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It's the Economy, Darling

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The pressure’s on major designers to make their case. “People are going to buy less, but they’re going to be much more aware,” says Julie Gilhart, the fashion director of Barneys. She’s been writing spring orders with particular care. “Customers are going to want what they buy to be really, really good. ‘More for less’ shouldn’t be the mantra; it should be ‘less, but that less should definitely be more.’ ” More unique, more fantastic, more, more, more. High fashion right now shouldn’t compete with the Gap—it needs to offer something extremely beautiful and well made. “It just forces you to be more focused,” says designer Thakoon Panichgul, whose $1,200 dresses have popped up on the industry’s new icon, Michelle Obama (who, it should be pointed out, worked a high-low mix on the campaign trail—J.Crew for appearances, Narciso Rodriguez for Election Night).

“It’s about concentrating on special efforts to make pieces with really big impact,” Panichgul continues. He did brisk business this fall with a minidress wrapped in bondage straps, a dress that announces itself as high fashion in no uncertain terms and that will flatter the few rather than the many. “I have to design in a dream,” Panichgul adds. “Reality is too depressing.”

A lot of retailers don’t want to talk about it. Those who do acknowledge switching strategies and making smaller, more-focused buys—still luxurious, but carefully so. “We bought a lot less,” says Kalinsky, “Enough less that I can sleep at night. I was being much more conservative, much more selective.”

Some designers have added lower-priced pieces to their collections. At Lanvin, there are now dresses with all that famous draping, but in jersey rather than silk, and signature trench coats, in Acne denim rather than faille.

The prevailing enthusiasm among retailers, though, is about the expensive pieces. Just a few of them, maybe, but in the current fashion-logic way, that’s what make sense.

“We have just been chariots of fire and bought only what we really love,” says Beth Buccini, co-owner of the Soho boutique Kirna Zabête. “We’re focusing on fashion with a capital F and leaving the basics to someone else.” Kirna Zabête bought loads of Lanvin (“The shoes are like candy,” Buccini says. “I felt like Kirsten Dunst in Marie Antoinette”) and added Balmain (“It’s the most expensive,” she says, “but it’s so the mood right now”). She’s guessing that her customers will still be happy to shell out big bucks for distressed Balmain jeans because “they look like nothing else out there.”

Fashion’s bubble doesn’t exist in a world of logic or rationale. It trades, rather, on fantasy about yourself and about a more attractive, more glamorous version of the world. For the moment, that bubble might be shrinking. But will it pop for good? Never.


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