Peter Som: Comeback Kid

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Photo: Getty Images

In January just weeks before Fashion Week, Peter Som canceled his fall 2009 runway show. His label had abruptly split from its financial backers, Creative Design Studios, a division of Lord & Taylor LLC. They had been financing Som, whose runway shows in the tents drew the likes of Anna Wintour and André Leon Talley, for less than a year and a half.

The breakup was anything but a happy start to the New Year for Som. And he of all designers could have used one: He spent a good part of the last half of 2008 at the center of a whirlwind of rumors and speculation over whether he would be forced to step down from his position as creative director of Bill Blass, then owned by the financially troubled NexCen. In October, he finally resigned. Unable to financially support the label, NexCen shuttered Blass in December — a depressing process that involved laying off 60 employees, some of whom had worked there for twenty years.

But months later, Som finds himself in a very different place from a year ago. In May he signed a licensing deal with an Italian company to produce and manufacture his line. Though last season he showed his fall collection by private appointment only, he’ll show his spring 2010 collection in a presentation at Milk Studios. Yet it’s only the beginning of his comeback. Som has been fortunate enough to emerge from what was hopefully the worst of the recession with his label intact, but he continues to adjust to the harsh economic challenges his industry still faces. “For fall that was the depths of the recession, where there was no visibility for anybody — I don’t care who you are. Stores were going out of business left and right, no one was shopping,” Som recalls. “Hopefully we’ll get back to some semblance of normalcy. Nothing’s normal anymore.”

Up until fall 2009, Som had shown in the Bryant Park tents since the spring 2001 season. And perhaps in a perfect world, he’d be back there this season. “I think the times call — at least for me — for something a little more intimate,” he explains. “I do hope to be back to the runway soon.” The presentation he’ll stage at Milk in just a few days is the first in his career. It’s all part of having an open mind in an age where nothing’s normal. “Anything you’ve said no to before, you should look at it in a different way.”

Though he hopes to return to the runway soon, he’s excited to be downtown trying a new format. As when buyers visited his showroom privately to see the fall collection, guests this season will be afforded a long, close-up view of his clothes. Showing privately last season prompted him to choose this format for spring. “It ended up being a very nice experience just to show clothes and just show all the details, certain things with a big fashion show that you can’t kind of show,” Som notes.

The spring collection is a little larger than the collection he showed last season, which you can buy in stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman, and Kirna Zabête. He designed the collection, naturally, with the economy in mind. “I have to make sure that every piece I design is special and unique,” Som says. “People don’t come to me for basics. They come to me for print and for color and for happy clothes.” Som was hesitant to reveal too much about the collection, as designers are wont to do, but offered: “I’m at heart kind of a beach bum and I love summer days by the beach, so I was thinking about that.” His team is working with a set designer to put together something special.

A presentation isn’t the only new thing Som is exploring in the age of the new normal. He says he’s working on “lots of things,” but it’s too soon to discuss them. Might one be the diffusion line for a chain like Target or H&M he’s said he wants to do? “Kind of like I said, I mean, we’re looking at all different kinds of options,” he answers coyly. Som was a guest judge on Bravo’s Project Runway replacement The Fashion Show, and wouldn’t exactly be opposed to becoming a reality-TV star in his own right. “Never say never,” he says, again coyly. “Sometimes opportunities come at strange times, so it’s an exciting time.”

Som acknowledges, “Definitely, at some point I’d like to be back on the runway — there’s nothing like showing your clothes with music and a full vision.” But he doesn’t feel like he’s sacrificing anything this time around, and is confident his presentation will showcase his work at “a similar level of impact.” One thing racks his nerves, though: “I didn’t realize during a presentation that I’m out there. I thought I could be backstage like a normal show having a nervous breakdown.” At Milk he’ll have to hear everyone talk about how much they like (or dislike) what they see right away. But he’s happy with his work so far. “I think it feels very kind of me, and kind of, you know, colorful and a little crazy.” The last year certainly has been.