I recently finished writing my senior thesis for the Global Studies department at UCLA. The thirty-five page paper is entitled, Luxury and Recession: How the Fashion Industry Defies Global Economic Downturns. Because I have been working on this paper for the past 6 months, this blog has not been updated until very recently. Now, I have lots of new material to share, and I hope to make many posts throughout the summer months. Since I have spent so long thinking about how economic recession (something we seem to be hearing way too much about these days) and luxury are inexorably intertwined, I thought I would write about it here as well.
Despite the fact that high fashion has always been directed towards the world’s wealthiest customers, many luxury companies have direct historical ties with recession. Some fashion houses have even rose to fame specifically for how they handled their affairs during hard economic times. Right before World War One, a man by the name of Paul Poiret dominated the fashion scene in Paris, creating dresses for women that used large amounts of colorful, expensive fabrics which blurred the lines between art and clothing. When war broke out, these fabrics became scarce and his outfits became impractical for the generation of women who now needed to go to work in factories and in the fields in order to support their family while their husbands were at war. Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel perceived the need for a more simple and refined style, and she presented the world with the little black dress, which was easy to move about in and used far less material than Poiret’s ornate gowns. By adapting to difficult times, Chanel gave women their first “staple” item of clothing, and created an outfit and a fashion brand that has not gone out of style for nearly a century.
Twenty years later, during the 1930’s German Occupation in France, paper, cardboard, and other sorts of packaging became scarce and many materials became rationed for use in the war. Hermès, one of the few fashion houses that did not close shop during World War II, used the only color of packaging material that they had available: vibrant orange. Hermès used it for boxes and bags and almost overnight it became the house’s signature color, and it is still used to this day.
Again, almost fifty years later in 1978, Miuccia Prada took over her grandfather’s Italian luggage company and showed the world how design could defy economic downturn. Prada wanted everything that came out of her shop to be new: new in design and new in concept. In the early 80’s, the world was still recovering from the economic damage brought on by the OPEC Oil Crisis, and Prada perceived the need for a high fashion bag that met the needs of women of the times. She began looking at other materials besides the traditional leathers, which had been stigmatized as excessive and lavish by previous fashion houses like Chanel and Hermès, whose opulence did not seem to have a place during the economic downturn. She instead turned to a nylon parachute fabric, which was light and durable (and far less expensive than leather, crocodile, or silk) and she created the first high fashion backpack. At first, critics were skeptical at the deviation from the usual notions of luxury, but the nylon backpack ended up being a huge success and turned Prada into a household name. Since then, she has used the nylon fabric to create purses, messenger bags, wallets, and luggage, all the while keeping the fashion house as reputable and prestigious as her competitors.
It is always difficult to do business in a troubled economy, but for the fashion houses mentioned above, innovation during a time of crisis proved to pay off. This should be a lesson for designers and fashion houses today - remembering that creativity and originality will be handsomely rewarded, even during a recession.