By Suzanne Weinstock and Shareen Pathak
The lights lowered and the first model hit the runway in a strapless lemon-yellow dress overlaid with taupe lace. Lialia’s collection, inspired by light reflecting on water, opened the show for a crowd of 300 people at the Harlem Gate House on Convent Avenue.
Harlem’s Fashion Row staged this fashion show, its second time since 2007, to “showcase the emerging talent and designers that are based in Harlem” said co-founder Danita King. It brought what King considers much deserved attention to Northern Manhattan’s often-neglected fashion community. ”You had Bryant Park Fashion Week, you even had Brooklyn Fashion Week,” she said. “And no one was paying attention to uptown.”
The event featured three emerging designers, committed to their craft despite mounting odds against them and their industry. Showing alongside them was veteran designer Rodney Epperson, appearing a few days after being booted from the reality show “Project Runway.”
The show’s glamour, however, represented just a brief respite from the challenges uptown designers face on a daily basis.
International design stars like Christian Lacroix and Yohji Yamamoto have fallen victim to the recession; both recently filed for bankruptcy. The odds of survival are infinitely more daunting for young, self-financed, unestablished designers on the fringes of the New York fashion world.
A “showcase” barely makes a dent in the hurdles for Washington Heights designer Dinna Soliman, for instance, who showed her “Urban Survival” collection, integrating utilitarian pockets into feminine apparel.
Soliman, 27, launched her self-financed women’s ready-to-wear line four years ago after working on the design teams of several urban fashion lines including Rocawear. She enjoyed some early success placing her collection in boutiques in and outside the city. However, several accounts closed their stores and others demanded lower-priced merchandise as the economy contracted, said Soliman. Boutiques dropped her because she was unable to lower her costs; The clothing retails for $150 to $500.
Because designer clothing is a luxury, sales figures have plummeted. Shopping volume has been in negative territory since May 2008, according to a market research report by MasterCard SpendingPulse. This year, US apparel sales decreased 10.5 percent through May; women’s clothing took a bigger hit, declining 11.8 percent.
“I don’t want to lose the momentum,” said Soliman. She briefly considered taking a hiatus but will instead continue with her current line and add a new diffusion line, Donuts by Dinna, to satisfy the demand for lower priced clothes. “I’m not giving up on it,” she said, although Donuts has not yet found any buyers.
For designers with companies near collapse – like Jose Duran, who showed his first menswear collection at the show — few financing options remain. Even institutions dedicated to supporting aspiring designers, like the Council of Fashion Designers of America, are cutting back. In 2007, the Council spent $6.2 million to support young talent; in 2008, it came up with less than half that: $2.8 million. Duran turned to his parents in the Dominican Republic to finance the collection he presented at the show.
Without backing, Duran doesn’t know where the money for his next collection will come from. He is getting by with friends’ help for now. ”New York is the only place you can make stuff happen with very little money,” he said, after running out of money during a stint in Paris. But without an infusion of capital, he can’t offer the collection to buyers, because he can’t afford to fill the orders.
Duran’s problems are compounded by his radical aesthetic. “I don’t like pretty,” he said. Although the clothes are meant to be “avant garde but wearable,” only half of the runway pieces fit those criteria, he admitted.
“I really can’t see that on the street at 125th and Lenox,” Harlem resident Brett Williams said of Duran’s Sahara-inspired collection. Duran showed deconstructed menswear worn by bare-chested models, several wearing shrouds.
For Harlem-based Lialia, the recession couldn’t have come at a worse time. “We were all primed to get into Saks and then the economy tanked,” said Julia Alarcon, one of two sisters who launched this once-flourishing young company five years ago. It is no longer offered in boutiques. Not sure if they should continue, the duo turned to Roopal Patel, senior women’s fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman, and asked if they should shut down. “She said, ‘Just keep going,’” said Alarcon, although the prestigious department store is not currently picking up new designers.
Buoyed by Patel’s words, self-financed Lialia shrunk the collection, cut the prices and hunkered down for the long haul. But Alarcon asked herself, “If we were to sell nothing for four seasons, how much can we afford to spend?”