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Style & Substance: Designer's Law: If a Show Can Go Wrong...
By Gwendolyn Bounds
1300 words
7 February 2006
The Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 2006, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

NINE YEARS AGO, designer Cynthia Steffe experienced fashion's version of hell while producing her first runway show. Things went wrong: The designer ran out of carmel stretch suede in the final hour, so a jacket was missing a sleeve. There weren't enough shoes backstage. A crying model flung a tuft of her hair at Ms. Steffe after a harried stylist accidentally cut the unruly locks.

Yesterday, the 47-year-old runway veteran held her 11th show before a crowd of about 1,000 in her largest venue ever at Manhattan's Bryant Park. Does experience make this high-stress event easier? As Ms. Steffe displayed her Fall 2006 line replete with prep-school-inspired fashions of gray flannel, cardigans and plaid, the answer was, yes . . . and, well, no.

"Murphy's Law is always in full effect," she noted, and yesterday, it showed up, almost as if on cue -- a model's zipper got caught in her dress fabric midway through the show and wouldn't budge. "Over the years, we've learned to take the inevitable mishaps in stride."

The fashion show is the industry's most pivotal public moment, one whose drama is increasingly played out for consumers on cable television, Web sites and blogs. For small design houses, the shows can be make-or-break events. A successful show can garner buzz and good reviews, pushing a little-known designer out of a crowded field of competitors and into the big leagues with the likes of Prada and Ralph Lauren. But a bad review can feel like a high-profile flogging in this clubby, tight-knit industry. And while clothes on the runway often are quite different from what appear in stores, the retailer buyers attending are nonetheless gauging what looks they'll put dollars behind for the coming season.

The shows can be be fraught with land mines. In the early 1990s, Donna Karan once erred by starting her performance before a key fashion editor arrived. Small designers fear their designs might accidentally mimic a bigger player's and lead to vitriolic press. Ms. Steffe, for one, removed drawstrings at the last minute in 1997 because Prada had used them in its European shows.

Even now, with history on her side and financial
backing by a new parent company, Bernard Chaus Inc., Ms. Steffe encountered her share of unpleasant surprises leading up to yesterday's show. A trusted patternmaker recently quit after another house offered her an "insane amount of money," Ms. Steffe says. Last Thursday, her accessories stylist gave birth three weeks early and was out of commission for the show. Turquoise shoes, a key element to the season's line, arrived in a too-bright hue and had to be dyed black over the weekend.

The last-minute final booking of models can create headaches, and one thing that's almost always a given is running out of certain shoe sizes. Yesterday, the models' feet all happened to run on the small side; last year, they were too big. The sometimes not knowing part has meant learning tricks of the trade: powder works wonders to ease the pinch of a tight-fitting shoe, Ms. Steffe says, while tissue stuffed in the toe creates a comfortable, snug grip.

This sometimes thankless burden falls to the dressers, who have to get models in and out of wardrobe, often in two or three minutes. "Someone's shoe once came off on stage, and I got blamed," noted Mandy Kirschner, a dresser whose survival kit included a blue apron stuffed with shoehorns, de-linters, and scissors for loose threads. Ill-fitting garb is no picnic for the models either. "I've slipped before in high heels," confessed Ilona K., a wide-eyed 22-year-old model from Lithuania who sat on the floor backstage before the show reading a mystery novel in Russian.

Fashion editors frown on mishaps because they distract from the show. "I've seen a girl almost trip twice today, and it's all because of hems catching in the heels," said Lucy Danziger, Self magazine's editor in chief, who was making the rounds. "That is not good for the designer, the model or the show. If everyone's doing their jobs right then we'll have no idea what's going on behind the scenes and can concentrate on translating what we see to our readers."

As a designer gains clout and wisdom, however, some things improve. Take Ms. Steffe, who was the new kid in 1997, who got last pick of all the models. Adding to the stress: A former dancer's legs bulged with muscles, not exactly the best way to enhance Ms. Steffe's short skirts. Other models had piercings that caught on fragile material, or tattoos that ruined eveningwear.

This year Ms. Steffe, the veteran, booked 19 girls mostly of her choosing and finalized all models by Saturday night. She also commanded a good time slot in the show lineup following well-known designer Carolina Herrera, which helps. Time-pressed fashion editors pack their schedules closely and won't always wait around for shows that don't start with names such as Calvin, Ralph or Donna. "Good placement comes with time and rank," says Richard Roberts, 53, Ms. Steffe's husband and business partner.

Her newfound clout is partly a matter of sales, store presence and fortitude. Cynthia Steffe clothing, known for its creative use of textured fabrics such as velvet, silk and canvas in feminine, practical styles, is now sold in over a thousand locations, up from 400 in 1997, including Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom. The brand's 2005 revenue was about $39 million, nearly double what it was at the time of her first show.

Her buzz factor has increased too. Now Ms. Steffe's clothes are worn by stars such as Jessica Simpson, Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Duff and Teri Hatcher. Last year, the "Today" show's Katie Couric attended her show, Ms. Steffe says. This year Miss Universe, Miss USA and actor Marcia Gay Harden of the movie "Mystic River" and "Law & Order: SVU" showed up. And Ms. Steffe herself seemed calmer this time, smiling as she plucked stray lint off models and casually adjusted their belts. She improved on past mistakes, keeping her outfits to a tidy 40, instead of the more than 50 pieces in the early shows, which taxed audiences' attention spans. Even the models seemed more composed yesterday, their own attention occupied by text-messaging and BlackBerrys instead of what stylists were doing to their hair.

Still, the unexpected did arise, as with the stuck zipper. As the model was about to hit the runway, Ms. Steffe discovered a dresser had tried to mend the gaffe with four unsightly safety pins.
"Oh, come on, guys," Ms. Steffe bemoaned, losing her composure and yanking out the pins. "Sew her, sew her." The model was delayed until a seamstress could loop together the zipper. The model headed out two looks late.

And in less than 13 minutes, from start to finish, it was all over. The only thing left to do after months of preparation was to take a bow and wait for today's reviews. The late Alan G. Millstein, who was a longtime industry consultant, said in 1997: "These shows can make you a star or they can put you close to checking into a lunatic asylum."

Some things, it seems, are destined never to go out of style.