Fashion industry being hit hard by economy

FASHION/POLITICS - The recession in the United States is affecting the fashion industry and results are dire for some of the big fashion brands and for new designers alike.

In Canada retailers and consumers are pondering one big question: Will Canadian fashion designers survive today's tough economy? And if some fail, who will survive?

Arthur Mendonça, one of Canada's most promising designers, is closing business. A casualty of today's uncertain economy and "big brand" era, Mendonça's luxurious clothes once made him a stylish find at Holt Renfrew and other select Canadian boutiques. His sexy designs were often worn by Canadian singer Nelly Furtado.

"What happened with Arthur is not uncommon for young start-up designers," says Barbara Atkin, Holt Renfrew's Vice President of Fashion Direction. "Arthur's announcement came out, unfortunately, at the same time that the economy started to make a downturn. But the problems started long before that."

Those difficulties, says Atkin, mimic the age-old David and Goliath story. Huge monopolies now run the world's major design houses. Smaller designers simply cannot compete with the resources, marketing campaigns and brand awareness these giants generate around the world.

Carried in Holt Renfrew's World Design Lab, which is devoted to small, innovative collections that lack "big brand" financial backing, Mendonça earned a strong Toronto following after he launched his label in the fall of 2003.

Outside of the Toronto market, however, Mendonça's success was modest.

"You need a big company and a marketing machine behind you that can tell the world who you are," says Atkin.

Inevitably every designer's career will be tested. When that happens, "you go away and refine who you are and what you're doing," says Atkin.

"Look at Marc Jacobs. He opened and closed his business several times before he became the Marc Jacobs we know today. The same can be said of Izaac Mizrahi," she says.

"I'd like to say that talent always wins out. But that's not so today," says Atkin. "Until we get out of this grand brand era the problems will continue for small designers with little financing."

Start-up designers battle big challenges around the world.

Whether other Canadian designers follow Mendonça remains to be seen. It's something that Sandra Pupatello, Ontario's Minister of International Trade and Investment, hopes won't happen.

"Half a billion dollars of Ontario's GDP comes from the fashion industry," says Pupatello.

"That may not compare to manufacturing but it is significant in terms of what it represents," says Pupatello. "Ontario is known for the level of innovation it brings to design in all areas. Fashion design plays a huge role in how people think of Ontario."

Attending the L'Oréal Fashion Week - the third largest show in North America - for the first time last week, Pupatello says, "The fashion industry faces the same challenges all over the world in this economic climate. I don't think Ontario is any different than what designers are facing elsewhere."

Those challenges are impossible to avoid even for industry giants, says Dana Thomas, author of "Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster."

"The bankers running today's luxury design houses want a fast return on their investments. That mentality is having devastating long-term effects," Thomas said from her home in Paris, France. "Look at Bill Blass in the United States. He went under. Halston is barely hanging on. Valentino will likely take a hit. These are big companies we're talking about. Even they're feeling the impact of today's economy."

Some luxury brands continue to do well, however, by selling middle-market goods to the emerging rich in China, India and Russia. "These virgin markets are filled with people who want all the trappings of luxury. It's helping to make up for losses companies are experiencing in the United States and Europe," says Thomas.

Yet as plunging markets continue to evaporate retirement accounts around the world, funds, not fashion, will concern people more, says Thomas.

"Clothes are necessary. Fashion is not," says Thomas, who predicts that consumers will dial back on unnecessary spending for the foreseeable future.

Real solutions for today's fashion industry?

For Calgary-based designer Paul Hardy, one of Canada's success stories, tough times mean greater opportunities.

"It is possible to be creative within challenging financial times. But you need to think outside the box and turn obstacles into possibilities," says Hardy.

Coming from four generations of bankers, Hardy and his advisers foresaw the economic depression on the horizon. They implemented strategic plans to withstand it, beginning with restructuring Hardy's knitwear, a collection staple.

"In lean times consumers tend to purchase more 'investment upgrades' versus 'fashion updates' says Hardy, who operates in the heart of Canada's gas and oil industry - a plus, he says, for sustaining his business.

"The reality is that Canada is not widely known for fashion," says Hardy, who would like to see government-subsidized agencies support a collective of Canadian fashion designers showing in Paris and New York rather than in separate shows in various provinces.

"It would be good for the country...It might expand the designers' brands internationally and make them more financially feasible," he says.

Any measures that help recapture the strength of Canada's fashion industry from the 1950s through the 1970s would be welcome.


1) Don't limit yourself to second hand stores and garage sales only. You can find sales and good deals anywhere and everywhere. The trick is having a budget and knowing what you need. You still want quality after all.

2) Stay away from private labels at department stores. It may be brand name, but its not necessarily discount or a fair price.

3) Keep abreast of things at least 1 season ahead. That way when you spot something on sale that you'll need for next winter or summer you'll be ready to snap it up.

4) Take your Tween and Teen Fashionistas with you when you shop. Buying something they won't wear because their "mom bought it for them" isn't kewl. Take them with you and buy what they will wear.

5) Know when to buy. Pick a good time to buy, like during Back to School or Boxing Day Sales.

6) Know when to stop. Don't go overboard when you know you can't afford it.

7) Do It Yourself. Do your own manicure and pedicure. Color your own hair. Cut your childrens' hair. Maybe even make your own clothes. You'd be amazed at how much savings you can pocket.

Sarah Palin Fashion

UNITED STATES - Sarah Palin spent more than $150,000 on a fashion makeover in preparation for her vice-presidential campaign.

So what?

Critics have been down on Palin for a September spending spree, paid for by the Republican National Committee, which provided her with a complete wardrobe for the campaign, plus hair and makeup consultants, and a few extras for her kids and husband.

The governor of Alaska, who used to campaign wearing fleece, is now apparently donning designer duds, purchased at retail prices from high-end department stores such as Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, according to financial disclosure reports.

While a wardrobe costing $150,000 may seem over the top at first glance, style insiders say the fashion math makes perfect sense when you consider Palin's previous small-town lifestyle and wardrobe, the media glare that is focused so intensely on her appearance, and the high-powered global role she's going after.

"We hear the number and we say, `Wow, that's a lot of money.' And it is a lot," says image consultant Diane Craig, who as president of Corporate Class Inc. has helped political leaders style themselves for the campaign trail.

"But in the end, with the work she has to do, the people she has to see, the places she has to go, it's not unreasonable.

Even considering the hefty $150,000 budget, Palin is probably not buying at the high end of the designer scale, says Suzanne Timmins, fashion director for HBC.

Speculating that the vice-presidential hopeful might need 10 gowns, 40 suits, and 20 pairs of shoes for the arduous campaign, Timmins estimates Palin would have spent about $3,000 on each gown, $2,100 for each suit, and up to $500 on each pair of shoes.

"It's the starting point for designer labels," notes Timmins. "It's not design-design, like Chanel ... She's not buying Louis Vuitton."

Forty suits might seem like a lot, but Craig notes that repeats aren't necessarily practical on the campaign trail.

"It's not like you can send it to the cleaner. You've gotta have it the next day and you're in another town."

While agreeing it wouldn't be hard to spend $150,000 on spotlight-worthy clothes, Fashion magazine editor-in-chief Ceri Marsh says the amount Palin dropped on designer duds runs counter to the image she's trying to create.

"When you look at how she's trying to sell herself, there's a bit of a disconnect," explains Marsh. "When you are a conservative Republican, who has criticized (her opponents) for reckless spending, when you're painting yourself as queen of the hockey moms, you're opening yourself up to attack."

Whatever she spent, female politicos agree it's unfair to focus too much attention on Palin's wardrobe.

"Women are really judged much more on their looks than men are," notes Marsh, who admits she's a political junkie and has been following the U.S. campaign closely.

But whether Palin's high-priced makeover created a style that will go down in the history books is up for debate.

Craig calls her look "fabulous" and "appropriate for her." But others beg to differ. For example, Marsh's biggest compliment is that Palin hasn't made any major fashion errors.

"I don't love her new look," says Timmins. "She looks like she's trying to achieve a midwestern lady going to the PTA.

"I think Hillary Clinton was held to a different standard in her primary race," Palin said in an interview.

"Do you remember the conversations that took place about her, say superficial things that they don't talk about with men, her wardrobe and her hairstyles, all of that? That's a bit of that double standard."

"It's kind of painful to be criticized for something when all the facts are not out there and are not reported," Palin said.

"That whole thing is just, bad!" she said. "Oh, if people only knew how frugal we are."

Frankly, to be brutally honest... I think Sarah Palin looks really badly dressed. She dresses like my mom and its embarrassing to think about how my mom dresses. Socks and sandals, that sort of thing. She looks like her fashion consultant is a redneck.

How she managed to blow $150,000 on clothes and still look like a redneck is amazing.

The Hemline Effect

FASHION - Spring-summer 2009 collections – the current season in the always mad, seasonally dyslexic world of fashion – are showing short skirts and dresses that scarcely cover the important bits. The mini skirt is the message.

Traditionally there's been the belief in the "hemline effect", which is reputed to be an economic indicator created by U.S. economist George Taylor in the 1920s, suggesting that when hemlines go up, the economy is likely to improve. Meanwhile the United States one of the worst economic climates since September 11th, and its in a credit crisis.

But will women spend their hard-earned money on mini-skirts just because the fashion designers think the economy will improve? Or is this just fashion designers trying to cash in on the philosophy of showing lots of leg?

Designer and bespoke dressmaker Rosemarie Umetsu of R.U. boutique in Toronto agrees that there is always a market for short-short-short.

"I always have short in my collections and, for spring, it is the really big news. Knee-grazing or thigh-grazing, the skirt is the focus for next season."

For her, it's the shape that takes short from Bada-Bing to boardroom.

"Next season, the shape is strong without being girlie," says Umetsu, and it may be true. As she sees it, the new mini isn't tight and tarty, it is either a sort of shortened '50s or '60s wide or in such wonderful fabrics and treatments that less is more.

Still, if we are in a recession time, then short and sweet is a good sign right?

Not so, because this is a classic conservative look at short skirts... so its more about being conservative and yet trying to be optimistic. Wow. The psychology of fashion is kind of deep when you think about it.

Socks and Sandals?

FASHION - Long derided as the ultimate menswear misstep, wearing socks with sandals is being elevated to the status of fashion trend.

The S&S look, commonly worn by nerdy tourists, aging hippies, grunge musicians and outdoorsy types, was trotted out unabashedly during the spring menswear collections of designers like Miuccia Prada, Stefano Pilati for Yves Saint Laurent and Nicolas Ghesquiere for Balenciaga.

For fashionistas, this odd coupling of socks and sandals constitutes a particularly egregious type of male fashion crime and belongs in a category that includes flood pants, too-tight clothing, pinkie rings and fanny packs.

Nevertheless, a handful of truly directional fashion designers feels they have the clout to turn what's considered by many to be a lapse in judgment into something that approaches avant garde.

The look is loathed, particularly by women.

Check for examples of men who have been captured on film in heavy work socks with Birkenstocks or black dress socks with Tevas.

Look up "socks and sandals" in the Urban Dictionary for a definition that's blunt.
"A footwear combination worn only by the fashion-challenged."

"If it's hot enough for sandals, it's too hot to wear socks. If it's cold enough to wear socks, it's too cold for sandals."

The socks-and-sandals trend is part of the larger nerd movement that may go back as early as the 1950s, when teens wore jeans with turned-up hems and horn-rimmed glasses.

In the decades since, the dork-as-fashion icon has surfaced periodically in men's and women's attire.

According to the experts, the movement reached its geeky zenith in the '90s when members of the burgeoning computer-savvy generation soared to financial success – creatively turning geek into chic.

Its sex appeal would come later. Remember the bumper sticker "Talk Nerdy to Me"?

In his new book American Nerd: The Story of My People, Benjamin Nugent suggests the Saturday Night Live characters Lisa Loopner (Gilda Radner) and boyfriend Todd (Bill Murray) may have parented subsequent generations of nerds, including such famous dorks as the characters in Revenge of the Nerds and the socially awkward Napoleon Dynamite.

Today, the TV show Beauty and the Geek keeps the spirit alive that being tragically un-hip is decidedly cool.

Consider the cool and un-cool boyfriend of Juno in the film of the same name. The character played by Brampton's Michael Cera walks a fine line. At one point, Juno tells the young father of her yet-unborn child that she loves him because he's so effortlessly cool. He responds by admitting that he works really hard at looking effortless.

Though he doesn't wear socks and sandals in the film, he represents the cool power of not chasing cool.

To pull the look off with panache, there has to be irony. David Beckham and Jake Gyllenhaal have been photographed in sandals and socks. And while they have retained their sex symbol status, they have been judged harshly by style watchers.

So, be warned, this sudden burst of interest in socks and sandals on the runways of Europe does not give regular Joes permission to engage with the look. Anyone considering it should approach with extreme caution.

Wearing socks and sandals is still the sartorial equivalent of pulling the waistband of your pants up to your armpits Urkel-style. Put a foot wrong in these new designer versions and you could be mistaken for a backpacking tourist from Dusseldorf.

That's the challenge associated with all geek-chic trends – making sure the viewer knows you know better, but you're doing it anyway.

Male Speedo

FASHION - When Daniel Craig emerged from the Caribbean sea in Casino Royale, his brief trunks not only recalled another iconic James Bond swimsuit scene stealer – Ursula Andress emerging from the surf in her flesh coloured bikini in Dr. No – but it ignited a trend.

What started as a ripple when the movie was released two years ago, has now become a full blown tidal wave trend.

Men's swimsuits have gone short, snug and sleek as the Speedo-style suit makes a comeback.

But the skimpy men's bathing suit has been the object of much derision in popular culture thanks to Borat and Will Ferrell, so why is it suddenly anointed cool status?

A recent ad for a Dolce & Gabbana men's fragrance features British supermodel David Gandy, reclining on a yacht, splayed out in a tight white swimsuit, and two of the fashion world's hippest photographers – Matthias Vriens and Terry Richardson – have been pushing a '70s porn aesthetic in their work, Freeman says.

And now Bond is going back to briefs.

Men look at the gadgets and the cars in that movie and then they see Daniel Craig in those snug trunks and it gives them permission – they think, if it's okay for James Bond its okay for me...

But their body better be licensed to thrill.

Fashion Salon

FASHION - This blog will be dedicated to the history of fashion, fashion news, celebrity fashion, fashion and beauty tips, the interplay between sexuality, feminism and fashion, health issues like anorexia, bulimia and obesity and of course... the fashion police.