Will They End Up Fashion Victims?
As top designers size up the economy, their fear is . . .

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?"

"Last year, it was tough," he says, but the company showed a small profit. This year, "we're not going to show a profit."

The nation's job losses not only meant fewer people willing and able to shop, but also thinned the ranks of those who make the fashion circus run. Macy's cut 7,000 jobs; the Neiman Marcus Group slashed 375. And Saks Fifth Avenue cut 1,100 jobs in January, including that of Michael Fink, its vice president of women's fashion, one of those front-row regulars whose job it was to tell women precisely what they should want to wear six months down the pike.

The Tobe Report, a consulting firm that helps retailers through the morass of runway trends, got rid of its ranking expert on the designer market. Who will help mainstream retailers figure out what a Balenciaga latex Chinese tapestry print means to its customers?

The Wall Street Journal announced a sharp reduction in the size of its fashion and retail reporting team, even though the American fashion business is a $350 billion industry, according to the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Other newspapers have cut back on their fashion coverage. Many have slashed coverage of European collections from their budgets. London has struggled to keep even magazine editors coming to its shows and subsidizes many of those who do come.

Even the Palm Beach Daily News will not send a writer to cover the fall shows in New York. When the paper that caters to the extreme moneyed population of Palm Beach -- land of social seasons, Mar-a-Lago and the use of winter as a verb -- isn't fielding a writer to document the work of Oscar, Ralph and Donna, can fashion Armageddon be far off?

While the list of designers on the calendar in New York remains virtually unchanged and there are even some audacious newcomers, the way in which they are presenting their collections has been transformed. Some, like Betsey Johnson and Valvo, who normally engage in expensive runway theatrics are opting for more intimate and less expensive presentations. Marc Jacobs hacked away at his guest list. Vera Wang relocated her fashion show from the expensive tents in Bryant Park to her new store downtown. Some show invitations have so many highlighted sponsors, the fashion industry is starting to look like NASCAR. And the list of designers having still-life presentations or relying on a modest tableau vivant is so long that one almost feels sorry for all those B-list celebrities who typically use the fashion show front row as their personal press conference. What will Joy Bryant, Jaime King and Rose McGowan do?

The Italian brand Miss Sixty has mounted a runway show in New York since 2006. The company's creative director, Wichy (pronounced Vicky) Hasan, admits to a certain amount of sheepishness over the large show he has planned for the Bryant Park tents. To leaven the indulgent aspect, each guest will receive an umbrella whose purchase through Charity: Water goes toward providing drinking water in impoverished communities around the world.

"You spend a lot for models, for photography, for stupid things. For me, sometimes it's embarrassing," Hasan says. "So it's nice to do something good."

The fall collections are the first wholly conceived after the seriousness of the economic crisis was becoming clear. The spring clothes in stores were created when the economy was a headline but not the 24-hour topic of cable news. Designers believed the luxury market of $3,000 shredded jeans would remain untouched as it had during financial crunches in the past. (And indeed, some luxury conglomerates such as LVMH have reported upticks in revenue.) But now those splashy designs are turning up in magazine layouts planned months ago.

In the February issue of Harper's Bazaar, for example, Page 77 pictures a sparkly, sea-green $17,000 cocktail dress by Christophe Decarnin, the designer at the French fashion house Balmain. The photograph is followed by a story describing his influence in the industry as well as the fact that "all the girls who are cool" want his clothes, including the coolest girl of them all, Kate Moss. Twenty-three pages later, a story details how a budget-minded shopper can save herself $3,000 and re-create the distressed Balmain jeans at home with a bottle of bleach and a pair of scissors. Is the distance between jeans that cost as much as a mortgage and a DIY project that short?

Decarnin "is an exciting designer breathing new life into a house -- Balmain. We look at the dresses he designs. They're expensive and not every woman can afford his designs. But isn't it great to see beautiful clothes?" says Bazaar's editor-in-chief, Glenda Bailey. "We pride ourselves on giving readers ideas."

"There's a credit crunch," she adds, "not a creative crunch."

For all of the cover lines on the March issue of Bazaar reassuring readers that there are plenty of inexpensive ways to indulge in fashion, Bailey argues that fashion shouldn't really be seen as an indulgence at all. Enough with the shaming of the industry, she says.

"Those who are fortunate enough to be able to support the industry are keeping those in the industry employed," says Bailey. "That's creating jobs. And that's stimulating our economy."

And for Natalie Massenet, founder of Net-a-Porter.com, which has been selling designer fashion to online shoppers since 2000, "fashion is about dressing oneself. The most fashionable are the people who want to stand out," she says by phone from the company's London headquarters. "But I don't look at it as fantasy. Fashion is a necessity as far as I'm concerned."

As proof, she offers the net revenue of the privately held company. For 2008, it was about 80 million pounds (about $119 million), up from 55 million pounds (about $82 million) the previous year. And that includes growth in the U.S. market, she says.

She hopes designer aesthetics will remain appropriately restrained but optimistic. If this were the film industry, Massenet says, no one would expect a year's supply of tear-jerkers. In 1992, the last time some 11.6 million people were out of work, Marc Jacobs launched his grunge collection for Perry Ellis in which expensive clothes were made to look cheap and tattered. It was a provocative collection. It also got Jacobs fired.

So perhaps it is good news that as his presentation approaches, Carmen Marc Valvo's mood has lifted. "We're still using some recycled fabric. But now it's chic. It's ethereal and frothy, almost like confectioners' sugar," he says.

"I'd been going down that dark road up to three weeks ago. But I make beautiful clothes for beautiful events." He had to continue to do what he does best.

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