Jack McCollough, Narciso Rodriguez and Lazaro Hernandez.

NEW YORK — If there’s a future of fashion, it’ll come with a catch-22.<br><br>A panel organized by the Council of Fashion Designers of America and Gen Art last week found itself opening a can of worms when it comes to the topic of...

NEW YORK — If there’s a future of fashion, it’ll come with a catch-22.

This story first appeared in the March 31, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

A panel organized by the Council of Fashion Designers of America and Gen Art last week found itself opening a can of worms when it comes to the topic of “The Future of Fashion,” specifically addressing the challenges facing young designers today. In a frank discussion of the industry’s fate, two designers, a magazine editor, a retailer and a lawyer found that virtually every reassuring pro facing designers just starting out comes with an equally challenging con.

Stores are counting on talented new designers to reinvigorate the fashion business, but they’re also being more careful in their buys. New designers stand a better shot of getting magazine coverage if they catch onto the right trends of a season, but stores don’t like so many trends. A breakthrough collection will create a media frenzy for a designer, but what happens after the novelty of a new-designer profile wears off?

The answers weren’t so easy to come by, but the point of the discussion was to at least put the subject on the table as part of the organizations’ efforts to foster a support structure within the American fashion industry, or at least some place to talk about such things as chargebacks, the pressures of conglomerates, and the double-edged swords of runway shows and the fashion press.

“There are so many issues today, with the economy and now the war, that starting a new business at this time is a very scary thing,” said Narciso Rodriguez, who was joined on the panel by Rebecca Taylor; Sally Singer, fashion news and features director for Vogue; Julie Gilhart, vice president and fashion director of Barneys New York, and Elizabeth Q. Pearce, an attorney who specializes in the fashion trade. The panel was moderated by Bridget Foley, executive editor of WWD and W.

“There are so many things going on in the world today, whether you’ve been in business for six months, a year or 10 years, that make it very difficult to survive every season,” Rodriguez said. “Maybe when you’re Calvin Klein or Ralph Lauren, and you’ve been in business for 30 years and you’ve had that level of success, then you feel some level of security. My company is enjoying a very healthy growth and there are positive sales, but it can change at any moment.”

Taylor described a bumpy road starting out and some valuable lessons learned, such as after her first season, when she sold 26 Saks Fifth Avenue doors off the bat, but sales were slim because her label was virtually unknown to the consumer.

“That could have put us out of business, then and there,” she said. “Now we don’t sell more than six doors at one department store to keep that percentage down.”

Rodriguez considered himself to have had an easier road through his partnership with Aeffe, which manufactures his collection in Milan, but he challenged the notion that it’s easier to start a designer business in Europe than it is in America. Singer, too, said that while it’s less expensive to show in London, where designers are also often financially supported by local retailers, it’s harder to gain international press exposure for designers there.

“There’s a different sense of both ambition and challenges here in America,” Pearce added. “It’s a bit more difficult to jump in and say, ‘I want to be the next Donna, Calvin or Ralph.’ That size of ambition can be limiting because it’s so daunting that it almost washes out any possibility of growing organically.”

Their advice for designers included very specific tips: Don’t get caught up in the theatrics of the runway, keep the customer in mind, try to be organized, work hard and focus. But their common message was that a designer’s ultimate success relies on what Singer described as making “a commitment to an aesthetic.”

“Be very conscious of your strengths and your abilities,” she said. “If you decide to focus on tailoring, work with good tailors. I see so many collections where a designer tries to do evening pieces, sportswear and swimsuits, and if one piece isn’t quite right, that’s when you begin to see the weaknesses.”

Also of import, they seemed to agree, was not to get caught up in the celebrity game, as tempting as is the publicity that often comes from such associations.

“It’s the original gossip story that drives a customer to find out more, but if it doesn’t meet her needs when she walks in the store, she’s over it,” Gilhart said. “The customer is seeing that this is a game and they’re getting savvy to it. They still care what Nicole Kidman is wearing, but they’re less affected by it.”

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