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PARIS — Retailers praised a safe-but-solid Paris fashion season based on polished French chic while pushing sharp pricing and the “wow” factor to the top of their buying agendas.
This story first appeared in the March 16, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“It is now apparent that the wealthiest women are taking price into consideration,” said Ann Watson, vice president and fashion director of Henri Bendel. “The customer is king again and is demanding substance, quality and great designs for her money.”
Budgets for the fall-winter season are being pruned by up to 30 percent, sources said, putting the onus on designer vendors to deliver compelling fashions and terrific value — or be left in the dust.
Some retailers estimated prices were down roughly 10 percent across the board at a time when steep discounts are needed to coax spending. “Many houses are focused on price and trying to deliver great quality at a price: not trading down. That’ll be encouraging for the customer to shop. It’s an important strategy,” said Ken Downing, senior vice president and fashion director at Neiman Marcus. “Where the product is right, we’re there. When it’s not, it won’t be in our stores.”
Collections garnering wide praise from retailers included Lanvin, Balenciaga, Givenchy, Dries Van Noten, Yves Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen and Haider Ackermann, while Eighties- and Forties-style dresses, leather leggings, strong-shouldered jackets and sweater coats were cited among key items.
Shortcomings in Paris included a preponderance of black and gray clothes, and a dearth of fashion jewelry, a hot category at retail.
“We are focusing on core brands that can still give us excitement and have the desirability for a customer to want to buy,” said Sarah Rutson, fashion director at Hong Kong’s Lane Crawford, citing Givenchy, Lanvin and Balenciaga as examples. “I have to feel like, ‘I’ve got to have this’ in order to buy. It’s solely about desire; it’s not about need.”
Here’s what buyers had to say:
Andrew Keith, president, Joyce Boutique Holdings Ltd., Hong Kong: “There was a refined sobriety to many of the collections. Tailoring was key, and the focus was more on investment classics, with designers focusing on innovation through fabrication, finishes, inventive cutting and draping. We didn’t see many designers taking risks, preferring to concentrate on fine-tuning the brand positioning. We are allocating our budgets to those brands that can deliver a point of difference and desirability for today’s customers. Although we are looking at an overall reduction, we have kept budgets open for new and emerging brands that provide a compelling new vision. Brands that managed to deliver perceived value will be most successful at retail for us. The collections that we felt were particularly strong were Balenciaga, Comme des Garçons, Yves Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen.”
Ed Burstell, buying director, Liberty, London: “Paris designers played it on the safe side — with a few notable exceptions being Nina Ricci, Alexander McQueen and Comme des Garçons. It’s odd given the economic climate as customers are only buying the exceptional pieces — ones that can evoke an emotional response. The best apparel messages were interesting dresses in every shape, color and fabrication, and investing in great outerwear. The biggest disappointment was the Eighties influence…again. My top collections were Rick Owens, Dries Van Noten, Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney. Liberty will be carrying more fashion from Paris next season. Our customers want to see fresh design that is not overly commercial or overly distributed. You have to look under every rock — and that includes every trade show, big and small, and every multibrand showroom. This strategy is extremely effective for us, with over a dozen new resources being added for fall across all fashion categories.”
Cindy Ho, fashion and merchandising director, Villa Moda, Kuwait: “Collections are priced about 10 percent lower than average compared to last year. We’re getting closer to ‘the right product for the right price.’ The message from the brands is clear: that even in tough times, there is always a good time to be had somewhere. We saw more colors, more embellishment with beautiful colored stones, more fun and cheer from the music and overall ambience. We are seeing a lot more of a focus on the shoulder and the waist, using shoulder pads and belts. The look pairing a dress with a coat is also important, and leggings, in colors, prints and embroideries.” Her favorite collections were Lanvin, Manish Arora, Miu Miu and Yves Saint Laurent.
Sarah Rutson, fashion director, Lane Crawford, Hong Kong: “My business in certain designer brands remains strong, and the collections I loved the most were strong and consistent, especially Givenchy, which was incredible, with so much to work with in the showroom and great pricing. Balenciaga and Lanvin have continued strength at retail now, and this is reflected in our buys. I feel very positive for Stella McCartney as well as Roland Mouret and Haider Ackermann. To be frank, this isn’t the best Paris season I’ve encountered. The runways were often too much a sea of black and lacking femininity and color, though we did start seeing a bit more optimism at the end. There are prevailing Eighties and Forties influences: dresses with long sleeves, a lot of strong shoulders, one-armed tops and dresses, skirt suits and the return of sheer hosiery, leather, shiny metallics and highlights of lace. I hope, going forward, designers can give more sense of femininity and not focus too much on aggressive warrior looks.”
Carla Sozzani, owner, Corso Como 10, Milan: “I thought Comme des Garçons was fantastic, and I liked Balenciaga very much. There’s so much of the Eighties and I’m not a fan of the Eighties, especially when it’s literal, but at Balenciaga, for example, you find really great clothes. Azzedine Alaïa was also very good. Of course, he was big in the Eighties, but he moved it forward.”
Polina Kitsenko, co-owner, Podium, Moscow: “Everyone was pretty concerned that the economic situation would bring down the mood of designers and influence their creativity. This did not happen. The shows I liked were Rick Owens, Givenchy, Junya Watanabe, Nina Ricci, Chanel and Balmain. General trends were Eighties and men’s tailoring for women. We [sometimes] cut budgets, mainly depending on the quality of the collection. We have been buying fur more cautiously during the last two winters as a result of global warming, even in Russia. We have seen lots of padded shoulders, leather in jackets and pants, leather combined with fabrics, biker jackets, slouchy pants, drop-crotch pants, pleats, thick knits, bouclé wool, flannels, jersey drapes, boleros. And for shoes, pinup heels, platforms and thigh boots.”
Kazuyoshi Minamimagoe, chief buyer and creative director of women’s, Beams Co. Ltd., Japan: “Japan’s fashion market is witnessing a very slow start for spring-summer, effecting our buying to a careful and focused selection of brands. Comme des Garçons and Stella McCartney — brands that portray a strong, unique identity of their own, rather than trend — are definitely the most interesting.”
Marigay McKee, fashion and beauty director, Harrods: “We aren’t reducing our budgets, although we have edited out some brands. We’re backing all the brands that continue to deliver consistent growth and increased desirability. Our three favorite Paris shows were Lanvin, Balmain and Givenchy. As for the power shows, Dior was exquisite, Chanel was very Karl [Lagerfeld], we loved Louis Vuitton and YSL was more intellectual but still very of the moment. We look forward to a solid fall season with great outerwear, lots of capes, biker jackets, great coats, a big resurgence of leather and suede, from skinny leather leggings and dresses to suede jumpsuits and shoes. There was a lot of fur on show with astrakhan and lambskin key in a lot of the collections. Velvet also crept into a lot of shows as a detail or edging, as did lace. Belts are still key, and belted cardigans and coats still a feature. The little black dress still reigns supreme for day or evening, and over-the-knee boots, flat or high, are king whilst platform skyscrapers will still rule the footwear stakes. The skinny pant, more high waisted than before, is the de rigueur trouser — in spandex leather suede or wool, as close to a legging as one can get without it being a legging.”
Ken Downing, senior vice president, fashion director, Neiman Marcus: “We’re pleased with Paris: the poise, the polish and the sense of femininity Paris had this season. We loved Balenciaga, Lanvin, Christian Dior, Nina Ricci, Chanel and Stella McCartney, and we picked up Rochas, which had great late-day and dinner dressing. The shoulder continues to be an important story, not as aggressive as in Milan — a little more Forties. Leather is so important, and jade green is looking really fresh. It’s nice to see the continuation of all this big, shiny gold costume jewelry, as it’s a real bright spot at retail.”
Colleen Sherin, fashion market director, Saks Fifth Avenue: “The key message in Paris was one of polished Parisian chic with a powerful edge: The idea of sculpted tailoring and a return to investment dressing in terms of beautiful fabrications, double-faced cashmere and flannel, leathers and furs. Paris redefined the idea of a suit — a skirt suit, a pantsuit or taking the jacket as a separate item. There’s a return to the jacket, the newness is the emphasis on the strong shoulder, beautiful coats and outerwear, the importance of leather, especially black leather throughout and fur. There are two distinct pant silhouettes: still skinny pants and leggings, but also beautiful draped or fluid pants at Balenciaga, Dries Van Noten, Yves Saint Laurent and Dior.” Other notable collections were Lanvin, Chanel, Givenchy, Ann Demeulemeester, Chanel, Alexander McQueen, Martin Grant and Chloé.
Julie Gilhart, senior vice president and fashion director, Barneys New York: “We are definitely buying very carefully. We are asking a lot of questions. If something is expensive, we ask why. If something is a ‘one-season wonder,’ we are saying no. We are looking at everything with a precise and strategic fashion consciousness. We are making it easier for our customer by editing even more than usual. We are also being more imaginative in how we will sell things for fall. It was definitely a flashback to 1982, when the economy was tough, but yet there was plenty of style. The best shows were Lanvin, Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent, Nina Ricci, Dries Van Noten, Givenchy and Martin Grant.”
Linda Dresner, owner, Linda Dresner, Birmingham, Mich.: “Our intention is to spend probably 20 percent less. It’s more cherry-picking: trying to keep a lot of animation in the store. Clothes have to really speak with a loud voice if we’re going to say yes. There have been wonderful coats all over, whether small or military. A soft, romantic blouse looked very good at Chloé mixed with military. We’ve seen a lot of fur, and small fur jackets or soles with a vintage flavor look good. There’s still some rock ’n’ roll looks, but very aggressive dressing looks old hat to me. Prices are high, but I feel people are trying to be cooperative and keep them same. We loved Yohji Yamamoto, Azzedine Alaïa and Junya Watanabe.”
Ann Watson, vice president and fashion director, Henri Bendel: “We were excited to see more daywear options come down the runway, addressing today’s more casual lifestyle needs, as well as the continuation of the strong-shoulder jacket without it looking too Eighties. Favorite shows were Alexander McQueen, Sharon Wauchob, Rue du Mail, Balenciaga and Christian Lacroix. We will focus on the streamlined silhouette that our customer loves, with, among key items, black leather, especially the black stretch leather legging. Our customer is shopping for things that she does not already own; she is looking for versatility, not duplication. The [season’s] low point would be the abundance of colorless and black collections, as well as the lack of fashion jewelry, resulting in a very austere aesthetic which does not relate to our customer’s desire to express her femininity and irreverent spirit.”
Barbara Atkin, vice president, fashion direction, Holt Renfrew, Toronto: “Paris reminds us that the world of luxury will survive with stealth clothing that makes its statement not through gimmicks or frivolous flash but through intelligently executed design. We particularly liked the collections from Balenciaga, Lanvin, Yves Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen. Our shopping list includes big-shouldered jackets, leather biker jackets and skinny leather leggings, sheath dresses, couture-shaped coats and capes to fit over big-shouldered coats, dresses, blouses and knits, especially sweater coats and knit dresses. There has been a slight shift in our vendor base due to our commitment to supporting new talent. We are adding Joseph Altuzarra and Phi and bought them out of Paris. Budgets are conservative. Prices remain high, and we are buying those pieces within each collection that look every bit their value and will have emotional appeal to our customers. Our vendors have been great partners, opening the line of communication and finding ‘sweet spot’ price points wherever possible.”
Jeffrey Kalinsky, executive vice president, designer merchandising, Nordstrom: “Our vendor matrix out of Paris will remain the same as last season. The only difference is our buy will be tighter, focusing on the pieces we loved the most for our stores. Dries Van Noten gives buyers everything they need for success. The fall collection of Givenchy was so precise, and the energy around what Riccardo Tisci is doing for the house is another formula for success. Haider Ackermann’s palette, materials and shapes created one of strongest shows of the season. For me, Yves Saint Laurent was just short of perfection. Stefano Pilati managed to make a gray pin-striped skirt suit newsworthy — which ain’t easy.”
Erin Mullaney, designer wear buyer, Browns, London: “I think prices are really high, it’s a problem, people need to work harder. At Balmain, we were gob-smacked at the prices, even more than we were last time. People will tolerate that for only so long. We’re buying only special pieces from each collection, whereas before we’d buy loads of knitwear, or entry-level items. Key looks for the season will be an oversize men’s blazer with leggings and little dresses with a leather jacket. Our favorite collection was Alexander McQueen: It was the perfect time to put on an amazing production. Azzedine Alaïa developed more couture detailing. I also loved the way Rick Owens used light and dark. Balenciaga was very new. I thought the overall look at Hussein Chalayan was really clever. It’s probably the sexiest collection he’s ever done. It’s going to be great for us.”
Karen Daskas, co-owner, Tender, Detroit: “I have cut at least eight brands, and I cut my budgets by at least 20 percent. I have to really stand back and take a look at my business. I’m realizing I can no longer buy from a collection because I personally love it or I personally love the designer or the sales director. Whether it’s a T-shirt or a fur coat, I have to look at it and know in my heart that I can sell it. Our clients have to look at something, and it has to really grab them. This is a time when you know which designers you do have a true relationship with. Alber [Elbaz] tried really, really hard to work with fabric houses that make the satins that he uses so much, to get prices down at Lanvin. He’s sensitive to what’s happening. If you price yourself out of the market, no one is going to be successful.” Other collections with standout items included Nina Ricci and Balmain.
Kelly Golden, owner, Neapolitan, Winnetka, Ill.: “The Paris runways were a clear reflection of the current times: restrained, sensible and dark. Designers opted for understated but strong looks instead of over-the-top flamboyance. Suits were back in a big-shouldered way, emphasizing the power silhouette seen all over the runways. I wish there was more color, but my clients will splurge on Lanvin and Andrew Gn, who provided timeless, sophisticated pieces. Overall, designers were able to bring prices down 10 to 20 percent and have been responsive to the economic environment.”
Averyl Oates, chief buying director, Harvey Nichols: “I think the customers want either classic timeless pieces, that designers such as Azzedine Alaïa or Alber Elbaz at Lanvin do so well, or something whimsical that they won’t find anywhere else. I loved the Forties trend, a clever combination of austerity and elegance. I noticed that accessories were also very strong, heels were still high, but styles more simple. Dries Van Noten has the most wonderful court shoe with a python sole. At Alexander McQueen, the commercial collection was just as beautiful to see and touch as it had appeared on the catwalk. Also the Balenciaga show was strong and dramatic, but actually in the showroom the velvets and devorés appeared softer, more accessible and the shoulder pads were removable. Leather was everywhere, and the best was black, as seen at YSL and Balmain. Will the leather trouser or even leather gloves be next season’s favorite?”
Nicole Fischelis, vice president, fashion director, Macy’s: “It’s been an exciting week with the fusion — to confusion — of genres, from chic to Baroque, reinventing the approach to masculine and feminine, molded to architectural silhouettes, a continuation of couture crafted detailing-dressing and a homage to the Eighties.” Fischelis cited belted jackets and coats, fur and art prints as key trends. “As in New York, black is strong with many different kinds of shine, as well as a bright palette, where red is emerging as a major statement.”
Elizabeth Lepore, owner, Jimmy’s, Brooklyn, N.Y.: “The most dynamic and creative pieces were in the realm of eveningwear. Outstanding were the collections of Zuhair Murad, Elie Saab and Jasmine Di Milo. Homing in on collections, such as these three, and focusing on selecting special-occasion party attire for our clients, is how we are structuring our buying for the upcoming season. Our handpicked selections will be ‘special.’ ”