The Hard Yard...

How the Recession is Transforming the Catwalk

By Lucy Freeland

Tuesday 25th September saw the triumphant return of Veronique Branquinho to Paris Fashion Week after a three-year hiatus. Like a host of Breton-styled phoenixes arising from the ashes of recession, Branquinho’s models trod the boards bedecked in grown-up glamour: floor-length gowns, relaxed tailoring and lashings of stripe. But does such a renaissance – of Branquinho and others like her – signal the conclusion of the fashion recession? Is it all champagne and caviar and ‘as you were’? Or rather, does it reflect the upping of the style stakes? Having rested too far back on their taffeta laurels, designers have had to sit up and take notice of the society they style, especially if they too do not want to become metaphorically, and literally, redundant.

We often try to convince ourselves that opposites attract, and so it seems to be with high-end fashion and recession; aside from a few individual exceptions, it is generally assumed that the market is far from fizzling out as purse strings tighten. Women are still investing in top-class fashion, focusing now on ‘unique’ pieces, ‘staple’ pieces and pieces with timeless wear, as the Milan catwalk demonstrated. Look at the latest resurgence of the 70s ‘Capsule Wardrobe’ phenomenon, notably given the recession-friendly nod by Gok Wan in 2008, now considered a practical way of incorporating designer garb into the wardrobe of the fashionista on a budget. It seems there is some method to the madness of splurging on expensive style in tricky economic times. On the one hand, we need power-outfits for confidence in the work place, and on the other we need outfits to impress off-duty. With US sales in birth control rising 10% in the last year and charting a 50% sales increase in their stock, it seems the recession is reinvigorating dating and the ‘quiet night-in’. And yes, that does mean that those Chanel shoes are totally worth the investment. 

So if business is booming, why do people like Branquinho fall short at the last hurdle? Is it money alone? A fear of falling over the precipice of relevancy has seeped its way into the stitching of every major fashion house over the last four years – note, this is not caution, but fear. Caution has, if anything, been chased out of fashion as quickly as it has arrived in Joe Public’s annual budget. Of course, there does seem to be a limit, as the sinking of all sixty-three of Betsy Johnson’s wacky boutiques confirms. As Karl Lagerfeld gushed romantically on Radio 4’s Today programme, ‘in a bad moment, change is the best thing that can happen’. Change, certainly, but in an organic sense. The move that has proved most successful for fashion houses since trouble began has been the kooky re-shaping of old ideas. Take the latest Burberry show [September 2012]. Awash with corsets and capes, it was a reflection - albeit with a twist - of Burberry one hundred years ago. What matters now is fashion pedigree; if we are going to spend our hard-earned dollar on style, we want to feel we’re making an investment, not a loss, and nothing says ‘timeless’ like an impressive back-catalogue of both items and buyers. 

This is visible in the styling not only of Burberry but also Chanel. In celebration of the 80th anniversary of Coco Chanel’s first jewellery collection the brand, rather than uncovering a radical new take on the art of accessorising, returned to 1932 and to the spirit of Coco, a woman who best embodies timeless elegance. Knowing the background to your wardrobe and how pieces are produced also has renewed significance for the recession buyer. Again, Chanel understands this notion of heritage perfectly, acquiring French glove-makers Causse, previously owned by Lagerfeld, to preserve history and artisan. And take Italy’s concerns over Bangladeshi, Turkish and Indian textile workers eclipsing its own native fashion manufacture: such real concerns were resolved by a revaluation of the basic selling point, the power of the ‘Made in Italy’ export label. Domestic consumption may have declined, but there is still a demand for the authentic leathers, silks and laces that historically made labels such as Fendi and Bottega Veneta so popular. 

Fashion, like everything, has suffered recession blues, but there is life in the old dog yet – if you can take the pace. As a member of Vogue/YouGov’s recession fashion survey said: ‘it is OK to be redundant; it is not OK to look redundant’.

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