What Sells During An Economic Downturn

As recession fears grow stronger by the day, there’s no question that the fashion world is feeling the vertigo of the stock market roller coaster. Last week alone, Women’s Wear Daily reported that US retailers are cutting orders by an average of 10-15% due to the economic climate, while it was announced that consumer confidence reached an all-time low in October. Given these factors, it would be easy to think the nation has put its credit cards on lockdown. But for the strata of society that’s remained insulated from the economic chill, it’s not so much about putting an end to shopping, but shopping in a more considered way. And while one might assume that demand for timeless basics would be on the rise in such uncertain times, many retailers report that it’s the exact opposite.

“To some degree, there’s an element of fantasy going on—our customers are buying more daring pieces, perhaps to escape from what’s going on in the world,” says Jenny Le, manager of Opening Ceremony in Los Angeles. “Knits, jeans and staples are always popular, but for women, we’re also selling a lot of crazy, playful things like Les Chiffoniers sequined pants and coats with detachable elements. Men are buying a little more practical, but are branching out with fun boots and tuxedo jackets, things that are a little out of the ordinary.”

This trend towards escapism isn’t just confined to the optimistic climes of LA—Sarah Easley of Kirna Zabête has seen similar results in nationwide web sales at www.kirnazabete.com. “Shoppers are looking for excellent quality, show-stopping items,” she notes. “For some clients ‘show-stopping’ means fantastic fantasy fashion, while others prefer luxurious classics. Price is less of an issue if the pieces are a perfect match for the client.” During the recent weeks of tumult, Easley reports that sales of leather pieces have been particularly strong, from Rick Owens leather jackets to Elise Øverland leather leggings and Azzedine Alaïa belts.

The one commonality expressed by each retailer we surveyed was that, no matter what their customers were buying, they’re giving the shopping process much more thought. “There has been a significant change in the frequency of shopping trips,” says Renee Klein of LA’s Presse. “People are definitely still buying, but the reduced rate will ultimately affect retailers and brands.” Klein’s customers are overwhelmingly turning away from dresses in favor of standout separates—notably, Rose’s skinny trousers and hand-written Sayings tees, along with Bruce’s cropped, puff-sleeved jacket and oversized knits by VPL. “So far, we haven’t experienced a big change from the norm—rather, our customers are making more thoughtful purchasing decisions,” agrees Easley. “Shoppers aren’t buying less, they’re just choosing what they buy more carefully.”

Michael Mente, co-founder of Revolveclothing.com, adds: “We have not seen much change in customers’ clothing choices, although we have seen reduced spending across the board.” However, he goes on to note that “many of the economic stresses—concerns over gas prices, the need to spend more time at the office—are bypassed by a hassle-free online shopping experience.” With this in mind, Mente has no plans to change his buying strategy for spring, continuing to seek out the new and emerging designers that are still selling strongly.

With all of this paradox in mind, it’s no wonder that many retailers are erring on the conservative side for next season. Along with the decrease in orders reported by WWD, W29 Showroom’s Susanne Rehnström noticed a shift in their mentality at the recent market weeks in New York, Los Angeles and Paris. “The mind is not as open as in previous seasons, and that sometimes means buyers are not willing to take a risk with a higher price point or to pick up a wide representation of a new collection,” she says, while at the same time noting that buyers seem to gravitate towards statement jewelry in particular.

Despite all that, Rehnström, for one, can see how this turmoil may turn out to be a blessing for the fashion industry, saying: “I think that the change we are noticing should not be considered a definite negative experience for the fashion industry. I think it will force designers, buyers and editors to focus on cohesive concepts, resulting in more well-edited boutiques with a distinct direction, as opposed to too many stores carrying the same brands and not allowing for a fun shopping experience. The times of over-consumption are over. Along with this come the new ideals of society, like awareness of global warming, organic produce and fair trade, which will ultimately result in a better world.”

—Erin Magner

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