Boogie nights and conservative hemlines

Susan Scafidi in Crain's New York, September 19, 2010

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Designers entice consumers with hybrid of luxury and value in spring shows

By Adrianne Pasquarelli

Consumers should get ready for a style-rewind to the 1970s, the disco-driven decade of free love and self-expression, come spring 2011. The runways at New York Fashion Week, which concluded last Thursday, featured wide-leg pants, bright stripes and plunging necklines from several designers.

“The biggest news is that there's a change in silhouette,” says Stephanie Solomon, fashion director at Bloomingdale's. “When there's a change in silhouette, you need to refresh your wardrobe—and that's good news for retailers.”

Fresh items like bell-bottom pants, '70s-inspired styles and luxurious fabrics show that designers are trying to unshackle themselves from the economic malaise affecting the nation. Such new items represent an effort to force consumers out of their closets and onto the sales floor.

Whether those efforts bear fruit remains to be seen. Fashion Week followed a so-so summer—August same-store sales were up a modest 3.4% over the weak numbers in August 2009, according to Kantar Retail. For now, designers are also giving in to consumers' demand for value by offering looks that last in neutral tones, a sign that fashion houses and retailers remain cautious about the coming year. White, blush, peach and nude showed up in the collections of everyone from Dennis Basso to Alexander Wang. Even those, like Donna Karan, known for their obsession with black lightened up their looks.

“Market reports say that things are not getting worse, but they're not getting better, either,” says Joanna Manganaro, women's editor at trend tracking firm Stylesight. “Fashion is in a state of limbo.”

That didn't seem to inhibit Marc Jacobs, who in the debut of his spring collection last Monday was showing vivid colors and vamped-up looks from the '70s. Derek Lam and Tory Burch rode the retro train as well. Even those not completely on board with the trend still went back in time, chiefly in the form of the bell-bottom pant, seen in the collections of Cynthia Rowley and Jason Wu. In the recent past, low-rise skinny pants and leggings were key items, so the new trouser, with a wider, more flattering leg and a higher waistline, is an item many shoppers don't already own. And by showing more pants, a look generally associated with the fall shows, designers can convince shoppers that they need to buy new tops as well.

“Trousers are a somewhat new category [for spring],” says Susan Scafidi, academic director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University School of Law. “If you buy trousers, you have to buy at least one other piece—a blouse or a jacket to wear on top.”

Also new for spring: dropped hemlines. On the catwalks, the skirt and dress lengths fell from their mid-thigh highs to below the knee, calf-length, or even to the floor, a trend that began to emerge at the February shows. Though hemlines usually drop along with the economy, experts believe designers featured such conservative looks for lack of anywhere else to go.

“We've been seeing short for so long that this new, longer length looks fresh and gives a reason to buy,” says Colleen Sherin, women's fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue.

Designers took a chance with more expensive fabrics, hoping the high quality of light silks, lightweight yarns and chiffons will attract consumers starved for luxury. BCBG Max Azria and Jenny Packham featured several dresses made of silk, as opposed to the washable cotton jersey of last year.

Yet value continued to walk the runways. Mr. Wang and design house Rag & Bone used utilitarian elements of active wear, like a drawstring or extra zipper, to make garments—dressed up or dressed down—wearable for multiple occasions, and even multiple seasons.

It's about “getting the most bang for your buck,” says Ms. Manganaro.