If you've opened a women's magazine recently, then you probably know what's in this season. "Investment" fashion! For the new economy, editors and luxury advertisers have been throwing around terms like "value," "quality," "green," "key pieces" and "timeless" as though they had some, well, timeless meaning.
It's not in dispute that the fashion industry is in some dark times right now; what are as-yet unanswered questions is just how bad things are, and what that will mean for future patterns of consumer spending.
On the former point, The Atlantic's Benjamin Schwartz takes a dire view indeed, calling the most recent New York fashion week "a splendid relic" and quoting liberally from F. Scott Fitzgerald's Depression-era essays on the free-spending, free-spirited, bull-market 1920s, and what the period meant. (Whether Schwartz's blithely generic line, "The current collapse, universally labeled within the fashion world a depression," and inclusion of data about the layoffs of just under 2,000 people at Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus are strong enough factual support to bear the weigh of Fitzgerald and his Jazz Age elegies is questionable; if and when we see California close its borders and tens of thousands of hoboes camp out on the Washington Mall, then we'll know for sure if this downturn merits a comparison in absolute terms with the Great D.)
But Schwartz's article gets a lot of things right, too. He's mostly on point with the queasy timeloop of fashion, wherein collections are presented six months ahead of the season for which they are designed, made of fabrics ordered six months earlier, and financed with the proceeds of the collection which had, all the way back then, just left stores. If anyone wondered why last September's collections seemed so deaf to the sudden financial crisis ringing through the land, that was why. Similarly, the glut of unsold product that clogged the department stores last fall — and which caused Saks and others to break the rule about not discounting new stock before it had been in store two months — was all there because buyers had ordered it the previous February, when no-one foresaw the crisis, the ensuing recession, or the cataclysmic correction in consumer spending they would bring. (I don't think that, as a result, this February runway models "halved their catwalk fees" out of the goodness of our hearts, as Schwartz's odd locution implies — and the per-show rate he quotes, $20,000, is typical only of models named Naomi Campbell, anyway — it was more like designers cut rates on the girls they were paying at all, cut payment-in-trade on the girls they never were paying to begin with, and we all ate it. But that's a small misunderstanding of an industry subsection that is itself willfully obscurantist.)
Exactly how bad things are — F. Scott Fitzgerald bad, or survive-and-reorganize bad — aside, what to do about the fall in consumer spending has advertisers and magazines thinking furiously. As W magazine reported, the luxury market reached its peak in 2007; unusually, the luxury-goods sector has been hit harder than retail generally, and was down 23% last month. Counter-intuitively, publisher Nina Lawrence sees this as evidence of a "luxury renaissance." In this view, aspirational consumers are down for the count, leaving the very wealthy to enjoy the perks of membership in what is once more a very exclusive club.
Others, and Schwartz is among them, see a place for the aspirational consumer still — but that new ways of reaching her are being found. Sally Singer, Vogue's fashion news and features director, wore a year-old doubleknit cashmere Halston blazer, a J. Crew sweater, and "very old" Devi Kroell ballet flats to the first day of fashion week, and speaks of "conscientious consumption"; ergo, says Schwartz, "this idea of buying so-called investment pieces resonates more deeply today than it did even six months ago." Julie Gilhart, Barneys' senior vice president and fashion director, says, "If I were a consumer now, I'd really want to buy pieces that count, that last; the customer is in no hurry. She should be choosing these things with great care." Singer reminds us that "things that are very expensive can be very expensive for just the right reasons — because they were made beautifully by someone who really gave a lot of care to the design and by people who were fairly paid along the way to execute something that was rather difficult. Those prices that often seem high are fair prices."
Singer edits the Vogue "Views" section, which this month leads off with an exclusive story about Christopher Kane's new position as creative director of Versus, Versace's relaunched, lower-priced line. The Kane-designed "gladiator heels" in the accompanying photograph cost $3,400.
Karl Lagerfeld would support Singer's view. As he tweeted yesterday: "Guilty feelings about clothes are totally unnecessary. A lot of people earn their living by making clothes, so you should never feel bad."
Chanel is a privately held company, so of course it's impossible for any of us to actually know what else besides honest middle-class livings for garment workers is financed by the cost of a $2,000 purse or a $4,000 dress.
The entire idea of "investment" dressing is actually pretty dubious, writes Lesley M. M. Blume, at The Big Money. It's nothing more than a marketing term designed to separate us from our hard-earned cash, says Dana Thomas, the author of last year's De-Luxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster. "They're just changing the slogans. It used to be, everyone deserves a little luxury and a little splurge. Now that no one can afford the splurge, the business executives are all scratching their heads and saying, how can we repackage this again? So now you're buying 'quality things that last forever.' "
Investments are, after all, supposed to hold or rise in value — but this season's $1,600 purse depreciates as soon as it leaves Bergdorf's, like a new car burning off value as it leaves the lot. Only a few luxury items can actually fetch comparable prices when sold second-hand (as-new Birkin bags can actually rise slightly in resale value, since Hermès controls the $6,000-and-up retail market with extraordinary artificial scarcity, closed three-year waiting lists and all). But when the resale boutique commissions (or eBay and PayPal fees) are taken into account, the "value" of a Birkin — or any fashion item — depreciates, often precipitously. "Investment" is a weasel word in fashion, and it's a disappointment to see The Atlantic repeating an advertising term uncritically.
Whether Singer and Gilhart are sincere in their belief that, as Singer puts it, "the world does not need more things," it's true that both work for companies that make their living by stoking the fires of consumption. (Cathy Horyn nailed Vogue's particular blitheness when she wondered at its "peculiar fascination for the ‘villa in Tuscany' story" this January; you would also do well to remember last September's $64,000 gold-dipped fur coat by Fendi, which is of course designed by Karl Lagerfeld. "Value" indeed.) I'm not saying that these industry figures, and others who share their sympathies, can't and won't lead us into a new, more sustainable era of fashion; I'm just saying I'm wary of anything that, at least for now, still has the feel of a cannily adjusted marketing strategy.