New York Fashion Week Unveils Style, Fashion and…Affordability?

by Rachel Yeomans | September 17th, 2009   

Christina Binkley of the Wall Street Journal reported on the newfound accessibility of designer fashions.

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Richard Chai didn’t show his namesake clothing line during New York’s Fashion Week. Instead, the designer used his coveted runway slot to introduce a new, less-expensive line called Love.

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Richard Chai Spring 2010 RTW

Photos: NY Magazine

When it arrives in stores in the spring, Love will cost about a third as much as his Richard Chai line, with prices as low as $400 for a jacket, $200 for pants. “I want this line to be accessible,” Mr. Chai said backstage before his show.

He acknowledged that the A-word has long been considered indelicate in the fashion world, suggesting compromised creative integrity.

But this is the new fashion economy. Less glamorous. More sellable.

During the boom time, it was considered somewhat shameful to create a “commercial” collection that had practical elements (sleeves, for instance) that made them widely wearable. Now, many designers are creating more casual clothing — known in the industry as “contemporary” — with an emphasis on luxury-quality sportswear. These clothes are more comfortable to wear and cheaper to produce than past collections, with less-expensive fabrics and simpler designs. For instance, dressed-up shorts are still with us, often paired with elegant matching jackets. There’s also plenty of knitwear, such as Jason Wu‘s mustard-gold sweater set, and daytime clothes, which tend to feature less elaborate details and techniques. The interest of some of Michael Kors‘s crinkly-looking tops, skirts and dresses lay in the fabric, not the design.

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Jason Wu & Michael Kors Spring 2010 RTW

Photos: NY Magazine

Retailers have been demanding that prices come down and that clothes be more broadly appealing. It’s easier for most designers to bring down prices than to predict what will be appealing — that’s the roulette part of the business. This is the second season in which many designers have said they’re bringing prices down 20% or more.

Chatting backstage, Zac Posen seemed as interested in discussing his new, less-expensive fabrics as he was in the styles he had created. “I’ve been using cotton twill,” he said, pointing at several dresses, “to keep price points down.”

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Zac Posen Spring 2010 RTW

Photos: NY Magazine

Mr. Posen also said he has added more daywear than ever before. Daytime clothing can sell more units, though it’s often less creative, less glam and less likely to build an artist’s reputation.

Designer Sophie Theallet is also emphasizing lower prices. Retailers such as Neapolitan, in suburban Chicago, had stopped carrying her line. “Sixteen hundred dollars for an unlined dress is too much,” said Kelly Golden, Neapolitan’s co-owner. But Ms. Golden was taking another look this week after hearing of Ms. Theallet’s new prices, which the designer says have come down about 30%.

Ms. Theallet makes her clothes in the U.S., rather than going overseas for cheaper labor, so she has cut expenses largely by means of careful attention to fabrics more cottons and even one dress sewn entirely from black silk lining fabric, which she washed. “It’s a wonderful fabric for summer,” she says.

In the past, designers had incentives to raise prices. Indeed, the most expensive brands were considered more prestigious. The 3.1 Phillip Lim line was sometimes said to be less haute than higher-priced competitors, despite the excellence of the fabrics and construction. In fact, among luxury clothes, 3.1 Phillip Lim has long been a bargain because of the way the brand has used savvy supply and manufacturing systems to create quality.

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3.1 Phillip Lim Spring 2010 RTW

Photos: NY Magazine

Retailers surveyed during the New York shows this week were markedly cheerier than in the previous two seasons. Ron Frasch, vice-chairman of Saks, used the word “happy.” Saks Chief Executive Steve Sadove used the word “uplifting.” And Linda Fargo, fashion director of Bergdorf’s, said she was “pleased” with the collections.

“I’m kind of excited about the return of luxe sportswear,” said Ken Downing, fashion director of Neiman Marcus, citing anoraks, delicate floral fabrics, and printed-textile shoes among his favorite trends. “The designers have taken a very hard look at prices,” he added.

Of course, it’s always been hard to fathom the relevance of fashion shows for those who don’t typically spend $1,800 on a dress — even if that kind of dress is now coming down to $1,200. What’s more, the weirder the clothes look on the runways — all done up by stylists the more it seems the fashion establishment loves them.

Yet runways really do dictate many trends. The plaids that are now popular were introduced by Jean Paul Gaultier in his Paris show two years ago. Giorgio Armani re-introduced harem pants last year. Both collections met with some derision, and a good deal of Mr. Gaultier’s plaid merchandise wound up marked down on sale racks. But now these styles are commonly sold in fashion shops and worn all over the streets.

When Marc Jacobs introduced pleated, narrow-ankle pants at his Spring 2009 show a year ago, look what happened: Stores are replete with the 1980s styles from all sorts of brands.

Thus, it may come as a relief to some that Mr. Jacobs, Mr. Posen and some other influential designers are no longer going that direction. A sleeker, more minimalist style is emerging. “No eighties. We’re living 20 years later,” said Mr. Posen before his own show this week. “It’s all about a skinny shoulder.”