Dressed to Recess

Article excerpt

Byline: Sameer Reddy

Before Yves Saint Laurent revolutionized the world with his first pret-a-porter collection in 1966, fashion was a luxury that fell under the purview of the select few who could afford to spend thousands of dollars on a bespoke evening gown or suit. Everything else was just clothing. Today it's the opposite: what once would have been considered just clothing now aspires to the label of fashion--explaining the success of brands like J.Crew, the Gap, Topshop and H&M, which deliver the look of fashion for the price of mere clothing.

The current retail climate is undoubtedly friendlier to this model of design, but luxury designers aren't about to give up. After a dismal holiday shopping season, in which the sector's sales declined 34.5 percent over last year, according to MasterCard Inc.'s SpendingPulse unit, the luxury-fashion industry is making a prudent move to get back to basics. That means more than just simple but stylish garments, like a pair of $500 hand-dyed, custom-washed Japanese denim jeans and a $200 raw-edged pima-cotton tank top. It means translating the foundational elements that form a luxury brand's core identity into more muted--but still attention-getting--forms, in neutral colors and with sparse decoration. At Chanel, for instance, this would mean a wool boucle suit in elegant winter white, layered with strands of costume pearls and worn with ballet flats--an ensemble whose "basic" cost would exceed several thousand dollars. The price is still high, but so is the quality, and any brash, in-your-face appeal has been abandoned for a measure of chic discretion.

I first noticed this trend at Sao Paulo Fashion Week, which took place in mid-January. Brazilian fashion is distinguished by bold color and powerful prints, but this season many designers turned out graphic, sculptural pieces in a more restrained, neutral palette. In their respective collections, Reinaldo Lourenco, one of the country's biggest design names, and his wife, Gloria Coelho, merged expressionism with minimalism. Lourenco sent out tailored coats and evening suits with armorlike elements, such as heavy metallic embroidery, and Coelho showed snug headpieces, perhaps intended to provide at least symbolic protection against the harsh economic realities of the day. Osklen, a successful Brazilian brand with stores in Tokyo, New York and Rome, had a similarly modern take on medieval garb, rendering tunics in gray, black and white, and limiting embellishment to graphite metallic beads and shiny black paillettes. …