NEW YORK (Reuters) - The financial meltdown sweeping the United States hits the fashion runway on Friday, when New York Fashion Week takes off, but its impact may be surprising.
Certainly, less business will be done than usual, and some designs will be muted, industry experts say. But at the same time, some designers will interpret the financial downturn as an excuse to turn up the fashion excess.
"The wonderful thing about fashion is it will always do the opposite of what you think," said James Aguiar, co-host of the "Full Frontal Fashion," a television program that covers fashion shows.
Just when you would think things would be more conservative, there are likely to be more lavish, extreme displays on the catwalk, Aguiar said.
"If anything, people will be more desperate to get attention that they think is going to generate business," said David Wolfe, creative director of the Doneger Group, a New York trend forecasting company, who also expects more theatre.
But while they may turn up the drama on the runway, there'll be a big gap between what designers show and what they actually end up selling during the week.
U.S. consumers have curbed their spending in recent months as a decline in the housing market takes hold. Shopping over the Christmas retail season was the worst in five years, even hitting luxury names like Saks Inc, Tiffany & Co, Coach Inc and Richemont.
Designer Rebecca Taylor, whose women's fashions are sold at high-end U.S. stores such as Bergdorf Goodman, Saks and Bloomingdale's, said she expects fall 2008 to be more commercial as some retailers, still reeling from last year's dramatic slowdown, take fewer risks.
"As traffic slows in the department stores, buyers are really looking for bankability," Taylor said. However, her own orders have tripled over the last year and she expects to drive $5 million in sales between her runway show on Thursday and a trade show the following weekend. She declined to give a figure for last February's show for comparison.
Retail consultant Sanjay Srikanth of management consultancy A.T. Kearney warned that Taylor's expectation would be atypical, as buyers trim the size of their orders to keep inventories tight.
Aside from cutting orders, the economy is also influencing the designs themselves.
"Maybe I'm being more frugal, a little more conservative," said Arthur Mendonca, a Toronto-based designer making his New York Fashion Week debut. "Instead of micro-minis, I'll show more at the knee to make them more accessible to the consumer."
Wolfe, the trend forecaster, predicted buyers would go for rich textures and prints over overt embellishment this year, which he said would be seen as more elegant.
"In this environment designers have to push the envelope more toward desirability, not sensationalism," he said.
As a bonus, such understated designs are often cheaper to produce than those with flamboyant detailing, but Wolfe said that was not the motive for the trend.
Men's fabrics in particular -- flannel, pinstripes, herringbone, tattersall checks, plaids and tartans -- will be key this season, according to Jayne Mountford, director of trend reporting for Stylesight, an Internet-based trend forecasting and reporting company.
"It illustrates that we are thinking about business, in a banker's way," Mountford said. "Shares, the stock market and the price of things are on everyone's minds in a way they hadn't been in more freewheeling times."
Other nods to menswear will include structured garments, full-legged pants and tuxedo-inspired jackets, she said.
Adding to the gloom, Mountford said the season's signature color will be gray, her conviction bolstered by designer Marc Jacobs' latest Louis Vuitton bags, whose signature checkerboard motif traded brown and tan for black and gray.
But the ashen landscape will be punctuated by pops of rich color in jewel and berry tones and even bright, futuristic shades, Mountford said, signs of optimism.
"Social climate has an impact on how we design because we design for the lifestyle of a woman. If her lifestyle changes, then our collection has to change to reflect that," said Max Azria, who is hosting three different runway shows.
Just as New York's Christmas shopping season was saved by foreign tourists eager to spend their strengthened euros, yen and francs, experts see the same happening at Fashion Week.
According to Fern Mallis, senior vice president of IMG Fashion, which runs New York Fashion Week, the teetering economy is not slowing attendance, with just the press list boasting some 4,000 names.
And with a television writers strike threatening to curtail the Academy Awards and its red carpet runway, Fashion Week's guest list may be studded with more stars than usual.
"In an odd way (the weak dollar) is kind of good for the Americans because it means the European buyers can come here and buy up a storm, just as the consumers did," said Stylesight's Mountford.
However, that will cut both ways. While U.S. names like Calvin Klein, Michael Kors and Ralph Lauren will be cheaper for foreign buyers, U.S. buyers will find Lacoste, Terexov, Temperley London, Diesel and Akiko Ogawa are more expensive.
Wendy Liebmann, Chief Executive of WSL Strategic Retail, a consulting firm, said that could make U.S. buyers lean more toward American designs.
For Liebmann, what the fashion industry, and the U.S. economy, needs is a hot new trend that will create demand across the retail spectrum, from Saks to Wal-Mart.
"I don't care whether it's a hemp sack, but something that people say, 'Oh heavens, that's fabulous!"' she said. "Then the rich people buy it, the medium people buy it, and the poor people buy it."
Reporting by Martinne Geller; Additional reporting by Jan Paschal and Ellen Wulfhorst; Editing by Eddie Evans