ATHENS, Greece — Greece is in crisis, but it was hard to tell at Athens fashion week, which showcased spring and summer collections for 2012.
"Keep Greek Fashion in Your Hearts," was the motto, a hard ask in a country on the verge of financial ruin. But the models on the catwalk and the glitterati on the red carpet did their part. Gowns shimmered, lipstick glistened. Pink cocktails flowed, courtesy of the sponsors.
Glamorous looks can be deceiving.
In Greece, shops are closing, unemployment is climbing, pensions are evaporating and people are protesting. Austerity rules. Foreign loans are the norm, foreign investment is not. Few Greeks have the means or inclination to splurge on clothes, much less garments tailored to individual taste.
Fashion is the purview of the wealthy elites, but its struggle to adapt and even survive in the Greek mess mirrors other mired economic sectors. And unlike some Greek industries, fashion never enjoyed staunch promotion by the state, as in powerhouses France or Italy, and most designers lack a strong production base for their portfolios.
Broadly, it's a story about relevance. Fashion anywhere aims to connect with a mass audience, but exclusivity and flamboyance can make it seem out of touch. Even more so in Greece, where students, civil servants and garbage collectors take grievances to the streets.
A few Greek designers have international repute. London-based Sophia Kokosalaki, who adopted classic Grecian draping for a soft, flowing look, designed thousands of outfits for the opening and closing ceremonies at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. But for the most part, Greek designers cater to a domestic clientele, relying on word-of-mouth marketing and operating out of small workshops, or ateliers.
Local buyers are scarce, the fallout from a crisis that has pitched Greece to the edge of a debt default and now threatens the unity of the eurozone. Celia Dragouni, a 32-year-old designer who describes her style as "hippie, bohemian" and "romantic," has a website and a fan page on Facebook. Now she seeks direct contact with international buyers because business at home is shrinking, especially in the slow year-end season.
"I'm sending some mails and fixing my portfolio," Dragouni said. "I'm trying to get to know the buyers. I'm aiming abroad."
It's not all grim. Weddings are a big deal anywhere, but Greeks go all out. Dragouni, who works extensively with silk and lace, custom-made 30 wedding gowns this past summer, the traditional season for getting hitched.
Yet she said some designers who used to charge 10,000 euros for a wedding dress have dropped the price by as much as two-thirds, even when cutting and stitching with the same high-quality materials.
Many Greek designers cater to singers and other local celebrities, unable to generate the kind of mass-produced, ready-to-wear lines that would endow their labels with corporate strength and true staying power. That makes their predicament more dire as revenue dries up and entertainment becomes more of a luxury than a fixture.
"I always thought local Greek fashion was generated by the local music industry and by what's happening abroad, which for a small country is OK. The only problem with that is that it does not concern the needs of the Greek people who actually shop at Zara," the Spanish retailer, said Erotokritos Antoniadis, a Cypriot designer based in France.
He said he concluded that "fashion is not enough by itself," and has mixed design with cuisine, opening a canteen in Paris that sells Mediterranean dishes.
The four-day October event, known as Athens Xclusive Designers Week, happens twice a year and is modeled on bigger, star-studded fashion weeks in Paris, London, Milan and New York. It has hosted shows by Vivienne Westwood, Guy Laroche and other international houses in the past, but this time organizers limited catwalk space to Greek designers, and a few others with links to Greece.
"We wanted to send a message to everybody to support the Greek designers because it is a very critical moment for our country," organizer Tonia Fouseki said. "It is an established event, but we were afraid a little bit before the event of how people would react, if they would like to come."
She said Greece has about 70 full-time designers and that 20,000 people visited the conference center where the collections were shown, signaling that: "People need to see. Even if they can't buy, they want to see."
Konstantinos Mitrovgenis, who has made clothes for many Greek singers and for the theater, was declared best new designer, an award that allows him to display at a fashion event abroad, possibly in Malta or the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, or even New York City. An industry profile says he has pioneered the use of "lighted structures and modular clothes" to create a "functional avant-garde style."
Another home favorite was the 20-year veteran known as Miltos, who has a studio in the chic Athens district of Kolonaki and picks a theme — Napoleonic, 1960s, horseriding — for each of his collections.
"It's like a fairytale and people like it," he said. But he acknowledged: "It's very difficult to have a personal style because all the people want to see the Internet, want to see the global designs."
Signs of economic strain were evident. Some designers dropped out, lacking resources to put together a collection. There was little evidence of expensive crystals or other precious stones used to enhance clothing in the past.
Antoniadis, who showed a collection there, described much of the clothing on display as "very couture and very sexy," but not down-to-earth.Comment on this story
"It will end up in the nightclubs," he said. "I didn't really think it concerned the actual girl, the actual woman who would go to work or the office, who would actually need everyday clothes."
Elfie Tsagataki, communications director for the fashion show, said there was a glimmer of local opportunity because foreign brands have tightened policies toward Greek clothing boutiques.
"They don't give credit anymore because they don't trust Greece and they ask for a huge amount of advances. So this has made many Greek boutiques turn to and prefer Greek designers," she said. "Greek designers do not ask for full money in advance. They're more flexible and they want the job."