Fashion in Dark Times

During the fashion boom that began in the 1980s, the relationship between fashion and its customers was the same as the one between art and its rich, often unlovely patrons: all that money sloshing around led to excessive consumption, but it also created a fertile soil in which works of beauty and integrity could develop. Last year that boom ended with breathtaking rapidity and finality. Luckily, a contingent of people at the heart of American fashion has for years been readying for post-crash style.

It was a splendid relic, this February’s New York Fashion Week. Twice a year, in February and September, some 250 designers introduce their collections for the upcoming season. Most of the superstars stage runway shows beneath improbably glamorous temporary tents in Bryant Park, while the Next New Things and the famously edgy hold presentations in galleries and formerly grotty lofts in Chelsea and the Meatpacking District. To the natives, it’s a semiannual rite to be endured: a constant stream of town cars and cabs cleaves the middle third of Manhattan, relaying models and editrixes, photographers and trust-fund interns, store buyers and fashion aficionados and their hangers-on (beauties with surly boyfriends, celebrities of various grades with somewhat dicey entourages). Hotel bars and neighborhood boîtes close for private parties, and block-long lines of Parsons/FIT/Pratt students, sartorial exhibitionists, and other species of the young and hip take over downtown sidewalks, emitting their Gauloise smoke and studious sullenness (the latter exacerbated when the fashion world’s A-listers steadily breeze past them to the head of the queue).

The point of it all is hardly obvious. Decades ago, these presentations were hushed, semisecret affairs for a very limited audience made up of a designer’s select group of private clients (the ladies who lunched at the Colony and Le Pavillon); buyers from Bonwit Teller, Bergdorf Goodman, Peck & Peck, and, probably at the top of the heap, Saks Fifth Avenue, who would place orders for the dresses they would sell to their ever so slightly less select clients; and the elite of the fashion press (actually, fashion being then so rarefied, there was hardly a non-elite fashion press)—the blue-rinsed Carmel Snow of Harper’s Bazaar and the equally blue-rinsed Edna Woolman Chase of Vogue, along with their minions, “tall, cool Vassar graduates,” as S. J. Perelman described them, all in their pillbox hats and white gloves. Fearing piracy of their upcoming designs, the handful of American fashion houses shunned publicity and prohibited even sketching.

Although small-scale and discreet, those old-fashioned shows clearly served a mercantile purpose. Fashion Week, on the other hand, was invented in the 1990s, at the height of New York’s giddy, gilded age, as a pseudo-event to generate froth, a quality that may be priceless—or worthless. And all of the collections are now photographed and, in quite a few cases, filmed, so they’re available, sometimes within minutes, on dozens of Web sites (most prominently,, where they can be studied in detail. In this environment, sketching is unnecessary, and fashion-besotted kids in Kankakee get a closer view of the sculptural seaming on Narciso Rodriguez’s rigorously tailored, cropped khaki wool-twill jacket than do Suzy Menkes and Claire Danes in the front row. Which makes those blingy, Sex and the City–ish tent shows rather quaint. “Kind of like a Shriners’ convention—people get together and wear funny outfits,” the gimlet-eyed fashion critic Lynn Yaeger observed while filing into an unusually celebrity-engorged show.

The Colony closed in 1971, Le Pavillon in 1972, Peck & Peck in 1974, and Bonwit Teller in 1990; Saks, as we’ll see, is another story. And though an elegiac mood suffused February’s Fashion Week, few there cared a whit for the long-vanished world of fashion doyennes. Indeed, if today’s standard-issue fashionistas have thought at all about that former era, it has only been to congratulate themselves on how much more “free,” diverse, and glittery is their own new nexus of money, prestige, and fashion—an agglomeration of the wives, girlfriends, and aimless daughters of Manhattan’s entertainment, media, and financial titans and mini-titans that forms the gelatin in which are suspended the candied fruit of Ivy-educated actresses, charismatic DJs, scenesters with great bone structure, and rap stars given to obscene gestures on the most unlikely occasions.

During this gray February week the nostalgia was, of course, for the gaudiest spree in New York’s history—a binge that began sometime in the Reagan years, accelerated for two decades (despite brief and minor slowdowns at the end of 1987 and 2001, and what in retrospect was a trifling breather in 1990–91), and ended last year with breathtaking rapidity and finality. With one eye on the Dow and the other on the lonely stretches of Bergdorf’s main floor, Yaeger marveled, “It’s getting worse so fast.” Sally Singer, Vogue’s director of fashion news and features, who has the most sociologically and historically sophisticated antennae in fashion (honed by her fanatical childhood home sewing, her Berkeley-dropout stint as a beautician in Oakland, her graduate work in American studies at Yale, and her quasi-Marxian rigor as an editor at the London Review of Books), was noticing a new trend on Manhattan streets: cute young women putting skirts and little lace-up shoes together with the expensive suit jackets and crisp striped shirts their newly unemployed banker boyfriends no longer needed. “Great look,” she allowed with a shrug.

Fashion’s strange career and the city’s boom years entwined. Not only was Fashion Week that era’s creature; the period had essentially created that event’s very locales. Before the boom, Bryant Park meant methadone addicts, Chelsea meant shabby gentility, and the Meatpacking District meant rough trade, transvestite prostitutes, and, well, meatpacking. By boom’s end, all of Manhattan (and a good part of Brooklyn, and even some of Queens) had, it seemed, become one vast, hip neighborhood. This meant that soaring rents were eroding the traditional centers of garment manufacturing, but it also meant that talented young designers now had swaths of new territory in which to open their own boutiques and build an ever-growing fashion-conscious customer base.

The main store of Tracy Feith, for instance, one of the bevy of young designers Singer has nurtured and championed (Feith was relatively unknown outside fashion circles until Michelle Obama wore his dress at the National Prayer Service the morning after the Inauguration), moved last September from Mulberry Street, which was transformed in the 1990s from goombahville to a center of insouciant hipness, to Williamsburg—which was transformed in the early 2000s from a pool for poor immigrants to … a center of insouciant hipness. More generally, the relationship between fashion and the few who populated the boom-engendered scene under the tents, as well as between fashion and the vast army of boom-engendered fashion customers, was the same as the relationship between art and its rich, powerful, often unlovely patrons: all that money sloshing around led to excessive, vulgar creations and consumption, but it also created a fertile soil in which works of beauty and integrity could develop.

In 1931 and 1932, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote two essays, “Echoes of the Jazz Age” and “My Lost City,” in which he described how in just two years New York’s “vaunting pride” and “steady golden roar” born of “fantastic success” and fashionable, youthful free spending came to seem “as far away as the days before the War”—and how the reckless élan that characterized those vanished years had been replaced by a chastened awareness of dashed hopes and circumscribed ambition. Indirectly, Fitzgerald’s pieces remind us that the Depression had insidiously but rather slowly worked its way into the life of New York. The October 1929 crash had been a jolt, but the Christmas shopping season following on its heels was a prosperous one. The market’s precipitous drop seemed, if not a healthy correction, then at least, probably, a manageable one; indeed, Wall Street had recovered a good portion of the losses from the October crash in the mini-rally of early 1930, and the market wouldn’t find its bottom until July 1932. It was really only in the autumn of 1930, perhaps even later, that it became clear to New Yorkers that what Fitzgerald called “the most expensive orgy in history” was irrevocably over.

The current collapse, universally labeled within the fashion world a depression, has struck with a vicious suddenness that can almost be dated to the week. Everything had been different just five months before, in September 2008, at the previous Fashion Week. True, by then everyone knew that some economizing lay ahead, even perhaps, worst-case scenario, something on the order of the 1991 recession. But spending on fashion—on uplift and fantasy—had proved recession-resistant. Saks, for instance, knew its customers and, like most stores of its kind, bet on their desires. At the beginning of 2008 it placed heavy orders on the New York collections and on the collections presented in succession in London, Milan, and Paris over the following months. But in October, in what Stephen Sadove, the CEO of Saks, told The Wall Street Journal was “as short a period of time as you can possibly imagine,” fashion customers just stopped buying. By mid-November, Saks had cut its prices by 70 percent—well below the break-even point. This introduced the most economically ravaging period in the history of American fashion. Saks’s competitors were forced to follow suit, which meant that designers got next to nothing for their fall collections. As Tracey Ross, who ran what was probably the best-curated boutique in Los Angeles (she was forced out of business after nearly 20 years, in December), put it, “I am like, ‘Do the math. I sold your $800 shoes for $50.’”

New York fashion is mostly a lot of small businesses. Even household-name designers often lack backers, which means that they make twice-yearly gambles (on their fall and spring collections) requiring huge cash outlays—for the most part, fabrics have to be bought, patterns cut, garments sewn, and finishes applied before any money comes in. All of which makes the industry unusually vulnerable to the credit squeeze. Fashion is by far the largest manufacturing industry in New York, but it’s mostly made up of piecework (for instance, Lyn Devon, a rising designer known for her well-cut, sexy renditions of classics, relies on four women in Queens to produce all her knitwear). Last season’s sales, then, were “very, very destructive,” as Singer says. “It might be cool to be able to find something for 80 percent off … but that means a lot of people aren’t getting paid, and a lot of businesses are going to go under.” Diane von Furstenberg, who serves as president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, declared with old-world imperiousness that the sales that had devastated the industry “cannot happen again.”

But they’re bound to. Days before Fashion Week, a friend in the fashion world ran into the fashion director of a tony Manhattan department store on the store’s empty main sales floor. Surveying the unsold spring lines, the director said the clothes would sit at full price on the shelves until March (the conventional understanding, violated by Saks in the fall, holds that stores won’t mark down prices for two months), and “then we slash.” For their part, of course, the large retailers are also hemorrhaging: in January, Saks fired 1,100 people, including its director of women’s fashion, Michael Fink, and Neiman’s fired 375 (just after Fashion Week, Neiman’s fired an additional 450 employees).

Given this cataclysmic reality, Fashion Week itself was, depending on one’s point of view, a remnant of an age of gaudy excess or evidence of remarkable and unfounded pluck. A runway show in one of the tents can cost $800,000: the 40 or so outfits must be handmade, the space rented ($50,000), shoes and accessories (usually designed specifically for the collection) bought, and the stylist, lighting designer, hair and makeup artists, and 40-some models (top ones traditionally get $20,000 a show) paid. So the decision Rodriguez made to finance his own tent show (he lost his backer, Liz Claiborne Inc., in October) was gutsy. True, economizing was evident throughout Fashion Week: the models halved their catwalk fees, and a number of designers scaled back their presentations—Marc Jacobs, for instance, cut his guest list from 2,000 to 500, and decided to forgo his once de rigueur after-party. Still, Fashion Week’s purpose is to shimmer, and there were more than enough dos. Their atmosphere did bring to mind Fitzgerald’s description of post-crash cocktail parties in the first years of the 1930s:

A last hollow survival of the days of carnival [in which] a few childish wraiths still played to keep up the pretense that they were alive, betraying by their feverish voices and hectic cheeks the thinness of the masquerade.

Fashion, of course, draws far more than its share of such young and foolish creatures, but for every three fashionistas attracted to the glitzy and the trendy of Fashion Week, there was someone more seasoned, enticed by fashion’s singular ability to marry aesthetics and psychology, formalism and eroticism. Those people were far more likely to be at certain presentations (say, L’Wren Scott’s or Francisco Costa’s for Calvin Klein) than at others (Proenza Schouler’s, Alexander Wang’s), and, being mostly of a certain age and leading very busy lives, would eschew those parties anyway. Hardly recreational shoppers, they’d probably been less excessive spenders than many well-off, fashion-minded Manhattanites; but their country’s prevailing culture—and particularly their city’s—had hardly been an ascetic one, and the boom had been long. As is true for most Americans, the period since … well, since the September Fashion Week has amounted to the great chastening experience of their lives. Outside Rodriguez’s show, a woman much photographed by the fashion blogs for her stylish and eccentric dress carried a bag striking for its combination of whimsy and sophistication. The ornamentation, “rather Alice in Wonderland–ish,” as she put it, seemed handmade. “Well, hand- applied,” she explained, “though who really knows where or by whom.” The irony turned to self-disgust as she volunteered that she’d bought it for a modest fortune on Labor Day—“just five months ago. It now just seems so obscene.” She liked the bag, but she had enough bags.

Those given to introspection at Fashion Week were similarly dismayed, not just with themselves and fashion’s readily apparent excesses but with the city’s decades-long, dizzying spree—an attitude that echoed Fitzgerald’s description of New Yorkers’ sobering-up after a similarly immoderate era: “Now once more the belt is tight and we summon the proper expression of horror as we look back at our wasted youth.”

To put it in very different terms, consumers of fashion are undergoing a “values correction,” as the retail consultant Candace Corlett told Reuters. If that’s so, a contingent of people at the heart of American fashion has for years been readying for post-crash style. The great figures in fashion need a kind of clairvoyance, for they have to show women what they want before they know that they want it. Critics given to a crude commercial determinism have long dismissed that as nothing more than the market dictating to hapless consumers what fripperies to buy. But in fact insight into what women want is born of emotional and psychological sympathy and an exquisite sensitivity to the faintest and most distant cultural and commercial tremors.

Fashion is both a form of self-expression and an outward means of defining and altering selfhood. (Indeed, fashion people largely agree that a woman’s sense of style grows out of her youthful vision of the romance of adulthood.) It famously, complicatedly blends art and commerce, and perhaps the highest compliment one can pay a designer is to say that he or she understands the customer: a good part of the art lies in fathoming her mood, her desires, and her ambitions, and the ways these may shift from season to season and year to year and evolve as she ages. The best designers challenge those who wear their clothes—they want to guide and at times even push them, but they’ll fail in every sense when they push in a direction the customer repudiates. Underlying the relationship between designer and customer are a handful of fashion editors and store fashion directors who themselves guide, prod, and educate the other parties. They discover and promote emerging talent, and help established designers refine and enlarge their aesthetic and commercial goals.

Two of the most influential of these matchmakers and tastemakers—Singer and Julie Gilhart, the senior vice president and fashion director of Barneys New York, a store that exercises the greatest sway of any in the country—extracted what substance there was to be had from Fashion Week. Singer, legendary for her work ethic and ferocious energy (and possessed of a near-Talmudic knowledge of the New York subway system), attended upward of 10 presentations a day, shuttling on Saturday, for instance, from Chelsea for the Ohne Titel show (biker/Rick Owens–inspired, lots of chain mail, but also some formfitting dresses and jackets) to far-west Midtown for the VPL show (innerwear as outerwear, dance-girl look), then crosstown to a private presentation by Koi Suwannagate (all cashmere), later to the Roseland ballroom for the show of the Next Huge Thing, Alexander Wang (cropped blazers and body-conscious dresses for what one observer called “the skinny hipster in the city”), and back to Chelsea to a hideously overcrowded loft (the fire marshals seem to look the other way during Fashion Week) for a presentation by the “fashion collective” Threeasfour, which featured geometric shapes and uncharacteristically sharp tailoring. Avoiding the parties, she capped off the evening at a buffet supper in solid, sleepy Cobble Hill, where the theme was a salute to Oregon and the entertainment was folk ballads performed by the hosts’ children. Gilhart, impatient with the glut, jokingly told New York magazine that by Wednesday she was trying to escape Fashion Week. “I started looking for flights: ‘How much would it cost to just fly away to the Dominican Republic? Would Turks and Caicos be cheaper?’” The whole scene “just got excessive.” Though blasé, as she told me, about “runway shows with pretty clothes,” Gilhart (who, when I first met her last summer, was wearing a sundress from Rogan Gregory’s organic, sustainable line for Target, a black-lace Icelandic bracelet, and a gold surfer’s pendant from Abraxas Rex) is surprisingly excited about what she believes the current crash will mean for the future of fashion. She has long maintained that women want—or should want—something different from what they’ve so far been offered by fashion. Now, by necessity, they are going to get it.

Singer and Gilhart have responded with sympathy to what their close friends the designers Ruben and Isabel Toledo call “the fashion plunge” (obviously, many people they love and admire are in financial jeopardy), but they don’t yearn for a return to the fashion spree. Gilhart, who would be meeting with a charitable group in the South Bronx the next weekend, put things in perspective by describing what she sees there: “Now that’s a catastrophe.” Fashion, she said, “will have to take some hits,” but the plunge “will lead us to a new era in fashion, and to a better place”—a place she and Singer have been trying to get to for years. “I’m quite optimistic,” Singer told an audience at a “Conscientious Consumption” panel she helped organize at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles immediately after Fashion Week. This economy, Singer said, has made women think, “My God—why did I need all this stuff?” Gilhart adds that thanks to the recession, “the customer is just thinking more,” which “is preparing the ground for a more conscious consumerism.”

These women hope this new deliberation will benefit the savings rate, the environment, the workers of the world, animals, and—not least—fashion. Gilhart led Barneys’ development of its own line of all-organic casual clothes, made by Loomstate, and has deployed her clout to persuade designers to make clothes from organic, recycled, and discarded materials. She used the store’s powerful publicity machine (buzz-inducing Christmas window displays on the Upper East Side, in Chicago’s Gold Coast, and in Beverly Hills) to push a tough though quirky environmental message on its customers. She has sought out designers and lines committed to high labor standards and economic development. Vogue’s “View” section, which Singer oversees, inaugurated a monthly page on Style Ethics in March. It’s a link Singer has been trying to make for years, as she has nudged fashion consumers and producers to rethink their stances toward not just animals and workers but, more generally, the nasty ethos that pervades the fashion world. She told Paper in 2000:

I think that there are a considerable number of people in this industry who think that to be cool and hip and to have “edge,” it is essential to be cruel—to be a bitch, for lack of a better word … I think there’s an idea in the fashion world that if you’re humane and you’re thoughtful … that you are somehow less hip … This posturing in the industry simply has to be done away with.

Within both women there’s a tension between delight in fashion—a delight rooted simultaneously in their own refined aesthetic and girlish thrill (“Wearing clothes is fun,” Singer says)—and an acute awareness that, in Singer’s words, “the world does not need more things.” Both have tried to reconcile that tension by urging “a sustainable frugality.” The trend-driven, recreational shopping of the binge years (Singer terms it the “yo-yo dieting of clothes buying”) enormously damaged fashion, because the development of a sense of style depends on discernment and discrimination—on the idea, long Singer’s mantra, that women should “buy less, but buy better.”

The stylish woman, she asserts, “carefully builds a wardrobe.” Singer bought exactly one dress this season, at Barneys—a cocktail dress by Isabel Toledo (a designer who aims to “make a garment that lasts”: “It’s not just yours. It should be your daughter’s eventually”). Singer’s stylish woman “wears great things from five years ago, 10 years ago.” On the first day of Fashion Week, Singer, whose own style her friend Kim Hastreiter, the editor of Paper magazine, calls “windswept chic,” wore a jacket she had bought last year (Italian double-knit wool, from Marco Zanini’s first and last collection for Halston) over a silk-and-cotton V-neck from J. Crew, whose Italian yarns, Singer says, display “obviously great sourcing” and whose sweaters form a staple of Michelle Obama’s sensible-chic, workaday wardrobe. She put it over “an old Dosa shirt,” Dosa being the line designed by her L.A.-based friend Christina Kim, who, years before green was the new black, was making all her clothes to what could be described as fanatically high ethical and environmental standards. Singer’s pants were green velvet, from Vanessa Bruno; her shoes “very old pointy ballet flats,” from Devi Kroell.

Obviously, this idea of buying so-called investment pieces resonates more deeply today than it did even six months ago. As Gilhart says, “If I were a consumer now, I’d really want to buy pieces that count, that last; the customer is in no hurry. She should be choosing these things with great care.” (In an effort to guide the customer to focus on enduring design rather than the au courant, Gilhart is now working with the designer Stefano Pilati of Yves Saint Laurent, who is assembling a new line for Barneys to revive the best styles from the archives of that renowned French design house.) Part of that care, Singer maintains, means recognizing that “things that are very expensive can be very expensive for just the right reasons—because they were made beautifully by someone who really gave a lot of care to the design and by people who were fairly paid along the way to execute something that was rather difficult. Those prices that often seem high are fair prices.”

If the consumer is expected to make conscientious choices based on an item’s provenance (favoring, for instance, designers who use wool made from humanely raised sheep—hardly a frivolous concern given the conditions sheep routinely endure), both the retailer and the customer are in for a whole new layer of homework, on top of the Stakhanovite diligence many already apply to their study of such bibles as Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, and Elle. But even if a woman can figure out what’s best for the Earth, she still has the eternal problem of choosing what’s stylistically best for her.

In this responsible new world, a woman may be happy with the notion of buying one new, expensive-because-it-is-fairly-priced dress per year. But when it comes down to choosing which of those dresses will perennially look good on her, the pressure is intense. What woman hasn’t made wardrobe mistakes? How to be sure—even if one scrupulously avoids gauchos and go-go boots—that one’s daughter will not judge this year’s purchase (when, in the fullness of time, it becomes hers) one of them? The cognoscenti of the fashion universe distinguish between fashion and style. A woman should just find her own personal style, they urge, and then she will always look great. Easy for them to say.

Thanks to American voters, the heralds of a new era in fashion now have an example to point to. It’s nearly impossible to overstate the significance Michelle Obama holds for the world of American fashion generally and for these advocates of a newly conscious consumerism specifically. The designers Obama favors aren’t the biggest names, nor are they the trendy ones. Rather, they’re those whose creations are never tied to a “look” or a “moment.” The point is not to copy Obama’s style but rather to follow her approach. According to Singer, when Obama wears a dress by Toledo (whose clothes are expensive because they’re exquisitely made and because she pays her cutters and sewers very well), women don’t necessarily “want to buy a knock-off Toledo. They just see that Obama is a woman with style who buys interesting things—things that are different from what they’ve seen before—and wears them well, and they’re inspired to do the same.” Of course, she’s a woman with not just a sense of style but the sense, and the ability, to choose stylish advisers.

Despite the ever-present frivolity and the new foreboding, a lot of the clothes that emerged from Fashion Week were unusually strong. Designers were trying to respond to the national mood—one that had darkened intensely just since they’d bought the fabrics last October for the clothes that would not be in the stores until August. True, some designers went defiantly, exuberantly over the top—Marc Jacobs most obviously, with his nostalgic, big-shouldered encomium to the 1980s, when the great splurge had begun. But for most, this wasn’t a time to play around. Most of the better lines covered a spectrum: there were the pretty good, snap-to, grown-up, and wearable (Doo-Ri Chung, who “didn’t feel bright colors,” and Thakoon Panichgul, although in a clumsy effort at luxe he festooned his otherwise smart collection with a lot of fur hats, coats, and jackets); the very good, practical, and authoritative (Donna Karan and Michael Kors, though fur, always a cheap ploy, also vitiated Kors’s collection, and shearling did Karan’s); and the terrific, elegant, and adult (Francisco Costa for Calvin Klein, L’Wren Scott).

But the best collection to emerge, while entirely in keeping with the mood, wasn’t responding to it: that of Matthew Ames, a 28-year-old Brooklyn-based designer who presented in New York for the first time (he’d shown in Paris the three previous years). If Gilhart is right that the economic upheaval will inaugurate a new era in fashion, then Ames is likely to be its first great designer. Marked by their pure, strong lines, his austere garments—beautiful, not pretty—in what he calls “a classic American palette” of camel, ecru, loden, tobacco, and blue denim, are sophisticated and even avant-garde but unfussy (no buttons, no linings), practical, and marked by an elegant ease and comfort. “I’ve always wanted to make pieces that are lasting,” he said, “not pieces that will only excite people for the moment. People want to buy something that’s not going to look old in six months.”

Ames’s pieces seem at once nearly medieval and from the future. They’re not in fashion, and they won’t go out of fashion. And they’re versatile. For instance, one of his garments—a single piece of silk with one seam, an elastic waistband, and a long extension—can be worn five ways, so it can be worn by women of different ages, or by the same woman as she ages. They’re enduring: his attention to the quality of his materials (woolens, denim, cashmere and cashmere-cotton blends, silk crepe) and to detail and craft is extreme. Prices are high but not loony-high: dresses retail for $800 to $1,500. A post-crash woman (at least one in the average Atlantic reader’s income bracket) determined to defend the value of style through these dark times could make worse investments. Her daughter will probably thank her.