FASHION’S SPIRIT IS WILLING

Byline: Georgia Lee

ATLANTA — Call it what you will — spirituality, holistic or wellness — but it might be best not to ignore it.
“New Age” values are infiltrating fashion at all levels, moving from counter-culture novelty to checkout-counter reality. For several seasons, fashion has steeped in a multi-cultural, spiritual brew that seems to grows stronger with the approaching millennium. From embroidered kimonos to peasant blouses to Buddhist prayer beads, the esoteric is being embraced at all price points.
At the designer level, Donna Karan professes spirituality and crystal power, while Tom Ford’s embellished Gucci jeans, with nods to Native American culture, launched unprecedented knockoffs from mass to class. Even Banana Republic got into a spiritual mood with a yoga class this month in New York to present its stretch sportswear in a tranquil setting.
Trendsetters, from Madonna to Courtney Love, with their passion for Eastern spirituality, fuel the pop culture frenzy. But beyond mere trends, the new spirituality — defined as anything concerning the spirit, values and the meaning of life — is changing consumer-consciousness. Which in turn, of course, is affecting manufacturer-consciousness.
Rebelling against a glut of technology, information and materialism, consumers say they want to feel like individual human beings, rather than as parts of demographic profiles. And manufacturers and retailers are trying to at least give the illusion that they care.
“This wave of antifashion is a rejection of big business, mass-appeal tactics,” said Elizabeth O’Dowd, chief creative officer and vice president of Brighthouse, an Atlanta creative marketing and advertising company. “Everybody should start looking small, with more-personalized, micro-marketing. The approach should include more relationship- and experience-oriented marketing, and should address what women really want. The b.s. has to go.”
Plenty of evidence suggests that even the biggest players are getting the message. New Age influences are no longer relegated to underground boutiques, as a recent walk through Target’s candle-laden home department indicates. Cosmetics is a breeding ground for new products, including Lancome’s Hydra Zen and Elizabeth Arden’s Green Tea, which carry a message of “serenity.” Aromatherapy has become a standard feature of bath and body products. And advertising is kinder, gentler, more in your spirit than in your face.
More than ever, manufacturers are out to address, rather than dictate, women’s needs. Casualization, lifestyle dressing and the trend toward more fun, novelty fashion could be interpreted as spiritually driven. Fabrics with tactile appeal speak to an urge for comfort, while relaxed, easy-care clothing simplifies life. Whimsical, “girly-girl” touches can tap into a yearning for innocence.
Taking spiritual needs into consideration is part of the personalization process that is showing up across all categories.
“This trend has legs,” said David Wolfe, creative director at The Doneger Group, a New York buying office. “It’s more than a Sixties retro thing. And while home industries have led the way more than fashion, if there’s money to be made, the fashion industry will be on top of it. We’re starting to see a weird combination of spirituality and the bottom line.”
Canadian jewelry designer Karyn Chopik is admittedly “out there.” From a meditative state, she channels spiritual messages for “scrolls” that accompany her crystal and semiprecious stone jewelry. At $40 to $105 wholesale, her jewelry, and its message, appeals to more affluent clients, who are becoming more accepting of the whole idea.
“People think I’m a freak, but what I do addresses a longing they all have,” she said. “It’s the country-club, entertainment crowd that I appeal to most.”
The popularity of fitness disciplines such as Pilates, yoga and Feldenkrais has offered a natural opportunity for activewear companies, which until a few years ago were driven strictly by competitive sports or aerobics. The new direction also includes more lifestyle, comfort dressing. Danskin launched a 150-piece Zen Sport division last February. Comfortable lifestyle pieces, such as jackets, sweaters and pants, accompany bodywear in organic cotton, Lycra spandex and hemp.
Unlike the 200-piece activewear division, the Zen Sport line is muted, soft and sensual, rather than slick, bright and high tech.
“It’s an industry challenge to integrate balance and well-being into product for women whose lives are obviously moving at warp speed,” said Rozann Marsi, senior vice president of design at Danskin.
“Personalizing a mass-marketed product seems like a dichotomy, but it speaks to the desire for something real, a personal expression in clothes that really work,” she said, pointing out that the line has opened up new retail avenues, such as spas. Marketing programs include worry stones in little drawstring bags as gifts with purchases. Manufacturers are starting to look to spirituality for added value, in products with health benefits.
Kunert, a German legwear company with annual sales of between $250 million and $300 million, launched the “Kunert Wellness” hosiery line last year in Asia, Europe and the U.S.
Legwear is treated with aloe vera, which soothes the skin, and is guaranteed to stay through eight machine washes. The concept is extending to intimate apparel, knitwear and socks, with first-year wholesale volume projected at $500,000.
“We’re selling a concept of well-being and happiness, rather than an individual product,” said Ernst Lange, founder of L’s Wear N.Y., which handles U.S. distribution. “New concepts and features are especially needed in a shrinking hosiery market. A lot of women hate pantyhose and won’t pay more money without any added features.”
Comfort, warmth and and security are the selling points for Hybernation, a Knoxville, Tenn.-based manufacturer of shawls and wraps. Owner Laurie Williams, a clinical psychologist, developed the line, inspired by an antique shawl she kept in her office, which she said her patients found fascinating. With 45 stockkeeping units, including embroidered linens, silk velvets and herringbone, the line is sold in Dillard’s and 300 specialty stores, including hospital gift shops.
“It addresses cocooning and a basic need for warmth, comfort and nurturing,” said Williams, who said sales have benefited by the craze for pashmina shawls.
“Generally, apparel is still concerned with what things look like, but there is a subtle rebellion, a demand for comfort, going on,” she said.
Increased consumer awareness has boosted sales for eco-friendly manufacturers and retailers that once existed only on the fringe. A wider audience has spawned more diversified fashion-oriented product. John Howell, chief operating officer of Hemp Company of Americas, which owns Planet Hemp, a three-year-old SoHo store that also publishes a magazine called Hemp Times, said baby boomers and their coming-of-age children are his biggest customer segment. With $1 million in sales the first 18 months in business, Howell described growth as “exponential.”
“Five years ago, it was enough for a basic garment to be made of hemp, but as the audience grows, it’s expanded to outerwear, sweaters and even capri pants,” said Howell.
While still grounded in environmental concerns, Howell said eco-friendly stores address a broader spiritual alienation in a cold, hard culture. “We’ve got stores in SoHo selling sticks, bones and rocks to spiritually starved New Yorkers who are deprived of nature,” he said.
And not just in New York.
All major cities have enclaves where retail quivers with spirituality. Atlanta’s Little Five Points and Virginia-Highlands neighborhoods are havens for Eastern-inspired clothing and home items that nurture the soul. Stores with names like Boho-lux, Planetarium and Crystal Blue draw tourists and a hip local clientele.
Two years ago, designer Bill Hallman, who owns three Atlanta stores and a wholesale firm, including the women’s line, Sushi, and men’s line Sake, shut his New York boutique and embarked on a spiritual quest. Tired of struggling with the technology/spirituality dichotomy, Hallman embraced both concepts.
A new line, called Techno-Buddha, combines high tech fabrics with beads, embroideries and screen-printed religious symbols. Analysts say that while surface fashion trends may be ephemeral, the quest for spiritual values may become ingrained in an increasingly complex world.
But will too much mainstream, mass exposure make empty materialism attractive again 10 years from now? “It’s not a fad, and it won’t stop. It’s deeper and bigger than we know,” said Planet Hemp’s John Howell. “Still, there’s always the danger of becoming too trendy.”

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