Fashion is undergoing a transition. As the effects of a global pandemic continue to ravage our economy, consumers are looking for a way to be selective when it comes to their non-essential spending, eschewing flashy purchases in favour of anonymous prestige items that speak to the well-trained eye.
And as we trade in our logos for quiet basics, one thing calls to mind — could this be the end of flex culture as we know it? Change was already in the air with the recent surge for the quiet designs of Bottega Venetta, but will COVID-19 finally be the one to kill the braggadocious designs that have been haunting the trend cycle in recent years?
A Lesson In Restraint
The power to practise self-restraint and thoughtfulness when it comes to those suffering around them isn’t a new practice. Throughout history, the fashion pendulum has swung between excessive showiness and modest minimalism depending on the health of the economy.
This has been prevalent even as far back as the French Revolution, when aristocrat Marie Antoinette — famed for her self-indulgence — traded in her silk crinolines for modest white dresses to appease the angry peasants. Her extravagant fashion choices had only served as a reminder of the massive inequality in France and the ever-widening gap between the poor and rich. Alas, her gesture was an exercise in “too little, too late” and cost Antoinette her head. And with the continued execution of nobles following the Storming of the Bastille in 1789, being fashionable wasn’t just insensitive, it had become downright dangerous as it was a clear indicator of your aristocracy.
In modern times, Johann Rupert, chairman of luxury conglomerate Richemont forewarned of this behavior at the 2015 Financial Times Business of Luxury Summit in Monaco: “We can’t have the 0.1 percent of the 0.1 percent taking all the spoils. And folks, those are our clients. But it’s unfair and it’s not sustainable.” If inequality continued to rise, he predicted, “Our clients will be targets. They’ll be hated, despised. People with money will not wish to show it.”
While it’s unfair to say that the privileged shouldn’t be allowed to showcase their good fortune lest they offend someone, practising sensitivity and exercising some mindfulness per se can be seen as a gesture of goodwill when the rest of society is struggling. After all, no one likes a show-off, especially during difficult times.
Is Showcasing Your Wealth Gauche?
But this doesn’t mean the wealthy have stopped spending altogether. On the contrary — just take a look at the multitude of luxury stores still doing distance selling or home deliveries to their clients — it’s clear that those with the purchasing power are still shopping, even if they’ve got nowhere to go. They’re just doing it with a lot more discretion.
In fact, during the 2008 Great Recession, it was rumoured that Hermès disguised their customer’s purchases by swapping out their iconic orange carriers with plain brown paper bags that kept their splurges hidden. What once used to be a signifier of wealth had now become gauche — especially when society is struggling to make ends meet.
Simply put: it was still ok to be rich, but it was no longer cool to look the part.
But the fashion industry is fundamentally a consumerist one. How do you convince people to start buying things they don’t need — and at sky-high prices, no less? By changing the definition of what luxury means.
The Lipstick Effect
In a recessionary environment, it’s not all bad news for retail. In fact, the “affordable luxury” category still tends to perform well. While the term is a paradox in itself (as the whole point of luxury is that it is not meant to be affordable), these were the items — the lipsticks, nail polishes and assorted beauty and personal care items — that were accessible to the mass public due to its relatively low price point.
Granted, these items weren’t dirt cheap, but it was cash that the average middle-class consumer could afford to set aside. Brand names still lent an air of luxury to the consumer and access to that world, even if (for the time being) they couldn’t afford their ready-to-wear and accessories. Besides, showing off a Chanel lipstick definitely felt more appropriate than a head-to-toe look of interlocking Cs.
This trend then became known as the “lipstick effect”. Coined during the 2001 Recession by Leonard Lauder, the billionaire executive chairman of the Estée Lauder Companies, he noticed that lipstick sales tend to be inversely correlated to economic health.
But while sales did not withstand the 2008 Great Recession, there was evidence that the idea still held — it just manifested itself in other “affordable luxury” categories such as nail polish. In fact, studies have shown an overall growth of 5.9% in sales in the last recession. Cash-strapped women had rediscovered nail polish as an affordable fashion accessory and would treat themselves with small, feel-good items as morale boosters whilst pulling back on big splurges such as expensive dresses and holidays.
The Introduction Of The Normcore Movement
Little luxuries aside, fashion also goes through a seismic shift whenever an economic crisis happens. Just before the 2008 crash, the flashy extravagance of the late aughts was at its peak. This was a time where Paris Hilton was queen, alongside gilded Louis Vuitton bowling bags, Juicy Couture jumpsuits and God forbid… Ed Hardy anything.
As a response to this, conservative fashion was slowly making its way into the fray, with many choosing minimalist and understated wardrobes as a welcome alternative. Normcore had entered the fashion consciousness as people grew tired of the unnecessary display of excess.
Jerry Seinfeld and Steve Jobs replaced socialites as the new style icons, where nondescript black Issey Miyake turtleneck sweaters and clunky New Balance sneakers replaced Hervé Léger bandage dresses and monogrammed bags as unsung wardrobe heroes instead.
As a non-essential sector, fashion was considered self-indulgent, and many were possibly looking to opt out of the flashy trend cycle to appear considerate. Or, if we’re being honest, to appear subversive. It’s telling that one of the most sought after brands during this time was Phoebe Philo’s Celine (or should we say Céline?). Philo’s reign from 2008 to 2017 ushered in a new fashion fan; the legions of women who appreciated fashion’s quieter front and took to her intelligent (and expensive) designs.
As years of minimalism went by, more designers that championed the cause started popping up. The Row, Gabriela Hearst and Lemaire were among a few that dedicated their work to simplistic designs that highlighted craftsmanship of the highest order. While their pieces might not instantaneously scream money with monograms and logos, the high quality detailing and premium fabrics still reflected that to the well-trained eye.
But as the economy picked up, so did loud fashion. And in an industry that prides itself on extremes, consumers grew bored. Where was the fun in fashion if you had to be discreet about it?
And thus, the fashion powers-that-be granted consumers their wish in the form of Alessandro Michele’s Gucci. Michele’s maximalist creations featured embellishments, over-the-top designs and a seemingly inclusive message that seemed like a fresh breath of air in 2015. The Italian brand was so well received Kering reported growth revenues of a whopping 42.8% in 2017 and 34.9% in 2018. Even with a downturn in 2019, the company still reported a healthy growth of 13.3% in revenue.
Envious of Gucci’s growth, other luxury houses soon followed suit. Ricardo Tisci revived the iconic checks at Burberry, Fendi emblazoned their double F motifs on any popular rapper they could get their hands on, and Demna Gvasalia was splashing different iterations of the Balenciaga logo on as many products as he could possibly find. Brands were all about creating tribes with their consumers, and the logo you chose to wear cemented your support and alignment to the brand.
Stealth Wealth And The Return Of Minimalism
But amidst the glittery chaos though, a new tribe emerged. The Old Celine fans of Daniel Lee’s New Bottega. The industry’s latest wunderkind and coincidentally, Philo disciple (Lee was director of ready-to-wear at Celine during Philo’s tenure), had revitalized the brand with subversive designs that created visceral reactions within fashion fans, reigniting the allure for quiet design once again.
While Lee’s oversized proportions and masculine tailoring could be considered aggressively trendy, in its neutral colour palette and luxe fabrications like cashmere and leather, the pieces still loomed with a softer confidence as opposed to the ostentatious designs of Michele’s Gucci. His designs call to mind the idea of “stealth wealth”, the practice of keeping one’s wealth hidden from others.
To be able to tell if someone was wearing Bottega, one would have to be in the know. This allowed wealthy consumers to indulge in the practice of shopping without televising their largesse. Without a flashy, identifying logo, there wasn’t a way for the mass public to assess that that “simple” cream sweater was actually cashmere, and could have actually cost SGD$3,550.
What Will Luxury Consumers Wear In The Age Of Anxiety?
As we brace ourselves for the Great, Great Recession of 2020, it comes as no surprise that a decade later, fashion history repeats itself. According to a statement made by Francesca Muston, Vice President of Fashion at WGSN in an article on BOF, in times of uncertainty consumers tend to favour professional clothing and are more considerate about their purchases.
“In the age of anxiety, consumers are looking to strip back and focus on what is really important — being mindful extends beyond meditation to being mindful about how we spend our time and money,” she said. And this means reducing consumption as well. Wealthy or not, a simple jacket from Jil Sander or a minimalist dress from The Row could stand the test of time and still be relevant 10 years from now. But would you feel the same for that trendy, embellished tracksuit? Most would say no.
Fashion might get a bad rap for being frivolous, but historically it’s also acted as a sign of the times. If the low-waist flapper dresses of the 1920s signified women’s freedom of movement after World War I and the bum-grazing mini skirts of the 1960s marked the beginning of the sexual revolution, then perhaps the low-key luxury of 2020 could signify women’s need for discretion and comfort in an anxiety-riddled time.
So where does this leave us now, as we get to leave our houses again? Will you be taking this time to distinguish yourself from conspicuous consumption in favour of low key designs? Or will you continue to signal your status with excessive logos and risk coming across as insensitive?
If the saying “the loudest person in the room is the weakest” is true, then by that definition, not showing off displays one’s security in their style and status in the world. And if you have the ability to be discerning when given a choice of fashion options, is that not the true display of luxury and taste?