Designers worked up on eve of N.Y. shows

Economy forces `absolute best' at Fashion Week

February 06, 2003|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

All this week, designer Tracy Reese has been operating in a frenzy - 15-hour days filled with screening models, scrutinizing ensembles and making the final nips and tucks to her latest runway offerings.

It's the usual crazy drill just before New York's Fashion Week, which begins tomorrow. This season, however, with retail sales continuing to be sluggish and the recent holiday shopping season hailed as the worst in more than three decades, the mood of the U.S. shopper has weighed more heavily on the minds of many in fashion.

"It's an extra impetus to do your absolute best," said Reese, who has won kudos in recent seasons for her fresh, feminine and sexy creations. "We're just trying to impress shoppers. It's really a matter of, you want it to be extra useful but, at the same time, what's going to stimulate their appetite is whatever's visually stimulating."

The winning formula for fashion buzz and retail success always has been part creativity, part guesswork, with a handful of fairy dust tossed in for luck. Will shoppers want less or more? Patterns or simplicity? In the past year, designers have tried comfortable, they've done wearable. Still, some haven't managed to shake the post-Sept. 11 tremors that continue to rock the retail industry. Menswear's John Bartlett will be noticeably absent this Fashion Week. Noting disappointing sales, he shuttered his business in November.

When models take to the runways tomorrow to display designers' visions for Fall 2003, however, industry observers predict that they will flaunt a significantly different look from the plethora of relatively safe offerings seen last year at the New York shows.

"There's a lot more stress," said David Wolfe, creative director of the Doneger Group, a fashion trend-tracking company in New York. "Last season, they did try to play it safe and be more commercial and that didn't work. Business is not booming and the things that did sell were the things that were unusual, sometimes extravagant and sometimes colorful - the things that people didn't already have in their wardrobes. I think there's going to be the attempt to jumpstart people's interest in fashion again."

"If Europe is any indication," added Kal Ruttenstein, Bloomingdale's senior vice president of fashion direction, who returned this week from the Paris shows, "the American designers are really going to step out and pull out all the stops to make exciting fashion."

For the New York-based Reese, that means appealing to the bad girl. Her collection - named "Coquette" - is divided into two themes, "Vamp" and "Kitten." She's exploring low-slung pants but making the legs more tapered; she's bringing back the shift dress, but spicing it up with interesting seaming and other detailing.

Custo Dalmau, designer of the Spanish label Custo Barcelona, drew inspiration from the adventurous and sophisticated women he observed during his travels in Europe, singling out "London punk" as a big theme.

"I took feminine silhouettes and re-created them with dynamic prints, designs and messages ... dresses and suits that are glamorous, but with a bit of an edge," Dalmau said.

Designer Cynthia Steffe, too, is planning to appeal to the shopper seeking some edge.

"I took a lot of ideas from the street this season, and scary as it seems, some things from my youth," she said, chuckling. "There's a little bit of that new wave aesthetic in the accessories and detailing in the clothes. You mix that with a modern sensibility and the end result is a rockabilly look."

On the list of clothes she will present at Monday's show is a coat with strips of pony pelt appliqued on top "but has a punk-looking metal closure."

Reem Acra said she's tried not to let thoughts of the economy affect her. The popular bridal designer has quietly been doing eveningwear on the side for three seasons now, but it wasn't until actress Halle Berry wore an ice-blue Reem Acra gown to last month's Golden Globes that Americans began to take note.

On Sunday, Acra will stage her first Fashion Week show in conjunction with the opening of her first Manhattan store. She plans to show her signature princess gowns, dresses and slender evening pants touched up with exquisite embroidery or patterns.

"I'm sure everybody's thinking, `What's next? What should we be doing that we get the right look for the customer?'" Acra said. "It's tough out there to come up with the right collection, but we're all hoping that, by fall, when the merchandise is in the stores, the economy probably will be better."

And, clothing aside, some feel the whirlwind of Fashion Week may be a welcome distraction.

"It's hard to imagine that with the world on the brink of war and with the crash of the space shuttle that people are going to be that interested in fashion," Doneger Group's Wolfe said. "And yet, maybe this is just what they need to distract them from the gloom and doom."

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