Advocating a "Let them eat cake" approach for the uncertain economy, retailers arrived at New York Fashion Week this season with higher expectations than usual. "Business is tough. Dazzle us." "Basics be damned!" "Women have plenty to wear from last spring. Give us something really new," they chanted collectively. Like Marie Antoinette, the 18th-century clotheshorse who refused to trade down, high-end stores stressed that women are "buying less, but still buying the best," as one fashion director puts it.
That was before the trifecta of dismal news from Wall Street. Still, retailers believe consumers will actually pay more for unique or highly detailed fashion that looks like substantial effort was expended on the production -- hand-painted fabrics, for example, are high on retailers' lists.
No one expects the luxury customer to ditch her Louboutins for Payless or replace Michael Kors with Club Monaco. And within designer collections, women will bypass the safe, sturdy, uninspired styles and gravitate to the piÃ¿ce de rÃ©sistance. All of this suggests that shopping has become even more of an emotional experience than ever. Anyone who's paid 10 times what she planned to spend on a dress can attest to fashion's ability to temporarily rob women of their senses. For a few minutes in the kind, flattering fitting room light, a bond is forged between a woman and a dress. To hell with budgets, if the dress serves its purpose and more, its stock will rise every time it's worn and the shopper will congratulate herself on her excellent taste.
So did spring '09 deliver enough dazzlers? Yes and no. Some retailers had higher expectations than others because their customer has become increasingly willing to set trends rather than simply follow watered-down versions. "In good times and in a challenging economy, it's all about product," says Ken Downing, senior vice president and fashion director of Neiman Marcus. "We go [to New York Fashion Week] to find truly the most compelling, exciting and at these times, the most unique [products]. It's very important to our customer. Price-value is very important. Spring is going to happen, economy or not. New York proved that it doesn't have to be a season of uninteresting clothes, colors, prints, details and flourishes. The customer is not looking for classic and conservative right now. She's looking for things that are truly beautiful and very pretty. Basic isn't going to excite her to come into the stores and shop."
Downing says consumers are more discerning now. "With the tough economy the way it is, customers are considering their purchases. Especially the luxury customer. She's very excited about trends. The selling this fall is happening with the trends we called out such as new sleeker silhouettes, closer-to-the body dresses and all the amazing lace in all the collections. There's nothing basic about that."
Bergdorf Goodman vice president and fashion director Linda Fargo is grateful for the strong juxtapositions on the New York runways, such as "the unexpected and interesting re-appearance of the tough girl, so much asymmetry in bodies and hemlines, petal layering, slouchy pantaloon pants and aggressive statement shoes." She is likewise happy to see scuba dresses, bandeau tops and midriff cutaways, bold crisscrossing graphics in black and white and metallic brocades.
Barbara Atkin, vice president, fashion direction at the Canadian specialty chain Holt Renfrew, sums New York up, saying, "It was quiet. There was a quiet luxury. That's where luxury's going. We don't want to flaunt it [because] the flaunting became too mastige. There was a lot of Lanvin influences. People are looking at what Alber Elbaz has done. Soft clothes. That's modern luxury. It feels good when you get it on and makes you feel special."
"Overall I think it will take some intense picking and choosing from each collection," says Beth Buccini, co-owner of Kirna Zabete, adding that she saw uniqueness and individuality in certain collections. However, Jim Wetzel and Lance Lawson, owners of Jake stores in Chicago and Winnetka, Ill., feel the collections "looked a bit the same across the board. Some designs seemed more phoned-in than inspired."
"We're feeling the winds from the south blowing north," Atkin says, referring to U.S. economic woes. "Our customers are shopping, but more differently than ever. We're all examining and stepping back. When there's economic instability and people are questioning their purchasing, that's the time to look at the luxury world and elevate and push it. We have to edit our collections to the most beautiful parts of the collection."