Fashion Industry Braces for Economic Chill

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 10, 2009

NEW YORK -- Designer Carmen Marc Valvo, measuring tape draped around his neck, searches under a pile of glossy fashion photographs, coffee-table books and swatches of expensive lace for tangible evidence of his anxiety about the economic recession and its effect on his industry -- one that peddles luxuries, dreams and frippery. Valvo pulls out a stack of pencil sketches done during his recent Costa Rican vacation and spreads them on his desk. There lies his original, angst-ridden vision for fall 2009.

"It was going to be a SoHo-hobo collection," Valvo says. "It was going to be all crazy patchwork made from recycled fabric, worn with fingerless, homeless gloves and construction boots. It was going to be my 'Grapes of Wrath' collection."

Like most designers, Valvo is influenced by the popular mood and by his own sense of what the future holds. He was not feeling optimistic. But he found himself even more depressed at the thought of such a sad and disheartening collection on the runway. He couldn't commit to poverty chic.

More than 250 designers will unveil their fall collections here over the next 10 days to retailers, press and clients. The presentations will range from large, formal runway shows under the temporary tents pitched in midtown's Bryant Park to small, still-life presentations scattered around the city in art galleries, private residences, showrooms and night spots. After New York designers have had their say, those in London, Milan and Paris will follow, until the last model struts off the catwalk in mid-March.

No one, however, is talking about hemlines and color palettes. Instead, the conversation is focused on survival. There's palpable anxiety about the economy and how the fashion industry -- the part dominated by razzle-dazzle dresses, hand-stitched embroidery and Italian cashmere -- will weather the storm. And there's confusion over what sort of tone the industry should strike as it muddles through the worst of it.

Magazine editors are running through their list of synonyms for budget and bargain while trying to maintain the fairy dust of glamour and élan. Big retailers have been discounting everything but the light fixtures.

Designers are finessing aesthetics in an effort to balance fantasy with pragmatism. They are struggling with banks looking to renegotiate financing agreements and with retailers who only want to accept merchandise on consignment. And they are trying to figure out how to show their wares in a way that generates excitement, is fiscally prudent and doesn't leave them looking like they're dancing on the deck of the Titanic.

Valvo is not a designer prone to dark moods that affect his collections. He built his reputation on feminine cocktail dresses and dramatic formal gowns. So thoughts of work boots and fingerless gloves were an anomaly. He dresses bar mitzvah moms as well as celebrities such as Katie Couric and Vanessa Williams.

They are attracted to the precise fit of his clothes, as well as his aesthetics and his prices. The dresses in his high-end runway collection sell for $2,000 to $3,000. That may seem like a great deal of money, but it is a bargain compared with his competitors like Badgley Mischka or Oscar de la Renta, whose dresses come in around $5,000. As a result, Valvo has built a privately held, profitable company that a spokesman has said is worth about $80 million.

But even the fashion industry's "bargain" ball gown designer is unnerved about sending fancy merchandise down a runway at a time when the unemployment rate has hit 7.6 percent, the highest since 1992. So after 12 years of big shows spiced with celebrities and a couple dozen models walking 100 feet of runway, all of which added up to at least $200,000 per show -- not including clothes -- he decided to have a small presentation in a cocktail lounge. The cost this season? About $25,000. Drinks included.

"If I'm being really honest? Our fiscal year ends in November and we'd really be rolling the dice" doing a big show, Valvo says, sitting in his Seventh Avenue office. "So we decided to do something more humane -- or kind -- to the pocketbook."

And then, in a huff of frustration, he adds: "The banks are trying to renegotiate my contract. You got a bailout and you want to renegotiate my contract?"

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