Designers' staying power is about much more than fashion

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 14, 2010; E01

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.

Despite all the reality shows that highlight the harsh challenges of the fashion industry, there's also a warmhearted truth. Its members don't want to see one another fail. Models often work for nothing or are willing to take clothes in payment for their services. Public relations companies will represent a fashion client for next to nothing -- at least for a short period of time -- if they believe in the designer's work. Restaurants, galleries and other businesses that can benefit from good reviews spread by the cool kids of the fashion industry will often offer a designer a show space, gratis or for a nominal fee. A deep-pocketed friend might come to the rescue, or some investor blinded by the glamour of models, champagne and expensive frocks. Other designers moonlight as consultants for bigger brands to make ends meet.

Companies such as the winemaker Ecco Domani hold newcomer competitions in which part of the winners' prize is financial support for a runway show. And Vogue, along with the Council of Fashion Designers of America, has created a fund to offer financial aid and business mentoring to up-and-coming designers.

Under the best of circumstances, all these elements come together to help talented entrepreneurs hang on until their company's roots can take hold and they can stand on their own. A check for $25,000 or $100,000 from a company like Target or H&M for a one-time collection can be an important infusion of cash into the business of a company such as Rodarte.

But often one wonders if the help is postponing the inevitable. Is the aid keeping designers from facing the hard truth that perhaps their aesthetic is too limited for the marketplace, their business plan makes no sense, or they are simply not cut out to run their own company? If some companies are too big to fail, are others too small to save -- at least in their current form?

"I get calls on a very regular basis from designers who are at the end of the road and don't know what to do and are looking for advice or money or support," says Steven Kolb, executive director of the fashion designers' council. "Sometimes I can connect them with people who can help; sometimes I can't."

"I'm amazed that a lot of the smoke and mirrors of a fashion show, that component, in people's minds, is so important," Kolb says. "I think a lot of it is fueled by ego. They're not wanting to give up when it has their name on it. They have so much pride invested in it."

They also believe in the magic of the fashion industry as a place where it's okay to be counterintuitive, adventurous and even unreasonable. That's good for the imagination, good for the culture.

And the idea that many of the companies that remain standing may go on to be profitable, stable and influential is a victory worth cheering. But there's something to be learned from failure, too. When you pay a little less attention to the illusion, there's more time to focus on why the reality just isn't working.

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