NEW YORK — For retailers, it’s like going back to school after a long holiday break.

This story first appeared in the February 6, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

And on the eve of New York Fashion Week, which officially begins Thursday, it’s going to be a tough semester ahead as the industry faces a cold hard truth: Designer apparel has been struggling for several seasons, meaning retailers will be scrutinizing runways and showrooms with more intensity than ever — and looking for some major changes to jump-start sales.

They’re also excited about seeing the continued development of New York’s younger designers; upbeat over some positive selling trends like jackets and men’s wear influences, and both optimistic and anxious about what lies ahead.

On the European front, Alexander Wang’s debut at Balenciaga, the continuation of the collections of Raf Simons for Dior and Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent Paris, Jil Sander’s return to Jil Sander and Tom Ford’s return to the runway in London are among the most anticipated shows of the fall season.

“It’s a tale of two cities. There’s this wonderful excitement being generated by those formerly known as emerging designers who have emerged,” said Ron Frasch, president and chief merchant at Saks Inc. “Some of the best examples in America are Derek Lam, Proenza Schouler and The Row. People of that talent. In Europe, it’s Alexander McQueen, Givenchy, Saint Laurent, Dior, Emilio Pucci, Stella McCartney, Celine — brands that happen to be smaller but are very nimble and have extremely talented, amazing creators. We see them generating this tremendous energy.

“The problem is the volume in those businesses is not equal to some of the more major brands who are probably a little more classic and appear to be struggling,” Frasch said. “We see it across all categories, in men’s wear, footwear, handbags,” as well as ready-to-wear. “It’s difficult to offset the volume erosion that they are creating.”

“Designer apparel continues to be a very important business to Neiman Marcus,” said Jim Gold, president of specialty retail for the Neiman Marcus Group. “However, today’s fine apparel customer is extremely discerning. The brands which offer authentic, differentiated design are thriving, especially when the collections are well balanced from a lifestyle standpoint, novel, high quality and sensitive to warm climate. It is easier said than done for a designer to cover all of these bases, but when it happens, we have tremendous success.”

Pat Di Bratto, senior vice president of buying and merchandising at Holt Renfrew, sees designers already in the throes of change. “There is a lot going on. I don’t think we are fully realizing it,” Di Bratto told WWD. “It will be exciting to see how it unfolds at various fashion houses.”

Holt Renfrew, she pointed out, has undergone “a rationalization of brands to better speak to our customer lifestyles” while some luxury houses have changed their “price architecture,” encroaching on the Gold Range. Some are also better addressing what consumers want, such as Brunello Cucinelli, to present a more casual “everyday” kind of luxury, while others, like Akris, appear to have undergone a cleansing of stockkeeping units so they don’t mean all things to all people, she said. Of particular interest is Oscar de la Renta’s show, in the aftermath of opening his studio to John Galliano. “How does that translate to product and possible collaborations?” she asked.

Di Bratto said Holt Renfrew is currently experiencing one of the best women’s seasons in a while, buoyed by “new guard” labels such as Rag & Bone and Helmut Lang, though recent results at Neiman’s suggest that things aren’t great in the designer apparel sector. Last week, the luxury chain reported that, for its second quarter ended Jan. 26, total revenues rose 6.5 percent and that women’s contemporary sportswear and shoes, designer handbags, designer jewelry and men’s wear paced the business. Designer apparel was not among the bestsellers.

Other retailers also are struggling with women’s wear, and have acknowledged that there’s too much stuff, too much sameness, and that consumers no longer buy head-to-toe in any one particular label. Women are getting experimental, mixing labels to create outfits, and at varying price points, and have less patience with all the product that’s out there. Pockets of the women’s business are performing — contemporary sportswear, dresses, colored denim, jackets and accessories. Other pockets — classic and traditional sportswear, suits, tailored looks and basics — are not.

“It depends on the designer,” said Susan Davidson, ceo of Scoop and Zac Posen. She said Scoop’s designer business was up 30 percent last year, led by Azzedine Alaïa, Martin Margiela, Missoni, Chloé, Alexander Wang, Hervé Leroux, Roberto Cavalli and Burberry, partly because, unlike larger retailers specializing in designers, Scoop emphasizes contemporary labels, party dresses and beachwear, and is more about “play and party” rather than work-related clothes.

“No matter what you’re buying and what you believe in as a retailer, it has to be fresh and new,” added Humberto Leon, cofounder of Opening Ceremony and creative director at Kenzo.

With retailers pressing designers to innovate, “There is a lot of pressure. It’s almost like the landscape is moving very quickly,” observed Thakoon Panichgul. “What I think happened is that retailers last year bought a lot of merchandise. There’s too much stock on the floor. We’re focusing the retailers into buying what they know going in will do well. We guide in that area.”

Panichgul also said “it’s the weirdest thing” that retailers want more fashion. “They almost want it to be runway in terms of fashion pieces. Pre-collections have to be more fashion and runway has to be fashion. There’s nothing ‘commercial’ anymore.” With his contemporary line called Addition, “Everything has to feel new. The trends travel faster at that price. Within designer, it’s more classic. Runway for me is not over-the-top.”

“It’s funny because a lot of people are talking about how fashion is being driven by shoes and the clothes are just the sideshow to sell bags,” said David Neville, designer at Rag & Bone. “We’re a little old school with the apparel side. We’re just now focusing on accessories, but I think Rag & Bone has a really great language for bags and leather goods.”

“We just need to stay true to Rag & Bone, the brand, season in and season out,” added Marcus Wainwright, who also designs Rag & Bone. “We have a clear idea of who our girl is. We understand that we need to connect to our customer, and if you push the boat too far in any direction, you run the risk of losing the connection for the sake of fashion. It’s also important to be fashion-forward and push the idea of what your girl could wear. Our challenge is to create really original pieces that relate to our girl and are completely new. We’re not looking for growth or to sell more clothes. Our challenge is to maintain the equity of the brand and stay true to who we are and keep our eyes focused. If you do that, the rest falls into place. And if you don’t do that and go off selling as many clothes as you can supply and over-distribute, you can lose sight.”

That “unique voice,” said Reed Krakoff, is more important than ever, as the fashion environment grows “increasingly competitive and complex.” Designers must “balance the commercial aspect with the creative aspect…particularly when doing a runway,” he said. “I love this period of where you have to tell a story and bring together a new way, new signature.”

Accessories, he said, “has always been where most of the profit in business is for most big brands. I don’t think that’s likely to change anytime soon,” Krakoff said. “The way they’re structured and the strength of those businesses are really what has driven many of the big brands.”

“The designer customer is reacting to newness — younger design,” Frasch said. “It’s the same thing in the contemporary zone — Helmut Lang, Rag & Bone — that’s great fashion. Beautifully constructed at a good value. If you break it down, women are definitely buying designer where the product is exciting, where it’s novel, not formulaic. We have made a lot of money with major brands for a lot of years. We are not going to run away that quickly. In general, we try to work with them, to weather the storm and hope they can respond to what the company is looking for. As retailers and designers, we have to work harder to provide interesting products and amp up our service levels.”

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