Luxury Fashion Customers Looking for Inspiration

It's time for a little inspiration.

Luxury shoppers are back in the stores, and they no longer feel there is a need to hide their shopping bags. That's good news for designers.

A model enjoys one of the many treats offered backstage at Betsey Johnson's Fall 2010 show.
Photo: Oliver Quillia for CNBC.com
A model enjoys one of the many treats offered backstage at Betsey Johnson's Fall 2010 show.

"Fall 2010, it feels like a century ago," said Yildiz Blackstone, president of luxury fashion house Luca Luca.

Blackstone expects to see plenty of color—fuschias, oranges and greens—on the runways, as the Fall 2011 shows kick off New York Fashion Week.

Throughout the economic downturn, Luca Luca worked hard to keep its sales ahead of industry trends, and finished 2010 with its sales up 30 percent from the prior year. That's against a backdrop where total apparel sales in the US grew just 1.9 percent, according to market researcher NPD Group.

For the fall, the Luca Luca collection was inspired by nature and a walk in the woods. To capture the idea of a forest, Creative Director Raul Melgoza juxtaposed fabrics such as leather, suede and lace together to create texture and dimension.

"It's more fantasy-like," Blackstone said, citing designs in the collection that mix lace with prints as an example. "We want to reflect the optimism."

As designers unveil their Fall 2011 collections, many are expected to bring more feminine looks to the runway. And while they will be hoping to give women a reason to shop, the recession will likely still lead to many designs that offer a lot of versatility.

That is likely welcome news to many women, who have been shifting to skirts and dresses, according to recent sales data from NPD. In 2010, women's skirt sales were up almost 13 percent and dress sales were up almost 4 percent.

"Women have migrated into skirts even though the industry isn't promoting them as a fashion trend," said Marshal Cohen, NPD's chief industry analyst, in a written statement. "And dresses continue to post growth because they are being worn year-round and are no longer relegated only to spring wardrobes."

BCBGMaxAzria fashion show February 10, 2011 at the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week in New York.
Stan Honda | AFP | Getty Images
BCBGMaxAzria fashion show February 10, 2011 at the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week in New York.

At BCBG Max Azria, one of the first shows at Lincoln Center kicking off Mercedes Benz Fashion Week, the skirts were long and flowing, with layered pieces and drop-waists, loosely inspired by the 1920s and '30s. Some pieces were colored bright red or rich cobalt blue. Many pieces were accented with belts or touches of fur.

BCBG is the most accessible of the three labels Azria will be showing this week, and it provides a good taste of what may translate from the runway to retail stores this fall.

From a design perspective, it stands to reason, after seasons of sparse design and neutral colors, fashion designers would shift to more bold looks.

But adding embellishments may also accomplish another goal for retailers. With cotton prices having more than doubled, more complex clothing designs will help consumers accept the higher prices that will be necessary to offset the rising costs ahead.

Although retailers and manufacturers can use cotton blends, there is only so far they can blend before it changes the look and feel of the garment, said Chris Callieri, a principal at management consulting firm A.T. Kearney.

"The U.S. customer has been used to expecting ever-dropping prices," Callieri said. "They wait and see what happens, they wait for the huge promotion to come up."

Luxury customers clearly aren't as price-sensitive, but they set the tone for fast fashion and garments geared to a mass market.

"There's a natural high to spending," said Sherif Mityas, a partner in A.T. Kearney's retail practice. "The luxury customer can feel good about spending money again."

Mityas expects retailers will be doing a lot of testing this year to see what works. With consumer spending beginning to loosen up, retailers can afford to offer a broader selection.

"They don't have to play it safe anymore," Mityas said.