Runways shine despite shaky economic times

It was only a year ago that John Galliano garnered rave reviews for his Christian Dior couture collection inspired by Gustave Klimt and other symbolist painters. He wasn’t the only winner that season. The ready-to-wear presentations of the Fall 2008 season were just as innovative and stellar. The mood left a sweet cloud over the world’s fashion capitals – Milan, Paris, London, New York – and the industry was preparing for a luxury sales boom.

Upon the changing of the leaves, however, those assumptions were challenged by plummeting stocks and foreclosed houses. There were no high hem lines on the runways in February. The panic from the economic crisis has since left designers, retailers and fashion publications gasping violently for air.

When recession hits, historically, the list of first wave victims are usually those affiliated with the luxury industry. Naturally, people go into fiscal conservation and primarily opt for the necessities. Unfortunately, this no longer includes ruby-soled Louboutins and four-figure bags, dresses and bespoke suits. Now serious fashion critics raise the question: Will designers follow the trend and sink into survival mode, compromising their aesthetic for higher sales margins?

Let’s hope the inverse is true.

Kicking off Friday, the Mercedes Benz New York Fashion Week had its calendar cut by almost 10 percent with designers like Marc Jacobs being cost conscience – he cut his guest list by more than half and completely eliminated his after party.

If the Spring 2009 couture season in Paris foreshadowed the caliber of succeeding collections like in years past, fashion’s future is not in immediate jeopardy. Aside from a lapse in innovation from Valentino couture – excused due to the messy dismissal of former creative director Alessandra Facchinetti – the runways were vibrant.

What was most reassuring amid the financial drama was Galliano’s reinterpretation of archival Dior and Flemmish artists. His response to the crisis, as he told Sarah Mower of Vogue’s, was, “There’s a credit crunch, not a creative crunch ? it’s our job to make people dream and to provide the value in quality, cut and imagination.”

Imagination is what Galliano delivered. His high-strutting models posed in big hats, puffed sleeves and even larger skirts. Galliano created an incredibly chic and tailored fairytale. Mission accomplished.

Karl Lagerfeld’s paper-snowflake queens were another good omen for the collections to come. Lagerfeld decided to eliminate his usual jaw-dropping sets – one season his runway was a life-sized Coco Chanel carousel – and place a greater emphasis on the garments. The pallet was, for the most part, as white as the collection’s source of inspiration. Wearable origami, this collection took the precision of Japanese paper art and funneled it into classic Parisian tailoring.

It’s too early to tell whether fashion is intentionally fighting its own sartorial deficit. There are weeks of collection concepts to digest. Let’s hope the needle will not be hidden in the haystack.

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