By  on July 28, 2009

The recession’s reach seems to be forcing the City That Never Sleeps to take a breather. The one-two combo of a decline in black-tie parties and benefits and the upswing in at-home entertaining is changing the way women dress up at night.

That’s not necessarily such a bad thing, according to some fashion insiders — many of whom now have no qualms about wearing daytime pieces at night. Dresses with detachable accessories also fit the bill for post-work festivities. All in all, many Americans seem to be warming up to a more low-key lifestyle.

For Vena Cava designer Lisa Mayock, the popularity of potluck dinners was the first sign a real change was underfoot. “In general, things seem to be more casual and low key. I am dressing more in daytime things for evening. Everything is a little less uptight and there are less boundaries about the way things should be,” she said. “I really hope things stay this way. It is so nice to go to a party where people seem like they are actually having fun. It seems like everyone has let their hair down a bit.”

That free-to-be fashion sense will be evident Sept. 10 when she and co-designer Sophie Buhl have their first runway show at Milk Studios. Their intent is for the models “to look exactly how people dress” as opposed to wearing refined overstyled ensembles. If that means a delicate chiffon blouse with a torn-up pair of jeans, so be it. “I know it’s not a new idea, but it is actually the way people dress,” Mayock said.

Having always enjoyed cooking, designer Lela Rose said she is definitely hosting more group dinners at home or going out with friends. “We’re all returning to a more pastoral time in America, when food was different and not shipped from all over the world. People are really changing their mind-set. Now it’s much more cool to be green, organic and have ‘staycations’ instead of jetting off to the Riviera,” she said. “But that will come back next year.”

In terms of her own collection, Rose said dressier daytime styles that can be dressed down in the office with a cardigan and dressed up with detachable necklaces for evening are selling well. A salt and pepper wool tweed dress with silver flecks and a detachable embroidered necklace is a bestseller, she said. “Women are looking for things they can stretch out or wear in new ways,” Rose said.

She continued, “People are definitely not throwing as many parties these days. I am not surprised at all that sales for evening gowns and true evening pieces are down. It’s the sort of thing that people buy when they need them.”

The fact that most people are more inclined to be invited to a cookout than a black-tie benefit at this time of year is partially due to the lazy days of summer or that there are 4,000 fewer restaurants in the U.S. than there were a year ago. But casual get-togethers are becoming increasingly popular — so much so that consumers on average fire up the grill with friends four times a year, according to a recent survey by The NPD Group. And instead of buying a new dress for the occasion, they are more inclined to buy a picnic table or something else for their outdoor exterior. Forty-five percent of the respondents purchased something along those lines in the past 12 months, and 40 percent plan to buy another outdoor entertaining item within the next 12 months, the survey reported.

Those who are venturing out for a night on the town don’t seem to be as concerned about wearing the latest and greatest. Depression-era dance hall was the theme at the July 23 Hot Diggity Summer Soiree at the Prospect Park Boathouse, with some revelers opting for feather headbands, flapper-type dresses and rompers. Vena Cava’s Mayock and Buhl, Maria Cornejo, Philip Crangi, Thuy Diep, Jeffrey Monteiro and Michelle Obama’s go-to boutique owner, Ikram Goldman, were at the Sally Singer-hosted bash. And earlier this month, Proenza Schouler served up ice cold cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon for noticeably chilled-out guests at its party for curating an issue of A Magazine.

David Patrick Columbia, whose New York Social Diary Web site chronicles the comings and goings of some of Manhattan’s more well-heeled residents, said many of his subjects have volunteered that they are shopping their closets and are trying to stay out of the stores. “A lot of these women feel guilty [about shopping]. I don’t know if it’s because they don’t have the money or because they really feel guilty. A lot of these women have more than enough clothes as it is,” he said.

They are still turning up at events and are turned out when they do, regardless of whether their homes are for sale or they took a beating in the stock market.“We’ve got a financial catastrophe out there, but it’s not really apparent in the world that I cover,” he said. “A lot of people are behind the eight ball, but the eight ball hasn’t hit them yet.”

Even CIT Group chief executive officer Jeffrey Peek, who presumably has his share of work-related woes these days, was spotted dining with his wife and another couple at Swifty’s last week. A more concrete sign of the times are the many sale signs in the windows of Madison Avenue stores, a neighborhood less inclined to tout any discounts, even in the height of the summer sale season, which Columbia recently photographed for his site. “There is a lot of denial going on,” Columbia said. “There is a real effort by many people to make things seem better than they are. It’s almost as though they believe thinking things are better will make them better.”

But it comes at a price fewer and fewer hosts are willing to pay. There are definitely fewer parties and events this summer than last, according to the Fashion Calendar’s Ruth Finley. “It’s because of the economy. Even if they get the venue for free, which many of them do, they still have to pay for the drinks and food and whatnot,” she said.

Reem Acra has noticed a growing interest among shoppers for such easy evening pieces as caftans, long skirts and tunics paired with pants. In recent months, retailers have been requesting more separates, since consumers are more willing to part with their money if they are buying something they can wear with something they already own. To further entice shoppers and to spare them added expenditures, she designed dresses with detachable accessories, including a belt with an interchangeable belt buckle. Those small add-ons can be used “to pump up” dresses they already own, or even T-shirts, Acra said. The designer has made a concerted effort to offer more day-into-evening pieces — 20 percent more than last fall — for today’s thrifty shoppers.

“At this time, everybody is trying to figure out what’s going on out there. It’s too early to predict how long this will last,” Acra said.

Gilles Mendel’s decision to offer more clean and modern silhouettes — in addition to his signature intricate styles — has appealed to today’s recession-conscious shoppers. J.Mendel’s president and chief operating officer Susan Sokol said, “It’s almost like ‘quiet cocktail’ [attire]. It is really working for us at this particular moment in time. It really feels right to our consumer.”

Offering more opening price point pieces and a wider range of prices for cocktail dresses and gowns has also helped boost sales, she said. Opening prices are 35 percent lower than a year ago. “We’ve evolved with the changes in the economy,” she said.

Eveningwear designer Michael De Paulo said interest in gowns has waned, but cocktail dresses are selling. “Obviously, there is a decline of benefits given the state of the economy. But I feel that women are craving all the more the need to be formal and are seeking the occasion to do so,” he said.

Though business is challenging, Neiman Marcus shoppers, especially in Dallas, Houston and Atlanta, are “still very social” and need eveningwear for galas and benefits, said fashion director Ken Downing. In recent months, customers have been “very enthusiastic” about meeting Marchesa’s Georgina Chapman and Keren Craig, Naeem Khan and Carmen Marc Valvo, and that has helped trunk show sales, he said. Beaded styles, along with one-shoulder dresses and gowns by Oscar de la Renta and Melinda Eng, are among the other eveningwear labels in demand.

“The fashion customer, overall, continues to shop, but they are not shopping at the robust level they were two years ago. But she is still in the store, and she wants great fashion,” Downing said.

That said, this is sale season for spring merchandise and “eveningwear always dips” when it is on sale, but Neiman Marcus, like its competitors, will return to full-price selling next month, he said.

Saks Fifth Avenue’s shoppers are willing to indulge in something new for once-in-a-lifetime occasions, but they are keeping an eye on the price tags, said fashion market director Colleen Sherin. Colorful dresses and gowns and one-shoulder styles are selling well, she said, with designer shoppers spending $2,000 to $3,000, and contemporary and bridge shoppers capping purchases at $500. Carmen Marc Valvo, Liancarlo and Talbot Runhof, a new label to the store, are leading the category, as are BCBG, Laundry, A.B.S., Aidan Mattox and Badgley Mischka Platinum for more affordable styles.

Vintage sales are going strong despite — or perhaps due to — the economy. Sales have been so strong at Housing Works’ six-month-old store in TriBeCa that it will relocate Friday to 119 Chambers Street, a space four times the existing size.

Lexi Sacchi, owner of the vintage store Frock on the Lower East Side, said more of her shoppers would rather not buy something straight from a designer collection. But they can still find big-shoulder pieces, cinched-waist items or other of-the-moment styles, she said. “The alpha New York women is more savvy than most. They walk into the store and go straight for the Alaïa, Mugler and YSL. They know where to put their money.

“Look at the amount of merchandise department stores are putting on sale,” Sacchi said. “Vintage pieces retain their value. Now in fashion, things turn over so quickly.”

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