Anne Klein, and Marc by Marc Jacobs.”

Singling out his favorites, Ruttenstein cited Jacobs’s sophisticated layering, mixing fabrics such as beading and tweed; Lauren’s day suits and evening dresses; Rodriguez for “his most sophisticated collection to date” with loose, easy pieces that graze the body; Helmut Lang, for updating his signature look with jolts of gold and silver, and for having the best coats in town; and Zac Posen for “exuberant dresses with intricate seaming.” Ruttenstein also liked Karan’s patchwork evening dresses.

On Klein, he said, “There is black that’s good and black that’s bad. Calvin did black that’s great. He did narrow tops and full skirts that moved with grace and sophistication. He did great evening dresses especially the one totally covered up with the full skirt in jersey.”

Kaner thought Karan was “back on track, sexy, feminine and sensual,” adding, “I loved the long dresses, slim coats and everything that came close to the body, and the way she took quilting and patchwork to a sensuous level.” She also cited Chado Ralph Rucci’s colors and handiwork, terrific items at Nannette Lepore and Vivienne Tam, Lauren’s mixing modern with vintage looks, Anne Klein’s proportions, and de la Renta’s ornamented pieces.

“They turned a corner away from minimalism, and relearned the skills of dressmaking and the art of fashion. There was hand-detailing and beautiful fabrications,” Kaner said.

As far as Neiman’s fall budget, it won’t be reduced from a year ago, and is proceeding as planned. “Business is on the upswing,” said Kaner. Bloomingdale’s also cited a budget that would be even.

Douglas Chen, buyer and manager for Linda Dresner in New York, said of the handful of shows he saw, he was impressed with the longer dresses at Rodriguez; the sensuality of fabrics at Rick Owens; and skinny jeans and flounce skirts shown at Balenciaga. “There is an effort this season to not be over-the-top and trying to be respectful of the current tradition, whether it’s economic or Sept. 11,” he said.

Jeffrey Kalinsky, owner of the Jeffrey stores in Atlanta and New York, cited biker-chick looks at Kors, hooded parkas with fur trims and dresses at Rodriguez, and Lang’s mix of black and white. Overall, Kalinsky said Fashion Week had a good energy, and he sees short skirts and dresses and Western as major trends.

However, “there really seems to be a lack of color, and for me, that seems to be a bad thing,” Kalinsky said. “Women need a reason to buy new. Black looks better to me than it has for a long time. But being in a dressing room and hearing women say they don’t need anymore black doesn’t inspire one. There also seems to be a theme of white and not only is it hard to sell, it’s not new. People have a real fear of buying designer clothing in white.”

But, Kalinsky added, there was still some white that looked fresh, particularly at Helmut Lang. “Maybe we need to try it again.”

Nordstrom’s Patneaude singled out Karan and Lauren for “five-star” evening pieces and Jacobs for sportswear, and said Calvin Klein was also strong.

Ed Burstell, vice president and general manager of Henri Bendel, said, “I think New York showed a renewed optimism. The mood seemed not to focus on the spectacle, but to focus on the clothes, and that’s what we want to see as retailers. I thought there was plenty to buy from this week, and there were real, wonderful breakthroughs in a lot of cases with young Americans.”

Burstell cited the collections of Alice Roi and Rick Owens, noting that the store plans to increase its buy on Owens well over its plan. He also praised Peter Som, Anna Sui, Diane Von Furstenberg, Benjamin Cho and Bruce. “Trendwise, there was a wonderful return to terrific luxury from Michael Kors and there was another optimistic camp, which I thought was encouraging to see. There seemed to be a wonderful hand over the week. Some of the ones that could have gone completely over the top showed a little restraint, which is very helpful for a retailer.”

Evelyn Gorman, president and owner of Mix, a three-year old store in Houston, said her first pick for the week was Balenciaga, which she liked because it was “a small, tight show.”

“I loved his knitted sweater pieces with all the spaghetti noodle type yarns and the short flippy skirts,” she said. “I also liked Helmut Lang’s pieces very much. I thought the silver and gold skirts were fresh and different and fun. I’ve seen some wonderful things — Alvin Valley had one of the best fitting pair of pants I’ve ever seen. I would say, as a whole, the collections were a bit quieter. That doesn’t mean darker, just a little bit quieter. I thought some things were not as overtly sexy as they have been in the past. The treatment of sexuality is a little bit different and more mysterious, rather than obvious.”

But she questioned some of the heavier knits shown on the runways, noting, “I don’t really like heavy, heavy looks, but that’s one of the things I liked about Balenciaga, that even when there was a lot of yarn going on, it still looked light.”

Janet Brown, owner of the Janet Brown store in Port Washington, Long Island, praised the week for its diverse looks, which will help at retail. “I think fashion is everywhere. It’s touching all kinds of different points to give us the flexibility of very non-formulated selling,” she said. “I’m looking forward to a great fall. Everything has to be kept under control, but fun. Nobody needs anything, and we retailers are going to make them need all of these wonderful collections.”

“I think a lot of designers got it right,” said Lilli Hamrah, owner of Hamrah’s in Cresskill, N.J. “You want some excitement. You want it to be exhilarating but you have to be realistic too. People are looking for a certain realism and when things are too costumey or ridiculous, they’re turned off.”

They’re also turned off by how pricey some designers have become, Hamrah said. “One key trend is that everyone is watching their prices. We went to different showrooms, and they all mentioned that their prices were down. It’s because there is a backlash to luxury items. In the past, things couldn’t be luxurious enough, couldn’t be expensive enough. Now some of the price structures have come down, especially with some of the Italian companies.”

Stefani Greenfield, co-owner of the Scoop boutiques, didn’t seem impressed overall by what she saw, but thought there were scores of salable clothes, including Diane Von Furstenberg’s prints, Marc by Marc Jacobs and items of “luxe comfort” at Michael Kors. Like other retailers, Greenfield is keeping her buying budget flat compared with last year. “It was a good week,” she concluded. “People made some pretty clothes. Overall, it was very salable. These were retailer’s shows.”

– David Moin with contributions by Lisa Lockwood, Anamaria Wilson, Kristin Larson and Eric Wilson

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