NEW YORK — High-end retailers loved Patrick Robinson’s third collection for Perry Ellis, but when they called on Thursday to try to buy it, they were shocked to find out the clothes shown may never be produced.

The fate of Robinson’s 18-look collection is in limbo as a result of prolonged maneuvering between the designer and Perry Ellis International about how to proceed with his vision for a contemporary collection for one audience, while turning out a more mainstream product for another. Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman are all said to be interested in carrying the line that was shown on Wednesday, but Robinson told them after his presentation that he is not yet able to deliver. He said he had to turn away buyers from Bergdorf’s from his showroom on Thursday afternoon.

The crux of the problem is that Robinson wants to design a contemporary collection, but as an employee of a Perry Ellis International licensee, Public Clothing Co., he is mandated to produce a better-priced line of women’s sportswear under the label. That line is the sort of mainstream apparel destined for Dillard’s and Lord & Taylor, not Sarah Jessica Parker.

While management at Perry Ellis is talking with Robinson about producing his concept in a new division of P.E.I., on top of his design duties for the better line, no deal had been worked out by Wednesday, meaning the show could go on, but maybe not those clothes. A spokesman for P.E.I. declined to comment, while senior P.E.I. officials were traveling in Florida on Thursday for a corporate retreat.

Robinson’s contract dispute with Perry Ellis has been one of the summer’s most interesting fashion diversions, a yo-yo of emotional dealings that has ranged from the designer threatening to walk in June to a relative all-clear in July to whatever is the current state of affairs. But the biggest question now on the minds of the high-end stores is, Why would Perry Ellis bother to finance a fashion show of clothes when it is not able to produce them?

On one front, executives at P.E.I., Robinson and Public Clothing at the show on Wednesday all said they still want to reach an amicable solution. It’s just taking longer than expected. Robinson may also be playing to the court of public opinion, as he has received overwhelmingly positive reaction from the press and retail’s biggest players to his spring presentation — the third stand-out season in a row — and that could put pressure on P.E.I. to come up with the deal Robinson wants.

This story first appeared in the September 10, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

A deal could still be worked out in time for some of the collection to make summer deliveries, Robinson said on Thursday.

“Right now, they can’t buy the collection,” he said, referring to the upper echelon of retailers. “We have a collection we don’t really know what to do with.”

That said, a few pieces from the show will be worked into the better-priced line for Public Clothing, which is showing a separate line, business as usual. Perhaps it’s not the short-shorts made of layers of frilly lace, but a knee-length skirt with simple ruching that would play to a broader audience.

Wendy Chivian, president of the Perry Ellis division of Public Clothing, said the company does not have the right to produce Perry Ellis clothing at a higher price point such as bridge or contemporary (which no company does). The better line, which Robinson also designed, has been performing well since it was introduced for spring 2003.

“We just started market and it is going very well,” Chivian said.

The return of the Perry Ellis name in women’s wear has had its own bumps, having faltered under a previous license with Kellwood Co. But its prominent return with Public Clothing, boosted by a major ad campaign for the women’s collection and P.E.I.’s men’s wear for the spring season, could ultimately hinder the chances for a high-end version, considering Perry Ellis’ general distribution in mainstream department stores like Lord & Taylor and Dillard’s.