LONDON, United Kingdom — Luxury casualwear and demi-couture don’t appear to have much in common. You can’t get much further from a hand-embellished crystal crinoline dress than a silk jersey t-shirt or a sporty windbreaker. But in recent seasons, many of fashion’s brightest young talents have been gravitating towards one extreme or the other. Labels like Alexander Wang, The Row and Christopher Raeburn have struck a chord with their easy, upscale styles, while the likes of Mary Katrantzou, David Koma, Rodarte and Jason Wu have attracted a healthy stream of high-end clientele with hand-worked looks that border on couture.
“This gravitating to extremes is a reflection on the way that today’s luxury-wearing women are dressing,” said Ruth Runberg, buying director at Browns, the influential London-based fashion boutique. “Very few are still living every hour of every day in a designer skirtsuit with matching heels and handbag — it is simply too formal and too stiff to be modern,” she continued. “While this client may still demand from designers the more special, high-design pieces for certain times, she also has a need for clothes to wear when she doesn’t need to be ‘dressed.’”
The rise of the dressed-down day-to-day look is also a clear response to the troubled economy. “When the recession hit, we saw demand grow exponentially for designers offering this cooler, more casual luxury look — The Row, Alexander Wang, ACNE,” said Runberg. “Generally, very formal dressing felt appropriate or tasteful at fewer and fewer occasions in the wake of the financial crisis.” But for those occasions when women do need a fancy frock, they are increasingly requesting only the most exquisite, intricate pieces, she explained. “In response to this shift in demand, young designers have gone the direction of offering their clients either very special demi-couture or luxury casualwear.”
When London-based Mary Katrantzou — 2011 winner of the British Fashion Award for Emerging Talent in Womenswear — first introduced her printed lampshade skirts for Spring/Summer 2011, pieces which required hours, and sometimes days, of handwork to shape their wired frames and ensure their signature digital designs were perfectly symmetrical, she did it merely to push herself and her team. “At that stage, it was just a challenge to try and build a showpiece in our collection that really translated the theme of the season. But [these demi-couture pieces became] something that was wanted not only by people who buy privately, but also by our stores,” said Katrantzou.
Indeed, the designer sold 18 units of her £8,300 Fall 2011 Jewel Tree dress, an appliqué velvet frock, embellished with enamel flowers, lace and Swarovski crystals, that took so much work that it actually made Katrantzou’s machinist cry. “I think the customer is inundated with so many different options. They have so many things to choose from but if women who collect fashion don’t see something that really strikes them as unique, they don’t bother anymore,” explained Katrantzou. “It’s a new way of buying.”
“Customers are looking for something special,” concurs London-based designer David Koma, whose figure-flattering hand-embroidered frocks can cost up to £8000 and take up to two weeks to complete. “Now, you can buy almost anything at any price. There’s a huge market for commercial brands so I feel if [customers] are buying something expensive and buying something special, there should be a lot of handwork and craftsmanship involved to make them feel that their money is well spent.”
The customer’s desire for uniqueness and quality craftsmanship is reflected in the rise of luxury sportswear, as well. “There was a period where everything began to get very casual and I think many designers, even if they were designing sportswear, began to take a more refined approach to what they were offering. Not by changing the genre of sportswear entirely, but by offering luxe details or evening fabrics for daywear,” Daniella Vitale, chief merchant and executive vice president of Barneys New York, told BoF.
“I think there’s certainly evidence that in tough economic times, people tend to buy more unique things. They want pieces that are very special,” said luxury sportswear designer Christopher Raeburn, 2011 winner of the British Fashion Award for Emerging Talent in Menswear. “It’s very important that our garments have functionality, but our clients are really looking for something with high quality fabrics, as well as workmanship,” he added. “We’re very keen on the best levels of production that we can find,” said Raeburn, who makes his colourful anoraks crafted from reappropriated military materials and smartly-trimmed wool dress coats in England. Even his new range of jersey t-shirt dresses, featuring intricate prints and pockets, are made from English materials.
“The Barneys customer is looking for rare, exclusive product that has a strong price value and fits into their lifestyle,” said Vitale. “Frivolity is not in their vocabulary, which does not mean they will not spend money or pay a high price for something; it means they actually intend to wear it — more than once. And they want pieces that not everyone has.”
Indeed, although they inhabit opposite ends of the ready-to-wear spectrum, demi-couture and luxury sportswear share commonalities that are completely in sync with today’s luxury consumer: they both deliver high quality as well as high perceived value, either by virtue of being very special, almost one of a kind, or by being highly functional and enabling repeat usage over time.
Katharine K. Zarrella is a freelance fashion journalist.