Hughes Neghaiwi: Fashion rises from recession

Consumers and producers worldwide are still feeling the woes of the recession that “ended” last June. After the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, economic remission is coming about at an achingly slow pace. The fashion industry, which is heavily defined through the designs and ideas of its high-end market, has seen buyers cutting back and designers struggling to regroup after painfully low sales. Out of this decline is born a new trend that takes fashion away from the frilly excess of the past decades towards a style that reverts to past values of quality, simplicity and purpose.

This fall, fashion is experiencing a curious fascination with all things Depression and all things Mad Men. Satchel bags, leather backpacks, cloche hats and fedoras, heavy wool sweaters, capes, shift dresses, and all things in beige (or, more stylishly, “camel”) — these are the current loves of fashion. While the inspiration comes from two historically distinct and very different eras, the thread of continuity lies within the business-minded, no-nonsense attitude expressed by both. Muted tones express a certain austerity, while knits and granny sweaters express a utilitarian practicality.

Of great benefit to the consumer’s pinched pockets, these styles lend themselves easily to thrift-store shopping and garments borrowed from the back of parents’ and grandparents’ closets. Many pieces are also easily reproducible by hand, which invites individuals to try to sew or knit their own clothing.

Several designers have incorporated exaggeratedly chunky knits into their collections, championing the handiwork involved in their production and bringing back the coolness of craft.

Fashion designers showed the first concession of financial worries in 2009, when Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour and the Council of Fashion Designers of America approached Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York with the proposal for Fashion’s Night Out — an event that first took place in September 2009 in New York City and reconvened in cities around the world this September, with the idea that a night in which stores stayed open late and threw parties would create enough hype to stimulate the consumer to spend.

High-end brands have also struggled with department stores and retailers’ cutting suggested retail prices and putting merchandise on extended sales, which threatens designer exclusivity. This deep desire for exclusivity seems to be a precarious value to hold on to, and designers are quickly losing their grasp on it (most notably, over a dozen luxury designers have begrudgingly opened online stores on their websites for the first time, a move that increases profit and accessibility but diminishes exclusivity).

In the same vein, Lanvin is collaborating with H&M this November after past proclamations by its designer, Alber Elbaz, that he would never do a “mass-market” collection, declaring the move as “H&M going luxury rather than Lanvin going public” to temper the disparity.

Indeed, the current social climate is problematic for exclusivity for reasons beyond the economy — other forces, such as the ease of information sharing, favor the democratization of fashion: a movement in the direction of startup brands, trickledown and recycled fashion, everyone’s blogs, do-it-yourself and individual creativity. Consumers are becoming more and more disillusioned with the deferral to fashion authorities when they can so easily become quasi-experts of their own.

The luxury market is showing some signs of financial revival, however, with many designer labels staging their first children’s collections. But the mentality behind the latest industry movements doesn’t seem to be affected by this. The trend that generated the loudest buzz during the spring 2011 shows at Fashion Week was that of minimalism: futuristic, bright and streamlined.

In a sense, it is a style that has already been seen in the collections of Jil Sander and Marni of years past, but these designers always represented a “quirkier” market without much of a mainstream impact. Anyone who has visited a Zara store in the past five years can see which catwalk influences have been marketed to High-Street consumers: the big-shouldered, chain-embellished, leather-and-denim rock star-military style trumpeted by Balmain and the skull-print, Marie Antoinette-esque intense frivolity of Alexander McQueen. (No qualification can be spared.)

It’s also indicative that the spring 2011 McQueen collection features more straightforward, tailored pieces than those seen in previous shows of the firm. While the theatrical style of the brand’s late designer and namesake, Lee McQueen, was still evident, the introduction of new influences seems to project a different direction for seasons to come under new designer, Sarah Brown.

In a recent episode of “On the Street,” Bill Cunningham’s multimedia series for the New York Times, he alludes to a saying in the art world that goes, “Simplicity is a consistency that resolves itself.” Minimalism carries with it the notion of simplicity but moves beyond the historical with its social and economic implications and carves out a fresh perspective for itself.

If the fashion industry continues in this manner, it is sure to produce novel and forward-thinking designs in seasons to come.

Stay tuned.

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