Fashion learns to make itself ‘useful’

The thrift-driven zeitgeist is full of phrases like ‘shopping in your closet,’ which is horrifying to retailers and manufacturers

Fashion learns to make itself ‘useful’My fashion life got off to a rocky start in January 1949, with the purchase of a nasty off-white wool coat from the famous London department store Selfridges (now owned by Canada’s Galen Weston). Everything about the coat was wrong in my eyes. It wore me, though that was not a phrase an eight-year-old would actually use. The coat was trotted out on every “occasion,” and I was forced to wear it to my school’s annual Founder’s Day when everyone else wore mud-brown macs. “But darling,” said my mother, fussing over the ribbons in my plaits, “it took all your clothing coupons and some of Grandma’s. This coat will last. Look at the hem: real value.” The hangover of that particular incident, etched like a dagger in my psyche, is a lifelong aversion to clothing of “value.”

What goes around comes around. The theme song of the rag trade today is value, value. Luxe is “value.” Brands are value and most of all dirt-cheap clothes are. This is to strangle the newborn thrift that consumers have discovered and to reinvent spending as a value-enhancing enterprise. While Canada seems immune to the world’s economic meltdown, in big cities like New York consumers are sitting on—and in—their old purchases. The air is full of phrases like “shopping in your closet,” a destination that horrifies retailers and manufacturers. And so the gang-up has begun.

To buy or not to buy? Consumerism was bad, now it’s an imperative. Pity the fashion industry that wants to seem responsible but must push garments ordered way ahead of the season. Catalogue companies use “backup agreements” to hedge their bets: if early demand shows fuchsia embroidery is not this season’s answer, they pay only a penalty cost for units not bought. This is useful but not a solution. How do you make consumers actually buy when every newscast tells them the end is nigh?

Try a combo of moral suasion and usefulness. “Utility” is a description now attached to the most un-useful clothes—spike-heeled shoes are “utility boots”; blouses with double pockets are “utility” jackets. New clothes are not just decorative, they reek of “value,” this season’s special compliment.

Frivolity has become duty. New York Fashion Week opens Sept. 10 (displaying 2010 spring fashions), and that evening launches a massive campaign named “Fashion’s Night Out.” The purpose is to get shoppers into stores to purchase new clothes and to drop off their “gently used” ones (dontcha love that phrase?) for AIDS charities—incidentally making room in crowded closets for new gear. Stores across New York City will stay open till 11 p.m. There will be parties and champagne and shopping with loads of designers present. “I encourage everyone to get out and shop,” said NYC’s small business services commissioner Robert Walsh, clearly a fearless bachelor himself with no wife hanging on his every word. Cities around the world will be doing the same thing. Our own Canada appears to have taken a pass on what Women’s Wear Daily is calling the “Global Retail Initiative.”

All of a sudden, fashionistas want you to know they respect the “value shopper,” hitherto outta sight and unlamented. U.S. Vogue’s Anna Wintour will kick off Fashion’s Night Out at Macy’s—in Queens. Advertising is the lifeblood of a magazine and of late Vogue—an ad-friendly mag with most advertisements on the cherished right-hand page and editorial banished left—has been featuring new names beween the Chanel and Gucci displays. Welcome to JeanBay jeans (“$39.95 Best Value Novelty Jeans on Earth”), together with articles emphasizing thrift as only Vogue can. My favourite: the mother and daughter from Austin, Texas, who are “easing the strain on family budgets” by purchasing three items that 18-year-old Jane Aldridge and her 46-year-old mother can both wear and share—like the 10.5-cm spike-heeled $995 Phi utility boot, the $385 faux fur cropped jacket and the $304 leopard print sarong miniskirt. Comments Mrs. Aldridge, “The look is ladylike with a tough edge.” She is just thin enough and blond enough to pull this off (barely), but not at any supermarket outside Austin.

In a move all of a piece with this ethos, the king of cheap fashion, Isaac Mizrahi, has become creative director of the Liz Claiborne brand. Mizrahi says he’s aiming at “intelligent women who care about value.” His first collection highlighted design wit while retaining Claiborne’s classic conservatism—except perhaps for the large handbags his models wore on their heads.

Hopes are that schmutter bankruptcies (Filene’s Basement in Chapter 11, Spiegel Inc., Eddie Bauer) and empty stores will at least be staunched. All rather ironic given the recent withering criticism of shopping and derisive attitudes toward “consumerism.” Fashion counts: it covers jobs from longshoremen to salespeople and shopping malls. When asked how large a volume of sales Fashion’s Night Out expected to generate, designer Vera Wang foxtrotted: “It was never a numerical thing. It is very much about stimulating men and women of all generations to shop. We’re working to make them feel good about shopping, and how it can be pleasurable, creative.”

It’s official. Get out the plastic, girl. Clothes are the economy’s wartime bonds.

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