Glossy magazines are shrinking, stores are shuttering and spending is sputtering -- which makes the biannual ritual of designer runway extravaganzas seem as excessive as a failed bank's Vegas junket.
But in fashion, the shows must go on. So the fall runway season will kick off on Thursday in New York with 220 events, just five fewer than last February. Some designers are scaling back by hosting drop-by presentations instead of runway shows (Monique Lhuillier and Carmen Marc Valvo), inviting fewer guests (Marc Jacobs), sending invitations by e-mail instead of post (nearly everyone) or showing fewer looks to save on fabric and sample-making costs.
Very few are skipping out on fashion week altogether. Because there is a shared belief that the runway is the engine that makes the fashion industry hum, setting a course for the next six months for magazines, retail stores and designers' own businesses. The shows are a forum for consensus on trends, colors and themes that trickle down to store windows, catalogs, ad campaigns and shoppers.
"It's like getting the annual report in aesthetic form," says Glenn O'Brien, editorial director for Interview magazine, who attends shows in New York and Europe. "We run a lot of fashion, but we are also trying to do a lot of interviews with designers, so we want to know who's doing something significant."
Department stores and boutiques rely on the runway shows for the narrative they use to sell clothes. "Ideas come from everywhere, sometimes when you least expect it," says Colleen Sherin, fashion market director of Saks Fifth Avenue. "If you hear certain music, it triggers a thought that you use on the creative side or in store windows." Saks has a spring catalog titled "Worn to Be Wild" that is bohemian-inspired, taking direction from the music and styling (headbands, flowers, etc.) at Diane Von Furstenberg, Milly and other New York runway shows from September, she says.
And for designers, of course, there are the obvious advantages of having a captive audience, whether for upstart labels or global luxury brands.
"You kill a thousand birds with one stone, because you get that many people there in an hour and you're getting one message across to them," says Scott Sternberg, the CAA agent turned designer who shows his Boy and Band of Outsiders sportswear collections in New York. "They're writers and photographers and culturally indulgent people with loud mouths."
Kelly Cutrone, the fashion PR maven and veteran of TV's "The Hills," agrees. Her firm, People's Revolution, is producing eight shows in New York, including one that is defraying costs by bundling three designers together. "The runway is one of the few ways you can control your message besides a self-branded retail store, an advertising campaign or a paid celebrity endorsement. You can produce an average fashion show for $40,000 and at the same time get photos for your look book that go out as a sales tool. If you get 30 influencers there, dollar for dollar, it's still good bang for the buck."
Adds Malcolm Carfrae, executive vice president, global communications, for Calvin Klein: "It creates millions of dollars of free publicity and sets the creative tone for the entire brand."
Alterations here and there
That doesn't mean the fashion industry isn't undergoing a reality check of its own. Magazines are sending fewer people to Europe. Stores too. And designers are looking for every way to trim. Sternberg is paying models with clothes, and using young set and lighting designers who see the shows as a playground for their ideas -- and are willing to work for free.
"I'm doing fittings at a friend's office, which saves $3,000. Instead of hiring a photographer I'm getting a friend to do it, which saves $5,000," says L.A. designer J.C. Obando. "Instead of taking a nonstop flight, I'm taking one with two connections. I'm going through San Francisco and Chicago to go to New York."
The recession is also affecting the clothes designers are making.
"I'm focusing on jersey and less expensive fabrics," says L.A.'s Jenni Kayne, who's showing 15 looks on two models at her parents' New York apartment instead of renting a venue. She's not lowering her prices, just focusing on the more affordable pieces in her range. Kayne, who is lucky enough to have her own retail store in West Hollywood, also started selling online, and is developing a lower-end T-shirt line. She's been forced to make the changes because some of her best retail accounts are in bankruptcy proceedings, and others still owe her money from spring orders, she says.
"We have to look at what we can really sell," says Obando, whose "Siren vs. Hannibal" fall collection will continue to showcase the pleated chiffon technique he began last season. His prices aren't changing, but he's more aware of what a garment is worth. "People are going to question a $100 tank top but not a $3,000 dress if they see that 100 hours of work has gone into it."
Obando is also more sensitive to the issue of wearability. In past seasons, he wouldn't have thought twice about making an over-the-top piece to appeal to editors, but this season he's more closely evaluating the cost benefit. "Still, at the end of the day, a show is a show, and if you're going to go to the trouble of getting a venue and lighting, there has to be a level of showmanship," he says. "The only difference is that the balance has to be more in sync."
In the end, many designers have so much passion for what they do, they would probably do it if no one showed up at all. "For me, fashion isn't a choice. I got my first sewing machine when I was 4 and dragged it around like it was a pet," says Elise Overland, whose fall collection, titled "Shimmer," is inspired by a book about sushi. "I'm an artist and my medium is what's around the body. If I didn't show, it would be like a musician not having a concert."