Getting ahead of the game Fashion: Some U.S. designers are turning the industry on its ear by scheduling shows of their spring collections now, six weeks ahead of the traditional schedules.

September 14, 1998|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,SUN FASHION EDITOR

A band of prominent designers -- including Donna Karan and Calvin Klein -- is staging a revolt this week, dramatically altering the timing of many spring collections in New York and sending the fashion world into a tizzy.

Instead of adhering to the traditional schedule of unveiling their lines to retailers and the press in early November, they are holding shows beginning today, ahead of the designers in London, Paris and Milan.

While it may seem simply like fashion politics, the altered lineup attempts to solve an image problem: American designers have been accused of imitating the Europeans whose shows take place in September and October.

"Perception problems are hard to change," says Fern Mallis, executive director of 7th on Sixth, the group which usually organizes the New York shows. "Americans have always been accused of copying, which isn't true. But as creative people, it's hurtful. Some of this is totally driven by ego. They're saying, 'We're not dependent on Europeans for inspiration.' "

Susan Rolontz, executive vice president of the Tobe Report, a retail trade publication, believes there are pros and cons to the change. "Sometimes it is good to shake up the barrel and see what's happening. It will gel at some point, but this season is a mess," she says.

The new schedule has created logistical headaches for retailers and press, who have had to rearrange travel plans and budgets to cover an additional trip to New York. It's also left some designers and their staffs working overtime to prepare for a deadline that's now six weeks earlier than originally planned.

But in an industry where what's new and different often has the most cache, the insurrection has generated lots of buzz. After Klein and Karan, other designers -- including Nicole Miller, Vivienne Tam and Mark Eisen -- jumped on the earlier bandwagon.

"Designers don't want to be left out," Rolontz says. "If you want to be on the forefront, you want to be part of this movement."

Ironically, it was a European who upset the order of the American shows. Austrian Helmut Lang, who moved his headquarters from Vienna to New York within the last year, was the first to rebel. This summer, the designer known for his minimalist shapes and imaginative details, announced he was going to show his spring collection in mid-September.

Although Miller was originally opposed to the idea, she changed her mind when she realized the fabric for her clothes would arrive by July. "It seemed unnecessary to wait," she says.

For years, some American designers have lamented that the original show dates make them nearly an afterthought for buyers and journalists, who arrive in New York fatigued and on fashion overload after Europe.

Some designers also believe that timing is everything when it comes to turning a profit. Showing earlier, they reason, will make them more competitive, allowing buyers to consider their lines when fashion coffers are full, rather than after having spent money in Europe.

But Rolontz says that's often not true. Many influential buyers receive private previews of American spring lines and commit before going overseas.

One other potential benefit of earlier show dates is that clothing theoretically would be delivered earlier, giving stores more time to sell.

"That would be the best thing that happened to Donna Karan's business," Rolontz says. "She hasn't been delivering as she should. If she started delivering on time, everyone would see what she does, because she does sell."

Many designers -- including Ralph Lauren, Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta -- are remaining true to the original plan of showing in early November. But 7th on Sixth, which is not organizing this week's shows, is already planning fall shows in February -- before the Europeans. That plan appears to have strong support from American designers.

But February will be an especially grueling and confusing time for them. Many will have to juggle spring fashion events at stores around the country just as they're preparing to unveil fall collections.

Where does all this leave the consumer?

Some observers lament that the American fashion industry is getting too far ahead of itself in its quest to be first and showing little regard for how women think about clothes -- or shop for them.

But Miller believes that these changes ultimately will benefit all.

"Hopefully," she says, "there will be an interesting mix that is less derivative and less knock-off fashion."

Pub Date: 9/14/98

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