This fall, two of fashion's splashiest designers -- Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen -- will continue the style set's colonization of the formerly bloodstained block of West 14th Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. Though there will no doubt be boozy opening parties with generous gift bags and customers mincing their pencil-skirted ways down the sidewalk, those trend seekers probably won't realize that the next McCartney or McQueen may be right upstairs, threading a needle in a fabric-filled apartment. That very block is also home, in quarters less glamorous by an order of magnitude, to two of New York's most intriguing independent designers: Tess Giberson, a master of needlework, and Benjamin Cho, a junior couturier who makes sexy, hand-braided evening dresses. And that's not all: Behnaz Sarafpour, whose romantic gowns have poetry by the likes of Emily Dickinson sewn into the linings, works just around the corner out of her studio apartment, and one block north, Lucy Barnes is assembling bits of antique fabrics for patchwork skirts.
This season has bred a bumper crop of up-and-coming independent designers who are thriving not despite the economic slump but rather because of it. The label obsessions of the past few years are all but over; the new wisdom has it that if you're going to buy, it'd better be special. "Customers want an emotional attachment to things," says Ed Burstell, the vice-president of Henri Bendel. And that doesn't mean an attachment to a model or an ad campaign. "We can get a collection in that no one's heard of, and it will sell out," says Julie Gilhart, head buyer at Barneys. "It's just what people want right now. Connecting with a brand is one thing, but a soul connection is something totally different."
Which is not to say that the road to becoming an indie designer is smoothly paved. Over the past five years, the fashion world has fractured into a handful of conglomerates that have packed their stables with talent, not all of whom survived: Think Jil Sander, Miguel Adrover, Daryl K. And for every designer like Narciso Rodriguez or Katayone Adeli who stayed successful as an independent, there were dozens who couldn't; Eric Bergere, a talented Frenchman, recently closed his Paris atelier with this statement: "I don't know how an independent designer can make it today. Either you sell to a big group, or you work for one."
"If you want to advance at a comfortable pace, money is the hardest part," says Michael Soheil, who works out of his Thompson Street apartment, painstakingly crafting lean suits and leather jackets. Soheil studied fashion in Paris and worked for houses like Givenchy and Jill Stuart but decided that he'd never be happy designing under another person's name. "If you design for someone else, you do basics. When you're independent, people are looking to you for things that are more unusual. That's what I love to do." So he's proceeding with caution. "You have to make sure you don't go too fast or do too much," he says. "There's so much to figure out, like making contacts with factories, and then you have to find time to design, too."
"There's constantly something I need to do," agrees Sarafpour, who went out on her own after encouragement from her mentor, Isaac Mizrahi. Sarafpour funds much of her own label with a day job designing for Barneys' private line, though what she makes there isn't enough to allow her to delegate the day-to-day production of her own clothes. "I oversee production, shipping, everything!" she says with a laugh.
One way for designers to get backing without giving up their independence is to acquire a corporate sponsor like Shiseido or Moët et Chandon, which give grants of upwards of $20,000 to underwrite a runway show during Fashion Week. The show can help a designer attract the attention of international press and buyers. In return, the sponsor gets an association with the cutting edge of the design community. Both Sarafpour and Giberson have gone this route. "The only thing they wanted was that I serve everyone Ecco Domani wine at the show," says Giberson. "And for that, I got to do everything exactly the way I wanted it."
Other designers pack up a garment bag and hit the Lower East Side and Nolita, where a handful of boutiques cultivate newcomers. Anne Johnston was working as a stylist, not a designer, when Anna Kintz, an owner of Hedra Prue on Mott Street, started to sell a few of the linen skirts Johnston had been making for her friends. When the skirts sold out, Johnston realized she was onto something and started her own label, Martin. "It just sort of happened," she says. It sounds simple, but she's just as quick to note how hard it can be to manage a wholesale business with large, powerful stores.
Some designers don't bother with wholesale and don't seek out the sponsorship that makes a runway show possible. They rent a space on a (preferably) well-traveled block, make a few dresses, and give it a go. Jean Yu, 33, had been designing a small collection since she was a student at FIT, but she found that showrooms and agents were pushing her in directions that didn't suit her vision: "To me, finally having this store represents total independence." Her boutique on Crosby Street is a magical little place, where she works almost exclusively in silk -- made-to-measure lingerie and soft, elegant dresses. She also has the luxury of spending hours with her clients. "I discuss the whole look with my client," she explains. " I even loan out my own jewelry and bags."
Buying from an independent designer doesn't mean you'll get a bargain; you may have to spend as much as you would for a Galliano. But you won't see yourself coming, and you won't have to suffer visions of your precious splurge knocked off by H&M. Sarafpour's favorite skirt last season was made from antique tablecloths; each one was different, and when she ran out, there were no more skirts.
Maria Cornejo, a favorite on New York's independent scene, has done it all. About twenty years ago, she designed with her then-partner a successful line called Richmond Cornejo out of London. Everything was outsourced; it was all very big-budget. These days, she sews in the back of her store, Zero, on Mott Street. "I did all of that, the shows, the financing, the editorial," Cornejo says. "And then I needed a real break." While she longs from time to time for a steady paycheck with someone else's signature on it, she wouldn't trade her shop for anything.
"I've got two kids," she says, laughing. "If I didn't have the store, I wouldn't socialize."