The brooch is a perfect fashion trend.
It always fits. It cannot make a woman look fat or sallow. It is as flattering on an older woman as it is on a young girl. Whether browsing a fine jewelry counter or trolling the Internet, a woman can spend as much or as little as she likes. This assemblage of crystals and rhinestones -- that typically is no bigger than the palm of one's hand -- perfectly encapsulates the retro-feminine, polished sensibility of the entire fall season.
The brooch may be the most accessible fashion trend to come along in a decade. And that is precisely why the fashion industry has pronounced it dead. Stultifyingly dead. It is all over but the eulogizing.
"You could go to a vintage store or a flea market and spend a little money and stick it on a cardigan or jacket you already owned and look like you were part of a trend," says Linda Wells, editor in chief of Allure magazine. As she speaks by phone from her New York office, her voice turns soft and wistful. "As soon as you saw it on the runway, you could go home and adapt it. It was democratic by nature.
"It had no chance."
It feels as if just yesterday the brooch was being touted as the must-have item for fall. On the cover of the enormous September issue of Vogue, smack in the center of a scarlet Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche dress, there sits a vintage Fred Leighton diamond-and-pearl brooch. The closing page -- 832 to be exact -- is devoted to two "dirty diamond" brooches, one real and the other fake. Thus it would be only a slight exaggeration to say that only two months ago the brooch was the alpha and omega of fall fashion. But by November, Austrian crystals pinned to lapels or diamonds tucked into cleavage were hard to find in the fashion glossies. In this month's Vogue, Caroline Calvin, the creative director of Levi's, announces that her brooches have been put on "probation."
"One moment pins are my one feminine touch," she says, "and the next thing you know [Sarah Jessica Parker] is wearing them all over her Gap ads."
Understand, this story wasn't written in the past few days. The no-brooch edict went out weeks ago.
"I never even took the price tag off the one I had," says Wells, who confirms that there are no brooches in the December issue of Allure. "I guess it'll become a present for my niece. She'll look cute with it." Sweet, lucky, out-of-fashion niece.
Technically, the brooch was a fall trend. And according to the calendar, autumn began Sept. 22. But by then, the trend was already over. It is impossible to zero in on the precise moment when brooches were tossed onto the trash heap with baguettes, pashmina shawls, lariat necklaces and ponchos, but one can come close. The time of death was somewhere between Sept. 6 and Sept. 8 -- between Labor Day and the opening of the New York runway shows. The fashionable crowd had returned from the Hamptons. And as if it were the first day of school, folks arrived at fashion shows dressed in their new fall clothes.
"Before the official selling season started, [brooches] were all over the place," Wells recalls. "The day after Labor Day, I was at an event and the women were all in brooches. I thought, 'Uh-oh.' It's too late.
"When you see something like that so pervasive, it looks like a logo. It was almost like a great neon sign that said 'trend.' The ubiquity really made it seem like to put a brooch on a sweater was to feel like a fashion victim."
By late September, fashion editors and retailers had gathered in Europe to preview more spring 2005 collections. In the audience, there were a few stray brooches pinned to jackets and coats. But after one wearing, most women were shamed into stowing them in their jewelry cases. Word had spread: The brooch was dead.
A few women remained resolute in their commitment to the trend. They wore their brooches defiantly, almost as a show of solidarity with the rank-and-file fashion aficionados -- the ones without summer houses, who are not part of the inner circle. Suddenly, wearing a brooch became a socio-political statement, akin to slipping on a UAW jacket or a trucker's cap. Power to the people! But it was a lost cause.
Brooches had become so popular that they were old hat. They were so ubiquitous that none of the liberal elite wanted to wear one. They were selling so well that the fashion industry couldn't wait to sell something else. These bits of paste and glitter are the perfect example of the fashion industry's tragic flaw: impatience.
"The brooch is a wonderful case to examine because it highlights the problem," says trend consultant David Wolfe of the Doneger Group. "The industry is killing the goose while it's laying the golden egg."
Rooted in Nostalgia
In spite of the restless editors and retailers, it is a fine time to be a jewelry designer. "My business has never been like this," says jewelry designer Gerard Yosca with no small amount of amazement and glee. "Thank God, because you have those lean years when you think, 'Oh, pasta again tonight.' . . . This is a good year. This will pay for a year or two of college for my daughter.
"I have never seen something that hit so hard," Yosca says. "People like my brooches because I use a lot of vintage glass and I make them myself. We did these assemblage brooches with feathers and everything else, which Saks has gone nuts for."
Yosca has been in business for more than 20 years, and his pins are priced from $175 to $250. In addition to his own label, Yosca also created fall jewelry for Tracy Reese and Nanette Lepore. Yosca has always had a reliable customer base in places such as Texas. "If it's bold, they put it on," he says. "They want the pin and the necklace that all matches the suit." But he attributes this new, broad enthusiasm for brooches to their handmade quality. "You want it to look personal," he says. "The semiprecious thing started to look so generic."
Jewelry designer Catherine Stein calls her brooch sales "phenomenal." Her business is about 75 percent brooches and 25 percent necklaces, and "all of the reorders are pins," she says. Stein's work, which can be found in stores such as Nordstrom and Lord & Taylor, is noted for its mix of colors and textures. She is convinced that brooches will remain popular through Christmas and into spring and is offering pins in fabrics such as raw silk that will not overwhelm spring's lightweight cottons and linens.
"The average person doesn't spend time combing through magazines looking for the next new item," she says. "The upper market is into something at the beginning, then it takes eight months to a year for the majority to be aware of the trend."
That is the way the system is supposed to work. But in the case of brooches, the system imploded. It didn't take a year before brooches became widespread. It didn't take eight months. It took about five seconds.
The industry "is not used to something that hits fast and furious from every level," says Susan Rolontz, executive vice president of the Tobe Report, a retail consultancy. The brooch trend represents a rare fashion phenomenon. It was a style that was almost simultaneously born in a designer's atelier and among hoi polloi. It is rooted in nostalgia. It was refined by Italian designer Miuccia Prada. It was mass marketed by the Gap. And it was turned into an instantly gratifying bargain by Internet commerce.
Prada had been toying with oversize embellishments for several seasons dating back to 2002, when she juxtaposed chunky sapphire-colored beads on crisp white dresses.
One year ago in Milan, she presented her collection for spring 2004. It featured souvenir postcard prints on full skirts and tie-dyed sweaters. She used beaded silk brooches -- about the size of a coaster -- as closures for her tie-dyed cardigans. The collection received praise throughout the industry. By the time designers in New York and Europe debuted their fall 2004 collections -- in February and March of this year -- there were brooches everywhere. Patrick Robinson bought Hattie Carnegie brooches on eBay to accessorize his collection for Perry Ellis. Peter Som pinned brooches on fur stoles. Donatella Versace put them on her ladylike cardigans. And Prada unleashed an avalanche of baubles and gems on sweaters, coats, shoes and handbags. There were few garments in the Prada fall collection that were not adorned with a corsage of glitter.
But before any of those designer collections arrived in stores, before any of the department stores had a chance to stock their jewelry departments with a critical mass of brooches, the undisputed accessory of the fall 2004 season was already everywhere else.
"It happened before it happened," Wolfe says. "It's one of the fastest moving trends I've ever seen. The accessory trends can move more quickly because you don't have to wait until the weather changes."
But when trends are so hot, Wolfe says, "the lifespan is shorter. Everything is prematurely consumed."
Summer Stunner at the Gap
By summer 2004, there were fabric floral brooches in the Gap. Colorful faux gemstone brooches had become a staple at Banana Republic. Handmade pins were readily available to tourists on SoHo street corners. There were thousands of listings on eBay.
"It's something that people have gotten very excited about. It's something people don't have. It's unbelievably on fire at retail," says Rolontz who has, in fact, purchased a brooch and continues to take great pleasure in wearing it.
"I think everyone should get excited about a really fun fashion that doesn't cost an arm and a leg," she says, her voice rising as she makes a case for the patience to enjoy this wellspring of retail profits. "I think it's exciting when people get such joy out of a piece of bloody costume jewelry. I think that's fantastic."
She decries the "brooch fatigue" coming from the inner circle of the fashion industry. "We're getting out of it faster than the customer. The brooch just came on the scene for this fall. You don't think we'll get at least two seasons out of it?" she asks. The question is almost an accusation. "We're all in such a hurry to get to the era of plain clothes with Jil Sander and Helmut Lang. But why would you kill off the business? . . . Give me a break."
(Those who only just now have come to grips with fashion's more decorative phase may want to ignore that bit about Sander and Lang. Because if the jarring truth be told, the future does not hold more baubles and bangles. It holds spare and subdued clothes. The only question is how fast the industry gets there. But for the moment, back to brooches.)
"People who know nothing about fashion are wearing the same things as those who know everything about fashion," Wolfe says.
That's bad. Extremely bad. A sure buzz killer. "Part of fashion's appeal is that it's not too mass-produced," says Allure's Wells. "Ultimately, as sad as it is, a lot of fashion is wanting to be the cool girl or the cool girl's best friend."
As soon as everyone's got what the cool girl has, no one wants it anymore. At least, not any self-respecting cool person. And so, the trend dies.
Michael Fink, senior fashion director for Saks Fifth Avenue, has been unsparing in his indictment of the brooch. Done! Finished! Over! Blech! No matter that Saks Fifth Avenue continues to reorder them because customer demand is so high. No matter that during a presentation to Saks's general managers last month, Fink was nearly blinded by all of the brooches glittering from staff lapels. It is his job to make sure that his customers are elegantly, effortlessly "on trend."
"It will go through holiday and it will be done. You can get through January and February," he concedes grudgingly. "You're not at the beginning of the trend, but you can finish it out." What about Mother's Day? Won't it last that long? Absolutely not.
Thus, if anyone receives a brooch as a holiday gift, it would be wise to wear it immediately and often. Indeed, if one buys a brooch today, wear it out of the store to optimize "on trend" time. Wear it with jaunty abandon. It should be worn recklessly, in groups, he says. It should be almost gaudy, thus preventing it from being dowdy. "Showing people how to wear it so it does look new, that's been our biggest challenge," Fink says.
The rise and fall of the brooch -- and before that, chandelier earrings -- reflects a broader trend, which is the revival of costume jewelry. To that end, the fashion industry has turned its attention to beaded necklaces and ropes of seemingly found objects. There were essentially no brooches on the runway for spring. But because of all the V-necklines and jewel collars for spring, there will be a lot of visible chest. Women should fill that space up with multiple strands of long necklaces, "the chunkier, the bigger, the better," Fink advises.
Labels such as Marni, Lanvin and Prada have championed necklaces. There are plenty at Banana Republic. And on the Internet. There are more than 3,000 listed on eBay.
Says Fink, "We believe in the neck -- absolutely."
Sure you do. But for how long?