By  on December 17, 2008

Long-suffering mainstream brands and retailers may find consumers pay greater attention to their made-over assortments as the economy and political climate undergo dramatic realignment.

With customers becoming more value-conscious and averse to conspicuous consumption, their sensibilities are changing even faster than their 401(k) balances. On top of that, enter Michelle Obama as the country’s new style icon: a woman who makes J. Crew and White House|Black Market aspirational.

“There’s a shifting perception as to what is desirable,” said David Wolfe, creative director at the Doneger Group. “There’s now something cool about buying at somewhere like Old Navy. It’s not just cool, it’s smart. People are getting real about their budgets and money, and operating on the money in their pocket instead of their credit. We now feel good about being careful.”

This shift in tastes and budgets could come at a serendipitous time for mainstream retailers such as Talbots and Ann Taylor that have been working to reinvent their images and products, in addition to relaunched wholesale lines such as Liz Claiborne by Isaac Mizrahi, analysts observed.

“These retailers may get another look from customers who are rethinking their patterns,” said Sharon Zackfia, a retail analyst at William Blair & Co. “The challenge will be if they can capture the customer once they go in.”

Of course, as consumer spending is cut back, true winners in this economy are scarce. But for brands that have long been on a downward spiral as customers focused on high-end luxury and fast fashion, now may be their chance to gain market share.

“It’s an interesting switch how people are reconfiguring their own cosmology of which places are acceptable to go shopping,” said Suzanne Hader, principal at 400twin Luxury Brand Consulting. “At every wealth level, consumers are reevaluating their spending habits. Customers are definitely open to looking at new brands if the product is right.”

Hader added that J. Crew’s recent launch of a higher-end line comes at just the right time when customers who had bought higher-end, trendier dresses may feel comfortable buying classic pieces with the retailer.

“People who would buy more fashion-forward brands are now looking to buy more conservative things,” Hader said. “It’s almost like talking to a 22-year-old about their partying days and their realization they now need to sober up.”

After a decade of buoyant aspirational conspicuous consumption, Americans are turned off by overspending, flashiness and purposefully expirational trends, analysts agreed, comparing the backlash mentality to the sobriety after the Roaring Twenties, to the antiestablishment grunge after “The Bonfire of the Vanities” Eighties, and even to the anti-aristocracy movement after the French Revolution.

“People have a feeling about the negative side of consumption,” said Marc Gobé, president of “The biggest new item people will buy is saving — that’s where they will be putting their money. Price-conscious businesses will do well.”

Lines that seem reasonably priced and more classic will be more appealing, after customers have been bombarded with heavy promotions of season-specific items.

“We’d been abusing the process,” Gobé said. “People now see these 40 percent off, 80 percent off promotions, and they think, ‘What have we been paying?’ ”

Well-designed product with less flashy price tags that perhaps seemed less aspirational in seasons past may seem smart going forward.

“For those who shop at the moderate and better level, Michelle Obama’s position affirms their buying behavior, and even elevates it,” said Catherine Sadler, president of the New York marketing firm Catherine Sadler Group. “For shoppers who are downgrading as a result of their financial situation, there is solace in knowing that the First Lady-elect makes these very same choices, even though she could wear anything she desires.”

When Obama posed for her first solo cover on More magazine in October, she turned down the designer assortment the magazine had arranged, preferring to wear her own clothes, said Lesley Jane Seymour, editor in chief of More.

“We had a real struggle over the dresses, because we had gone out to the market like we always do, and the designers were all geared up with their sewing machines going,” Seymour said. “They called and said she would be wearing her own clothes. They wanted to be careful with her image and to make sure it didn’t look like anyone was keeping any dresses. She’s no Nancy Reagan in John Galliano gowns. They sent us Polaroids of what was in her closet, including a brown H&M dress, and we negotiated from there.”

Obama mixes designer and mainstream merchandise as women do today, unlike traditional First Ladies, who rarely strayed publicly from designer labels, said Seymour.

“Michelle Obama is going to be our fashion editor in chief,” said Seymour. “They’re real people: He’s trying to quit smoking like everyone else, and she’s not afraid to shop at J. Crew and White House|Black Market. It’s inspiring — it’s about style, not money.”

Seymour added she was impressed by relaunches of several mainstream lines and expects customers to embrace their new looks and accessible price points.

“There’s a whole renaissance going on in this market,” she said. “Watch what happens, even in this bad economy, to what is being done to Liz Claiborne by Isaac Mizrahi, to Ellen Tracy by Mark Mendelson and to Talbots.”

Of course, it all comes down to product still, but at least mainstream brands may be given a second chance with customers they had lost, or a first look from shoppers who had been more focused on trends and conspicuous luxury.

“We’re on the brink of this major change,” Wolfe said. “Looking like you spent a lot of money now just seems hopelessly insensitive and as if the person wearing it has no idea about what is going on in the world. The whole concept of cutting-edge fashion is that you are in tune to, even ahead of, what is going on in society.”

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