Byline: Miles Socha / With contributions from Samantha Conti, Milan / Sarah Raper, Paris

NEW YORK — Who is winning the designer race in America?
Call just about any high-end specialty retailer in the country and — never mind how sheepish they might be about it — the answer is almost unanimous: the Europeans.
At most of the stores surveyed for this story, anywhere from half to all of the designer-level merchandise on the sales floor comes from designers across the pond.
Retail executives agree that European firms have a lot in their favor: the mystique and cachet of a foreign-made product; a legacy of quality in fabric and finishing; a consistently high level of creativity and innovation, and a unique talent for generating buzz.
Yet, with New York gaining importance as a fashion capital, some retailers are suggesting that a breakthrough for team USA just might be at hand.
“I’ve been able to establish more of a business with my American designers lately,” said Atlanta retailer Jeffrey Kalinsky, who recently opened a branch of Jeffrey in the meat-packing district here. “It seems like American designers are becoming more and more important, whether it’s with their own collections or with collections they design in Europe.”
Recent advances made by American designers on the global stage are well documented. New York leads off the international runway circuit for the third time, a fact that has prompted more Europeans to take advantage of the early timing. Also, some of the hottest names in fashion today — Gucci, Celine and Louis Vuitton — are getting their sizzle from American designers at the helm.
Kalinsky said he’s increased the number of American designers he carries to about 30 percent of his assortment, up from almost none four years ago. American labels in his stores include Michael Kors, Vera Wang, Marc Jacobs, Tuleh, Richard Tyler and Narciso Rodriguez. Singling out Kors and Jacobs for special mention, he said: “Their performance in the store is as good, if not better, in terms of sell through than my best Europeans.
“Michael’s name especially has a lot of cachet now, and because he has done Celine and it has been highly acclaimed. That’s brought more consumer knowledge of who Michael Kors is himself, which helps his brand,” he said. “And Marc Jacobs is a major talent.”
Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president and fashion director at Bloomingdale’s, echoed the sentiment.
“We think the Americans have gotten stronger in the past few years,” he said. “Certainly Prada and Gucci have tipped the scale a little more European in recent years. But Calvin [Klein] and Donna [Karan] have been growing quietly. Marc Jacobs has become a major factor. And Ralph [Lauren]’s collections have continued to sell.”
In the consumers’ eyes, he said, the stature of American designers is gaining.
“There’s definitely more of an interest in American collections,” agreed Judy Collinson, executive vice president and general merchandise manager of women’s at Barneys New York. “We picked up Michael Kors recently and that collection is performing well.”
She said the fact that American designers are showing earlier has had a positive effect on the business, generating more awareness of top American designers. She noted that for fall 1999, John Bartlett kicked off the season in New York with an outstanding collection and a “strong American statement.”
Several retailers noted that the biggest gains by American designers are not necessarily at the highest levels of fashion. A new crop of names is making a big impact at less-than-designer prices.
Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus and Barneys all noted that fast-growing contemporary and so-called “young designer” areas in stores are headlined by the likes of Daryl K, BCBG Max Azria, Theory and Katayone Adeli.
Ruttenstein said this group is “snapping at the heels” of more established American and European designers.
“What has developed is this lower price point, younger in attitude, contemporary designer area,” said Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director at Neiman Marcus, also singling out Daryl K and Katayone Adeli for special mention. “There are not that many at the couture level waiting in the wings. What’s developing in America is that more contemporary area.”
“I think there’s a lot happening on the younger, sportswear level,” Collinson concurred. She noted that many of the best-performing American labels at Barneys fall under this younger, hipper category: Daryl K, Katayone Adeli, Theory and Chaiken & Capone.
As reported, Barneys plans to almost double the size of its “Co-op” department in New York later this year, where such collections are housed. “That’s largely a reflection of how strong that business is right now,” she said.
Linda Dresner, who operates stores bearing her name in here and in Birmingham, Mich., also carries a number of American designers who are not yet household names. These include Wink, Daryl K, Katayone Adeli, Gregory Parkinson and Shawn Ray Fons.
“We’re finding more young, small designers in America that are selling very sell,” she said.
Dresner said the distinction between European and American is becoming increasingly irrelevant to consumers.
“We’re open to anything that happens to be interesting,” she said. “I really don’t think that the name is as important as it was four years ago. It’s the product that gets their attention.”
At Kirna Zabete, a 5,000-square-foot emporium of hip that opened this summer in SoHo, American designers are in the minority. But partner Beth Sheppard stressed they are selling well.
Sheppard said Daryl K is a standout this season, thanks to her Italian manufacturing and the “amazing designs.” She also cited the Bruce line, calling it “one of the best-looking designer lines in our store. It’s a really strong collection. They do the most amazing jeans and jean skirts. I’m really happy with my little selection of New York here.”
One name popped up repeatedly as a name to watch: Susan Cianciolo.
“I thought she was going to be one of the our most difficult designers to sell because she’s so avant garde, but it’s sold really well,” Sheppard said.
Steven LaGuardia, creative director at Louis, Boston, agreed.
“She’s the one we look to the most for inspirational style,” he said. Louis also carries designs by Rebecca Danenberg, also in that cutting-edge, young designer category. He said the new trend , exemplified in the work of Cianciolo, is in “small, downtown designers doing one-of-a-kind pieces.”
One of the big questions forever looming over the industry is who will inherit the mantle of the so-called Big Three of American fashion: Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan.
Most retailers expressed concern about the dearth of new talent on the horizon, duly noting that some once promising names — Isaac Mizrahi, Todd Oldham and Patrick Robinson — all shuttered their top lines in the past year-and-a-half.
“It’s sad that there’s not that many names,” Kaner said. She said she is looking mostly to Europe for new design talent.
However, she made a case for an expanded group of American fashion royalty, adding Kors and Jacobs to create what she called the “Big Five.”
Still, most retailers agreed that American designers have their work cut out for them against a wave of powerful Europeans.
Throughout the 17 years she’s operated her namesake boutique in Port Washington, N.Y., Janet Brown has always focused on European collections. She said she they continue to win the race in this country.
“The Europeans have had some extraordinary thoroughbreds — Jil Sander, Marni, Prada,” she said. “They continue to be very, very strong and innovative.”
She cited other emerging pockets of strength from Europe: collections in the “sartorial” vein from Kiton and Luciano Barbera, well-known men’s wear resources, have gained on the market, as have so-called “gold range” lines, priced slightly below designer collections. She described the Italian label Piazza Sempione as “money in the bank.” And Balenciaga: “That’s getting stronger and stronger,” she said. “I think that luxury customers, who are privileged, do find the European collections very seductive.”
Research by the San Francisco-based consulting firm Colton Bernard supports that statement. In a recent survey of 500 affluent consumers, respondents said they would be willing to pay as much as 17 percent more for Italian-designed apparel, preferring it over designs from the U.S. or another European country.
While prefacing their comments with a desire not to rain on the parade of American fashion, retailers confirmed that Europeans are formidable.
Collinson cited undiminished strength in many European lines, including Prada, Marni, Costume National and Dries Van Noten.
Kaner noted one design area where Americans are lacking: handbags and footwear.
“I can’t think of an American designer who’s been able to develop accessories,” she said.
Gloria Gelfand, director of merchandising services at the Jassin-O’Rourke Group consulting firm here, said European designers still do not understand sportswear and the American way of life as well as American designers. But she said they’re getting better at it.
In the past six to eight months, she said, European collections have become less structured, more feminine and jazzier, providing a contrast to the clean, minimalist looks from American houses.
Sheppard at Kirna Zabete agreed: “The level of [European] design is higher and more interesting.”
Export figures from Italy and France confirm the European influx. Shipments of Italian clothing and hosiery to the U.S. jumped 16 percent last year to $1.54 billion. That’s on top of double-digit growth for three years running.
According to Carlo Pambianco, a textile and fashion consultant in Milan, Italian fashion “has always had an advantage because of the high level of quality and creativity in the industry. Proof of this is that French, English and American designers come here to produce their collections. As for the future, I think Italy will always have these advantages: it would be difficult for other countries to compete with centuries of tradition.”
Armando Branchini, vice president of InterCorporate, another Milan luxury goods consulting firm, agreed, but said Italy’s advantage does not stop at the manufacturing level.
“Italian design houses — including Ermenegildo Zegna, Prada, Gucci, Ferragamo, and Giorgio Armani — were quick to develop retailing networks around the world. They have also been quick to renew their product offerings and launch new lines: Just look at Zegna Soft, Prada Sport, and Gucci ready-to-wear.”
France is also making gains. Exports of women’s ready-to-wear, most of it high-end, totalled $154 million last year, up from $94 million five years ago, according to statistics from French customs officials. The U.S. was the fourth most important export market in 1998 after Germany, Benelux and Japan.
Didier Grumbach, president of Chambre Syndicale and previously president of Thierry Mugler, noted that much of so-called French fashion is actually produced in Italy or Belgium and therefore does not show up in the official French export figures. “Honestly, we think less and less in terms of France and what is produced here and more in terms of European exports,” he said.
If there was one thing on which almost everyone agreed, young designers don’t have it easy breaking through, be they European or American.
Sheppard said young designers need to have creative powers and business smarts to succeed today. And the small cadre of Americans she deals with have it.
“It’s been remarkable how professional and put-together and yet completely creative and talented these people are,” she said. And they’re doing it all at their companies, too: “These designers are hand delivering their clothes in the store in garment bags and picking up their checks.”
Grumbach said he thought it was harder today for younger European designers to break into the American market than in the past. “It used to be that creative houses that made a splash in Paris could look forward to Bergdorf’s or Neiman Marcus putting on a high-profile show for them. That’s how [Claude] Montana, [Thierry] Mugler, [Azzedine] Alaia and Valentino were introduced to a wider audience,” he said.
Grumbach said that overall, Japan was growing faster as an export market for French-based designers, though he conceded that one reason was the French houses replacing licensed, for-Japan-only lines with the main line sold in Europe and the U.S.
He and others said that in the past, the French had not been as good as other Europeans, especially the Italians, at delivering on time and without hiccups.
“The law of the market in the U.S. is absolute and unforgiving, but I think the French are improving. Also, I truly sense that there is increasing excitement among buyers about what is happening on the runways in Paris.”
Christophe Mollet, a Paris-based consultant who advises French fashion houses, said that he spends much of his time convincing younger designers that America is not their dream market.
“For avant-garde designers, the potential is limited. There are only a few specialty stores open to them and if the department stores take an interest it will be only for their New York and Los Angeles stores,” he said.
Mollet said that for more commercial young designers, there were more possibilities for wider geographical distribution in the U.S. “The potential is a bit bigger. They’ll do more business, but it’s basically still the cherry. Only the companies that are big enough to have a proper organization there with a showroom and staff to follow the business and a sizable budget to invest in communications [can compete]. Traditionally, the Italians have been more conscious of this and they are maybe better merchants, but the French have more potential in the future to catch up.”
Mollet said he had recently spoken with a young Parisian designer, Christophe Lemaire, who was in Japan, where he has opened a store and was promoting his line.
“There are 30 or 40 stores instead of five in the U.S. who are interested in lines like his. Things were going well, he’s gotten a lot of attention and he’s becoming a personality in Japan. That could never happen in the U.S.,” Mollet said.