Since the economic slump started, the fashion industry has looked to past periods of success for ideas on just how to get itself moving forward again.
There were nipped waists and full skirts from the 1960s one season, menswear from the '70s the next. The upcoming spring season will have its fair share of loose '80s shapes — and some of its highlighter colors.
None of that has inspired shoppers, though, which may send designers in an entirely new direction for the fall collections when they debut at New York Fashion Week starting Friday.
Overall, established-store retail sales fell 1.6 percent in January, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers-Goldman Sachs tally, marking the fourth consecutive monthly decline.
That might be enough for even the most fanciful designer to want to send out a parade of cozy and comforting jeans, T-shirts and cardigans.
But there's a risk in that, too. If consumers start returning to stores later in the year, they may rush back out if faced with drab, more-of-the-same styles.
"It's a very challenging season. It's hard to stay positive in the sea of negativity, but there's also pressure to make something really fabulous," says designer Nanette Lepore.
And despite a limping economy and staggering retail sales, some like Lepore see hope in the change in Washington — in first lady, naturally.
So, will the runways of the more than 100 designers participating in Fashion Week be glam or glum?
Carmen Marc Valvo gave serious consideration to a recession collection.
"I thought about doing dark and deconstructed, but I couldn't go down that avenue," says Valvo, whose signature is eveningwear. He changed his mantra to "beautiful clothes for beautiful locations."
"I needed some hope, some glimmer of a rebounded economy, and I ended up with glamorous, over-the-top and more special," Valvo says. "If anyone is going to want to buy something, they're going to be drawn to things they haven't seen before."
Valvo for the first time in several seasons isn't showing at the Bryant Park tents that are the hub of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. He's opting instead for a much smaller club space.
That, he says, was an economic consideration (the venue he typically uses costs $50,000 — and that's just for the room) as well as an emotional one.
"It didn't feel right to be part of the three-ring circus right now. It's sort of like I felt like I did after 9/11," he says.
Lepore also struggled with balancing the reality of the moment with thinking ahead. The future won out.
Just days ago she was second-guessing her decision to use bright colors for the normally more subdued autumn collection, but she's justified her choices by riding the wave of optimism that seemed to come in with the Obama administration.
And she's not just talking politics. First lady Michelle Obama has rekindled interest in American fashion and she's helped bring the names of many under-the-radar designers to the spotlight, including Jason Wu and Thakoon Panichugal.
Mrs. Obama even graces the March cover of fashion-bible Vogue.
Colleen Sherin, fashion markets director at Saks Fifth Avenue, says she hopes designers will be more creative and innovative than in past seasons.
Color, rich fabrics and luxe textures could help fuel the moods of brightness and novelty that need to be infused into stores, Sherin says. The hints of purple, green and gold that have already been in pre-fall collections are a good sign.
"We'll be looking for very special pieces — pieces our customer doesn't already have in her wardrobe," Sherin explains. "It's not about providing basics at this point."
Most of all, designers should create something a customer can feel good about — not something inspired by movie stars, pop princesses or reality TV divas, says Bud Konheim, president of Nicole Miller.
"We used to say, 'Off the rack, on your back,'" Konheim says. "That meant you had a hot number — something people wanted to buy. It was the excitement of fashion."