It would be an exaggeration to suggest that the fashion industry is reliving the ostentatious '80s. That would be too easy, too uncomplicated. No, the industry's renewed enthusiasm and investment in designer fashion comes with a more enlightened understanding of the value of style.
In the early '90s, when the industry was still nursing a hangover from the '80s bacchanal of extravagance and drunken self-indulgence, clothes took on a monastic quality. Indeed, designers stitched dresses out of bolts of nun's cloth, perfect for mourning the death of glitz.
Back then, few things were more chic than a Gap pocket T-shirt. Minimalism was the buzzword of the industry. The term "deconstruction" was employed to describe tattered clothing as well as a philosophical mission to redefine the nature of beauty and sex appeal in a way that basically turned out to be ugly and androgynous. It was aesthetic penance for years of unbridled self-adornment. Folks boasted about how little they had spent on some enticing frock. Frugality was worth bragging about.
As the decade progressed, boutiques that dealt in high-end fashion and traded on snobbish appeal saw their fortunes plummet. Martha filed for bankruptcy protection in 1992, and Charivari filed in 1997. Barneys New York sank into bankruptcy in 1996, and hordes of folks rejoiced that this uber-snob of high-fashion retailing was crumbling. Barneys closed several stores, including its original downtown Manhattan site. And then Loehmann's, the famed discounter of designer fashion, moved in.
But now the fashion cycle is turning. Discounters Filene's Basement and Loehmann's have filed for bankruptcy. Barneys has reorganized and emerged from its bankruptcy. With Allen Questrom at the helm, instead of the founding Pressman family, the company has announced plans to expand its offerings of young designer labels in its co-op department.
And Jeffrey Kalinsky, with three designer shops in Atlanta, recently opened--to great cheers and scrutiny from the industry--his Jeffrey New York store in Manhattan's meatpacking district. It is 12,000 square feet of designer clothes and accessories.
There's even a new Web site, www.pashminatrunkshow.com, dedicated to the sale of the expensive pashmina shawls so extolled for their warmth, softness and place of honor in the closets of the world's socialites.
It's now okay to admit spending $3,000 on a skirt.
The bankruptcy of such high-profile designer discounters suggests that the passionate search for the "great deal" has cooled. At the very least it has become more complicated, more nuanced.
In part, the bankruptcies were predicated on the discounters' muddled position in the market, competition from other deal makers--whether designer outlets or department store sales racks. But more than nuts-and-bolts merchandising mistakes, discounters are suffering because of the changing nature of designer fashion.
The designer market now is populated with items of the moment--beaded Gucci jeans, a mirrored Fendi handbag. Blink and the desired item has changed. These items don't turn up discounted. In fact, there generally are too few of them to go around to the folks panting to pay full price.
Nowadays, what's the value of a Giorgio Armani suit from several seasons ago that has been marked down 60 percent by a discounter? Not much considering that a more recent model probably could be found at Neiman's Last Call for the same price or even less.
And why pick through piles of merchandise in search of a bit of marked-down Prada when one could find Prada-inspired garments from a list of merchants that includes Banana Republic, Club Monaco, the Gap, Old Navy, BCBG and so on.
Stores such as Loehmann's and Filene's were founded on the belief that designer names were sacred, that their value would not fluctuate and that there was a thrill inherent in the hunt for a great deal. Now, who has time for a hunt?
Designer labels have once again entered the limelight. But the point is indulgence, not thriftiness. Jeffrey New York is positioned as a destination store filled with a friendly and attentive staff. It harks back to a time when folks would go on an afternoon shopping excursion. The point was to buy. To gather. Not to track down some elusive bargain.
It doesn't matter if one is spending thousands of dollars on designer labels, hundreds of dollars on sleek cell phone technology or tens of dollars on Target's Michael Graves housewares. The goal today is to wallow in the pleasure of style. And, unlike in the '80s and early '90s, that can be done at virtually any price point. The storied discounter is no longer necessary.