Fashion Frugality Fades

Even amidst recession, designers stay committed to ‘real luxury’

Post-crisis: High-end shops in Vienna are back to business as usual | Photo: Maria Willis

Shopping can be fun in Vienna. With affordable catwalk-inspired pieces, and thousands of new styles churned through the stores every year, a trip to high street shops such as Zara and H&M can mean a good time without the guilt trip. While it might be nice to have that original studded Balmain skirt or Christian Louboutin snakeskin shoes, or to strut down the street with an exquisite crocodile PS1 dangling eloquently on our arms, affordability is usually what decides the day.

Recently, though, there have appeared an increasing number of fantasy fashion emporia – homes to labels once available only in Milan or Paris.  Get close to Christian and lull your heart with Lanvin; Parisian chic is making its presence known here, coupled, however, with prices to match.  Shops such as Dressroom and Sterngasse 4 are offering the Viennese, designers most commonly found at the jet-set watering holes of Monaco and Cannes.

And although Vienna has not been hit as hard as other countries by the recession — a 6.4% unemployment rate seems like nothing compared to the 10.2% in the United States – there is something almost, well, tasteless in all this extravagance.  Is a fashion injection into this traditional city really what’s going to help revive the local economy?

There must surely be more pressing concerns than that gorgeous quilted leather jacket, or the newest take on the 80s trend which seems to have gripped everywhere from Paris to Tokyo?  A simple answer from a lot of women, however, is no.  Especially if you are one of the – surprisingly – many who can indeed afford to spend thousands of Euros on a single piece of clothing which will last a mere season.

But how will the women of Vienna react? Will their purse strings be tied tight until all whisper of the crisis is gone, or will they embrace the increased choice of exclusivity with open arms and wallets?

At the outbreak of the Recession, (what The Atlantic’s Benjamin Schwartz claimed was “universally labelled” a Depression within the fashion world) the industry had responded by parading “investment-worthy” cashmere sweaters, good quality black angora coats together with a sturdy (albeit Prada) leather bag in order to harness your shopping habits for a spell. Yet the encouragement of investment pieces over “trend shopping” seemed little more than a short-term appeasement strategy to increase reader numbers.

Now, with the corpse still warm, we are witnessing a change of heart.

Vogue.com parades beautiful camel coats and states “invest in the wisest buy of the season that you will wear for years to come” but is this not a paradox – invest in a seasonal trend which should last years? As Cindy Crawford said “the whole point about fashion is that it changes.”

In a show of solidarity for those adversely affected by the crisis, editorialistas, and stylistas had once encouraged select pieces. Even Anna Wintour, through her “repeat” outfits at the “Spring 2010” shows, confirmed the choice of “crisis classics”. Kudos Anna!

However, the tides have turned again: New (and even more expensive) pieces are elbowing for attention, as each week, netaporter.com reports on the new “must-haves” of the coming season.

The 80s “power shoulder,” for example, is back on the catwalks for both winter and summer next year, as is hounds tooth, with Margaret Thatcher, apparently, as our new inspiration. Some saw the 1980s as a decade fashion forgot; so what has convinced so many to spend up to 8,000 Euro on a Balmain, pagoda-shoulder leather jacket, which will hardly see them through to next season, let alone next year? Time and time again, the fashion world shows us how rapidly trends change; spending so much on one piece seems nothing more than a whimsical, passing fad.

At some point in time, the idea of the “investment” piece may have made sense.  On top of the long-life, it encouraged people on modest budgets to choose the one good quality, ‘designer’ bag, reasonably confident they could still be seen with it years later.  But as author of De-Luxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, Dana Thomas wrote, it is little more than a lure to the consumer to spend.

Our ‘suitable interval’ of mourning for lost affluence turned out to be all too brief.   And we are back at it again. It is no longer “invest, invest, invest!” in long-lasting and wearable pieces, even if merely a marketing scam; we are back to “trends, trends, trends” where a new trend is born almost every month. August’s issue of UK Vogue heralded ladylike leather as the trend of season, followed by October proclaiming that nautical attire is “indispensable” for autumn.

International news has also shown us that fashion is not recession-proof.  Following fashion week in October of 2008, SAKS Fifth Avenue was forced to slash its prices by up to 70%, leaving no space for revenue and next to nothing for the designers themselves. Dolce and Gabbana even recognized the need to adapt to the current economic climate by reducing prices on their pieces by up to 20%.

However, many luxury brands refused to reduce costs in order to promote consumerism or to even appeal to the frugal-minded. Early in 2009, when the recession first began to show in the numbers, CEO of Versace, Giancarlo di Risio, was reported as sticking by a commitment to “real luxury.”

Versace did not want to “open our doors to the consumption of young girls who can put the designer handbag of their dreams on their arm with less than 300 Euros. We are not interested in that,” he said, in spite of a dip in profits of 30% in the company’s 2008 profits.

So why the sudden insensitivity to the victims of economic irresponsibility?  There has hardly been a wave of mass-re-employment, primarily in the U.S. but also in Europe, particularly in the East. With some countries still experiencing the highest unemployment rates since the 1930s, the new couture designers in Vienna may just be jumping the gun.

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