Reservations Only: Fashion Crowd Learns to Be Thrifty

Gallup reported there have been some positive signs in recent months, but comparisons to last September indicate the U.S. has a long way to go.

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For many, the collapse of Lehman Brothers a year ago sounded a gong for more discretionary spending that has yet to stop tolling.

This story first appeared in the September 22, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Gallup reported there have been some positive signs in recent months, but comparisons to last September indicate the U.S. has a long way to go to return to the pre-crisis economic climate, never mind healthier financial times. And designers and other members of the fashion crowd apparently fit right in with the new thriftier mood, both personally and professionally, judging from a random sampling of showgoers and designers in recent days.

But while caution is the prevailing mood by far among the country’s more directional shoppers, a few designers consider spending to be even more of a necessity in these uneven financial times. “I believe in order for the economy to recover, we all have to spend,” said Juicy co-founder Gela Nash-Taylor. “I am doing my bit as best I can and so is Pam [Skaist-Levy], In fact, she might be doing a little better.”

“Obsessed” with shoes, she said she recently bought some “amazing” Brian Atwood boots and a Stephen Jones hat with a Union Jack design.

Overall, though, fashion insiders said they are more inclined to do without for now rather than spend wildly. Whether shopping for their children’s back-to-school clothes in outlet stores, taking ill-fitting shoes to be softened up or digging out old favorites from seasons past, attendees at the New York shows last week said they are learning to work around the recession.

Even with a new album, “In Love & War,” due out in November, two-time Grammy winner Amerie is not splurging. “I am not really spending in general. I am only buying things that I absolutely love and will have for a long time,” she said. “Right now is the time to buy classics.”

She said her last great purchases were a leather jacket her sister helped find online and a pair of Gucci shoes. But she has no qualms about dipping into her closet to break out old favorites, like the black leather Roberto Cavalli thigh-high boots she wore to the recent Nicole Miller show. “I was thinking, ‘I needed a pair for fall’ and then I remembered, ‘Oh, I already have some,’” she said, tracing the boot’s patterned design. “They look like they could be Stella McCartney from last season.”

Prabal Gurung, who once again arranged to have his friends donate the space he used to show his collection, said, “I am very frugal when it comes to spending money. I am lucky because I work out of my home and I show the collection at a friend’s place. I am careful about buying fabrics,” he said.

As for his own indulgences, Gurung said he mixes thing up, pointing to his ensemble of an American Apparel T-shirt, well-worn Cloak jeans and Martin Margiela shoes as an example of how he typically shops for himself. “I will spend just on key pieces,” he said.

At the Fashion Institute of Technology Couture Council luncheon earlier this month, Isabel Toledo said she has always lived by measured steps, so this fall is no different. “I have always been careful and resourceful. That’s the way Ruben and I are. You spend a dollar — you make two dollars,” she said.

The designer, whose inauguration ensemble for Michelle Obama is on view at FIT, will be strengthening her Beltway ties this fall. She will stage a fashion show at the Swiss Embassy Nov. 4, and the following day will make an appearance at Nordstrom’s Tysons Corner store and have a public discussion at the Textiles Museum with The Washington Post’s Robin Givhan.

Another luncheon guest, Julie Gilhart, Barneys New York’s fashion director, said she is giving more thought to every purchase she makes. “If I were to add it up, I don’t know that I am spending any less. I’m just not spending as quickly,” she said.

Charlotte Moss said she too is being more careful in that she is more “reserved and selective about everything from top to bottom,” including clothes, her flower budget and other things she hadn’t really thought about before. But “I am still keeping a very positive face and I am optimistic,” she stressed.

Aside from being more philanthropic, Arnold Scaasi, who has donated his archives to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, said his personal investments remain unchanged. “I still have three houses — in the Hamptons, Beekman Place and Palm Beach — and I plan to keep them. All my London-made suits still fit me very well. I’m hoping not to change. Why do I have to change?” Scaasi asked, noting his company will mark its 55th anniversary next year.

Before Ralph Rucci’s show, Rachel Roy said she bought her nine-year-old daughter the same amount of back-to-school clothes as last fall — although she opted to shop at a Gap outlet store instead of a full-priced one.

Roy said she reined in her spending in summer 2008. “I’m conscientious about what bills need to be paid and that affects the fabrics I choose and how many colors I use,” the designer said. As much as she enjoys traveling and finds it helpful to her creativity, there has been little time lately for such pursuits. As a New Yorker, she still eats out practically every day. But recently she passed up a Givenchy bag that she loved. “I really loved it. It cost thousands and I’m sure it was worth every dollar.”

Never one to be careless about his spending habits, Carlos Campos said he makes every piece of clothing he wears and has always ridden his bike around the city instead of taking cabs. “The one thing I can say is I’m enjoying more home-cooked meals with my friends,” he said.

From a professional standpoint, Campos said his company has become more organized to focus on effective time-action planning. “We are being more directional in terms of design samples. We’ve saved enormously by properly merchandising the designs before sampling,” he said. “In terms of marketing, we’ve been resourceful in finding innovative ways to save. Last season we printed our campaign look book on newspaper and it looked great.”

Before his video presentation for spring, Carmen Marc Valvo said he isn’t buying as many presents for his nieces and nephews as he usually does. He still does indulge in gardening and a good bottle of wine from time to time though, and while he hasn’t updated his cashmere collection with a new sweater, a fall ritual, he did recently buy seven pairs of shoes. “I guess it really depends on what you really need and what you feel you can’t live without,” he said.

Gap creative director Patrick Robinson said he has never been one to buy things he can’t afford, but he has been spending more frequently, due largely to the fact that he and his wife Virginia Smith needed furniture for their new TriBeCa apartment. “Actually, I have bought more than I normally do in the past year because I have the feeling that I can actually help [the economy],” he said.

Like several of the fashion executives interviewed, Robinson said he has always been one of those people who shops at the high end and the low. “I am still spending money the way I have always spent money. That’s probably just because of the luck of my life and what I do,” he said.

Interviewed at the Merci pop-up shop near Gap’s Fifth Avenue store, Robinson said he had bought several pieces for his home, including a Jeff Koons-type stool.

Monique Lhuillier said she has become a smarter shopper in the past year. “When I buy something, what is important is that I ask, ‘Do I want this in my life for a long time?’ The decision is not so much driven by price,” she said.

The designer finds herself spending more time editing, not just her designs and the fabrics and colors she chooses but also what she buys for her home and how she spends her personal time. “I have to. I have a growing family and business,” said Lhuillier, who is expecting her second child in November.

Suzy Yalof Schwartz, who contributes to Glamour magazine and the “Today” show, is a self-described “shopaholic” but lately her purchases are from the Loehmann’s near her uptown apartment. “I am buying more quality pieces and am focusing on dresses. I am starting to build a wardrobe of dresses. When you buy a dress, not only do you look pretty, you don’t need to buy a top, bottom and everything else,” she said.

But her new thing is to take what she thought were “unsalvageable” shoes that are too painful to wear to Eneslow, a foot comfort center in New York, where Bob Schwartz, who is of no relation, slices them open and inserts memory foam. “They make them feel like sneakers,” Schwartz said.


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