How Sept. 11 Remade Fashion World

Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week kicks off today in New York. But 10 years ago, attendees of the annual event found their lives turned upside down by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. On that day, designer Liz Lange was holding her first runway show when news of the attacks interrupted the production. Lange speaks with host Michel Martin about how the industry was affected by the attacks and how it has evolved since then.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: The September 11th attacks changed many things in the long term and the short term for people from all walks of life in this country, but one group of people who found their lives turned upside down were the people in the fashion industry who had gathered for New York's Fashion Week.

Fashion Week, of course, is when designers present their newest collections to store buyers, journalists and other trend watchers. Fashion Week in New York was in its fourth day when the World Trade Center was struck and the attacks would change the way the industry operated for years to come.

Fashion Week begins again today in New York and we wanted to catch up with a designer who was there 10 years ago to talk about what happened to her that day and how the industry has changed since 9/11.

Liz Lange is a designer and the founder of Liz Lange Maternity. Her very first runway show was underway when the attacks happened. Since then, she's grown her business and branched out to create collections for Nike, Target, HSN, or the Home Shopping Network. And Liz Lange joins us now from our bureau in New York.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us and congratulations on all your success.

LIZ LANGE: Oh, thank you, Michel. It's very nice to be here.

MARTIN: Could you tell us a little bit about that morning?

LANGE: Yeah. I hadn't been in business for that many years. I had started my business very, very tiny at the tail end of 1997 and so you fast forward to 2001 and it was a summer filled with excitement for me, because as a new member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, which is the most prestigious group that you could belong to as an American fashion designer, I was being allowed to host the very first maternity fashion show at New York's Fashion Week.

So not only was I doing this show during Fashion Week, I was debuting my brand new partnership with Nike and it was a secret, so it was all being unveiled at this show and, of course, my show date was that fateful day of September 11th, a 9:00 a.m. slot.

When I got to the show that morning, I arrived at probably 5:00 in the morning. It was a media circus. Of course, "Good Morning America" was covering it live and we had CNN there and we had probably every electric and print publication at the time there covering it in some way.

And it was kind of crazy because the show started a little bit late, as all shows do, and after a few of the girls had walked down the runway, I noticed that the camera crews were literally just bolting out of the show. And I couldn't figure out, because we were sort of - it was pre-BlackBerrys and iPhones. I mean, we had a few cell phones, but it was kind of primitive compared to what we do today and although information traveled quickly, it didn't travel at all the same speed that it does today.

So we really had no idea what was going on, except for a few rumored reports of possibly a small plane or a helicopter that had hit the World Trade Center, but that didn't seem like the biggest news story to me. I thought, well, gee, you know, isn't my show bigger news than that? And I didn't understand what was going on.

And then, when the show ended, the guards who were there started to sort of shoo me and the reporters that were still there - because not everyone knew - out of the building. And I remember I was turning to the guard, saying, no. I still have this space for another hour. I'm trying to do post-show interviews. And they really weren't saying anything. They were just saying, we need to clear the space. We need to clear the space. And it was so confusing and so chaotic.

MARTIN: So when you did find out - you were at Bryant Park then?

LANGE: I was at Bryant Park just after the show.

MARTIN: Bryant Park, which is right in midtown, which is...

LANGE: Yes.

MARTIN: ...right near the New York Public Library for people who, you know, aren't as familiar with New York. It's right off 5th Avenue. And at that point, though, when they were shoving you outside, you had to have heard, like, the emergency vehicles all heading downtown.

When you did find out what happened, what went through your mind?

LANGE: It was crazy. I stepped outside and people were just walking around in a daze. And yes. That is when I saw traffic just - it was sort of like this bizarre two way street because traffic, cars and ambulances, were zooming towards downtown, but then people were just walking in a daze uptown because everybody wanted to get away from downtown.

I actually got in a New York City bus which, to be honest, I don't often do, but it was the only way to get uptown and, as I was sitting there, people on the bus were screaming different rumors, like Washington, D.C. has been bombed. LA is about to be bombed. Like we didn't know where the bottom was. It was terrifying beyond belief.

MARTIN: Let me just fast forward to a couple of - in kind of the days afterward. Such a big day for you on a personal and professional level and then, all of the sudden, as you said, everything had changed.

You know, in the days and weeks, you know, that followed, was your business affected? What happened?

LANGE: Oh, I mean, I never want to act - I mean, I just have to couch this by saying that, you know, so many people had such, you know, worse, much more tragic things happen to them around 9/11. So when I speak about this, please know that I am extremely aware of that. But yes. In the days that followed, I saw my booming business that had been born, pardon the pun, in 1997, '98, you know, the height of the Internet boom, just going like gangbusters all of the sudden drop off completely.

And my New York City Madison Avenue boutique that had always been packed with pregnant women, you know, just dead quiet and all the opportunities that were coming my way, different licensing deals, different buyers that were in town to see my show on 9/11, that all just disappeared, really almost overnight, like the world changed overnight.

And the first month or so were extremely scary about, you know, what was going to happen to my business and what was going to happen to so many businesses in Manhattan at that time. I mean, the incredible thing is that - I don't know if you recall this - is that New York bounced back in a way that I think nobody could have expected and it bounced back within a few months. And business became better. It was never - it has never, to this day, been what it was prior to 9/11.

I think the world changed and almost like we lost our innocence and those days can never be recaptured.

MARTIN: You know, one of the things that I was curious about is that, you know, Fashion Week kicks off today, as we mentioned earlier. You're saying that your kind of attitude changed a lot. You're saying that that show was such a big deal to you. You were telling us earlier, you would never spend that kind of money on a show today. Why is that?

LANGE: Well, first of all, I mean, it seemed prior to 9/11 that fashion and money could just always be made and made back and it all seemed to make a lot of sense. And I just think that, since then, you know, we see how that money can just go to zero, how these fashion shows, you know, can disappear and it just doesn't feel to me like anything that I could ever do again.

I mean, and then personally, it was just a scarring time. A few years later, I did actually do another show, not at the same level, but I did do another Bryant Park show during New York Fashion Week because I felt I had to for myself, just to show that I could do it and that it would be okay.

MARTIN: You know, one of the things I'm curious about, though, is that the number of designers putting on runway shows has increased. In fact, the New York Times says Fashion Week will have more than 250 shows this year, twice the number of shows in 2001. And for people who are interested in this kind of thing, the fall catalogues, or the look books, are just starting to come out, you know, for regular people, right? And they're showing a lot of exotic skins and furs and, you know, python and super expensive luxury items.

Meanwhile, we're still in the 10th year of the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq is going on and the unemployment rate is very high, almost 10 percent of the population, in some cities and places much higher than that.

I'm curious. I'm just puzzled by how all that works together. Do you know what I'm saying? I completely see your point. You're saying that the country has changed and that there's this kind of seriousness about it. On the one hand, you see the industry selling these super expensive luxury items and I just don't quite understand how all that works together. Does that make sense?

LANGE: It does. I mean, you're right and you make a very good point and I guess, in some ways, it doesn't make sense. But I think there will always be a marketplace for high end and fantastical fashion and that that exists and I'm not sorry that it exists because for those that can afford it, I think that's great.

I think one thing that has happened, though, that you didn't mention and I think it really has been a phenomenon of the last 10 years, is that we've seen so many more sort of accessible price points for what was, at one point, just nothing but high end fashion design.

And so when we see people like Karl Lagerfeld partnering with Macy's, I myself have a partnership with Target. Donatella Versace is about to do a partnership with H&M and on and on. So we are seeing much more affordable "luxury," in quotes, fashion, as well.

MARTIN: I see what you're saying. There are more choices now.

LANGE: There are more choices and I think more accessibility to these very high end designers at, again, much more accessible price points.

But I mean, the world goes on and I think that, on the one hand, we want to treat it like we will never forget and I certainly personally feel that way and always want to honor and remember the victims of that time. The tragedy is hard to express.

But I do think that it's an important and wonderful part about us, I think particularly in the United States, that we're very resilient. And yes. There's this, as you mentioned the unemployment rate and this is a very tough time in this country and I don't know how to explain the desire for high end clothing at a time when so many are without jobs. But I think that, as we all know, even in a recession, there are a group of people that can afford this kind of fashion. We don't know how much. We see a lot of this stuff because the media likes it and takes pictures of it, but really, I think the stores buy much less of it than they used to.

MARTIN: Well, finally, before we let you go - and thank you so much for talking to us at such a busy, busy time. How do you think you've changed since 9/11?

LANGE: Gee, that's a good question. How have I changed? You know, I think I've grown a lot in the last 10 years. I was very young on 9/11. I was 31, so I think my business has changed. The way I look at my business has definitely changed. I only had high end boutiques, actually, prior to 9/11. Today, my business only exists as the exclusive maternity department at Target and then I have another line that's not maternity that's also at extremely accessible price points for HSN and Shopping Channel Canada.

So certainly, the way I look at the marketplace has changed and it's hard to keep your priorities straight. You promise yourself that you will, so certainly, in the days that followed 9/11, I told myself that I would hug my children every minute and they were very young at the time. I think they were three and one. They're 12 and 10 today. But that, you know, I hope that I've shifted my priorities a bit. It's tough.

MARTIN: Liz Lange is the founder of Liz Lange Maternity and the designer for Liz Lange for Target and Completely Me for HSN and she was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York.

Liz Lange, thank you so much for joining us.

LANGE: Thank you, Michel.

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