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Credit Crunch Couture Comes into Vogue

"In difficult times, fashion is always extreme," Italian designer Elsa Sciaparelli said about World War Two.

As the global economic slowdown digs its heels in and consumers tighten their belts and fret about jobs, the Alternative Arts organization hosted its annual Alternative Fashion Week in Spitalfields market, London, a platform for young, new designers.

"This event is a prime example of how imagination and resourcefulness can overcome a mountain of economic obstacles and promote sustainability," the organizers said in a statement. "It's not about money or material success but inspiration and ideology, how to have designer fashion in the current financial climate, credit crunch couture, offering a world of real opportunities."

"The whole ethos of Alternative Fashion Week has always been about accessible fashion and being able to have designer fashion that you can actually afford," Maggie Pinhorn, director at Alternative Arts, told CNBC.com.

Pinhorn noted the importance sustainability plays in the Alternative Fashion Week and says Alternative Arts is interested in designers who create garments from recycled, reused, reclaimed and ethically sourced materials.

"We're interested in fashion that doesn't cost the earth, literally, not just financially," she said. "It is quite important we think about what we're wearing."

The fashion industry has "partially" been affected by the recession, Pinhorn said, but added she also sees the pound's recent weakness as a great opportunity. "The pound is very good value for people coming from abroad," she noted.

From I-Bank to T-Shirt

The recession hasn't gone by unnoticed by designers.

"People are holding their money back a little more. But people will always need clothes," Adam Sada, director of t-shirt company Fully Charged said.

Sada changed his profession once the credit crunch began, moving from working as a business analyst in investment banking to setting up and designing his own innovative t-shirt company.

And for the young designers showcasing their wares, they find the recession has affected them in different ways.

The fashion world has always been cutthroat and hard to break into, and new fashionistas are seeking alternative methods of getting their name and brand recognized, by exhibiting their lines at fashion shows; creating their own websites; using social networks like Facebook and MySpace; and selling their clothes in market stalls and various shops who will accept a line and take a commission.

"A lot of designers are having problems with their lines," New York designer of New York Couture Cassie Kogler said. "I do most of my sales online or at events."

New York Couture has remained profitable despite the slowdown. But other designers are finding it difficult to compete with major retailers that are continually discounting.

Sharon Lorimer

"Fashion has totally changed. All the stores that are doing well now are not the boutiques," Kogler told CNBC.com.

Luxury Turmoil, Fewer Jobs

On April 16, General Growth Properties, the U.S.'s biggest shopping mall operator and owner of the South Street Seaport retail complex in Lower Manhattan, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

"You have to put your name out now. You can't be picky," Laura Booth, whose brand is called Ernie & Betty said.

"It is hard to financially back yourself," young designer Hanna Kille told CNBC.com.

New designer and recent graduate Chantal Gibbs-Jones also acknowledged that young fashion graduates were having trouble finding jobs in fashion houses. Since the credit crunch, companies are hiring people with more experience in their particular industry.

The fashion houses are fine, they survive on their alternative lines, like perfume and handbags, Gibbs-Jones pointed out.

Bulgari Watch
Photo By: Y-A-N
Bulgari Watch

Luxury goods groups have reported mixed sales results. Last week, Italian group Bulgari forecast a first-quarter loss, although last month French group Hermes said trading was holding up well.

The world's biggest luxury group LVMH posted a 7 percent fall in comparable first-quarter sales on Wednesday, hurt by declines in its wines, spirits, watches and jewelry divisions.

But the Louis Vuitton and Fendi owner said its fashion and leather goods operations saw a 4 percent rise in comparable sales to $2 billion.

Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent owner PPR said Tuesday that sales fell 2.6 percent to $6.21 billion in the first quarter, citing weak performance in its furniture and music chains.

According to the company's press statement, the sales rise in PPR's luxury goods division was attributed to growth in Chinese sales of its Gucci brand.

The company said it was willing to weather a drop in sales in the near-term to avoid lowering its prices in the economic downturn.

"The luxury business is used to being a late cyclical business, so I think it will feel the effect (of the credit crunch) in the future," Sebastien Lemmonier, European equity portfolio manager at Tocqueville Finance told CNBC.

"People aren't spending as much as they used to. They are very careful what they buy … They want something that is quality … They're looking for something different," Booth said. "People are finding new alternative ways, finding cheaper alternatives."

"My clothing is pretty affordable," Kogler said. "It's also really unique and hard to find … Uniqueness is key."

Chiara Baldini, one of the designers for Italian brand F*&kyouverymuch emphasized how people are now looking for statement clothing. "You have to make clothes that mean something," she said. "You have to be the alternative to mainstream fashion."

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