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Fashion’s Tectonics: Designers in a Tizzy Over Masstige Shift

Three seismic cultural trends are changing the landscape of fashion and it has the industry pondering its future.

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Let them eat fashion.

Karl Lagerfeld has decreed that even the masses shall be able to afford to dress as if they had just stepped off a runway with his forthcoming collection for H&M; Isaac Mizrahi is playing both to the ladies of the manor at Bergdorf Goodman and the servant class at Target; designers are beginning to chase licensing deals again to get their names out to every income class, and every income class seems eager to prove they, too, can be a designer.

Three seismic cultural trends are changing the landscape of the fashion industry: Celebrities are increasingly usurping the traditional role of the fashion creator, designers have once again embraced the concept of “masstige” and, to consumers led by the example of Sarah Jessica Parker on “Sex and the City,” iconic fashion logos are being replaced as status symbols by the oxymoronic rise of individuality as a trend.

The shifts have designers uneasy. They are increasingly wondering: Is fashion headed for its greatest revolution since Yves Saint Laurent popularized French ready-to-wear, or is it simply a blip as companies chase sales?

No one knows. The only certainty is that consumers are changing the way they perceive the role of clothing in their lives and how they look at fashion designers. As a result, fashion may no longer be one of life’s little luxuries since everyone can now afford to be stylish.

As Cynthia Rowley, who also designs the Swell line for Target, said, “there is no exclusivity anymore in design.”

All these changes are contributing to the shifting perception of what luxury means to the consumer — whether she is browsing a $10,000 custom-made gown at Bergdorf Goodman or buying a $200 suit at Macy’s that bears the imprint of a designer name, even though it was never touched directly by that designer’s hand, or is snapping up a designer label at a discount price at TJ Maxx. That change has been evident in both hemlines and headlines, as The Wall Street Journal carried a front-page story this week that declared, “As Consumers Mix and Match, Fashion Industry Starts to Fray,” and The New York Times included in its coverage of fashion week a reference to the “conspicuous consumption” philosophies of Thorstein Veblen in “The Theory of the Leisure Class,” which not incidentally was published at the turn of the last century.

Yet in the current fashion revolution, it’s the distinctions between class that themselves come into play, for when fashion is available to everyone at any price — you can pick up a designer blouse for less than $10, along with the groceries, at the local Target — the long-standing function of fashion as an indicator of wealth becomes obsolete. Fashion’s relationship with luxury is then suddenly at odds as it risks losing the distinction of exclusivity altogether.

Some designers find the scenarios disturbing, but others feel that opening up the process, its democratization, is the key to fashion’s future, even if it misappropriates the word “luxury” in the name of individualism.

The consumer’s desire for customization is so great that customers will eagerly sign themselves up for a yearlong waiting list to pay $6,000 for an individually stitched Hermès Kelly as they will pay a little extra to choose the color of the pony embroidery on their shirts at polo.com. How chic it must be — and also in that spirit of practicality that has always defined American sportswear — to be yourself when Gap’s “How Do You Wear It?” campaign flogged by SJP mirrors that “Have It Your Way” attitude of Burger King.

“America is going in a different way than Europe, which, for better or for worse, had defined luxury with brands that are as old as this country,” said Patrick Robinson, who is wrestling with his own campaign to make the collection he designs for Perry Ellis stand out from the merchandise that clogged department stores for so many years. He’s not the only one, as designer businesses such as Michael Kors, Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger see a huge potential to offer retailers exclusive products almost door by door.

“What we are creating, from Gap to Perry Ellis to other brands, is luxury that is disposable because of the price point,” Robinson said. “Europeans are used to buying one great piece and mixing it into a wardrobe, but Americans are a much more disposable culture. People want a lot of fashion and at an affordable price. They think it is a luxury to have clothing that is fashion, something that is right for the moment and at an incredible price. It’s very different than a Prada bag of the season.”

It’s difficult to imagine where this all could lead. Putting the power of fashion into the people’s hands has an admirable ring to it, but the implications could also be daunting for a world that has only recently become accustomed to taking its style cues from the red carpet more than the runway. This relaxing of the rules of fashion design already has invited a number of people who have never had the beginnings of a fashion education to assert themselves as authorities on matters of style, not only the J.Lo’s and Beyoncé’s of the world, but Pamela Anderson, Anna Nicole Smith, Mandy Moore and, soon, Paris Hilton. What must be going through the mind of a shopper who is now encouraged to mix and match labels when they walk into a department store where they used to complain about the same old, same old, but now face an overwhelming sea of choices — most of it coming from “designers” with really bad taste whom they may have just seen on a reality TV show? Like everything in fashion, it is only a matter of conditioning the customers to make their own decisions.

“In a way, style is becoming much more telling of a personality,” said Pina Ferlisi, executive vice president of Gap brand design, the head designer behind the specialty store’s recent fashion makeover that is centered around a philosophy of “attainable luxury.” “It says more about your character, who you are and what you believe in, and it takes a lot of confidence to be able to own it and say, ‘I’m wearing a blouse I bought at Walgreen’s.’”

Ferlisi argued that it is ultimately the customer who is driving this demand for something different, not designers foisting the responsibility for creating their own look upon them. Because life has become more serious in recent years, shoppers are reacting by taking the demands of their wardrobes less seriously.

“They are more willing to put things together in a way that makes things much more individual, and defining luxury on their own terms,” Ferlisi said. “The whole definition of luxury today has changed. It used to be defined by good taste, but that can be learned. It had become very textbook and very boring. Style has to become more individual, and therefore more interesting. A little bit of luxury goes a long way now as people are looking at different style cues. People used to look at runways and designers, but now women like Nicole Kidman and Sarah Jessica Parker are their style cues. They put things together in such a way that you can’t really say they’re wearing ‘so and so.’ You just see them.”

The biggest fear among purveyors of luxury in the classic sense is that expensive fashion will lose its reason for existence. So far, that’s been anything but the case as high-end stores such as Barneys New York, Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus report consumers are spending feverishly. But in the long-term, who knows? Technology advancements have made quality production available that makes some inexpensive garments indistinguishable from pricey designer originals, and many designers have felt a financial pinch as a result of purveyors of fast-fashion such as H&M and Zara that can put their runway collections in stores weeks before the actual designer merchandise is available at retail. As Ferlisi pointed out, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of being asked, “Where did you get that?” and being able to proudly answer, “Gap.”

By association, it should then be embarrassing to admit to paying a hefty price for such luxuries. But Isaac Mizrahi’s recently unveiled “high-low” concept has challenged that theory with his pioneering concept of pairing $20,000 ballgowns for Bergdorf Goodman with $20 T-shirts for Target on one runway — mainly because that’s what the designer found interesting. At the launch of the show, Mizrahi said inexpensive clothes have as much integrity today as expensive ones — “I have two polo shirts from Gap that I would pay $1 million if I could find more of them,” he said. “Does it look cheap or expensive? That’s not the point. Even if I buy something really expensive, and then never wear it, it’s all about taking the risk as a customer. Something is worth what you make it worth.”

Both Target and Bergdorf’s have been happy with the results, even though executives at Bergdorf’s were concerned the arrangement could have a negative impact. Now the store is embracing the term “masstige,” that combination of “mass” and “prestige,” calling it the future of fashion, with its addition of the cosmetics line Flirt to its fifth floor, even though it is headed for a broader rollout at Kohl’s next month.

Robert Burke, vice president and senior fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman, said on Friday the Mizrahi line has been selling like, well, “haute” cakes. Plenty of women are buying custom-order pieces, including those who recently put down $42,000 for a dress, $47,000 for a dress, $27,000 for a painted coat and, just Thursday, $17,000 for a dress. And the fiscal frivolity doesn’t end there. Burke reports bustling orders for John Anthony, Vickie Tiel, Charles Alexander and John Valdi. And as for Maggie Norris, one recent customer, an out-of-town American girl, just plunked down $7,000 for a corset — at the tender age of 16.

Luxury fashion has its many defenders, those who will scoff at the notion that designers’ adventures in mass will have any real impact on the high end. Even if Sam’s Club sells cashmere sweaters (which it does), there’s a tangible difference from what’s available from Loro Piana (although you can buy pieces made of Loro Piana cashmere at J. Crew). Those who have crossed class lines often have found themselves questioned about what impact selling lower-priced merchandise will have on their overall image.

“It’s about the accessibility of the product,” said Rowley. “The difference is about exclusivity, like in what you’re seeing with Colette in Paris, where they’re carrying designs where only 10 pieces were ever made. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with making fashion accessible. That’s the most revolutionary thing that’s happened in ages — style is accessible.”

Oscar de la Renta has witnessed the transformation of the luxury industry through its many incarnations firsthand. He was around to see the fiasco of Halston’s adventure in mass apparel with J.C. Penney and, like many designers in the Nineties, was thus inspired to focus on cleaning out dated licensees that could damage the credibility of his brand. But only last year, he was involved in talks to sell a cheaper line to Penney’s, and this year signed a deal with Kellwood Co. to launch a moderate line for department stores called O Oscar. Designers who are similarly introducing lower-priced lines say that times have changed and that customers are more able to differentiate between the categories, and that those loyal to the high-end see no conflict.

“The customers are so far removed, one from the other,” de la Renta said. “They are two different customers. But they know when they buy my clothes, they represent a certain sense of femininity.”

But customers, even the aspirational ones who buy designer fragrances as the most affordable representation of that luxury ideal, may prove to have a longer memory than designers realize. On Thursday, Michael Kors sent out a pair of flatbed trucks driving around Manhattan, filled with models bearing the lower-priced Michael Michael Kors collection to promote its launch at the Macy’s Herald Square flagship. Shortly after the trucks were en route, a posting on the Web site Gawker.com mocked the promotion and asked, “Is this a reminder of Halston’s descent into bargain design?”

Designers are clearly grappling with the issue, which always seems to come down to chasing the markets where there seems the biggest opportunity to make money to support their primary image vehicles — the runway collections. “Designers can’t really do the $200 T-shirt any longer,” Rowley said. “It just doesn’t make any sense. If you can’t please the masses a little bit, then how do you survive?”

The word luxury gets thrown around in different contexts, and so does designer. That, in itself, is a concern for fashion purists who have watched the world of popular culture slowly chip away at its lexicon. Luca Luca designer Luca Orlandi said he is feeling more pressure to be more creative in his designs, as “frankly, we are facing the limits of price below which we cannot descend.” And other designers who have dedicated their lives to fashion are frankly offended when they see celebrities entering the business with no training, and getting more attention.

“I don’t know that those brands are looked upon as anything very admirable,” said Alice Roi. “I don’t know anyone who owns J.Lo pants. It’s kind of how Madonna likes Britney, for the kitsch factor. It’s like J.Lo is saying, ‘You’ve got a big butt? Put it in something short, wear a nameplate necklace and it’s cute.’ But I don’t think anyone expects her to spend hours finishing her seams on the inside or agonizing over design theory.”

Alvin Valley added: “I don’t think Paris Hilton acknowledges that there’s a Paris Hilton line until she gets a royalty check. It’s all about creating a brand for their image.”

Simon Doonan, the creative director of Barneys New York, was especially troubled by the use of luxury by designers who ostensibly have no right to the word, fearing it will become as bastardized as the use of couture. Couture, at least, has its own defender in the Chambre Syndicale, which occasionally — but with little consistency — will pursue legal action against American designers who describe themselves inaccurately as couturiers. Chanel, meanwhile, is the major defender of vocabulary territorialism, threatening to sue journalists who deign to describe a boxy tweed jacket as “Chanel-like.” There’s nothing Chanel — a prime example of a European luxury house that has no affordable secondary collection — can do to stop its star designer, Lagerfeld, from designing his project for H&M. It may not want to. The fact that Lagerfeld will peer out from the pages of magazines as a poster boy for cheap chic probably won’t have a material impact on Chanel’s image and, conversely, it might even drive more customers to buy Chanel makeup or fragrance because they, too, will become enthralled by Lagerfeld’s allure.

But who’s looking out for luxury?

“We’re very sensitive to the term being degraded as it happened with the word ‘couture,’ which is being used with jeans,” said Doonan. “Real luxury has to have a certain level of craft, but we live in a world where the application of luxury has become more massified. The concept is being eroded.”

It’s not always designers’ fault. Today, purveyors of such basic products as soap and toilet tissue proclaim themselves as “luxurious,” while high-end kitchen suppliers such as Viking are now selling blenders and toasters — which presumably make luxurious toast. You can buy a Maybach for several hundred-thousand dollars, which, according to those who’ve driven them, gets stuck in the snow because they’re too heavy, or you can buy a “luxury” car that’s a Chevy. Sam’s Club sells motor oil in bulk, but also sells diamond rings that cost tens of thousands of dollars, and Costco is the largest retailer of fine wines in America. It’s a mishmash.

Doonan is concerned that, once the concept of luxury is broadened to include T-shirts, simply because they fit well, there will be no turning back. The entire fashion landscape has become so confused in the past five years, he said, that customers are very much at risk of being overwhelmed, much like the luxury industry: “It feels like there is an avalanche of product about to fall on them,” he said. “But fashion’s job is to mirror our society, and our society is really confusing, so I guess fashion is only doing its job.”

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