In the early weeks of September, when the finance world was bracing for disaster, New York’s Bryant Park was alive with excited anticipation. Inside the tents at Fashion Week, editors, buyers and stylists strutted their most fashionable looks in front of the photographers lined up to greet them, seemingly oblivious to the darkening financial climate just a few minutes downtown on Wall Street.

But the crowd was far from oblivious. In the midst of a global crisis, fashion tends to drop down a few notches in priority, but the garment industry is hardly something to ignore in times of trouble. According to the Garment Industry Development Corporation, New York’s fashion industry alone employs about 100,000 people with a sales volume of $14 billion. This isn’t just an issue of being able to afford the newest Fendi clutch; the fashion industry is a massive operation affecting several overlapping economies and controlling thousands of jobs, and the recent crisis is taking its toll.

Like so many other industries, the big-name corporations are faring better than younger brands and boutique startups. But even so, department stores like Saks, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom are experiencing dips in sales. After the value of its stock shares fell more than 10 percent in early September, Saks President Ron Frasch told The Associated Press that “it’s all a big guessing game” now.

Fashion is suffering in large part because of its dependence on credit, which has been hard to come by this fall. For design houses, the dilemma goes beyond meeting payroll: The industry operates under a tight calendar of production, turning out garments months before they hit the racks, so borrowing money for materials and factory expenses is the norm. It’s unclear whether this will lead to lower quality standards, fewer choices for consumers or bankruptcy, but either way, the outlook could be grim.

Considering the industry’s increasing hesitance to take on new and potentially unsuccessful labels, you might expect to see fashion grow more and more stagnant. But this industry isn’t one to sit still, and designers are trying to find ways to adapt.

The luxury goods market is in obvious decline, but the economy’s impact on style trends is a little more complicated than simple supply and demand. Fashion serves as a classic example of a trickle-down system. Runway trends are picked up and spit out by lower-cost manufacturers: The masses are rarely choosing from the latest conventions, but eventually, the runway does have an influence on the clothes you’re buying at The Gap, or even Wal-Mart. (Insert Meryl Streep’s famous “Devil Wears Prada” speech here.) Usually, this keeps the system comfortably balanced. But now that unbridled spending has come to a halt, even the high-end retailers’ affluent customers are looking elsewhere. Rather than pay high prices for designer goods, more people might be willing to wait an extra six months and trade down in quality for the sake of cost.

The solution? Defend and protect: Produce a garment that is so skillfully constructed that no low-end manufacturer could possibly duplicate it.

“Designers are attempting to distinguish themselves by presenting consumers with feats of dressmaking,” Valerie Steele, the director of the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, told in June. “The profusion of sleeves may, at heart, be a defensive move.”

Both extravagantly decorated and subtly clever sleeves have seen more of a runway presence over the last several months, and many critics believe the creative decision is economically motivated. No matter what other form of sartorial detailing becomes the next focus, the bar on craftsmanship and fabric quality has undoubtedly been raised (because nothing screams cheap like a synthetic tweed mini). In a highly competitive market that works without patents, the fight to secure a dwindling customer base is heating up, and design itself looks like the determining factor.

On the more personal end, there will likely be a shift from quantity to quality among consumers, though right now it’s too soon to tell. Until the current market and production cycle starts turning out sales, it’s difficult to determine exactly what the industry might face in the next few years. Still, we can imagine the possibilities: When you decide to invest in one new seasonal piece, instead of say, four, odds are you’re looking for something that’s going to make a statement. So not only has the artistry of dressmaking begun to change, but a shift toward more adventurous style trends may be on the horizon as well. And like any industry in an uncertain economy, the chances are good that larger, more stable companies will weed out less popular options, so some labels might actually experience a boost in business.

Upon closer inspection, there might be reason to believe that the economic downturn will result in a return to a higher-quality marketplace … or will it? Unfortunately, the original problem rears its ugly head in every equation: How much of a risk is any one designer willing to take?

With the cultural code of conspicuous spending being supplanted by a push to be patriotically frugal, it’s hard to tell which way designers will lean. Inevitably, there will be compromises, but we can only hope that less will mean more for the future of fashion.

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