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
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,
"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."