Fall could be the make-or-break season for small fashion companies.

The heat is on firms with retail sales of $7 million to $10 million as stores reduce inventory, dump nonperforming labels and order collections closer to the season. Along with those pressures, the number of specialty stores that are typically more willing to take a chance on little guys is shrinking.

This story first appeared in the August 4, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Given the horrendous retail scene since last fall, rumors of a possible demise swirl around almost every small company or young designer. And the list of casualties and labels struggling to make it seems to be growing. From Jane Mayle, who shuttered her Mayle line earlier this year, to Peter Som, whose future was uncertain until he inked a deal with Milan-based clothing manufacturer Margon and New York multiline showroom ADC in May, the economy has taken its toll across a wide range of designers.

Many of the newer designers don’t have the infrastructure or financial strength to weather continuing economic turbulence. They face few to no prospects of significant financing and aren’t ready or capable of opening their own freestanding stores to minimize the impact of woes at the department and specialty store level.

Industry consultants believe a number of smaller firms were able to survive the past two seasons on a shoestring, limping along without significant sales. But the third season of the financial meltdown looms as a crossroads — and could mean that, come January, there will be a raft of closures and liquidations.

“Now, if they don’t get the kind of sales they need, they will have to decide to go forward or not,” said Robert Burke, founder of the Robert Burke Associates consultancy. “Many of them were having a challenging time when the economy was good, and now, with retailers reassessing assortments and with the importance of timely deliveries, it will be challenging. The minimums have also gone down, sometimes affecting their ability to produce with factories at lower prices.”

Allan Ellinger, senior managing partner at Marketing Management Group, noted, “For a lot of companies whose businesses have been marginal and growth has been marginal if at all, their financial partners — if they have them — and their banks will be looking at the season very critically. You can only carry a business for so long. The economics have to work. Unless a company has unlimited financial capabilities, this is a very crucial season.”

Competitive pricing could become a key to a business’ health this fall and experts believe smaller firms that don’t have the clout of megabrands will be hard-pressed to negotiate better deals with their manufacturing partners.

“The established people and big retailers have more freedom to tighten their margins,” said David Wolfe, creative director at The Doneger Group. “When we hear people like Dolce & Gabbana saying prices will be [10 to 20] percent lower, we know they can do it. It will be difficult for a young start-up designer to [do] that kind of price manipulation.”

New launches also will have a hard time showing retailers’ consistent sales for the simple reason they don’t have much of a track record. In contrast, some of the established brands are expected to perform better on paper this fall compared with last fall’s dismal figures.

“This fall will be crunch time for a lot of young and new designers,” Wolfe said. “Even specialty stores seem to be looking at lines that have a performance record already. Retailers want a guarantee that it’s going to sell.”

Jeffry Aronsson, founder of the Aronsson Group, noted that undercapitalized houses that incurred expenses in anticipation of business that didn’t materialize are at a particularly high risk.

“I would imagine that there will be a number of companies that won’t be able to survive,” he said.

Adding international distribution will be essential for these smaller firms, among other strategic moves, Burke said, to avoid depending solely on one economy. To do so, however, often requires the help of local distribution partners.

“Many are looking strategically at how to position their opening prices, their core product and their international business,” he said. “Those are the three things they have to do to survive.”

Several designer firms have used the last year to make adjustments to their businesses to stay viable, and they take issue with the “make-or-break” mentality.

Doo.Ri designer Doo-Ri Chung added a lower-priced line called Under.Ligne, and she said there has been some positive news amid the industry’s overall gloom.

“We have landed two new accounts, and even though [retailers’] budgets have been slashed, we managed to grow in a small way,” Chung said. “We are pretty much trying to do a lot more with what we already have. I think it would have been a different story had we planned on a major expansion and already invested in it. We already braced ourselves and I don’t feel it is a make-or-break season.”

Behnaz Sarafpour said, “I don’t think there is such a thing as a make-or-break season. We have gone through a year now of learning how to adjust, whether it is offering a different assortment of product or price point.”

Sarafpour said she has adjusted her distribution strategy because of the recession.

“When things were better, we were more focused on individual large orders,” she said. “Now, we are not about selling a lot to one place with one order. We are more diversified now with more stores and do business with more smaller orders rather than working with a few with giant orders. If somebody hasn’t been able to make adjustments and run out of cash, it could be [the break season]. But I wouldn’t say that as a general for the industry.”


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