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Creating beauty

Poverty | There's no shame in shopping but New York's fashion world can't run from recession either

Issue: "Wealth and poverty," March 14, 2009

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."

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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."

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