And jobs for the just-graduated have been hemmed to match. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, just 19.7 percent of 2009 graduates who applied for a job actually have one. In comparison, 51 percent of those graduating in 2007 and 26 percent of the class of 2008 who had applied for a job had one in hand by graduation, according to the association.
"It's so hard right now. My friends, they're worried about what they're going to do," said Sawanya Jomthepmala, one of the Academy designers with a collection in the show. "They're worried about paying off loans. Jobs are full in this industry."
Jomthepmala, who is from Thailand, had her tuition paid for by the Thai government on the condition that she return after her education and teach fashion at home.
Even those who have gotten their foot in the door already admit that the going is tough -- especially for newcomers.
"There are some major design houses that have been in business for a long time that are going out of business. The other part that is really interesting about the situation is that it creates a challenge for those trying to break into the industry," said Ra-Mon Lawrence, 31, a "Project Runway" reality show star who debuted his own label's Spring collection at Touch lounge in New York last Friday. "Fashion now is not just the fantasy of fashion. It's a lot about practicality."
But backstage at the sprawling, air-conditioned tent in Bryant Park, the seven designers didn't appear to harbor any malaise about graduating during a recession in a cut-throat business.
This was their moment to live the life, in all its stress and glory.
Mercedes-Benz logos flashed on walls and tablecloths, water came in fashionable ice-chilled boxes, not plastic, and even the Diet Coke had a dash of pinache; like beer at baseball games, the soda arrived in handsome aluminum bottles.
Stylists strutted around with hairbrush holsters. Seamstresses stood poised with smocks to fit the girls into the fashions. Everybody looked like somebody, dressed up and milling about on the black carpet between the clothing racks backstage.
Marina Nikolaeva Popska, one of the Academy of Art University designers, inspected her models.
"Aw, they're all so cute," she said.
Popska, like her classmates, had spent the week before the show in the city; not sightseeing, but couped up in an ad hoc hotel room workshop the school provided, sewing buttons, making last-minute stitches and fixes, running out for shoes and sharing elbow room in the bathroom that doubled as a steaming chamber.
"It was like a little sweatshop," Cleary said.
Then the lights along the runway dimmed for real. The soundtrack rose from the dark. The house was packed, with standing-room only in the back rows. Shutters rat-tat-tatted, flashbulb glimmers leapt from the darkened crowd. And the show began. Ranya had even arrived in time.
Peeking from around the corner, designer Britney Major caught glimpses of the crowd. Later, she would be the one elected to be the spokeswoman for the group. She smiled daintily and gave soundbytes to the fashion TV reporters.
Despite the fact that nearly all of the Academy designers would soon begin the tiring process of sending out resume after resume and working their connections, they knew that, for one week at least, they had lived the dream.
"I'll find a job somewhere. I believe whatever's supposed to happen in your life will come," Popska said.