Fashion gets real

The latest trend in runway design: turning a profit

Fashion gets real
Photographs by: Alberto Pellaschiar/AP (Left); Chris Moore/Catwalking/Getty (Middle); Seth Wenig/AP (Right)

When fashion designer Vera Wang was asked last month about her Fall 2010 collection, she was tight-lipped: “Well, my clothes are extremely wearable.” Amidst the high-heeled hustle of New York Fashion Week, the once-verboten w-word had been dropped without a flinch. “Wearable—it’s almost a dirty word in fashion,” designer Stella McCartney said last year. But these past months’ runway shows in Milan, London, New York and Paris drew a slew of formerly forbidden descriptors—words like “comfy,” “normal,” “commercial,” and “accessible.” This syntactic shift underlies a more fundamental financial change in the post-recession fashion world: designers are suddenly having to pay attention to what sells.

Wearable clothing is in. In Milan, Jil Sander’s tailored jackets stood in stark contrast to the mountainous ’80s-inspired shoulder pads of 2008. In New York, Marc Jacobs lowered his hemlines and Derek Lam opted for “honest” fabrics like cotton and merino wool. “Unquestionably, there are designers who are subscribing to a new kind of minimalism,” FashionTelevision’s Jeanne Beker told Maclean’s. Part of that, she says, stems from the “fears about conspicuous consumerism” that typically follow periods of downturn. But it is also a response to a more basic fiscal need—to tone down the artful and the abstract and make clothes that someone might actually buy. “You need to show clothes that are real friends to women,” urged designer Diane von Furstenberg, who heads the Council of Fashion Designers of America, last year.

In 2009, Christian Lacroix’s design house became one of high fashion’s first recession casualties. In May of that year, news that the house had launched insolvency proceedings was met with distress. But the reality was, Lacroix’s fashion house never turned a profit in its 23-year history. Back in the day—when it was assumed that runways were for art, not retail goods—you could get by with that kind of financial naïveté. But an abrupt decline in spending has sent an equally abrupt reminder to designers: that they are salespeople and manufacturers as much as artistes.

That commercial wake-up call was heard beyond the runway. Diesel, the Italian label, responded with a radical overhaul of its business model. The company named a new creative director (not a seasoned designer, but a magazine editor whose job is to anticipate trends, not drape fabric). The company also revamped its executive hierarchy, replacing big-wig designers with an anonymous design team that reports directly to marketing execs. Joelle Berdugo-Adler, president of Diesel Canada, says this is part of Diesel’s new market savvy. The same attitude is being adopted by large vendors. In January, luxury department store Holt Renfrew replaced its president, a seasoned fashion CEO, with Mark Derbyshire: a 40-year-old M.B.A. who used to head up marketing at Canadian Tire.

In Canada, some designers are hopping on a retail platform they might otherwise have shunned: the Shopping Channel. David Dixon, a Toronto-based designer, was approached two years ago by TSC with an offer to begin a partnership. “I was apprehensive,” he concedes. Still, he went ahead, designing a new, more “wearable” collection for TSC: “It’s easy to wear [and] you don’t need to dry clean it.” It’s also cheaper, by about 30 per cent, than his boutique line. The result: a sellout, and more TSC appearances to follow. Dixon admits that he’s paid a price for his new strategy: “A couple of retailers were like: ‘Oh, he’s on the Shopping Channel. We can’t carry him.’ ” Still, he says it was worth it. As his colleagues go under, Dixon swears “business has never been better.”

Chi-chi designers like Karl Lagerfeld and Stella McCartney already sell affordable collections at bargain retailers like H&M. And many companies are launching lower-price subsidiaries. For instance: Versace, which has been forced to lay off hundreds of workers, will launch a cheaper line in 2011, the same year the company hopes to reach profitability.

On the consumer end, a new generation of “recessionistas” is relishing this new era of restrained glamour. “If you ask someone ‘Oh, where did you get that?’ people are proud to say they got it from Zara or Topshop,” says Beker. “No one would have admitted to that even a few years ago.” In Canada, that modesty has even given a boost to local designers. “A lot more eyes came to Canada where prices are reasonable,” says Robin Kay, president of the Fashion Design Council of Canada. “When I first started doing this, Canadian fashion was an oxymoron.”

Of course, some are still nostalgic for the days of runway art. “If I could just sit in an ivory tower and design all day and just see clothes go by from my fantasy head, that would be wonderful,” muses Dixon. But as Diesel Canada’s Berdugo-Adler explains, it’s time to move on. “Luxury,” she says, “is not a word anymore.”