MARKET FOCUS: FASHION PR - Reopening the runways. Anita Chabriafinds out how the fashion industry is faring in the wake of the attacksthat closed down New York Fashion Week

New York's Fashion Week was mid-way into its back-to-back rounds of

shows, parties, and schmoozing when the World Trade Center attacks

occurred. On Monday, September 10, filling front rows, meeting buyers,

and reading reviews were top priorities and grounds for PR warfare. By

Tuesday afternoon, world war was the topic of discussion, and many in

the business refused to even discuss fashion, dismissing it as

unimportant.



Others wondered how the business would move forward without the exposure

offered by the Mercedes-sponsored Fashion Week, and in a larger sense,

how something as seemingly frivolous as fashion could maintain the

public's interest in a time of crisis.



"It devastated the fashion community on a lot of levels," says Kelly

Cucrone, a partner with People's Revolution PR, which represents design

and accessory powerhouses Paco Rabanne and Bulgari.



Fashion Week is vital to US designers as a means of reaching both media

and store buyers. It is the main venue for editors to scout for future

stories and trends, and for lesser-known designers to make impressions

that could lead to national exposure. Landing in the pages of womens'

glossies is income-producing cache that many couturiers - both known and

new - count on.



Fashion Week also brings buyers from around the country and the globe

together in one central spot. Although many collections are sold well

before the slick runway shows, simply having the buyers assembled in one

city streamlines the sales process. New York's Fashion Week is

especially vital because it's not only the largest US event, but also

the first fashion show of the season.



A fashion disaster



In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, confusion seemed to be the

uniting element. But within hours, event organizers 7th on Sixth

canceled, leaving many designers with a dual crisis: how to sell their

lines to scattered buyers, and how to promote to the media in the wake

of a national disaster.



While those concerns took a back seat to the tragedies at Ground Zero,

many designers face dire economic troubles if their spring collections

fail to connect with consumers. The American economy - especially the

retail sector - has been teetering on the brink of recession all year,

and most economists agree that the events of September 11 pushed it over

the edge. In recent days, top retailers such as Kenneth Cole and

Tiffany's have lowered their earnings estimates. On a smaller scale,

some emerging designers had invested everything in the New York shows,

even taking on debt against the gamble of success. Then there's the

trickle-down effect: No sales for designers means less work for

advertisers, PR firms, and other support services.



"Everybody in this economy is going to be hurt a little bit," says 7th

on Sixth executive director Fern Mallis. "The young designers are always

lowest on the totem pole, but given what happened, we don't know how the

business is going to go even for the big designers."



Without a central US event to draw buyers together, designers are now

being forced to visit different regional markets in an attempt to make

sales. That adds costs in terms of travel, and may force designers to

hurry and produce new sample lines (high couture is produced for New

York Fashion Week, which may not be appropriate to show in some

regions). It also makes it difficult for PR people to build hype around

a collection.



Stitching up relations



That's the case for Kerry Jolna, president of Jolna Design Group. A

season kickoff party was planned in Jolna's New York showroom during

Fashion Week for his line of denim clothes and "sexy sweats" called

Bella Dahl (which sells in upscale stores such as Fred Segal in Los

Angeles), but the event was postponed after the attacks. Despite initial

plans to reschedule New York Fashion Week for late October, Jolna didn't

think it would draw enough attention to meet his sales quotas, so he's

been personally visiting buyers in secondary markets such as Atlanta,

Dallas, and Chicago.



"We think regional markets are going to play a very strong role this

season," he says. "People aren't going to want to travel to New

York.That desire to stay close to home may actually be a boost to

fashion weeks in other locales, such as the November 2-6 event in Los

Angeles. The LA show has been struggling to build a higher profile, and

some involved in this year's event say that they are finding more

attention and better sponsors as the media and businesses look for

alternatives to New York.



BWR's Henry Eshelman handled Perrier's presence at New York Fashion

Week.



Since two events were canceled, he's looking for alternatives - such as

more tie-in to LA's show.



"People are going to be scrambling to do other things within the realm

of taste," he says. "I'm more likely to say yes to events in other

cities now that I don't have the other things to do."



Worries about what's appealing



Even when designers manage to connect to buyers, they are facing another

problem: Many spring 2002 collections had a fun, upbeat feel. That

aesthetic has changed for shoppers, leaving many collections out of sync

with the national mood. Jittery buyers - and editors - are tending not

only toward big names with proven appeal such as Gucci, but are also

buying lines with patriotic motifs. Jolna says buyers have been

especially interested in his sweats that come in flag colors and have a

star on the seat. Profits from that line will go to relief efforts.



Another winner is Tommy Hilfiger, whose company image is based on

Americana.



"If you think American, Tommy Hilfiger pops into your head," points out

Rogers & Cowan's Stephanie Rudnick, who represents the designer. While

she is quick to stress that Hilfiger does not want to capitalize on the

tragedy in any way, she says that people have definitely expressed an

interest in any clothing that has an "American" feel.



Mallis adds that while the number of editors calling her organization

hasn't changed since the attacks, the questions have. Fashion

publications are slanting their coverage toward stories about those

patriotic collections, relief efforts, and designers' alternative

plans.



The shows go on



A month after the tragedies, fashion is slowly getting back on its feet,

with European shows in Milan, Paris, and London, and alternative plans

for promoting lines in the US. Even though Seventh on 6th considered

rescheduling New York events for late October, it found that major

designers such as Calvin Klein, Oscar de la Renta (whose models wore

American flag armbands), and Donna Karan were staging small events for

buyers and editors in their private showrooms only a week after

September 11.



European shows in late September and early October went on as scheduled,

but most cancelled their parties and saw significantly reduced

attendance.



Fashion Wire Daily reported that the number of buyers at the Milan show

was down 15% from last year. That number sank to 20% for US buyers, with

many of those who did attend arriving late in the week.



Attendance was also down for the media. The state of the economy had

already convinced many magazines and retailers to scale back their

travel plans, say industry insiders, and the terrorist attacks pushed

some to cancel altogether. Designers cancelled as well - such as Rebecca

Moses' Milan show, and London shows by Burberry and Paul Smith. Helmut

Lang dropped his Paris event, and showed in New York as a sign of US

support.



For those who did attend, the atmosphere had a somber and low-key

tone.



Giorgio Armani and Prada, along with numerous others, changed their

catwalk presentations to reflect the new mood. Prada also canceled a

celebratory store opening in Monte Carlo, and declined to distribute its

much sought-after gift bags.



Despite the partial success of European shows, the decision not to

reschedule New York Fashion Week has been an especially devastating blow

to younger designers, many of whom don't have their own showrooms to

host events or resources to travel abroad. However, a group of 11

up-and-comers got a boost when Vogue and style.com hosted a show of

emerging designers at Carolina Herrera's midtown showroom on September

21 to address that problem, and give a boost to fashion coverage. The

designers even got their collections onto the style.com website, which

is notoriously difficult for lesser names to get on.



Another major blow to the US fashion industry is the loss of the

rescheduled 53rd annual Emmy Awards, say industry insiders. Like New

York Fashion Week, the Emmys are a kickoff event. The show not only

marks the start of a season of awards shows, but also offers designers a

prime chance to get coverage off the back of a celebrity

(literally).



"That's going to hurt designers, because for months afterwards the

magazines usually publish pictures of stars in those clothes," says

Eshelman.



The coming months pose a challenge to designers and PR people to come up

with creative ways to grab headlines while remaining sensitive to

current events. But most industry experts agree that the fashion

industry will rebound, and light-hearted sensibilities will slowly

trickle back into the mainstream. But the coming race to promote

collections may be more suited to tennis shoes than couture heels.



"Those that get out there and chase their business will get their

business," thinks Jolna. "They're just going to have to work harder."



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