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Nina Blanchard, the legendary talent agent, used to say that if she could talk you out of being an actor or model, you probably didn't have what it takes to be one.

Young designers are faced with their own Blanchardesque test today. Only those fixated on being in fashion can possibly hang on in the current withering circumstances.With the debut of her first signature collection in two years, Laura Whitcomb has proven she has the resolve to make it. The new line indicates she is still a designer of originality and spark, now tempered by maturity.

The collection includes a flawless camel cashmere coat with brown piping, a baby-blue hooded nylon windbreaker dress and a fitted baby-blue and white leather bustier dress.

In 1994, Whitcomb rose to fashion-darling-of-the-moment - it started when Madonna wore her ankle-length Adidas-style dress - and then plummeted to an also-ran in one short season. Just before her spring collection was to be shown, two prospective backers bowed out of agreements she thought were all but certain, she said. She went on with the show despite the lack of funds because a pending contract with a sales representative stipulated that she present a runway collection. The show was a disaster.

Roundly panned by the press and retailers alike, it seemed like a requiem for Whitcomb's career as a serious designer.

Whitcomb, 26, withdrew and began designing for private clients and concentrating on Label, an inexpensive line of street wear that relied heavily on pop-culture references like Playboy and James Bond. In December, she opened a store on New York's Lafayette Street. The shop, where Whitcomb hopes to add gallery space, will house the new line and Label. Both will also be sold at wholesale.

"I've really learned everything that can go wrong in the hardest way," she said. "When you get too big for your britches, the industry can become like a real nightmare."

- Constance C.R. White