classic fashion styles in economic downturn, Brooks Brothers sales figures, Burberry sales figures

Penny-Pinchers Go Preppy in Economic Downturn

December 26, 2008 04:28 PM
by Anne Szustek
Clothing labels associated with classic styles have been grabbing market share as thrifty consumers focus on timeless pieces with longevity.

As Balance Sheets Go into Red, Consumers Go into Plaid

Cardigan sweaters, squarish black purses and plaid-flecked apparel—items whose identification as part of the American style canon quite arguably elevate them above the whims of trends—have come back into the fashion forefront. As trepidation over the economy takes hold of personal budgets and weighs on the minds of consumers, the timeless ethos of preppy has taken hold of the retail apparel sector, as evidenced by strong numbers recently posted by clothing brands traditionally associated with classic style.

Italy’s Benetton Group, known for brightly colored preppy standbys such as sweater sets, cold-weather accessories and corduroys, reported an increase in third-quarter 2008 profits of 12 percent, raking in €38 million ($57.3 million) in proceeds. The growth was fueled in large part by greater volumes in sales and more turnover of higher-margin goods.

Preppy mainstay Burberry, purveyor of ageless coats, no-nonsense dresses—and most notably, its oft-imitated signature plaid—also fared well. Although the company expects bearish second-half 2008 results, it made a strong showing during the first six months of 2008, reporting a growth in earnings of 13.1 percent, or £74.8 million ($144.4 million).

Purses in more traditional shapes such as totes and clutches—even those made from so-called exotic leathers, such as lizard, crocodile and python—often retail in the five-figure range. But these have been flying off of shelves as well.

One retailer that has recently posted double-digit growth in its luxe handbags segment is preppy bastion Brooks Brothers. "In a tough economy, when people do shop, they think about the investment they're making," Lou Amendola, Brooks Brothers’ chief merchandising officer, told Condé Nast Portfolio. "They say, 'I will have this for several years to come,' rather than buying something that may just be the fad for the season."

Background: Preppy fashion and understated wealth

Such a consumer mindset, other than being fallout of a sluggish economy, is also a key facet of the preppy culture: concealment of affluence. Yearnings for all things classic and navy blue aside, thrift makes it more likely that old-line wealth, of which the archetypal preppy has some, “but not necessarily a lot,” could be turned “over to the next generation,” wrote Carol McD. Wallace. Wallace contributed to the 1980 best-selling satirical reference guide, “The Official Preppy Handbook.”

“Hence their often-overlooked cheapness; in preppy precincts in the 1970s a pair of Lucite salad tongs was a respectable wedding present,” Wallace wrote. “Their curious wardrobes were formed by the same instincts: Madras jackets went out of mainstream fashion, but that was no reason to stop wearing them.”

“The Official Preppy Handbook” was released at a time when stagflation characterized the economy. Perhaps this, as well as an inclination toward what Wallace termed “hippie fatigue” and “Republican moments,” sparked a preppy fashion trend that followed in the book’s wake. In preppy version 2008, the latter is certainly not the case, if November’s election is any indication. The tumult of Wall Street—home to preppy vocations if there ever were any—is playing a part in New York society’s recent penchant for understated elegance over couture excess.

“It’s not good taste in our business to walk into a party loaded with the biggest diamonds you can find,” Bud Konheim, the chief executive of fashion house Nicole Miller, told The New York Times. “You don’t brag about paying $10,000 for a dress for a party … You’re either a sucker or showing off when people have lost jobs.”

This has been evidenced in retail trends on the Big Apple’s high streets. According to Lincoln Moore, who works with handbags at Saks Fifth Avenue, non-logo purses have been the best sellers at the high-end department store. "There is 100 percent a move towards things that are less branded," such as logo-free Nancy Gonzalez or Bottega Veneta items, he told Portfolio. “The customer is saying, 'I don't want to be vulgar. I don't want to be obvious about the money that I'm spending if I am spending money.'"

In addition to the relative economic inconspicuousness accorded by adopting a more classic sartorial standard, the preppy look, a style that sprang out of 20th century New England, may offer personal security during times of financial uncertainty. Massachusetts native Paige Esser, a self-described preppy, told The Boston Globe in 2005, ''People want to go back to a time where cardigans and pearls represented all that was good and decent in America."

Reference: Fashion guide


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