Monday, February 9, 2009

The Make or Break Season

Daniel Silver and Steven Cox of Duckie Brown; Lisa Mayock
of Vena Cava; Andrew Buckler; Sophie Buhai; The New York Times

By ERIC WILSON, New York Times
Published: February 4, 2009

ONCE upon a time, American fashion was a fickle, brutal business for young designers.

Newcomers would arrive to great fanfare and then disappear in a few seasons. To reverse this pattern, the industry came together five years ago to create a more welcoming environment. Magazines, stores and trade groups began to nourish and heavily promote a new generation of potential Calvin Kleins and Oscar de la Rentas, handing out prizes, sponsorships and mentoring that made it hard for just about anyone to fail. It is no small measure of their success that New York Fashion Week has become a haven for instantly famous unknowns.

Of the more than 200 fashion labels that will begin showing their fall collections in New York next week, at least half came into existence only in the last decade. A full quarter of them are less than five years old. This season alone, during the worst economic environment in decades, no fewer than 10 new companies are vying for fashion’s spotlight.

The age of the young designer, however, may be coming to an end.

As stores reduce orders by 20 percent or more for fall, the toll on small fashion businesses, many without independent financial backing, is likely to be severe. In the last month, two promising designers lost the support of their investors and face uncertain futures: Peter Som, who makes ladylike sportswear; and the Obedient Sons and Daughters collections, quirky takes on tailored clothes made by the husband-and-wife team Swaim and Christina Hutson.

And among designers, there is fear that the fallout will be far worse after the shows, once orders for fall clothes are confirmed. The more stores that close, the more designers will follow.

“To be honest, we’re writing this whole year off,” said Andrew Buckler, the designer of a seven-year-old collection called Buckler. “We’re just trying to survive.”

Like most of those companies started in the last decade, Buckler is small, with sales less than $10 million. But the line, originally based on jeans, was growing; and two years ago, Mr. Buckler sold a minority of his business to a Turkish manufacturing company, Hey Group. The investment enabled him to open four stores, including two in Manhattan, and to have runway shows for a collection that looks like weekend wear for James Bond.

Six months ago, the Hey company said it would pull back its financing.

“We knew things were getting really tough out there,” Mr. Buckler said. “But it’s still a bitter pill to swallow.”

Things began to look bleak, he said, when some of the 30 small stores around the country that carry Buckler $600 military jackets and $116 knitted polos were taking longer to pay for their orders. Payments that once arrived within 30 days took 60 days, then 90 days to collect. Worse, some of the stores, like Brick Lane, in Los Angeles, went out of business, leaving Mr. Buckler with clothes that had been ordered and produced but never paid for. He had to lay off about a third of his 30 staff members.

For his fall collection, he decided to cut back to the bare bones, condensing the number of styles by half and focusing on jeans and underwear and woven shirts — comparatively inexpensive items that have sold well in the past. To save costs, he plans an informal presentation at his store on Grand Street, instead of on the runways in Bryant Park, where even a small show can cost $100,000 for the designer who pays for the space, hair, makeup, models and, of course, the clothes. At least Mr. Buckler has his own stores to sell the clothes, but going forward, he said, “It’s going to be a lot more about relying on personality and experience, instead of cash.”

In the days before Fashion Week, which begins Feb. 13, a similar story has been playing out in showrooms around the city, as designers adapt to a new reality, one in which talking about new clothes means talking about the new economy. You could sense the dread at a meeting last month between show producers and newspaper reporters to discuss the recession’s impact on Fashion Week, when Paul Wilmot, a leading industry publicist, said, “We need to come up with talking points!”

He already knows the question: Who can afford these clothes?

Flora Gill and Alexa Adams have received enthusiastic attention from retailers since they started Ohne Titel in 2006, but so far only a few stores have carried their eclectic knits and architectural suits, which cost $500 to $3,000. Now buyers are even more hesitant to commit to new talent, so the designers are lowering some prices and moving their dress production from Italy to New York. Even so, Stephen Courter, a partner in the business, sees a silver lining. “I think we are still so small, with lower overhead than the established labels, that we have less to lose,” he said.

What is amazing is how often designers have taken matters into their own scrappy hands.

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