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NEW YORK — Note to designers: The second half of the year could be as action-packed as the latest summer blockbuster.

Designer fashion is going through some major shifts, which could define how observers look back on the fashion decade. The mood of change is permeating all levels of the industry, from trends to executive shifts. They include the emergence of former Phillips-Van Heusen chief executive officer Mark Weber as the leading candidate to replace Jeffry Aronsson, who is said to be leaving his post as president and ceo of Donna Karan International at the end of the month. The closure of French fashion house Rochas, and what that means to designer Olivier Theyskens, may also affect the coming season.

This story first appeared in the July 19, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Flush with cash, private equity funds are looking to invest in fashion and retail companies — and, if one of fashion’s favorite adages is true, every house is for sale if the price is right. In addition, the recent flurry of resort fashion shows and showroom presentations is causing many designers to reevaluate their production cycles, putting more emphasis on pre-collections, since that is where retailers are increasingly spending the lion’s share of their seasonal open-to-buy.

Fall will perhaps be best remembered as the season of new leaders, both business and creative. Helmut Lang is being resurrected with former Habitual designers Michael and Nicole Colovos at the design helm; Francisco Costa received a stamp of approval when the Council of Fashion Designers of America crowned him the women’s wear designer of the year; major European and American design houses such as Christian Dior and Giorgio Armani have brought in senior-level talent to run their U.S. divisions, while others are still struggling to secure the best executive fit for their brands, and retail chains are hoping for instant fashion cachet by tapping young emerging designers for more limited collections.

It will also be a season in which recent fashion departures will be felt: Patricia Lansing has parted ways (corporately speaking) with her mother, Carolina Herrera; Rag & Bone co-founder Nathan Bogle just left his stomping ground to start his own line, and Trovata co-founder Josia Lamberto-Egan is moving to Seattle, leaving responsibilities to the three other founders.

The new president of the CFDA, Diane von Furstenberg, will clearly come in at a busy time for fashion. Here, a look at some of the things to watch in this coming third and fourth quarter.

It’s been a turbulent time for top recruitment firms, as some of the industry’s most senior-level executives recently caught that antsy feeling that results in departures, moves and more than a few prominent vacancies that still need to be filled. For instance, Prada USA has yet to name a replacement for Constance Darrow, the ceo who left the company in December, and Louis Vuitton North America still hasn’t homed in on a successor to president Jean-Marc Gallot, who will move to Paris and become Vuitton’s European president at the end of the summer. Jean Paul Gaultier has yet to pick a replacement for president Eric Labaume.

“It’s more serendipitous than any kind of prognosticator,” said Hal Reiter, ceo of Herbert Mines & Associates, of the recent flurry of executive changes. “Each of the transitions have had different and distinct reasons. The biggest issue is finding the best fit.”

Reiter added that there isn’t a case of a brain drain as much as the fact that there haven’t been many people to have emerged from the “lower ranks” recently, thus resulting in the same pool of executives being “recycled.”

Meanwhile, recent hires have been busy creating a strategy for their brands, which should come into effect in the next few months. The ones to watch include Bridget Ryan Berman, who became Giorgio Armani’s ceo in April; Pat Malone, Christian Dior’s U.S. president and ceo; Bertrand Stalla-Bourdillon, Marc Jacobs’ new ceo, and Roberto Pesaro, president and ceo at Narciso Rodriguez LLC.

This September, Helmut Lang will be resurrected with the launch of the capsule spring collection under the creative auspices of Michael and Nicole Colovos, the founders and former designers of Habitual. The anticipation is high, since Prada had been unable to turn the Lang business into the fashion powerhouse it had intended for it to be. The label, which had always been much revered by the fashion community, had been inactive for nearly a year when Link Theory Holdings Co. Ltd. acquired it from Prada in March. Andrew Rosen, Theory’s president, has been given the mandate to rebuild Helmut Lang into a more contemporary collection with a wider variety of price points. While spring will be a capsule collection, the company plans to turn Helmut Lang into a global business with distribution to upscale department and specialty stores. And while the Colovoses are expected to put their own spin on the collection, they have closely studied the Helmut Lang archives, and will hopefully remain true to the modernist ethos that defined the namesake designer.

With CFDA’s 2006 Womenswear Designer of the Year Award under his belt, all eyes are on Francisco Costa, whose challenge will be to sustain the creative momentum for Calvin Klein Collection, where he is creative director of women’s. Costa has been charged with turning Collection, which is less about bottom line and more about setting the tone for the entire brand, into a viable business. Parent Phillips-Van Heusen Corp. recently made some major moves to correct the problems it had with Collection where former licensee Vestimenta couldn’t deliver the timely, quality product. With the past spring collection, Fingen SpA took over the Collection license, which will be transferred to Warnaco Group in 2008. Costa’s contract, meanwhile, remains the subject of much speculation. Earlier this year, he was reportedly locked in contract negotiations with the help of former CKI chief Barry Schwartz. Calvin Klein Inc. executives remain tight-lipped on the state of the negotiations and whether a deal has been signed.

Will the craze for designer liaisons end soon? Ever since Karl Lagerfeld and Stella McCartney created runaway hits for H&M, the concept of more mainstream retail chains picking designers to create less expensive, limited-edition lines has proliferated. This fall, Viktor & Rolf will unveil a collection for H&M; Mark Eisen is creating a 35-piece collection for Wal-Mart’s George labeled George ME by Mark Eisen, and Vivienne Westwood, Thakoon and Sophia Kokosalaki have designed capsule collections of apparel and accessories for Nine West, which will launch beginning in September. And Doo-Ri Chung, the winner of Swarovski’s 2006 Perry Ellis Award for Womenswear, is said to be in talks with Nine West to design a limited-edition collection for the next round of its designer collaborations. These liaisons can offer newer designers a much-needed cash injection, which could explain the willingness among fashion’s young guns to jump on the bandwagon. But a trend can only balloon so much until it bursts because of too much, well, hot air, and lately the trend has grown with such voracity that the momentum could slow down.

After years of tank tops, lower-than-low-slung pants, bare midriffs and excess beading and embellishment, designers have finally opted to steer the fashion pendulum in a more sober direction with polished clothes. Instead of color and bling, the details are in the proportion and cut of the clothes. “It’s the rediscovery of good taste,” said David Wolfe, creative director of trend forecaster The Doneger Group. “We kind of maxed out the flashy and the floozie, and we glittered ourselves to death. Bling is now boring, and we need something that looks fresh, cleaner, simpler.”

The new sobriety offers much hope for the bridge sector, which had suffered as a result of the proliferation of contemporary fashions, and fall could turn into a strong season for bridge departments.

“The bridge business has to benefit,” Wolfe said. “With the sophisticated and tasteful back, bridge looks right again.”

Resources and retailers alike have started putting more emphasis on the area again, from expanding their assortment to opening more units. In October, Bloomingdale’s unveiled its overhauled bridge floor, now called “The New View,” that is easy to navigate with a more luxe feel and shop-in-shops. Anne Klein is once again hoping to make it in the retail business, opening nine freestanding units, and Eileen Fisher recently expanded into the home arena with the Eileen Fisher Home by Garnet Hill collection.

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