No, the recession didn't scare away Fashion Week, the twice-yearly circus of luxurious clothing and beautiful people. It returned to Manhattan's Bryant Park in mid-February for the fall collections. But with ever-dwindling sales, and public revulsion toward extravagance, can anything--can anyone--save the fashion industry?
On the surface, Fashion Week seemed to be much the same as it was in September when the recession was just getting underway. But the gleam of the tents in Bryant Park was dimmer, and though at least 100 designers showed their collections, some major designers (Vera Wang, Betsey Johnson) opted out of the $50,000-plus runway shows in favor of intimate presentations in their showrooms. Many showed collections at other venues outside the tents, or only online.
Even Marc Jacobs, one of the most sought-after shows of the season, slashed his guest list in half and canceled his after-party. (THE WEEKLY STANDARD wasn't invited.) And a number of seats at nearly every show--including coveted front row spots--stayed empty until the final minutes before showtime when PR reps would frantically fill them with guests from the standing section.
Are designers less willing to pay celebrities with cash or clothing to sit down in front? Are fewer publications willing to pay the costs to send reporters to the shows? Maybe the public is less interested altogether in runway fashion?
But the show did go on. Though BlackBerry didn't give away free phones, as it did last season, McDonald's provided free McCafé lattes and mochas all day, every day. (Much to everyone's relief there were no golden arches on top of the tents.) And while many designers canceled lavish dinners and after-parties, some did not. La Perla held a Valentine's Day party at the Chelsea hotspot 1Oak with a Veuve open bar and tableau of models lounging in expensive lingerie. The American Express Skybox--where guests paid $150 per show or $750 per day to mingle with designers above the runways--sold out, just as it did in September. And though the swag bags were not nearly as extravagant as in years past, reporters were able to snag the occasional candle or T-shirt from an empty chair.
The clothes were more cheerful. Mixed with winter neutrals were explosions of bright colors, loud prints, and 1980s-inspired shapes. Narciso Rodriguez's delectable color palette included "citrine," "highlighter pink," and "ultra purple," and his skin-tight dresses and camo-print skinny pants pleased the packed house. Elie Tahari showed black and white tweed jackets along with floral silk dresses to champagne-swilling guests. Many collections featured rich leather or fur, impractical bandage dresses with zippers and cutouts, and colorful blazers with shoulder pads, as well as towering heels that caused models to stumble.
Designers did find ways to cut costs but still produce quality collections, hoping that people will buy better quality even if they shop less.
"I started to ask, 'How much? How much? How much?' every time I'd get a yard of fabric," designer Reem Acra told me at her showroom presentation on Fifth Avenue. "All the ready-to-wear I made with one piece of fabric--no lining, construction very minimal--so that I cut down on the prices. But there was not one ounce of any compromise, not one ounce."
Acra is known for her opulent red-carpet frocks; she designed Jill Biden's red inaugural gown. Her fall couture silk gowns in shades of purple, blue, and gold, along with ready-to-wear dresses and a new jewelry line, did not disappoint the fashionistas: "This is the most beautiful collection ever," said a woman identified as a "friend of Reem's" to no one in particular. (Acra did admit that she didn't pay attention to price when designing her couture gowns.)
Of course, one question, above all, hovered over the tents: Who will buy expensive clothes now? The industry is excited about first lady, and Vogue cover girl, Michelle Obama, and her sartorial choices--and everybody is hopeful that she will inspire women to shop.
"I think she's dressing fabulous. She's supporting some different, young designers, which is so wonderful," said the 21-year-old Project Runway winner Christian Siriano. Designers are hoping for a fairytale story like Jason Wu, 26, who became an overnight fashion celebrity when Michelle Obama wore his ivory inaugural gown. Even Vogue editor Anna Wintour was reportedly delighted with his runway show.
The industry was hoping for an Obama appearance at Fashion Week, and the press had been wondering for weeks if she would attend. She didn't--but Chicago boutique owner and de facto Obama stylist Ikram Goldman did, along with the White House social secretary, Desiree Rogers, who sat in the front row next to Anna Wintour at Thakoon, one of Michelle Obama's favorite designers.
Ikram Goldman attended the Zero + Maria Cornejo show, among others, and high-profile editors and fashionista guests in black arrived at the Robert Miller Gallery in Chelsea to cram into a small, stark space that smelled like fresh paint. Cornejo, who custom-designed a purple jacket that Obama wore on the inaugural train tour, described her collection as based on the "juxtaposition . . . of hard and soft, feminine and masculine." It featured black jumpsuits and dresses, dramatic draping and hoods, and a touch of vibrant blue. The critics loved it, and press rep Gabrielle Sirkin later explained that, although the company had sent out the same number of invitations as last season, the show "definitely got a bigger attendance than usual."
Comparable crowds gathered near the ropes outside the main tent an hour early for Narciso Rodriguez's 9 P.M. show. "I am not missing this show!" one young man with a camera told his companions--although PR reps were still scrambling at the last minute to fill a few seats. The designs were far more flattering than the black-and-red Rodriguez dress that Michelle Obama wore on Election Night; the finale dresses elicited oohs and aahs and earned much post-show praise. But I'd be surprised if the first lady wears the flashy colored silk dresses with black beading and lace details.
After the show a designer, like every designer, can only hope for favorable reviews before buyers visit the showrooms to order items from the runways. As this show ended, the elated crowd--including rapper Kanye West and French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld--filed out of the tents into the cold Manhattan streets, where Sale! signs adorn the racks and windows of New York's retailers, begging shoppers to buy.
"Everything is changing," said Reem Acra. "Everything, including fashion."
Samantha Sault is a deputy online editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.