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As a Global Recession Looms, Quiet Luxury Returns

The 2008 recession led to a resurgence of minimalism. A similar kind of shift is on the rise now, but the industry’s relationship with trends and consumerism has changed.
A woman carrying a Bottega Veneta bag designed by Daniel Lee | Source: Christian Vierig/Getty Images
By
  • Chantal Fernandez
BoF PROFESSIONAL

NEW YORK, United States — The 2008 financial crisis put an end to a decade of extravagant, embellished style, with Phoebe Philo's practical, unfussy approach at Céline and the "stealth wealth" of Bottega Veneta's logo-free Intrecciato bags overhadowing Juicy tracksuits and Balmain's gilded military jackets.

Now, with US stocks nosediving as the ramifications of the global coronavirus pandemic set in, fashion is once again primed for a transition. Change was already in the air; even Gucci has simplified its baroque style in recent collections. Bottega Veneta, now led creatively by Philo disciple Daniel Lee, is once again in the mix, following a creative reboot built around streamlined dressing.

It’s not a coincidence that trends are turning in similar ways, a decade apart. During times of uncertainty, consumers favour professional clothing and are more considerate about their purchases, said Francesca Muston, Vice President of Fashion at WGSN.

“In the age of anxiety, consumers are looking to strip back and focus on what is really important — being mindful extends beyond meditation to being mindful about how we spend our time and money,” she said.

But much has changed since the last time the fashion industry saw such a dramatic pendulum swing. No single trend dominates the conversation as, for example, purposefully plain “normcore” fashion did in the 2010s. Today, anyone can find their community online regardless of mainstream preferences, allowing niche trends, like the return of the early aughts “emo-goth kid” fashion via Chrome Hearts, to flourish.

“We have a very fashion-forward customer and we are still selling very trendy and extravagant [items],” said Brigitte Chartrand, vice president of womenswear buying at Ssense. “We are having increases in sales for brands that have loyal followings, brands and designers that have really established aesthetics.”

She cited Rick Owens, Jil Sander, Loewe and Alexander McQueen as examples, as well as Margiela, whose Replica sneaker is a practical and proven success story. Other brands with a practical angle, like Moncler's winter coats and Nike's athletic apparel, are getting a boost.

Consumers’ new focus on sustainability is another factor. Brands are starting to tell customers more about how and where their clothes were made, and there is more conversation about buying pieces with longer use potential and higher resale value on the growing secondary market.

“There is a reset in our relationship with consumerism and possessions. The impact of the Marie Kondo Netflix series demonstrates how profound this movement is,” said Muston.

In short, retailers and brands were already anticipating a shift toward a quieter form of luxury. The popularity of The Row and Lemaire (including Lemaire for Uniqlo) are examples of a growing preference for items that are made with better materials or demonstrable craftsmanship. Dresses and suits — the kind of pieces that appeal to normal women with luxury purchasing power, and have historical precedent in fashion — are on the rise; skimpy clubwear, avant-garde silhouettes and logo T-shirts are in decline.

The brands that always focus on the product, the fabric, on the wearability are one step forward.

“The brands that always focus on the product, the fabric, on the [wearability] are one step forward compared to the others,” said Alix Morabito, fashion director at Galeries Lafayette, citing The Row, Lemaire, Jil Sander and Margiela as examples.

Even brands that are not as pared back in their approach have stopped “overstyling” their looks on the runway in recent seasons, where neutrals like beige tones and black have become dominant colours.

Retailers think the coronavirus and its ramifications will accelerate changes that were already taking shape — that growing emphasis on practical items from brands with loyal followings, and a reliance on neutral tones and other simple, solid colour palettes.

At Bergdorf Goodman, Chief Merchant Yumi Shin highlighted a shift towards wardrobing, or a focus on shopping for a daily uniform of timeless staples, as the largest growing trend of the moment and building over the last two years.

This modern wardrobe isn’t necessarily simple or basic, Shin said, but can feature exaggerated volumes and shapes and creative pairings of neutral tones.

New Bottega Veneta Creative Director Daniel Lee exemplifies this shift. While previous designer Tomas Maier also relied on logo-free everything, sensuality and sleek leather separates, Maier's take was more traditional and austere. Lee has focused on oversized and masculine shapes that are more aggressively trendy than Maier's proposition. Sleeves are puffier, jackets are billowier.

"I think separates have been very much a part of our vocabulary," Shin said, citing the "return of the jacket and tailoring."

Prints are harder to find now, too. “There are really no prints this season, it’s very clean,” she added.

Even occasion dressing for parties and weddings, once a place for the most experimental looks, has become more muted, Shin said. (That was before the spring’s major occasions, from cruise runway shows to weddings, started announced postponements and cancellations.) And experiments in textures are often head-to-toe, like a full leather look, and therefore clean in a different way than before.

But Shin emphasised these shifts in style were already underway before the coronavirus became a global crisis.

Morabito agreed. “It will be a game-changer in our industry, and it will accelerate the consumer consciousness.”

When it comes to actual purchases, brands with long legacy and established track records, the Chanels and Hermès of the world, will become safer bets for anxious consumers, said Joan Kaufman, a New York-based personal shopper.

“I still get requests for Birkins,” she said.

We’re tracking the latest on the coronavirus outbreak and its impact on the global fashion business. Visit our live blog for everything you need to know.

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