Fashion — as any manufacturer or retailer will tell you — is an industry that's among the first to be affected by the economy's roller-coaster ride. Yet in this downturn, there are a record number of shows planned for New York Fashion Week, which starts Friday.
Up-and-coming designers consider a splashy runway show an investment in the future, with a price tag easily topping $100,000. To get to the catwalk, many are using volunteer models, staging shows outside the Bryant Park tents or soliciting unconventional sponsors, like faucet makers.
Designer Jason Wu puts his cost at $150,000, even with the heavy discount he's negotiated on everything from models to makeup. As expensive as these productions are, the designers couldn't afford the media exposure and access to tastemakers that Fashion Week offers any other way.
"We don't have an advertising budget so the show really is our only form of advertising," says Wu, now a five-season veteran. "Those images get printed and it's the best showcase for your brand."
For each collection, he says, he wonders if the label can afford the show without putting the business in jeopardy, but there's the equal risk of not doing a show and falling off the fashion radar.
Designer Thuy Diep is showing on the runway for the first time after staging static presentations for the past two seasons. Such shows tend to be cheaper because there's no need for a runway or seats, and some designers use mannequins instead of models.
"Bryant Park — you have to show there sooner or later," she says. "Hopefully this show will say I'm here to stay. My business plan is about longevity and stamina."
Economic woes could even help young talent this season, says Fern Mallis, senior vice president of IMG Fashion, which organizes Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. She says retailers will be hunting out styles that are new and fresh that will bring customers into stores.
"Maybe you have friends walking the runway or you're paying with clothes, but they are getting their show up and they're getting their name out there and on the same lists as Michael Kors or Diane von Furstenberg," Mallis says.
Mingling with those top-tier designers doesn't come cheap.
Venues at the Bryant Park tents, which are the hub of eight days of previews for retailers, editors and stylists, cost between $25,000 and $50,000, plus there are the costs for models, invitations, show producers, even food backstage.
Some of those incidentals are covered by sponsors, ranging from American Express, W Hotels and MAC Cosmetics. Wu has courted unconventional brands, such as Brizo Faucets.
"For fashion and beauty, you're competing with other sponsors. If you go with an unusual sponsor, you're the only one and you both get a lot out of it," he says.
But just what do the designers and their sponsors get out of it? There are 71 fashion shows on the official calendar but scores of others at other venues — including big guns Marc Jacobs and Narciso Rodriguez — bringing the total to well over 100.
For a young designer, that means the expense might not be justified, says Sari Sloane, vice president of merchandising for the boutique mini-chain Intermix. She, in fact, does most of her buying in showrooms after Fashion Week.
"I think it's best to put the money into the product more than the show," she says. Fashion Week might win hype, Sloan says, but retailers will check out showrooms and even trade shows.
"Trade shows are underrated," she says. "They're more about buyers and less about the press. They might not draw as much editorial attention, but, at the end of the day, you need people to buy your collection to make money."
Still, a Fashion Week runway show isn't just an exercise in ego.
For designer Brian Reyes, it provides key access to an international audience flush with strong currencies. He'd love to see Indian and Japanese retailers, as well as more from Europe and even Dubai, filling his rows.
"It's part of the upside of the downsized economy, it's cheaper to get bang for your buck here," says IMG's Mallis. Even U.S.-based retailers are probably eager to replace too-expensive European goods with American collections, she adds.
For the past few years, Italian-based contemporary label Miss Sixty has brought its entire entourage to New York — hotel rooms and restaurants for all — eschewing Milan's Fashion Week.
The vibe in New York is right for Miss Sixty, explains designer Wichy Hassan, but it certainly doesn't hurt that dollar is weak.
"You spend an important quantity of money, but you get a lot out of it," he says. "The most important thing to come out of the show is for people to walk out and say they've seen nice stuff and that they'll want the clothes next season."