The mood at Prabal Gurung’s debut presentation in early February reflected his sculpted and glittery ready-to-wear — a feather-dusted cream cocktail dress; a crimson stunner worked into an enormous bow — which is to say it was glamorous and unrestrained. Cynthia Rowley, a former employer and mentor to Gurung, giddily wrapped the designer in a bear hug, while the actress Zoe Saldana, whom Gurung dressed for events during his years as a designer at Bill Blass, bounced on her heels while in line to greet him, exclaiming to one editor, “I flew all the way from California for this!” For Gurung, in that moment at least, it seemed the recessionary cloud that hovered over so many fall shows had drifted elsewhere.
Skip ahead two months, and Gurung, along with a group of his designer counterparts — fresh names like Bibhu Mohapatra, Matthew Ames and Nima Taherzadeh — are facing the realities of the difficult economy. “I started my business plan nine years ago, and my plan was always to launch in fall 2009,” Gurung explains. When Bill Blass shuttered in November and he left his design director position after five years, Gurung was already working on his own 21-piece lineup (as well as designing for private clients), though he did not anticipate this year’s shattered retail climate, nor the steep drop in wholesale pricing that many buyers are attempting to negotiate with designers. Yet while Gurung added a few jersey column dresses to the collection at the behest of buyers from Bloomingdale’s, where the lineup will be sold in the fall, he has otherwise stuck to his plan to grow slowly and maintain a grand aesthetic. “Tough times are when creativity is at its peak,” Gurung says. “You take everything into consideration and you come up with something that is desirable, aspirational and practical. My clothes are very expensive, but women will wear them for many years.”
Optimism aside, these designers must now answer the question of how to develop a small luxury business around expensive-to-produce clothes, which have garnered praise but lack a core clientele. Not surprisingly, resisting the kind of overt trendiness that dates a look — the ubiquitous spring harem pants, for instance — is a priority for those starting out in the uberpricy designer category. “People don’t want to buy things that belong to a certain season. You have to make clothes they can keep in their closet all year round,” says Taherzadeh, who launched his line, Nima, two years ago and now sells in Saks, Bloomingdale’s and specialty stores such as Stanley Korshak. Taherzadeh, like Gurung, makes elegant, expensive clothes: a purple silk poplin cocktail dress retails for $995, while a black leather and organza cropped jacket with zipper trimming goes for $2,490. And also like Gurung, Taherzadeh received rave reviews (his best yet) for fall, which he admits have yielded few new orders despite an initial rush of buyer interest. Taherzadeh has, in fact, found himself busy tweaking signature pieces for the stores he already has. “I have these leather jackets that are quite light, and you can wear them all the time, so I’m making more of those and adding accents to them,” he says. “For me, the only reason that I can keep going is that these things are still selling.” Yet while he’s happy to accommodate buyers by increasing production of certain items, Taherzadeh has no plans to tone down the flourishes on his day and evening pieces. “Now is not the time for basics,” he adds.
Call it sticking to one’s creative guns — a sentiment Matthew Ames, a 2009 Ecco Domani winner who showed his lineup of cocoon dresses and coats for the first time in February during New York Fashion Week, echoes. “[For] a new designer, [the economic climate] can be a good time, because people are looking for new things to put in their stores,” he says. Ames’ pieces, many of which are reversible and loose-fitting, evoking a Zoran-esque minimalism, may be more understated than Gurung and Taherzadeh’s (think cool creams, taupes and blues in cashmere and wool, with coats retailing for up to $2,000), yet he is confronting similar questions about how to design limited luxury pieces. “Certainly my clothes aren’t for everyone,” says Ames, whose line is sold at Takashimaya in New York and Forty Five Ten in Dallas, among other small boutiques. “But the stores are telling me that spring is selling well, and I do think it’s because these aren’t clothes you get everywhere and they aren’t easily recognizable. I’m interested in creating a timelessness.”
There it is again — timelessness, “endurability,” as J.Mendel alum Bibhu Mohapatra characterizes his take on rtw. Mohapatra, who launched his line with a packed presentation high above Bryant Park in early February, has so far sold pieces only to the Greenwich, Conn. boutique Dighton Rhode and Philadelphia’s Adresse, though he is in negotiations with several other boutiques for fall. He says a number of stores and major retailers expressed interest in his designs, but tightened budgets prevented them from writing orders. “I specifically designed a capsule collection for my debut season,” he says, “and, consequently, our initial sales projections were set very conservatively.” Mohapatra notes that while the larger retailers were enthusiastic about his day dresses (average retail price: $1,500), boutiques were keen on his eveningwear and furs (which go for up to $16,000). The common thread in Mohapatra’s clothes is rigorous construction. “The way I was trained, the clothes don’t have to have embellishments. They just have to be super well-made, even if it is just a canvas coat,” Mohapatra explains. “If somebody is spending $1,500 on a garment, they want to make sure they are getting something that will last and be made well. The challenge is how to make it approachable to buyers and customers who don’t know my name yet.”
That challenge may be eased by the fact each of these designers is taking private orders — such as the ostrich feather-tufted wedding gown Gurung is making for a longtime client getting married this summer — to keep their businesses afloat, a practice that will, ideally, get women on the charity and red-carpet circuit asking each other, “Who made that?” And despite their short store lists, all are prepared for what Gurung calls “a slow start,” insisting they’re in it for the long haul. “I’m making investment clothes,” says Gurung. “A few very well-made pieces will always be better than a whole closet of mediocre ones.”