Some 7.2 percent of New Yorkers may be out of work, but New York City still feverishly celebrated Fashion Week this February-just as it does twice a year, every year. As usual, white tents filled Bryant Park with high-heeled fashionistas stalking haute couture. This year, they drank "McCafe"-a glammed-up version of McDonald's coffee-around a massive centerpiece of 5-foot-tall pink letters, inset with hundreds of Barbie dolls spelling the word BARBIE.
Some things, though, were different. It was in Chelsea-20 blocks from Bryant Park-that Loris Diran's designs were on display, as models sauntered down the runway to David Bowie's "Fashion." The materials were rich-a bolero of black mink and cashmere, a cream-colored satin organza blouse, a cashmere hoodie-with classic tailoring and clean edges. In one floor-length gown, silver shimmered from the sheer shoulders down to the floor.
But despite the silver sheen, there was a reason Diran was in Chelsea and not at Bryant Park. Diran told USA Today that designers don't want to come across as "Marie Antoinettes" right now: "They are trying not to seem pompous and arrogant in the face of adversity. They're feeling it's almost politically incorrect to have a big $250,000 show."
Top designers like Vera Wang, Carmen Marc Valvo, and Betsey Johnson joined Diran with shows away from Bryant Park, with Vera Wang announcing, "The intimacy of a smaller show feels much more appropriate for these times." Clothing chains took a deep bruising in January, according to same-sales store reports. Gap sales declined 23 percent-more than the 15.4 percent expected. Abercrombie & Fitch sales fell 20 percent and Nordstrom's saw an 11.4 percent decline.
Those still shopping seem ashamed. The New York Times quoted an editor at Allure magazine saying, "Shopping is almost embarrassing, and a little vulgar right now." Wealthy women have turned to secret shopping extravaganzas in hotel suites and private rooms. The Daily Beast caught Kathleen Fuld, wife of Lehman Brothers CEO Dick Fuld, opting for a plain white bag to conceal the thousands she spent at a Hermes boutique.
But some fashion designers and models deplore this attitude, saying fashion has artistic and cultural value even-and especially-in a recession.
Jennavave Barbero is a former model-tall, with jutting cheekbones and curly brown hair piled on her head and falling down her back. She walked into a Soho coffee bar holding a binder with a quote from Coco Chanel on the front page-"How many cares one loses when one decides not to be something, but to be someone"-and thick with her own designs: a wool coat for BCBG, a woven leather jacket for Ellen Tracy, and designs for Ralph Lauren and Ann Taylor.
Barbero can command a six-figure salary, she said, but she recently worked for $10,000 a year less than her usual minimum. She has been relying on freelance design projects for a year. "I have no savings left," she says matter-of-factly, but adds, "It's also been a fantastic year for me spiritually."
The fashion industry felt the recession's clutch more than two years ago, said Barbero. It has been slashing costs anywhere since: buying cheaper fabric, cutting models' rates, eliminating the stash of petty cash designers once used to get sample materials, doing more knock-off designs instead of coming up with original ones, and moving manufacturing to China's cheap factories. Even designer labels are manufacturing in China, said Barbero, and tacking on a few Italian accents with a label that reads, "Made in Italy." The customer may not know that quality is going down, Barbero said: "But it is."
But fashion still has cultural value in a recession, she said. For one thing, it lifts people's spirits: "There's nothing like a calamity that causes people to do some soul searching, and people either discover God or they discover something else." Beauty is healing, she said: "It physically has a healing effect on the human psyche. God designed it that way. Art, in its many different facets of beauty-it becomes extremely important in times when people are being challenged so intensely." She sees an opportunity for innovation and creativity-helping people revamp old wardrobes while the bloated fashion industry trims some of its excess brands.
That artistry moves Maxidus, an artist-performer who hails from Jamaica and lives in New York. When he lived in Miami, he worked as a model with clients like Tommy Hilfiger and Pepsi. He loves shoes; he also loves Shakespeare.
Fall 2008 fashion inspired him to create a video of modeling stills set to music to practice his video-editing skills. It was inspiring, he said: "I'm looking at this stuff, and it's actually art: the fabrics they choose, the patterns in the fabric, the details in the fabric."
The designers choose the models carefully-their body type, their look-and teach them how to walk and what expression to use. (At the Mackage show in Bryant Park, the models so closely resembled each other they looked like the same person.) "And then they bring in the hair and the makeup and then all these things come together and then looking at this stuff-the time they put into this, all this work, it qualifies for the price they put on it," he said. You can feel the quality of high-end couture right on your skin, right down to the stitching, he said: "It feels really good. It feels really good."
Barbero said Christians can have value in the fashion industry because they can make clothing that reflects God's view of humanity. She worked as a model from the age of 15 and stopped at age 20, coming out of a life where she emptied her body and filled it with drugs. She said "something happens" when you discover God as the true source of love and identity: "You don't need to show skin like that, you don't need to expose yourself. Who you are emanates from you, with a turtleneck on and fully covered." If Christian designers can reflect "God's heart for people's identity" in their designs, people will feel the transformation: "I want to see people really connecting with their true identity through clothing and feeling really whole-not exposed, not 'less than' but 'more than' and over and above, really excellent."
But the Christian should achieve a balance between appreciation for beauty and consumption, says Liesl Gibson. A slender woman with short, dark hair, she works in the hipster-populated part of Brooklyn, from a studio where big windows open to the light and shelves hold boxes of sewing patterns with rosy-cheeked paper dolls on the front. She worked for Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger before setting off on her own to start Oliver + S, a company that designs clothing patterns for kids.
Greed, both she and Barbero say, spurred the recession. Said Gibson, "I think part of the reason we're in this problem in the first place is that we did too much shopping," and buying more blue jeans won't solve our problems.
Still, Gibson argues, a responsible consumer buys better quality in fewer quantities: "Are you filling shopping bags at Old Navy and wearing it for a season and just tossing it or donating it? I don't think that's any more responsible than buying high-end fashion and just massively consuming it. . . . If you can afford a Prada dress, perhaps you buy a Prada dress instead of five or six dresses at Target."
So to those New York women hiding their Hermes scarves in unmarked bags, Maxidus says, "You need to shop! Be bold and show the bags." And Barbero says Christian believers especially need to "continue walking in the faith that there is an upturn coming. It's not going to be forever down. It will come up again."