Designers' staying power is about much more than fashion

Art on the runway: The Rodarte clothing line, like many others, is celebrated for its creativity, not its practicality.
Art on the runway: The Rodarte clothing line, like many others, is celebrated for its creativity, not its practicality. (Maria Valentino)
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 14, 2010

The fashion industry often receives a great deal of guff about its frivolous nature and it inspires no small amount of dismay among many consumers for the outlandish wares it sometimes produces. And yet, Seventh Avenue attracts some of the most tenacious entrepreneurs ever to launch a business. In the midst of severe economic strife that has caused companies with far greater resources to tumble, some of the fashion industry's most audacious and independent designers have managed to carry on. At least that's the illusion.

Designers began to unveil their fall 2010 collections Thursday in New York, and hundreds of formal shows and informal presentations will take place throughout the week. While a few designers have disappeared from the schedule, it feels no less crowded than in recent years. Where others have vanished, new companies -- often put together with little more than a bolt of cashmere and a steady stream of "Project Runway" reruns -- have popped up.

Some of the names that continue to pull off full-scale runway shows come as no surprise. Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan and Calvin Klein's Francisco Costa are the creative forces behind enormous brands. And those brands serve as umbrellas for lucrative secondary lines, accessories collections, products for the home and fragrances. All of those divisions, which include such mundane offerings as candles and pantyhose, pay the bills. The rarefied merchandise that they send down the runway is only a tiny percentage of the business. Often, it is a loss leader. But that's the piece of the company that defines the whole and influences the culture. And for a small but enthusiastic group of consumers, it's a fanciful dream worth the eye-popping prices.

But there's a long list of less-established designers who seem to have defied the odds and who, against all financial and aesthetic logic, continue to mount shows. An observer is left not simply marveling at their skill in smoke-and-mirrors chicanery, but also amazed by their stubborn insistence that they must go on with the show.

* * *Consider the designer Peter Som. He was put through the Seventh Avenue wringer, which means that he has won and lost a prestigious job. He was hired to take over the creative reins at Bill Blass, the last in a long series of designers who were brought in to run the house after the death of its namesake in 2002. In short order, the holding company that owned Bill Blass pulled the plug on the pricey, high-end line; Som was left showing his meager signature collection in his small atelier to editors and buyers one by one. But he managed to muster his resources for a Saturday afternoon presentation.

Erin Fetherston continues to put her organza and glitter collection on the runway even though her customer base appears to be women who enjoy dressing as if they've been invited to a tea party with Alice and the Mad Hatter. Aside from the whimsical Fetherston herself, whose style calls to mind Tinker Bell, how many such women can there really be?

Menswear designer Patrik Ervell, who helps men dress like their inner Peter Pan, will also have a show as usual. His clothes are available in New York and Los Angeles at stores such as Barneys New York and Opening Ceremony, which is akin to saying that they are more intriguing in theory than in practice. He once created a stunning sequined jacket for his fashion-obsessed man-boy. But that is not the sort of idea upon which a significant business can be built.

The list of interesting yet starry-eyed designers goes on with fashion wunderkinds Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the duo behind Rodarte. It is a critically celebrated line that is bewitching in its creativity yet happily and proudly impractical. Their exquisitely hand-knit sweaters, for instance, were so distressed and trashed that they were more like colorful cobwebs.

Thom Browne made a name for himself by creating shrunken men's jackets and trousers that make the wearer look as though he has mistakenly squeezed himself into his 8-year-old son's first communion suit. The silhouette is no gimmick; Browne stands by it and wears it himself. In public.

L'Wren Scott is scheduled to host her usual lunchtime show. Students of fashion might recognize Scott's name from its red carpet association with actresses such as Nicole Kidman and Ellen Barkin, but rare is the non-celebrity who can slither into her narrow, you-don't-expect-to-sit-down-in-that silhouette.

And Zac Posen, who has always been adept at creating the illusion of greatness even as his company struggles to be profitable and his staffers fly the coop, is planning a Monday morning show. God bless them, every one.

* * *That's the fascination of the fashion industry. It's a place where the irrational makes perfect sense. Creativity trumps usefulness. And everyone involved has a stake in keeping the fantasy alive.

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