The fashion world heads into next week’s shows amidst a steady drip feed of bad news. Guest lists have been cut in half. Alexander Wang, Calvin Klein, and even Marc Jacobs canceled their parties. Obedient Sons & Daughters, Searle, Bill Blass, and Kira Plastinina went broke. Tracey Ross’s store closed. Neiman Marcus, Saks, Chanel, and Burberry have all seen layoffs. Big names like Vera Wang, Betsey Johnson, Monique Lhuillier, Naeem Khan, and Carmen Marc Valvo are forgoing the extravagance of the Bryant Park tents for something quieter.
Yet the recession is fostering an improvisational atmosphere that's focused on finding ways to maintain fashion’s extravagant soul despite reduced circumstances. Karl Lagerfeld may have called for a “new modesty,” but New York designers still plan to make a splash. They’re just being more crafty about it. “We’re showing less pieces," says Valvo, who is opting to scale back his presentation — clothes will be on mannequins, with two to three models on a mock-runway-show video — and show outside of the tents for the first time in ten years. “But is it recession chic? No!” he added. “I do eveningwear and I don’t think customers are going to step down a notch on those occasions.”
Rebecca Taylor, who will show in the tents on February 19, agrees. “In this economy it is really important to have a collection that includes special and emotional pieces,” she says. “The items should be versatile and easily transition from day to evening so they can be worn for several different occasions.”
Even smaller designers aren’t watering down their luxury goods. Instead of skimping on the clothes, 21-year-old Frank Tell is switching from last season’s runway show at the Soho Grand to a presentation at the Tribeca Grand, which includes lighting, stage, and sound system at no extra cost. He’s also tweaking his dress-filled collections to a new lineup that includes 60 percent separates. “With this economy we think it’s a really smart way to go,” he says. Swarovski couldn’t sponsor Tell this time, but he’s using last season’s crystals again: “It’s like, okay, what can I create with something I already have?”
There could even be a — gasp — collective spirit at work this spring. Betsey Johnson says that “all of my guests will get to have a glass of Champagne, not just the front row!” Kelly Cutrone is working at a discount for her People’s Revolution clients. “My business is fucked,” admits the always-candid Cutrone. “Lately, I’m more of a psychologist than a publicist, just listening to people crying.” She encouraged Andrew Buckler to talk to the New York Times about his struggling business — “There’s a bunch of venture people out there looking for people who are in a weakened state, so why not tell the truth?’ A lot of the people in the industry just want to lie like everything is fine.”
The CFDA has also been playing matchmaker. They hooked up Brian Reyes and Richard Chai with sponsorship from the Gilt Groupe, while many designers were encouraged to team up with each other. "You'll see a lot of collaborations going on with designers — like Irene Neuwirth is doing jewelry for Richard Chai — so you can see the talent at the same time," says executive director Steven Kolb. "Also, Charles Nolan is letting Michael Bastian show at his beautiful space in the West Village as a way to help out a fellow designer."
Behind the scenes, hairstylists and models are accepting reduced rates to keep the week afloat. “The girls understand where we are and they’re responding appropriately when asked if they will accept this much money and this much trade,” says Elite director Neal Hamil, who decided to scale back on the sometimes over-the-top show packages that highlight girls before castings. “They’re being really good sports because we’re all in this together.”
Stylists may be hit the hardest. “I’ve seen three to four of my designers that worked with stylists last year drop the stylist altogether because they think they can do it themselves, whereas they can’t D.J. or model themselves,” says Cutrone. “But I’ve also seen a great stylist like Masha Orlov give Mara Hoffman a break.”
Perhaps of all this inventiveness will make Fashion Week more creative. At the least, as Yigal Azrouël puts it, it’ll be a “great escape.” “Starting a new season will breathe some positive energy into all the gloom that you hear about every day,” he says. “Fashion Week this season is showing that there’s a lot of ingenuity in American fashion,” adds Kolb. “We’d be naïve not to accept that this is a difficult time and fashion is at a crossroads like a lot of industries, but there’s a lot of optimism.”