Value takes center stage in fashion

Ray Smith

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: Along with much of the rest of the retail world, fashion has taken a beating the past couple of years. But when you talk fashion, there are really two markets. The one most of us shop in, the off-the-rack, regular retail stuff. And then the high end, the world of big name designers and runway models. Both have been hit by a down economy, but still the show must go on. The fashion show that is. This week is Fashion Week in New York City, the runways have been set up in Bryant Park, behind the New York Public Library. Where we asked some people how they are feeling about fashion right now.

NICOLE BRINKLEY: I would say overall for Fashion Week this year I would actually wear a lot of things. And I am not a fashion forward kind of person. It just seems like it would go right from runway to the sales rack.

ANN D'AGNELLO: I think we've all accepted the downturn and we want to look more fabulous, you know, like all right, I don't have any money in my pocket, but I'm sparkling on the outside.

That was Nicole Brinkley and Ann D'Agnello in Bryant Park this morning. Ray Smith covers fashion for the Wall Street Journal. Ray, welcome to the program.

Ray Smith: Thank you.

Ryssdal: So here we are two-something years after the recession started, how is the design world feeling about things, about its consumers, about the market in general?

SMITH: They're feeling cautiously optimistic. They are very aware that consumers still have reservations about spending a lot of money. And designers are treading carefully in terms of wanting to offer something new and exciting. But not going too far, not being too tricky. They're playing it almost safe in a way. And also some designers are actually responding by expanding the range of products that they make so that there's more affordable pieces in there. And we also saw a broader use of materials like wool for instance, I know that seems kind of, wool is sort of everyday, but as opposed to as much cashmere is the point that I'm trying to make.

Ryssdal: It's all relative, right? Wool versus cashmere?

SMITH: Certainly is, but we did see a lot more of that wool, we did see a lot more sportswear if you will. And that's a big change also, because the runways used to be just limited to very sort of almost artistic designs that may or may not even make it into stores, but we're supposed to wow fashion editors and Anna Wintour and the like.

Ryssdal: Is that to say that fashion editors and Anna Wintour have less influence now that designers are being more, can we say, cost-conscious?

SMITH: I think they still have an outsized influence, but I think the problem is that designers and retailers are realizing that that doesn't sell and ultimately you have to make money and this is a business. So they still have their influence. And don't get me wrong, designers are still making their artistic statements, but they're rounding it out a lot more with commercial and accessible pieces.

Ryssdal: I heard you talking to my producer before we really got going about one of the guys, one of the only people in fashion that I know, Michael Kors, the guy from "Project Runaway," and what he's doing and how his looks are changing. Tell us about that.

SMITH: Sure, Michael Kors has always been very polished, and about super high-end lux for the jetsetter. And he's still doing that. I mean today in his runway show, which is one of the biggest shows of New York Fashion Week, he did show a lot of fur. But what was different this time was a lot more distressed looks. I think it's just a sign of the times that the distressing is sort of like toning down that sort of lux factor if you will. And by distressing I mean that things were washed or pre-washed, or there were things like crushed velvet, or things that were made to look sort of worn in.

Ryssdal: Yeah, I can get that in my Levi's 501s, right?

SMITH: There certainly is a nod to having to show looks that are little more understated.

Ryssdal: It sounds a little bit like these designers are trying to have a foot in both worlds. They want the high end, they want the looks, but they also want the affordability. Is that the way it's going to be for a while until things really sort of turn around in the economy?

SMITH: Yes, the catch word for what's happened over the past year-and-a-half, two years, is value. And value not just in terms of lower prices, but meaning that luxury consumers will get more bang for the buck. That's a challenge for all designers right now, to sort of meet somewhere in the middle, where there is enough commercial-bility to appeal to retailers obviously who want to sell the stuff, but there's also just a little bit of either flair or artsy-ness that is going to wow the Vogue editors.

Ryssdal: Ray Smith. He's a style reporter for the Wall Street Journal, covering New York fashion week at Bryant Park this week. Ray, thanks a lot.

SMITH: Thank you for having me.

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