American fashion approaches spring with cautiously optimistic outlook

The Associated Press ~ staff The News
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NEW YORK - Fashion can't be angry forever. It's an industry that thrives on what's new and what's next, and for spring that means cautious optimism about the economy.
The tough, warriorlike styles in stores now were already on designers' sketch pads when the stock market was at its low point and the presidential election was still a campaign.
But after eight days of previews at New York Fashion Week that ended Thursday night, it's safe to say there has been a softening of spirit for spring - even if sales, especially sales of luxury fashion, remain sluggish. Designers envision women wearing more sportswear separates, summer leather, shorts suits, floral prints and an overall looser shape.
"Fashion's responsibility is to put forth fashionable pieces she doesn't already own," said Ken Downing, fashion director for retailer Neiman Marcus. "When there's a newness, it will excite her and entice her to come back and shop."
Still, the looks for spring couldn't ignore the recession that, whether it has ended or not, continues to influence consumers. Ralph Lauren sent out looks that some described as "Depression chic," inspired by the American worker. And designers didn't go overboard with glitz; instead the buzz was about easy elegance.
Some looks were inspired by exotic, faraway lands, others by beaches much closer to home. There was fluidity and texture, and favourite fabrics ranged from sheers to leather.
"It was a week of contrasts, sweet and feminine through to masculine touches of bold tailoring," said Avril Graham, executive fashion editor at Harper's Bazaar.
Narciso Rodriguez's collection found the sweet spot between body-hugging and billowy and was largely considered to be one of the strongest by retailers, editors and stylists. He said it was a gut feeling to go with a more relaxed silhouette than the super-sleek, aggressive one he championed for fall, and a business decision to give his customer something different.
"Everyone is hopeful the economy will pick up," Rodriguez said. "I've had a great reaction to this (season) and sales of fall the last few weeks. It was great to feel the optimism when I was working on this."
Candi Pratts Price, executive fashion editor of Style.com, said Rodriguez - and many others - understood the need to stand for a brand. Customers want to be loyal, but they need to know what they are being loyal to: an identity that stands for a particular esthetic and quality.
Designers, meanwhile, need to be mindful of what their particular client responds to. "You've got to get to know me, the customer, then you get me to follow you. You get me interested and excited, and that's what makes it aspirational," Pratts Price said.
Basics aren't what's going to keep the business going, said Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler, a label that is considered very directional. The downturn has affected Proenza's sales for the worse, but Hernandez and partner Jack McCollough didn't hold back for spring, turning out dresses with feathers, tinsel and a permanent jacket-tied-around-the-waist look.
"The last thing the world needs is another black pencil skirt. You want something that feels more joyful," he said.
It was helpful that designers on the whole seemed to stick to what they do best - wearable sportswear - which allows New York to put its own stamp on global fashion. Tastemakers expect certain things from French and Italian designers, like innovation and craftsmanship. New York should own sportswear, Pratts said.
There also was a shift toward seasonless clothes, which shoppers probably will respond to since it's usually how they dress.
"I wanted to address all aspects of her life and wherever she might be," said designer Peter Som of his collection that ranged from sundresses to a silver leather bomber jacket.
Downing liked all the leather and suede, noting that it wasn't heavy and hard like the fabrications used for the now-popular motorcycle jacket. The spring pieces are buttery, lightweight, luxurious and offered in a lot of colours.
If there is one silver lining to the dark cloud the economy has cast over the fashion industry, it might be that designers are stepping up their game, said Stephanie Solomon, fashion director for Bloomingdale's.
"I like the fact that every single designer I've seen is refining their skills," she said. "Tumultuous times led these designers to burst with creativity."
- With files from Megan K. Scott.

Organizations: Harper's Bazaar, Style.com, Bloomingdale's

Geographic location: NEW YORK

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