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NEW YORK — It’s crunch time.

Spring will mark the third season in a row that designers have had to battle the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression — and for many, the collections they will present over the next 10 days will determine whether they will be around for fall. The designer category at retail is the most margin-challenged and, after order cuts last season of up to 30 percent, is expected to get even fewer open-to-buy dollars this time around.

This story first appeared in the September 8, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Stores are promising to radically reduce their inventories and cut their vendor matrix. And if that weren’t challenging enough, store executives are asking designers to tightly edit their collections, put more relevant clothes on their runways, offer special pieces — and lower their price points even more.

“What we would like to see are fewer exits,” Judy Collinson, Barneys New York executive vice president and general merchandise manager, said in a recent interview. “We only need a few things for this delivery.”

Across New York showrooms, designers are feeling the heat in the run-up to the shows, even as they are putting on a brave face and embracing the spring season as a new, almost invigorating challenge.

“It’s a heightened state of emotion,” said Donna Karan. “It’s a very challenging, exciting time, and you need all your wits behind you. It’s not the ‘same-old.’ It’s a complete wake-up call. It’s time to test all your assets.”

Narciso Rodriguez said it’s a “moment in time when you have to enjoy what you are doing to the fullest. I haven’t let the economic climate affect the process or the pleasure of the creative process.”

Peter Som, whose own survival was in question earlier in the year, called the overall mood right now “cautiously optimistic.”

“We have had a year of challenges, and I have definitely made sure that we have addressed them all in terms of making the line a little tighter, and making sure that every piece has a novelty element and detail to it,” he said.

“I would say the first half of the year, there was so little visibility about what was going on in the world,” Som added. “It was a huge roller coaster and now, there is a sense that we have already gotten over the worst patch, and I am hoping that is true. This is definitely a critical time. Everyone is looking at fall [2009] selling with a fine-tooth comb.”

Designers said early reports of fall selling at retail show activity, which gives them an inkling of optimism that was unthinkable just a few weeks ago. In addition, resort bookings were generally higher than expected.

“Over the last couple of months, we have become more optimistic,” said Jack McCollough, who designs the Proenza Schouler label with Lazaro Hernandez. “We were preparing for the worst, but things are picking up for us. Pre-fall is in the stores right now, and it’s had some of the best sell-throughs we have actually ever had. Also, the stock market has been up, and that is always a good precursor of what the economy is going to do. That has given us a big amount of encouragement leading up to spring sales.”

Hernandez added, “I feel the economy has bottomed out in a way. The freak-out has happened, and while things are not back to what they used to be, perhaps they were inflated in a way. Perhaps this is a correction of sorts.”

Indeed, it may not be the free spending, pre-recession customer, but the prospect of a new season is lifting spirits in showrooms across the city.

“Last fall, people still didn’t know where things were going, and after the shows, everything collapsed,” Derek Lam said. “I am optimistic because there is such a feeling of change in the air, from the new administration and the progress that has been happening, and the feeling that we are slowly coming out of the recession — one that could have been worse.”

Chris Benz concurred. “I think it is better now than six months ago. People were really startled for a while and with the change in season, and the holidays coming up, people will hopefully feel like getting out and seeing new things.”

Designers are coping with the economic realities in different ways. Some have said they are designing each piece as if it would stand on its own. Others are tightly editing their collections or broadening their price points.

Zac Posen, known for his large scale, celebrity-filled runway shows, decided to present his clothes in a smaller setting this season with just 400 invited guests. He said his aim is to focus on the clothes.

“We were in such a large brand building model, doing these large show with very little means and budgets, and creating that dream,” Posen said. “Now it’s really about focusing back to the craft and form and function.”

Posen said it’s still a challenging and scary time for designers, but noted there has been some activity at retail in the past few weeks which gives him hope. “We are seeing movement, and so, from being at a time when there has not been movement, movement looks very exciting and tasty,” Posen said.

Kate Mulleavy, who designs the Rodarte label with her sister, Laura, agreed that while the economy is hard to get around, it is no reason to retreat and resort to overall misery. “You can’t disassociate yourself from the economic or social climate of the time,” she said. “That is part of the vernacular that you are working with. I always said that it’s the reason why Laura and I wanted to design clothes. We are independent designers so it’s always a struggle. But because you are compelled to make things, you just move forward. This season is no different.”

Designers said they are working hard to edit their collections.

“I think retailers will come in, and they don’t want to see a lot of ‘stuff,’ so it’s our job as designers to edit really well,” said Jason Wu. “I’d rather have five racks of really great clothes versus 10 racks of things that haven’t been edited.

“People are buying, but they are still careful and cautious, and they are not buying things they already have,” he added. “If I am doing a jacket, I have to say, ‘How do I make a new jacket in a new silhouette? I am not making another black coat.’”

The pressure to offer lower price points is also making itself felt in showrooms. Many said they have broadened their price points to give retailers more options. Others, meanwhile, have launched secondary lines. Richard Chai, for instance, is launching the Richard Chai – Love collection for spring, offering pieces at a contemporary price point. Doo-Ri’s secondary Under.Ligne line and Bryan Bradley’s eponymous contemporary line have been introduced at retail this fall.

“Price is an issue for a lot of retailers, and [commercialism] is an issue, but I have to contain that in a way,” said Thakoon Panichgul of Thakoon. “[Prices] have to be really sharp when European brands can offer better prices now. You have to pay attention to that as a small designer. We look at fabrics more. We will show novelty special fabrics, but have to pay attention to more basic, all-climate kind of fabrics as well, which helps the commerciality of the line.”

Vena Cava’s Sophie Buhai and Lisa Mayock said they approached this collection with a much more wearable and affordable concept in mind.

Vena Cava is expanding the opening retail price range of its offerings to around $250, where typically the collection was positioned between $400 and $700 at retail. “A lot of times, we have to lower our profit margin to get our quantities up and make sure pieces get to stores,” Buhai said. “Definitely there is pressure, but the reality is that our business will be better if more people can wear our clothes.”

Brian Reyes also sees this climate as an opportunity to try a few different things. He is launching special groups of gowns and knitwear and plans to include several gowns in his runway lineup. “Limitation helps you become more creative, and I think of more creative ways to do things,” said Reyes.

Joseph Altuzarra of Altuzarra said communication with stores will be key. “We communicate with our retailers quite frequently to see how their customers are reacting to the collection and how we can grow with them,” he said.


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