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As N.Y. Fashion Week Nears, Designer Anxiety Rises

For many American designers, the collections they will present at New York Fashion Week will determine whether they will be around for fall.

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NEW YORK — It’s crunch time.

Spring will mark the third season in a row that designers have had to battle the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression — and for many, the collections they will present over the next 10 days will determine whether they will be around for fall. The designer category at retail is the most margin-challenged and, after order cuts last season of up to 30 percent, is expected to get even fewer open-to-buy dollars this time around.

Stores are promising to radically reduce their inventories and cut their vendor matrix. And if that weren’t challenging enough, store executives are asking designers to tightly edit their collections, put more relevant clothes on their runways, offer special pieces — and lower their price points even more.

“What we would like to see are fewer exits,” Judy Collinson, Barneys New York executive vice president and general merchandise manager, said in a recent interview. “We only need a few things for this delivery.”

Across New York showrooms, designers are feeling the heat in the run-up to the shows, even as they are putting on a brave face and embracing the spring season as a new, almost invigorating challenge.

“It’s a heightened state of emotion,” said Donna Karan. “It’s a very challenging, exciting time, and you need all your wits behind you. It’s not the ‘same-old.’ It’s a complete wake-up call. It’s time to test all your assets.”

Narciso Rodriguez said it’s a “moment in time when you have to enjoy what you are doing to the fullest. I haven’t let the economic climate affect the process or the pleasure of the creative process.”

Peter Som, whose own survival was in question earlier in the year, called the overall mood right now “cautiously optimistic.”

“We have had a year of challenges, and I have definitely made sure that we have addressed them all in terms of making the line a little tighter, and making sure that every piece has a novelty element and detail to it,” he said.

“I would say the first half of the year, there was so little visibility about what was going on in the world,” Som added. “It was a huge roller coaster and now, there is a sense that we have already gotten over the worst patch, and I am hoping that is true. This is definitely a critical time. Everyone is looking at fall [2009] selling with a fine-tooth comb.”

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