Robin Givhan: Designers Find That, in the Downturn, Old Patterns Don't Fit

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The fashion industry is in crisis -- both financial and existential. Over the summer, designers and retailers gathered in New York for a come-to-Jesus, group therapy session in preparation for the upcoming spring runway shows, which begin Thursday. Industry veterans such as Diane von Furstenberg and fledgling entrepreneurs such as Chris Benz detailed their individual business needs, lamented the dispiriting recession, grappled with shifting consumer priorities and searched for relevance in a culture that has been forced to reassess its outlandish spending habits and addiction to high-priced status symbols.

"It reminded me of when I was at Parsons and September 11th happened and everyone was questioning their career paths," says Benz, 26, who's defying the philosophy that outsourcing is unavoidable. "Everyone in fashion was reminding themselves that it's an important industry; it employs so many people. It was nice to get everyone in one room. Fashion is super-competitive and it's nice to hear that everyone is going through the same process; it's the same emotions."

The soul-searching and hand-wringing that July day at the Fashion Institute of Technology were both urgent and prolonged because the current challenges facing the industry are so overwhelming and the stakes couldn't be higher. In New York (and then in London, Milan and Paris) designers and retailers will place bets on what consumers will want to buy six months from now -- Michelle Obama sheaths? 1980s harem pants? Something else entirely? -- and at what cost. A single bad decision could mean bankruptcy.

To improve their chances in the spring of selling the next new thing, the industry is doing everything it can right now to prep and thrill consumers, drive them into stores and persuade them to pry open their wallets and buy fall merchandise . . . at full price. To that end, New York's week of large-scale runway shows and modest presentations begins Thursday with Fashion's Night Out, an extravaganza of consumerism, philanthropy and showmanship that reaches into all five boroughs and beyond. It was the brainchild of Vogue editor Anna Wintour. To get the shopping started, she and designer Michael Kors will travel to Macy's in Queens -- thus appealing to everyone from Bergdorf blondes to outer-borough value-hunters -- to greet customers and autograph T-shirts created for the event. Stores will remain open until 11 p.m.; designers will sing, dance and schmooze; bands will play; drinks will be served. And, Seventh Avenue hopes, shopping will ensue.

"Anything the industry can do to draw excitement in stores is a real plus," says Michael Gould, chief executive of Bloomingdale's, which is one of the more than 700 hundred retailers that will be keeping late hours.

Similar events will take place around the globe in cities where Vogue publishes -- from France to Brazil. And here in Washington, stores on 14th and U streets NW, such as Muléh, Lettie Gooch and Redeem, will host special events and stay open until 11 p.m. or later in hopes of enticing customers to buy, buy, buy.

The industry cheerleading and introspection continues through the month. Beginning Sept. 17 at Tysons Galleria, local retailers will put fall 2009 collections on the runway. The three-day event, called All Access: Fashion, includes a by-invitation panel discussion about the future of luxury fashion and an appearance by "Project Runway's" Tim Gunn. All Access: Fashion was created by Washington marketing and public relations executive Aba Kwawu to promote her roster of fashion clients, all of whom are struggling to answer a few fundamental questions: "What do we do now, post-recession, when everyone is struggling to reinvent the dream? What do we do to get consumers excited to shop and to shop in season," instead of waiting for sales?

"We were spending based on perceived wealth and that's gone," Kwawu says. "Our values have changed."

Neither one night of cocktail parties and gifts-with-purchase nor one weekend of fashion shows and navel-gazing can fix all that is wrong with the fashion business. Retailers and designers know this. "Because the industry is so big, you can't change it all," says von Furstenberg, queen of the wrap dress and president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. "But what you can do is to try and promote it and make it exciting."

The industry brought much of this crisis on itself by operating on a business model that became entrenched during the 1980s and '90s. During that period, personal savings steadily declined. Consumers were socking away less and less of their disposable income, as the "wealth effect" -- the overconfidence of rising affluence, based on capital gains and inflated home prices -- grew. But fashion's spendthrift heyday was an anomaly. There is no other period during which an economic trend has continued for so long, according to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

The '80s were the era of conspicuous consumption: big shoulders, big hair, big Christian Lacroix poufs. The '90s saw the rise of status logos from brands such as Gucci and Prada. Luxury conglomerates grew bloated and every independent designer believed he could transform his name into a lifestyle megabrand. Design houses suckered consumers into buying $1,000 disposable handbags -- trendy satchels meant to be tossed away or tucked into one's California Closet -- at the end of a season. Venture capitalists threw money at designers with more personality than business sense. Retailers stuffed their shelves with merchandise that looked just like the merchandise overflowing the racks of the retailer down the street. And when it didn't sell in five minutes, they marked it down. Fashion became a business focused on entertainment, stock options, smoke and mirrors.

How did the fashion industry spiral so far away from its fundamental job of creating desirable clothes for folks to wear? It's simple, says von Furstenberg, who has also become the industry's unofficial shrink.

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