Fashion Week Collides With Tattered Economy

New York City's annual fashion week appears to be adopting the tone of the gloomy economy.

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ALEX COHEN, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Cohen. It's day five of the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week in New York. This year's affair is definitely a reflection of the times. Holstein is opting for a digital music video in lieu of a pricey runway show. Some of the designers who are there cut costs by hiring fewer models, and at least one of the after parties is BYOB. From New York, reporter Kaomi Goetz has more.

KAOMI GOETZ: Everybody's talking about it.

Unidentified Woman #1: The recession, because it's such a difficult economic climate.

Unidentified Woman #2: The economy at large has been affected.

GOETZ: The catwalk fantasies and high glamour aren't immune to the nation's economic woes. But for fashionistas, the talk is slightly defensive.

Ms. FERN MALLIS (Senior Vice President, IMG Fashion): Yeah, I'm not refuting the reality of the economic situation in the country.

GOETZ: That's Fern Mallis of IMG. She's the force behind the company that mounts the twice annual fashion event at Bryant Park. Designers have made cutbacks for the show, but Mallis is prickly about the subject.

Ms. MALLIS: It's not the end of the world when three designers have decided not to be in the tents and they're doing something else. They're still making presentations, and those ten slots were taken by somebody else. So you know, the story for three weeks is the negative story of who's not doing something. I think it's time we all focus on who is doing things.

GOETZ: But the reality is, fashion shows cost millions of dollars to put on. A runway slot can cost up to $50,000 plus stylists, models, and the clothes themselves. And the recession is affecting some big names. Vera Wang and Betsey Johnson opted out of the pricier runway slots for more intimate presentations. And the lesser known Carmen Marc Valvo did too. Marc Jacobs cut his invite list and cancelled a fashion week staple, the after party. But Fern Mallis' battle cry is that 65 designers are still showing.

(Soundbite of music)

GOETZ: Inside the tent, designer Gigal Azarel(ph)'s show is about to begin. The music comes on, the house lights dim. The stage lights flood down on the shiny white runway. One by one, lithe models glide down the runway, their shoulders back, smoky eye makeup. The clothes, bohemian and dark, fitted waist and short jackets.

Mr. AZAREL (Fashion Designer): My woman, she's a little bit more tough this season. She have a - I describe it like a dark and romantic.

GOETZ: Azarel first showed here in 2000. His line starts at a couple hundred dollars for accessories to $3,000 gowns. He knows his customers have less money these days but will still buy in smaller quantities. He predicts stores will follow suit.

Mr. AZAREL: Yes, you do hear it. You do like feel it. You know some store going out of business. It's out there, but you have to keep going. You can't really look back. You have to - it cannot put you down. You have to kind of move on and lift your sleeve and maybe work a little bit harder.

GOETZ: So he's made some adjustments, like scaling back the number of looks in his collection. He's also getting help for the show from sponsors Mercedes Benz and eBay. Fashion show producer Kelly Cutrone says designers will have to become smarter about their business. She says you might see things like sample sales at temporary pop-up shops and showrooms opening up and selling wholesale, but the industry will still survive.

Ms. KELLY CUTRONE (Fashion Show Producer): People are questioning, will fashion continue? And I mean, that's a pretty desperate question. I mean, that's like people in museums sitting around and saying, will people ever paint again?

GOETZ: And retailers are cutting back on what they're buying, says Simon Doonan, Barneys creative director, but that doesn't seem to faze the designers.

Mr. SIMON DOONAN (Creative Director, Barneys New York): Every show is sort of like this mad movie premier, and you know, everybody was anticipating that the fashion week would be a low - more low-key affair, but it's just as sort of crazy as ever.

GOETZ: It's also a time when celebrities are weighing in. This year, Justin Timberlake is showing his line. So is upstart Christian Siriano from the reality TV show, "Project Runway." Simon Doonan is skeptical. He says celebs aren't as fully committed to fashion as designers who breathe it year after year. Still, fashion insiders say more competition for fewer dollars is not such a bad thing. They say, we'll bring the focus back on the clothes, and good design will prevail. For NPR News, I'm Kaomi Goetz in New York.

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