Freelance fashion designer Saikna Mijee wasn’t like the paparazzi or autograph hounds who gathered to catch a glimpse of A-list celebrities attending New York Fashion Week last month.

Mijee was looking for a job.

Out of work for the past two years, 45-year-old Mijee of Fort Lee, N.J., hoped to get her portfolio in front of one of the show’s major fashion designers. Each time the doors to the white tents swung open, she looked anxiously, hoping for her opportunity.

In the city known as the fashion capital of the world, New York Fashion Week arrived to great fanfare. But despite the excitement generated by the extravagance in the collections of top American designers, the recession has continued to take its toll on the industry.

For a fashion insiders, aspiring young designers, and veteran fashion professionals are all feeling the impact of the recession as they try to survive in an industry that thrives on image and glamour.

“Before, I used to get a lot of interviews,” said Mijee. “Now I can really feel the change.”

Almost two decades earlier, Mijee arrived from her native Mongolia to attend

Parsons School of Design. After graduating, she immediately began her career by working with various manufacturers in New York’s Garment District. She eventually began freelancing, which allowed her the flexibility to develop her own line. But as the economy slowed, so did her freelance work.

“I need a real job,” said Mijee. “I hope by coming to the tents, I can meet some people and talk to people who are hiring. I didn’t do networking before, but I have to do it now.”

Earlier in the day, Mijee stood outside the Metropolitan Pavilion in Chelsea. She was one of an estimated 2,000 job seekers who attended the Women’s Wear Daily Fashion and Career Expo.

Maureen Borbely, 27, traveled from Chicago and waited for three hours for the opportunity to meet with fashion company representatives at the event.

In less than three months, Borbely will graduate from Notre Dame with an MBA specialized in fashion management. Even though her grades are stellar and she has done well in her internship, she has no job offer. Desperate to get one, Borbely decided to fly out to New York at the last minute to attend the fair.

“My job search has definitely been a huge challenge,” said Borbely. “After the news came out about Saks and Macy’s laying off thousands of people, my parents called suggesting that I seriously consider looking for something outside of fashion.”

As the economic recession deepens, the outlook for retailers continues to be grim. Nationwide, hundreds of retailers have gone out of business as consumer spending levels reach record lows. The number of people losing their jobs continues to rise and home foreclosures mount, leaving fashion retailers to face the challenge of enticing consumers to shop despite unprecedented economic difficulty.

After attending numerous shows at New York Fashion Week, Margaret Hayes, CEO of Fashion Group International, an industry trade association, felt inspired by the designers’ collections, but is concerned about what happens once the shows end.

“On the positive side, the shows have all been very excellent in the quality, silhouettes, and style details,” said Hayes.

“The great challenge will be whether the product sells through to retailers and will the consumers respond.”
While many fashion professionals have taken a bleak view of the current state of the fashion business, noted fashion designer Byron Lars has a different assessment.

“The opportunity will be available to those who make a product with great value at a great price,” said Lars. “As a designer, I ask myself, ‘Is this garment going to work for my client and if so, can it be worn eight times out of the year?’”
According to Lars, the downturn in the economy has forced the fashion industry to approach their business differently — something he says has been long overdue.

“Too many companies have been trying to be all things to too many people,” Lars said. “The customer feels overwhelmed and confused. In the end, she has no reason to remain a loyal shopper.”Back at Bryant Park, 18-year-old Anna Zahn, an actress and model from Manhattan, was busy posing for pictures and making autographs after the completion of Chado Ralph Rucci, the last show of New York Fashion Week.

Zahn said the economic slowdown has taken its toll based on the decreased number of show bookings fashion models have experienced over the past year.

“It’s a different vibe,” said Zahn. “No one really knows what’s going to happen next, but the show must go on.”