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December 9, 2008 7:52 PM

Fashion, Retail

'Tis the Season. Or is It?

Pre-fall? To the rest of the world, pre-fall, the time before fall, is late summer. You know, the days are still sticky; lucky two-residence types resign themselves to spending less time at the beach; and kids, to going back to...

Pre-fall?

To the rest of the world, pre-fall, the time before fall, is late summer. You know, the days are still sticky; lucky two-residence types resign themselves to spending less time at the beach; and kids, to going back to school. Back in the day, that's when most people started thinking about fall shopping. Just the thought of that new chilly-weather wardrobe brought a rush of excitement, the promise of crisp days that one would greet bedecked in cozy tweeds and cable knits. Nostalgic enough for you? Well, let's go a wassailing with the ghost of autumn present. Technically, we're still in fall '08, which according to the calendar doesn't end until Dec. 21. But the fashion world knows better. This fall at retail was over long before the first tree leaf, or the first investment house, Lehman Brothers, fell. It ended back in May, June and July, when pre-fall and fall started hitting the stores, and those shopping throngs who allegedly love to buy early never materialized. Yet here we are again, the world as we know it having gone to hell in a handbasket, and pre-fall is proceeding seemingly business as usual. Oscar de la Renta, Calvin Klein and Zac Posen have already staged full-on shows; Donna Karan, Carolina Herrera, Isaac Mizrahi, J.Mendel and numerous others have opened with showroom appointments, as will countless more, both here and in Europe, from now into January.

For what, exactly? A fall '09 redux of 70 percent off by Nov. 1? Or perhaps these extensive pre-fall collections are in-house exercises, since retailers are slashing inventories to shreds. Might not this be a moment for a massive communal reevaluation of that beloved but seriously flawed behemoth, "the fashion system"?

Everybody knows there is something drastically wrong, starting with way too many clothes, and that was back when consumers consumed. Then, there's the strident adherence to absurdly early deliveries. Fashion house executives blame retailers. "The department stores make me deliver early," said Mario Grauso, president of Puig Fashion. "Now the markdowns. We're training the customer to buy on sale." For Donna Karan, it's a familiar motif. "I've been on this for years," she said. "We're teaching the customer that it's a white sale business."

Perhaps in some fairy tale past, the oft-cited cliché that the pre-seasons sell best because they're on the floor longest had some validity. But the dearth of store sales prior to the current economic train wreck has rendered that premise flagrantly anachronistic.

And what of the emotion of fashion? As an industry we're all trained like Pavlov's dogs to rush with passion to what's new, what's next. How about a little time spent celebrating the joys of fashion right now, rather than ignoring fall -- once everybody's bread and butter -- in anticipation of resort?

"We should as an industry take a deep breath, look at what's going on, and try to fix it," Karan said. "It's got to be everyone -- retailers, designers, press."

Or, we can wait for total industry Armageddon, à la the financial and auto industries, to step back and try to set things right.

Business as usual? We all know it's anything but. Let's deal with it.




Click here for WWD's Pre-Fall Coverage.
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