Designers divided: strong or safe for fall

Susan Scafidi in Crain's New York, February 21, 2009

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This fall, women can look forward to wearing shoulder pads, bright colors and power suits. Or maybe they can just look backward. Nostalgic designers brought the empowered female silhouette of the 1980s and enduring classic designs to New York Fashion Week.

Hitting the right look at the right price has become essential to an apparel designer's survival. Some, including Marc Jacobs and Phillip Lim, focused on strong shoulders and updated vintage looks. Others took the safe route, featuring versatile clothing appropriate for more than one occasion and more than one season.

“Designers are either going classic or featuring something really special and unique,” says Laird Borrelli, senior features editor of Style.com. “The idea of ephemeral fashion is frivolous right now.”

With shopping foot traffic off nearly 13%, and retail sales sliding steadily, according to ShopperTrak RCT Corp., every designer is pinching pennies where they can.

Cutting fabric

New York designer Jill Stuart, for example, is saving money on fabric by emphasizing dresses and skirts so abbreviated that they would never come close to passing the length test in Catholic school.

“[The recession] influenced a lot of my shorter lengths,” Ms. Stuart says.

Though Mr. Jacobs is offering some miniskirts, customers might also be drawn to the bold colors in his fall collection: cobalt blue, canary yellow and bubblegum pink. Hearkening back to the New York of the excessive "80s, Mr. Jacobs is also highlighting wide shoulders.

“He took not only our depression but our desire for color and fantasy and wove it into a collection,” says Susan Scafidi, intellectual property and fashion law professor at Fordham University School of Law.

The strong-woman theme is also apparent in Nanette Lepore's collection, which showcases practical wool plaid more than romantic ruffles.

Retailers are intrigued by the movement, which offers consumers something new.

“When I go to a runway show, I want to be inspired,” says Stacey Pecor, founder of boutique Olive & Bette's, which has four Manhattan locations. “The shoulder pads, while maybe we won't sell hundreds, are still something we haven't seen.”

Other designers chose the haven of less challenging looks to lure women looking for adaptable additions to their wardrobe. BCBG Max Azria is wrap dresses and draped collars.

“[BCBG's line] seemed very sellable, the kind of thing that you could very much translate into closet-ready pieces,” says brand strategist Matt Hogan.

BCBG will need all the help it can get. Standard & Poor's downgraded the credit rating of the Los Angeles-based company last week to CCC+ from B-, following a poor fourth-quarter performance.

Resisting temptation

Even designers renowned for show-stopping specialties resisted going over the top. Fashion house Badgley Mischka, identified with opulence and jewel-encrusted gowns, played the reliable card. Carolina Herrera, known for elegance, concentrated on wearable fashion.

Veteran Betsey Johnson, a recognized purveyor of whimsy, is expanding her party frock repertoire to include more everyday styles. Introducing striped sweaters and knit jumpsuits bedecked with “depression-era” skulls, she hopes to appeal to a broader range of customers.

“This downswing has made [designers] get into their work more,” Ms. Johnson says. “The casual clothes will be very price-competitive.”