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August 16, 2010 8:01 PM

Fashion, Retail

On the Fast Track

There are two cheaps. Good twin, bad twin, with the latter historically getting the most play....

There are two cheaps. Good twin, bad twin, with the latter historically getting the most play. Cheap is a woman of easy virtue, or one who just dresses that way. Cheap is shiny pants, gum-snapping, over-processed hair. Cheap is the guy who never reaches for the check, who writes off Tic Tacs as a business expense. Cheap drove Halston out of business. Cheap is any merch that meets one’s personal criteria for subpar.

Conversely, the cheap we love is all about perceived value. Comfy drugstore underwear. Cheap Eats — deemed by New York Magazine as worthy of a celebratory annual issue. A flea market bonanza. An undervalued stock. Cheap is getting more for your money.

In fashion, good cheap has only recently come out of the closet. That’s due primarily to the current fascination with high-low, and the realization that for even the most talented, highbrow designer types, there’s money to be made by catering to the washed and well-informed masses.

But exactly what is cheap by fashionable standards? In Monday’s WWD, Michael Kors cited New Balance sneakers, and Banana Republic’s Simon Keenan, “a Porsche on sale.” One might read into the latter answer the notion of value, which is essential.
Or one might read that fashion people — and not just the rich ones — remain out of touch on matters of pricing. Those of us entrenched in the high end of this wonderful world can become disconnected from what the larger, fashion-interested-but-not-obsessed public is willing to pay for certain things. The very expression high-low suggests a choice-driven dichotomy, one in which a single customer shops both ends as suits her whim, and needs, of the moment.

Conversely, the cheap we love is all about perceived value. Comfy drugstore underwear. Cheap Eats — deemed by New York Magazine as worthy of a celebratory annual issue. A flea market bonanza. An undervalued stock. Cheap is getting more for your money.

In fashion, good cheap has only recently come out of the closet. That’s due primarily to the current fascination with high-low, and the realization that for even the most talented, highbrow designer types, there’s money to be made by catering to the washed and well-informed masses.

But exactly what is cheap by fashionable standards? In Monday’s WWD, Michael Kors cited New Balance sneakers, and Banana Republic’s Simon Keenan, “a Porsche on sale.” One might read into the latter answer the notion of value, which is essential. Or one might read that fashion people — and not just the rich ones — remain out of touch on matters of pricing. Those of us entrenched in the high end of this wonderful world can become disconnected from what the larger, fashion-interested-but-not-obsessed public is willing to pay for certain things. The very expression high-low suggests a choice-driven dichotomy, one in which a single customer shops both ends as suits her whim, and needs, of the moment.

WWD’s Cheap Week developed from today’s Page One fashion feature. Senior market editor Antonia Sardone proposed a fashion story featuring eveningwear priced below the designer range, an arena that gets little attention despite being a huge market. Antonia put the ceiling at $600. (Designers included take note: Antonia never pitched the story as “cheap.”) One thing led to another and we decided to expand the idea, taking the week to look at approachable pricing in other markets.

This led to the inevitable question: How does one define cheap? The ongoing democratization of fashion, our notion of cheap stills skews a bit Marie Antoinette. There are no doubt millions of hard-working people — including, possibly, some of the designers — who would take understandable umbrage at the labeling of any $600 garment as cheap. We get it. But this is fashion. Hyperbole reigns.


Tomorrow, WWD will run a portfolio of full looks that retail for under $500, many of which hail from retailers with outposts on lower Broadway. These include the five — Zara, Uniqlo, Forever 21, H&M and Mango — which J.C. Penney’s Myron E. “Mike” Ullman 3rd just went on record as saying have taken probably $20 billion to $30 billion of sales volume from department stores. (J.C. Penney is also featured in tomorrow’s piece.)

After looking at the extensive portfolio shot for the story by market editor Mayte Allende, and filled with terrific clothes, I decided to take a fast-fashion jaunt of my own. Thus, on Sunday afternoon, I headed for SoHo. As a consumer, I’d hardly pick that time to fashion forage in that neighborhood; as a reporter, it made sense. What I found: 1) the stores were packed; 2) people were shopping up a storm; 3) most were far too interested in doing so to talk at length to me; 4) if Jil Sander continues her Uniqlo gig, there’s no reason to ever again pay more than $50 ($29.99 on sale) for a basic cardigan.

Most importantly, I found from direct conversations, eavesdropping and looking around, that most of the people doing most of the purchasing perceived the prices at these stores not as cheap, but as normal. There are a lot of people out there who don’t find $79 for a Banana Republic sweater a steal. Acceptable, yes. Good value, yes. Cheap? Most decidedly not.

Sure, I spotted a few high-lowers in the crowd, particularly at Zara, where the crowd ranged from teens to women who have waved good-bye to 60, and from the innocuously dressed to the overtly trendy. All types seemed to find merch to their liking. One young woman doing pre-beach vacation shopping had previously browsed and bought at Louis Vuitton; a fortysomething, had a Burberry bag on her arm. A third, a young woman, who had worked in finance in New York before moving back to China, said she’s not a Zara regular but found appealing fashion and good prices. As for her price ceiling, she said $400 or so for a dress, but she’d pay anything for a Burberry trench.

Most of the shoppers I observed gravitated toward wear-now offerings, whether on sale or full price. And most honed in on casual clothes. Despite some terrific options across the board, at Zara, Forever 21, H&M and Banana Republic, among other venues, few people seemed interested in work clothes, fewer still in major cold-weather merch.

Nor was anyone getting the hard sell — or any sell. For the most part, fast fashion is a land of help yourself. In more than 15 stops, I was approached by salespeople only twice, by Ely at French Connection and by Jos at Mango, both extremely polite. Uniqlo, at least, is also a land of stand-and-wait, as the lines for the fitting rooms moved almost imperceptibly. Perhaps due to its size, that store in particular displayed ample signs of sloppy shopper syndrome; Sander would likely have conniptions to see her clothes in such disarray. The sales associates couldn’t keep up with the fray. And they tried. They did keep up with the store’s offerings. When questioned, several displayed strong knowledge of Sander’s. A young man at the checkout was happy to discuss the incoming men’s collection, and noted that I was lucky to get some fab basics on sale (those $29.99 cardigans) since full price is, well, considerably fuller.

Welcome to the real world, or at least a huge segment of it. As one travels this fast-fashion route, as I as I did, due south from French Connection at 700 Broadway to Topshop at 478 Broadway, one finds any number of outposts packed with well-priced, well-designed, yes, tempting clothes and accessories at stores such as Forever 21, Banana Republic, Eryn Brinie and the ever-charming AllSaints. I picked up a few items along the way. One might encounter an obstacle or two as well. It happened to me. Prada beckoned. I answered, to the tune of two skirts and a cardigan with just that touch of mink.
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