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The retail consumer may be making a comeback: from


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, clothes are flying off the racks. But how does the consumer really



As we all know, the mirror doesn't lie. Mass-produced clothing is nothing short of boring.

A nascent movement of independent fashion designers, however, is trying to alter this scene, one stitch at a time.

Even without the massive marketing budgets of the giant retailers, or the cash base to sustain them during slow seasons, these independent designers are springing up all over the world, harkening back to an era of unique, handcrafted clothing.

And once you discover their collections, you'll see why it's the next best thing to having a personal tailor.

Homespun Charm

Lily Raskind, 30, grew up in Seattle. Under the tutelage of her mother, she began designing and making clothes when she was a young girl. By the time she was in high school, Raskind was selling them at local stores.

After obtaining a B.F.A. in textile design at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, Raskind moved to New York City and continued to create small-run fashion projects. A friend who owned a boutique in Brooklyn helped introduce her limited pieces to a new retail audience, but Raskind soon realized that she had to expand if she wanted to see her business progress.

Her label

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Sunshine & Shadow was officially launched in the spring of 2005, and Raskind admits that at times she wonders how she ended up running a business -- as she points out, "I attended art school, not business school!"

But despite never working for other designers, Raskind has shown a natural industry acumen: a year and a half later, Sunshine & Shadow now has its own showroom and sales agent, and the label has doubled its distribution each season.

A look at her collection explains why.

"Sunshine & Shadow is a study in contrasts," Raskind says, "inspired by athletic wear, street style and menswear in combination with feminine silhouettes." Her background in textiles plays a significant role, as the collection playfully experiments with combinations of fabrics, printing, dying and unique finishing treatments.

Above all, Sunshine & Shadow pieces are finely crafted yet comfortable, with subtle details that can transform something as simple as a white, long-sleeved shirt into a sublime, sculpted covering.

Life by Design

London-based Julie Berube, 33, is another standout independent designer, one whose beautifully constructed yet easy-to-wear clothes are inspired by an art deco and art nouveau sensibility. Her label

Berube effortlessly toes the line between classic and modern, delivered with eye-catching style.

It wasn't always a smooth road, however.

Berube discovered fashion only after previous career paths proved deeply unsatisfying. After drawing up a list of things she had always enjoyed -- the feel of fabrics, making collages -- Berube realized that fashion was a logical fit.

Once she enrolled in a fashion design program at a Montreal college, Berube recalls feeling immediately in her element, "as if all the puzzle pieces ... had come together at last." A desire to expand her design horizons after graduating in 2000 led Berube to London, where she continued her studies and began working for established fashion designers.

When a close friend then offered to finance a start-up for her own line, however, Berube initially declined.

"I didn't think it was a good idea because I wasn't experienced enough," Berube recalls, "but

my friend said, 'The best way to learn in life is to make your own mistakes,' and 'How much will you need?'" This modern-day patron offered the emotional and financial backing for Berube to branch out on her own in November 2002.

Berube freely admits that she's made countless mistakes on the way, but also that this sponsorship enabled her to "learn a great deal -- and very quickly, indeed." Her creative vision has continued to blossom since.

Ultimately, running your own label is no different than running any business, Berube points out. Making a profit was difficult for the first few seasons, as she was still experimenting with the ultimate direction of the line.

However, Berube now believes that her label has found its voice, which translates into an increased enthusiasm and confidence that buyers have been responding to in kind.

And, as with any business, it's often about who you know. Berube's greatest challenge was starting her label without any contacts in the fashion world, which made it very difficult to get a foot in the door of potential buyers. It's still a major hurdle, but with each passing season -- and a growing collection -- Berube expands her reach.

Even though her label is still a relatively small operation, Berube is pleased to report that production has doubled over the past season.

It's still a constant struggle, though. "It's quite difficult at the moment in the U.K.," Berube says. "The mega luxury labels, such as Louis Vuitton and Gucci, are increasing their share of the market, and so are the brands that make cheap and disposable fashion. Anything falling between these two categories is in a precarious situation."

Berube's instincts ring true.

No Room on the Rack

Although consumer spending overall has been holding up surprisingly well, much of retail's strength falls into the categories of discount empires such as Target, or well-established luxury brands like




And department stores, often viewed as the aging behemoths in the world of cutting-edge fashion, are trying to get in on the game.


( FD)-owned Macy's has been a sponsor of "Project Runway," a wildly popular reality-TV show on which up-and-coming designers showcase their creations each week for cash prizes and fashion-world opportunities, or face elimination from a brusque panel of designers and supermodels.

Meanwhile, high-end retailers such as

Neiman Marcus

and Nordstrom -- whose September comps rose 13.4% from a year ago, double analysts' expectation -- continue to post strong sales as well.

So where does this leave labels such as Berube and Sunshine & Shadow?

As Berube puts it, "I like to think that when

my garments sit on hangers in the shops, people can feel that I've touched them myself." She's staying in charge of her label's production, which is the only way to ensure her pieces maintain their high quality.

Raskind has similar values for her label, and points out that she must uphold Sunshine & Shadow's individuality as well as "know my market to stay afloat among all the competition. People can always go to H&M to get the trends for less, so I make sure to keep the quality of the fabrics and construction high ... and trust that there are people who appreciate quality and design."

The pull and convenience of all the established retailers may continue to control consumers' wallets in a way these independent designers certainly can't ignore: The handcrafted nature of their clothes entail a limited availability and steep price tag that can make finding and keeping customers challenging.

However, with the attention and care put into such wearable works of art, these modern labels have the integrity to outlast the fickle swings of the fashion world and even the market retail overall.

Or at least that's what you can tell yourself, as you're handing over your credit card to secure your own masterpiece. And if you're wrong about the market, at least you'll still look good.

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