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Though the tanking economy dominated conversation, as the year wound down, it was clear that fashion had ample other problems as well. The financial doldrums did, however, illuminate issues that had festered for some time.
First, senior industry executives were increasingly willing to admit that the fashion system — that huge, intricate amalgamation of show dates, multiple seasons, mass international travel, the obsession with the “pre’s,” steadfast insistence on early deliveries and an endless stream of new, familiar-looking collections into an already dangerously saturated marketplace — was broken. The mass whining and even anger were in full bloom by fall 2007, when the weak dollar drastically upped the ante for Americans traveling to Europe for the spring 2008 collections. Still, those shows dazzled creatively, leaving hope for a reasonable performance at retail, one that went largely unrealized.
One year later, fashion appeared to be in a shambles, the current Christmas selling season marred by unprecedented markdowns, in some cases reaching a once-unfathomable 90 percent off. The deep discounts were plastered on merch that hailed from a runway season in which too few hits — Alexander McQueen’s ode to his queen, Balenciaga’s futuristic, jewel-bedecked ladies and Prada’s lace among them — broke up a distressing mediocrity. Then there was the effort from Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren for Viktor & Rolf, which at the time amused some and irritated others, but which in retrospect seems eerily prescient. You remember, that show in which they just said “No!” to fashion. Little did anyone imagine how many consumers would heed their advice.
For retailers, 2008 has been an exercise in trying frantically to right a woefully errant ship. Until last year, it had been ages since women had so dismissed luxury offerings. Their indifference came as a shock, even with the weak dollar partly to blame. But as the consumer malaise continued, the notion arose that, to some degree, the goods themselves just weren’t resonating. And there were more goods from more houses — and a greater deal of stylistic overlap — than ever before.
Then came the economic meltdown, with no clear signs of the bottom anywhere in sight. Exacerbating the fashion problem going forward, despite dazzlers from Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana, Lanvin, Marc Jacobs (times two, including Louis Vuitton) and a few others, spring 2009 disappointed creatively, even more so than fall. However the industry ultimately deals with the dismal new reality, one thing is certain: The days of more-is-more inventories are over. As retailers continue to streamline at all levels, the luxury powerhouses will see orders cut and numerous smaller concerns run the risk of being dropped completely (as Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue have already warned). Thus, at some point, the industry must tackle the overall saturation issue.
Or there’s always the Darwinian concept of natural selection.