Fashion Week, both clipped and all-out Bryant Park hums to a humbler vibe, but 100 designers are hopeful.

Posted: February 17, 2009

NEW YORK — Some of fashion's heavy hitters - Kimora Lee Simmons, Betsey Johnson, and Marc Jacobs - have scaled back their presentations this week out of respect for the faltering economy.

Still, the more than 100 American designers presenting their fall collections in and around the Bryant Park tents are practicing the law of attraction, believing that if they put their all into their work and stay optimistic, the consumer will again buy designer clothing.

They just have to.

"I haven't changed anything," said Ralph Rucci, the Philadelphia-bred designer who will close New York Fashion Week Friday afternoon. "If anything, the collection will be more luxe. Beauty is important. It is important to create beauty with hope and joyfulness."

The biannual week often feels like an alternate universe, where women expertly balance themselves on 5-inch heels and air-kiss men in skinny plaid pants. Everyone carries coffee - this year it's from McDonald's - and many take limousines up and down Sixth Avenue to venues across town.

But the vibe is more humble. It's as if the designers were trying to better relate to the people filing into the subways below. Take Vogue editor Andre Leon Talley, who always has a front-row seat. But he was spotted standing in the back of the Tracy Reese show yesterday morning.

The sense here is that those who decided to show are really plugging away. They are hopeful, as well as cautious. As a result, some may argue these collections are different from their previous ones. Yet it's too early to tell if the pieces, which many designers hope will make a personal connection with buyers, will really be any better.

"I think so far the clothes this season are proof that designers are making clear choices to stay in the game," said Fern Mallis, senior vice president of IMG, the company that produces the shows under the tents. "Carolina Herrera, Mara Hoffman, Erin Featherstone - they have all created fresh collections that are spirited and different."

Stacey Bendet, the University of Pennsylvania graduate who is the designing force behind Alice + Olivia, said the economy had forced her to be more creative about her fabric choices. This year's collection, inspired by easy-breezy L.A. and Parisian punk, features tried-and-true trends like a black leather jacket and knit dresses.

"We are using more interesting fabrics from Japan and places besides Europe," Bendet said. "It's forcing us to research more."

The biggest difference at this year's Fashion Week, explained Ed Filipowski, the president of powerful New York public-relations company KCD, is that the large-scale events - like last year's Gucci opening - have been scaled down. Italian designer Giorgio Armani is in town this week and even he, known for fabulous events, is being really low-key. Some celebrities were in tow, the best-known being Nicky Hilton and Kanye West, but this year fewer designers can pay celebrities to sit in the front row, said Alison Brod of Alison Brod PR. So except for the real housewives of New York, celebrities were hard to come by.

"There is a new sensibility in the fashion world," said Filipowski, who is representing two more designers than he did last year. "People are just being smarter. They are being cautious and designing more on an emotional value. And that's a real sign of the times."

Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at ewellington@phillynews.com or 215-854-2704.

Fashion Week Updates

Read Elizabeth Wellington's reports from Fashion Week at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/mirrorimage.

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