At Fashion Week, '80s Excess, '09 Woes

Shoulder pads and celebrities mask economic bleakness of NY's Fashion Week.

Byandrea Canning
February 17, 2009, 5:42 PM

Feb. 18, 2009 — -- On the runways of New York's fashion week, the excess of a bygone age seems to reign.

Watching models strutting down the runway, celebrities "oohhing" and "ahhhing" in the front rows, and designers bustling backstage, it's easy to escape from the realities of all-time unemployment highs and a multibillion-dollar stimulus package.

This week, Paris Hilton popped up beneath Bryant Park's tents, Justin Timberlake walked the walk for his William Rast line, and the big hair and bulky shoulder pads of the '80s made a comeback.

But, the devil is in the details. Beneath the superficial glitz, 2009's fall fashion week isn't quite as over-the-top as it once was. A decidedly un-sexy economy has taken a toll on glamour.

Some designers aren't even on the runway this year: Vera Wang and Betsey Johnson chose to unveil their lines in their showrooms. Parties have been cancelled, guest lists slashed, swag bags are bare and fewer models are being hired.

"The mood backstage is maybe a bit quieter," said Neal Hamil, director of Elite Model Management. "But it's always fun and super-charged. I think the girls no longer take for granted certain things -- like having the job in the first place! They have all been really good sports, I must say."

Designers are saving tens of thousands of dollars by trimming what little fat one might see at a fashion show and focusing on, well, the fashion.

"I am all for the cutting back of the fashion show attendee guest list," Hamil said. "For all the people who are part of the business of the fashion business who really need to be there; the throngs of hangers-on really do just get in the way.

"It is a huge distraction to fashion editors who are there to be inspired," he added. "The presentation is, after all, the moment for the designer. ... I am all for a scaling back of the mob. I really commend Marc Jacobs and Robert Duffy and others for taking the lead on this."

Kelly Cutrone, founder of fashion PR firm People's Revolution and a regular on the MTV series "The Hills" and "The City", told ABC News that this year, for the first time, she organized a show that featured three designers back-to-back: Nicholas K, Sergio Davila and Mara Hoffman.

"There were three separate shows with three seconds between each show for a sign change." Cutrone said. "They were able to take a tent which costs $40,000 and divide that number by three, and at the same time, as a result of decreasing their overhead, they still had the presence and the big bang of the tents ... they were able to receive a ton of extra media coverage that they normally wouldn't have had independently. It's one of the great examples of power in numbers."

Designers Combine Shows to Save Dough

Buyers are still buying from the fall/winter 2009 collections being presented in Bryant Park, but the art of picking the perfect pieces has taken a more serious tone as they purchase fewer items and do it more carefully in this unstable economy.

For designer Alexander Wang, many pieces are selling for around $400, and everything in his line is under $1,000.

"I launched this collection last fall, right as the economy was headed south," said Josie Natori, designer of the Natorious collection. "But I started developing it when the economy was in full swing, and I felt, even then, that the collection should be more accessible to a wider range of women than a typical designer price point. ... Everything in our collection for fall 2009 is priced below $600 at retail."

Cutrone said some designers are also taking a more toned down approach when it comes to style.

"We're seeing muted tones, slate, grey, chocolate, black, simple pieces maybe with a touch of excitement or color detail -- much more basic," she said. "But on the other hand, we're seeing other designers who are saying we already know the consumer has enough of basic and they're not going to need to re-buy that, even in a tweaked or new, modern way, so we're going to give something really special, really colorful, something they don't already have."

In the End, Fashion Week Is About Fantasy

Despite the trying times, fashion week still retains some of its signature sparkle.

"I think international fashion events are almost always glamorous," said Natori. "Fashion week brings people from all over the world to New York to see beautiful clothes."

Jaqui Lividini, former executive of Saks Fifth Avenue and current partner at PR firm LWP, said, "Of course, we are in many ways selling a fantasy, and no matter how 'nuts and bolts' we need to be about the business, we need to be mindful of the dream."

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