Here's the Good News: Designers and Execs See Positive Points

Karl Lagerfeld said, “Chanel did even better this year than last year in the same time."

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"You people only write the bad news.”

“You think? Well then tell us some good news.”

So went the challenge, and you responded — with crisp perspectives and admirable candor. There is no question the industry has been devastated by the economic unraveling of the last year. Too often it has seemed the only news out there is of layoffs, closings, disastrous numbers and on and on through a litany that only two years ago would have seemed impossible. The reality is undeniable, but even in the midst of woe — perhaps especially in its midst — everyone yearns for the positive. Just look at what a few weeks ago emerged overnight as the hottest thing on YouTube: not a tawdry, pseudo-celebrity sex tape or a clip of a politician sounding foolish, but a video of an amply chinned, cat-loving spinster with the voice of an angel. She made the world feel good.

The good news revealed here is as diverse as the companies and people surveyed. Some identified modest gains — reorders, healthy sell-throughs, traffic increases at retail — which once might have been taken for granted. Others spoke on a more universal scale, about shifts in consumer psychology. Though points were often highly brand- or retailer-specific, much of the information fell into categories, a veritable fashion “Jeopardy!” of thoughts positive enough to please a latter-day Dr. Peale. Many noted that while the fourth quarter of ’08 was unquestionably horrific, sales picked up, albeit modestly, in the first quarter of ’09. Numerous executives spoke of continuing to open around the world, as Dries Van Noten put it, by choice and not because the decision “was made before the crisis started.”

Perhaps the most significant information gleaned from these interviews is that the industry is holding up a great big mirror to itself. Time and time again, in describing the runaway prosperity of the past decade, people used scatological terminology like aberration, gluttony and laxative, the latter noting the process of major cleansing as necessary and inevitable as it was unexpected. Some said success had bred sloth among the established, who came to think that if hyped enough, anything would sell, and arrogance among the aspiring, who wanted success on their terms, on a platter, right now. (“They made [Michelangelo] copy paintings for six years,” offered Bud Konheim.) 

As for the consumer? She had become a witlessly overlabeled glutton, busting out the plastic at the drop of a shoe, careless of sticker or price-value relationship. But no more. People “are getting a more discerning eye,” noted Michael Kors. And both retailers and fashion houses professed new devotion to her worship and to the product that best serves her. To that end, there were numerous shout-outs to the price-value relationship, regardless of price. “Hermès is doing very well,” said Diane von Furstenberg. “Why? I can still use my mother’s bags.”

But the biggest news: Dialogue, sprung from the realization that we’re all in this together. For example, both Sidney Toledano on the fashion-house side and Ron Frasch on the retail side noted the importance of catering to regional markets, knowing full well the compromises involved. Said Frasch, whose insightful comments will run Tuesday, “All the political barriers have fallen away, and all the defensiveness has gone away, because we all know that we’ve got to do something different and better. What could be more exciting than that?”

Karl Lagerfeld: “Chanel did even better this year than last year in the same time. That’s the miracle of Chanel. Is it the collection? I don’t know. Is it because people want things safe? I have no idea. It’s a miracle.

“There are less people — they have machines where they count how many people cross the door — but now the people come because they are ready to spend. With a crisis, all inborn stinginess is now a legal excuse. Before when people didn’t spend they were considered stingy. Now they say, ‘We are careful.’ That is a very dangerous thing, because money should circulate, and the best way to get out of the crisis is to have the money circulating as much as possible. That makes jobs. That makes everything. So the ones who come are ready to shop.

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