The Next Little Thing

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 3, 2006


Ten days before her fall 2006 runway show, designer Sari Gueron works in her studio in the Gramercy Park neighborhood of Manhattan. A handful of people crowd the workspace, a room with less square footage than the typical master bath in a McMansion.

Gueron's narrow studio is congested with sketches, cutting tables, rolling racks, fabric remnants and exquisite dresses handworked from French lace. The only thing missing from this pre-show war room are cans of Red Bull, the bullets of caffeine essential for keeping Gueron and her team awake and working into the wee hours. A publicist promises to arrange an emergency delivery.

Gueron, who graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1997, is one of more than 175 ready-to-wear designers who will unveil runway extravaganzas, intimate presentations or guerrilla marketing schemes over the next week here. While massive brands such as Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Bill Blass and Donna Karan maintain an army of assistants to attend to all the details, newer designers such as Gueron, who has been in business for two years, have to do almost everything themselves.

Gueron's clothes, feminine but not frilly, are expensive. In her spring collection, a simple cotton voile dress is $950. A raspberry metallic lace dress is priced at $2,895. And a floor-length gown with rosettes is $12,000. But a customer can be assured that Gueron herself, rather than some assistant, will have overseen its creation.

Across the city, other young designers are living on caffeine, fighting off frustration, calling in favors and trying to figure out the best way to communicate their aesthetic message on a shoestring budget.

"This is my third season but it feels like my 30th," says designer Jose Ramon Reyes. "Sometimes I feel practically bipolar. I'm so excited at one point because I see a finished garment, but then Italy calls and says they can't deliver on time and then my whole day just switches."

All the toiling is in service to their ultimate goal: building a profitable business that bears their aesthetic imprint.

For many of them, however, the size of that dream has radically shrunk.

It used to be that when new designers described their expectations for their company, they were apt to detail a billion-dollar global brand, one that reached from Hollywood to the mall to the home furnishing aisles to the hardware store. In the fashion industry, the biggest financial gains are not from the sale of fancy clothes but from accessories, fragrances and other lifestyle-related products. Gucci has its shoes and handbags. Calvin Klein has fragrances and underwear. A company such as Giorgio Armani -- a billion-dollar label fueled by high-priced clothes -- is uncommon.

As recently as a decade ago, the big talk of newcomers might have been based on little more than whimsy or ego. But they felt free to dream.

Now only rarely will a young designer display such swagger. In a surprising exhibition of confidence after his first solo runway show in 2002, designer Zac Posen was already brain-storming names for a diffusion line. He is now widely regarded as a master of brand promotion.

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