WESTLAKE VILLAGE, Calif. — Diane von Furstenberg and Donna Karan shared insights at American Express Publishing’s Seventh Annual Luxury Summit at the Four Seasons Hotel here. The three-day conference, which ended Tuesday, explored the high-end market in the context of economic uncertainty and the political climate.

Luxury is still growing among the most affluent U.S. consumers, but the weakened economy has dampened the eagerness to spend and has shifted shopping patterns, putting consumers in the driver’s seat, aided by Internet research and better deals online, according to the second annual survey of Affluence & Wealth in America, produced by American Express and Harrison Group.

A total of 12 million households were surveyed, with an average discretionary annual income of $352,000. The top 10 brands were: Ritz-Carlton, Louis Vuitton, Coach, Ralph Lauren, Target, Four Seasons, Prada, Rolex, Costco and Nordstrom, according to the survey.

“The ratings of about 200 brands were based not only [on] familiarity and regard, but also a lack of active dislike, that is, lack of bad experiences, with customer service or some other interaction with a brand,” said Jim Taylor, vice chairman of market research firm Harrison Group.

About 300 top executives from fashion, retail, travel and hospitality companies attended the conversations with von Furstenberg and Karan, which were moderated by Travel + Leisure editor in chief Nancy Novogrod.

Von Furstenberg has found more success on the second incarnation of her company, now 10 years old, by offering contemporary apparel to a wide range of demographics.

“It would be pretty depressing to dress only rich people, because they don’t always look so good,” she said. “It was the young, hip girls who I saw buying my vintage wrap dresses who inspired me to get back into the business.”

Von Furstenberg also diversified into the luxury sector by partnering with H.Stern, starting in 2004. “Jewelry is expensive, but the value is there, and we really launched a trend with bold, strong jewelry.”

She described her most challenging moment — before making up her mind to get back into the business. “People thought I was a has-been,” von Furstenberg said. “When you doubt yourself, nothing will happen. But once I decided, it wasn’t hard.”

This story first appeared in the April 16, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

For Karan, the definition of luxury has changed with her new focus on mind, body and spirit.

“I think the luxury is not only what we give to ourselves, but what we can give to others,” she said. “Obviously, we can get more of this and this, but the true luxury is being able to give back. When one has been blessed with the ability to have made it…it’s our social responsibility.”

Karan described her Urban Zen initiative, both philanthropic and retail (the line centers on comfortable lifestyle apparel made from natural fibers), as “a new child that needs an enormous amount of energy. My other ‘children’ are grown and…they are pretty good at doing what they do. Now, every single consumer I’ve dressed, I can now address.”

Karan will launch three new Urban Zen stores, each with a greater focus on apparel than the Manhattan flagship, this summer in Sag Harbor, N.Y.; Sun Valley, Utah, and Los Angeles. Regarding specifics on the L.A. location, she said, “Why don’t we wait until we sign the lease to discuss that? But we have found a great location.” She plans “absolutely” on international expansion.

Regarding the economy, Karan said, “One of the beauties of what has happened in the conflicted world we live in is that we’ve learned that we can’t just service ourselves. It is a call to action. I don’t think you can sit there and adorn yourself without realizing there are so many people starving and not being cared for. Have the consumer be involved. I don’t think there’s a difference right now between the commercial and philanthropic world. I see it as one.”

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