Perceived wisdom has it that every six months, fashion designers decree what we will wear. But with everything from the cult of celebrity to the dire economic situation influencing us, are women falling out of love with traditional trends? Given the lack of winter coats for sale in February, and the fact that women rarely see their body shape or budget reflected on the catwalks or in magazines, it would be hard to blame them. And now the ethical dimension has created even more difficulties for the customer who wants to stay on trend.
To find out what, and who, now shape our shopping habits, Rhiannon Harries poses fashion's biggest questions to a panel of six women, from industry insiders to discerning consumers... plus, we preview the six new pieces worth investing in
The magazine editor: Lucy Yeomans, editor, 'Harper's Bazaar'
The high-street expert: Anita Borzyszkowska, vice-president of PR, Gap
The real woman (1): Amy Hutson, founder, Gossip PR
The real woman (2): Claire Wilkinson, businesswoman
The online shopping expert: Sarah Curran, founder, www.my-wardrobe.com
The ethical fashion expert: Safia Minney, founder, People Tree
How has the the way we buy clothes been affected by... the recession?
LY I don't think fast-fashion is over – though many of the high-street brands have brought in different ranges that give slightly better quality at a slightly higher price. The high street is still strong because it has reacted quickly and is more in touch with customers than anyone else.
AB The recession has absolutely shifted the way that the catwalk collections are going to look – classicism, minimalism, simple pieces that will serve a function and will live from season to season so that you can build up a wardrobe over years, for years to come. I think that has come from more disciplined buying by customers and more disciplined design from the designers' perspective.
AH I'm not sure if it's the recession that's changed how I shop, but I tend to think more about what I want to buy. Rather than just buying something I like, I think about how much I'll be able to wear it and what it will go well with in my wardrobe. I also buy a lot more investment pieces than I used to. Shopping in expensive shops during the sales can be a great way to pick up that expensive dress you've been lusting for but couldn't afford to buy.
CW It has had an influence – but I prioritise my clothing budget over my budget for a new car. It's what's important to me, and for me, fashion is my outlet from work.
SC People are still shopping, but they're not quite spending as much, and they're not shopping as often. It's interesting for us, because we're a young, fast-growing online business. We're still growing at 150 per cent year on year, so it's hard for us to say whether we might have grown 250 per cent without the recession. At the same time, women are still looking for quality pieces, more so than ever. Mulberry, for instance, has had a phenomenal season with its handbags – we sold out of the Alexa model [priced £695] within an hour.
SM Women are certainly buying pieces that are more versatile, that can be styled more individually. People do also seem to be buying more investment pieces – we are finding that our higher-price pieces are working extremely well; those with hand-embroidery, the special pieces. But we are not seeing the end of Primark; People Tree grew 20 per cent last year, but so did Primark, it's just that our scales are so different... Apparently, charity shops are completely constipated with the stuff and are now refusing to take any more.
...changes to the traditional 'seasons' (caused by everything from climate change to holidaying in January as well as July)?
LY I do think it is confusing when you have a nine-month winter in this country. I agree that there are some issues about what season clothes are produced for, but fashion is an international business, so you can't please everybody.
AB I think there is more work to be done here. There is still some distance between what is in the shop and what the customer wants at a particular time. Though customers are coming around to the fact that if they see a great winter coat in August and it's 30 degrees outside, they'd better buy it, because it might not be there in October. Equally, some retailers are thinking more about "wear now" after having their fingers burnt this spring, for example, because it has been quite snowy. Retailers are being forced to shift their mindset and are meeting customers in the middle.
CW Shopping for designer clothes, I find it quite annoying. I'll start buying my summer clothes in the next couple of weeks, but it's difficult when you're trying on clothes for hot weather and you're as white as the driven snow. You tend to lose weight in summer, too, so by the time you wear a skirt five months later, the waist might be an inch too big. But you have to get it early or things do sell out.
SC If you look at the States, they don't work to the four seasonal deliveries that the UK tends to – they have 10 or 12 drops a year. So you buy according to a collection for that month. Last month was the worst ever for selling summer dresses. Luckily, because we are online we can chase the sun and sell to Australian customers, but bricks-and-mortar retailers need to address that.
...body image (for instance, the size-zero catwalk debate, greater plus-size choice on the high street, Debenhams' decision to use size-16 mannequins)?
AH I think it's great that we're embracing larger sizes; I just hope it doesn't become too extreme the other way. So, while it's obviously not healthy to promote size-zero models on the catwalk, it's also not that healthy to promote plus sizes, as it's not healthy to be overweight.
CW I don't think it's healthy at either end of the scale.
SC I think for retailers it's about balancing aspiration and attainment. We use a size 10-12 model on our website – still slim but healthy – and we say that she's wearing a UK 12, so people can see that the clothes are true to size and have a better idea of how they might look.
LY The effect is massive – the red carpet is a second catwalk now and we're currently working with the British Fashion Council and Bafta to get more British design talent on the red carpet. But as much as celebrities are important to designers – and they are – the clothes are an important part of why we are fascinated by pictures of celebrities too. They send out messages about who we are and who we want to be, so when you know a little bit about Cheryl Cole, for example, and you suddenly see her in a Chanel couture dress, that says something new about her as a celebrity too. Look at Cate Blanchett, who makes such interesting fashion choices and mostly it's a hit but sometimes it's a miss – the fact that she risks that makes her more interesting. In terms of body image, I think people are more influenced by what they see on celebrities than on models on the catwalk. Those catwalk images do go around the world and are hugely influential, but I think people are more inspired by celebrities because they relate to them through what they say and what they do on top of the way they look.
AH I don't follow any celebrities in terms of style. Instead, I find inspiration in what certain designers produce, certain eras such as the 1920s, and just my own personal taste.
CW It has affected purchases over the years, but from past experience they haven't been the best ones. Now I look more at blogs such as garancedore.fr for pictures of real people who work in fashion.
SC Celebrity was really relevant until about 18 months ago, but I think the bubble has burst and it has dropped dramatically. I don't think it's relevant to my-wardrobe.com customers at the moment.
SM Using Emma Watson [who has designed a young range for People Tree] has been very positive –it wasn't only about making a Fairtrade range for teens and those in their twenties, but to really provide an opportunity to discuss fashion and the social and environmental issues around it.
Does the high street now have more influence than the catwalk on what real women wear?
LY It's a difficult question. The reason our British high street is so strong is that it is aware of the catwalk and conscious of the trends. You see what happens when you put Stella McCartney with H&M. But I think people still want the catwalk magic. In the last five to 10 years people have become so much more fashion-savvy. They know who designers are and they are much more sophisticated about how they want to express themselves.
We've had huge changes to economy in the past couple of years and the designers who are doing extraordinarily well are those that put an emphasis on the quality that the price points on the high street just cannot deliver – exquisite cutting, beautiful fabrics. If you look at the figures, it's the Chanels, the Louis Vuittons, Lanvin who do well, brands with a long history of craftsmanship.
Five years ago, people might have been buying a designer T-shirt with a few sequins on it for £500 – that's what it had become and it was too much. If I want that look, I would now buy it on the high street. The designers now know that people can get that on the high street, so they've put their focus elsewhere.
The high street is like a fashion finishing school. You might run into H&M and buy the dress Matthew Williamson designed for high street, and then later, if and when you can afford it, you might buy the real thing. These collaborations are as important for high-end designers as they are for the high-street.
AB I think it's flipped the other way around – it is ordinary women who are now influencing the high street and the catwalk.
AH I'm not sure the catwalk and the high street are hugely separate, as the catwalk has a huge influence on what we see on the high street – but it's often a toned-down and obviously cheaper version. I think there's been a movement away from following distinct trends to an extent, with the rise in popularity of vintage, one-off designs and customisation, which is set to become huge. Where independent designers really come into their own is with producing really unique and interesting pieces.
CW Personally, the catwalk has more influence on what I wear. I do shop on the high street, but I tend to buy designer. Day-to-day I mix it, but when I go out, I wear designer. I love fashion and I spend a lot of time looking at the shows to find what I like from each season.
I've always bought the best quality that I could afford, but if I'm buying something very high-fashion, I go to Zara. If it's something I love, and that I plan to wear for the next 10 years, I go to Lanvin.
SC People have been looking to the high street for several years now and Britain probably has the strongest high street in the world. You're not always just getting "high street" on the high street – look at Topshop's designer collaborations.
SM I think the high street is stronger than it used to be because in the past five years it has been able to copy much more quickly from the catwalk. So we've seen catwalk pieces adapted extremely quickly into what might be worn by the woman on the street. The new drivers for high-street stores are what's working – the woman on the street find some trends more relevant than others.
Which is more important to the majority of women: personal style or current fashion?
LY Our approach to the catwalk trends at Harper's is, "Would I wear that, would our readers wear that?", so there are a few that I just ignore – "Sorry, fashion team but I can't see any of you coming in wearing that tomorrow, so let's not do that." But there is always a mood that clothes reflect and that you want to be part of. Trends do make you feel fresh and contemporary.
AB I think designers now are less prescriptive. When I talk to my mum, who's in her late seventies but has always been interested in fashion, she'll ask me, "What's the colour this ' season?" or "Are trousers fashionable this season?" and it seems like such a peculiar question to me that I have to think about it. But she comes from a world where designers were very prescriptive and the look of the season was dictated to women. Now women have the confidence, because they're not dictated to in that way, to mix things and it has become more about personal style. People who are really into fashion now would probably mortified to be wearing "look 32" from a particular catwalk show.
AH Personal style is more important to me, as it means you can experiment with whatever you want to wear. I think there is much more of an openness to do that now, rather than following current fashion. It's great to follow elements of current fashion – if you happen to like them, but not only because they are fashionable.
SC Personal style is definitely more important – to my customers anyway. I'm a big fan of Asos.com, but that's more about trends at lower price points, younger girls who can wear all the trends and want to try them. Our customers have a stronger sense of what they like and what suits them and I don't think they will wear something solely because it is fashionable or because a celebrity has worn it. I think the emergence of street style photo blogs such as The Sartorialist has really driven that – the woman in the street is elevated to the same importance as a celebrity in terms of style. Looking unique has become much more important.
The spring/summer 2010 shows had plenty of 'classicism' – does this reflect what women currently want from their clothes?
LY This season, there is less emphasis on eveningwear and flamboyant pieces. It's clean and crisp, quite utilitarian but feminine too – clothes you can go to work in, just do stuff in. It's a fashion "sorbet" – a palate cleanser. People are much more discerning now, so the designers who flourish are those who really appreciate what women want. Designers who operate in a vacuum are doomed.
AB It does reflect what women want. Designers seem to have addressed the fact that women have very specific needs for the clothes that they buy, and that they are becoming more and more discerning. Now it's less about a very seasonal piece than about building up your wardrobe over time. I remember people used to laugh at me when I spent £400 or £500 on Alaia shoes, but I still wear them every single season. I know cost-per-wear is a tired expression, but I do think you can justify things when you know you will wear them for years and years.
AH Possibly it's a reflection of the times. We had the backlash against fast-fashion and the rise of slow-fashion and buying classical, investment pieces that will last.
SC A few seasons ago I think the trends were very tight and there weren't that many of them – it was all boho bloody everywhere. Now there are more trends and they are all different – it's broader and more democratic.
In view of the recent economic crisis, and growing environmental concerns, how do you think fashion will continue to justify itself?
LY You could ask that question of many industries. But I do think this is where catwalk fashion comes into its own, because it's less disposable and the cuts and fabrics stand the test of time. But that doesn't mean there has to be an end to creativity and experimentation – people still want escapism and fantasy. I don't think anyone likes the idea of us all walking around in identical uniforms. There will always be a place for fashion, as there is a place for art.
AB The economic situation has come together with a focus on perhaps being a little bit more aware of ecological concerns – looking at the true cost of clothes, where they are sourced from. It does become wasteful and a little bit distasteful to buy things and wear them only a few times. That is true of whether you go to a designer and buy something that is very "this season" or whether you go to the high street and buy something that is disposable or badly made.
AH I think fashion provides a bit of escapism, so in that sense I think it will always justify itself. I think we have, and we will continue to see, some movement from the industry, though, with the rise of eco brands and established brands such as Marks & Spencer setting out strategies to help the environment.
CW Personally, I get a lot of joy from fashion and if you work hard, I think you deserve to spend your money on what you like. Clothes that are beautifully made are special, and it's not for me to judge if other people want to spend their money on fast-fashion. But I do feel that designer clothing has a resale value; it's not going to end up in landfill like cheap clothing. At the same time, there's an industry built around making those cheaper clothes and there is the question of whether any job is better than no job when you have a family to feed.
SC I think high-quality fashion will become more important than ever. You might be buying a £2 vest, but someone else is subsidising that, whether through child labour or poor wages, and I think our social awareness has grown a lot on that front. Two years ago it was get it, wear it, bin it, but that has changed. I've got a pair of Gucci shoes I bought a few years ago and price-per-wear they're the best-value pair I've ever bought.
SM We had 20 per cent growth in mail order last year and set to grow 50 per cent this year. Fairtrade fashion is an area that hasn't grown as it might, but it's about getting the product and the messaging right. Our customers want a product that competes in terms of design and quality, and then that it is fairly traded and sustainably produced.
What effects – positive or negative – would there be if we bought fewer, better clothes?
AB It seems counterintuitive for me to say that buying less would be better for us – but I do think you can sustain businesses when people buy less but better quality.
AH If we all did this, much of the fashion industry would have to drastically change or adapt, especially the high street. Shops such as Primark would go bust for starters, unless they changed their business model. It would obviously be much better for the environment if we bought less cheap, throwaway fashion.
SC I'm sure the retail consortium might not be too happy if I said that it would be good if everybody did that. But you have to remember that there isn't just one pool of women customers to draw on – every year a new generation of girls will get jobs and be able to start spending a bit more on good-quality clothes.
SM Everyone's wardrobes are bursting and we need a good reason to buy something new. People Tree would argue that we need to use less natural resource – making fewer clothes – and add more value to a particular garment so it benefits more people – for instance, hand embellishment, created in a kind environment.
Military and nautical pieces were back on the spring/summer catwalks – themes that are continually reinvented. Are there still new things to be seen in fashion? In what directions do they lie?
LY You can say that the same themes recur, but I do think those ideas evolve each time to fit with our lives as they are. As in art, it can seem like there is nothing new left to do, but there will always be new ideas. Look at print – these beautiful digital computer prints that are huge this season would have been impossible only a few years ago. I think technology will bring the biggest innovations.
AH Independents tend to have more freedom and creative control, so they'll continue to push the boundaries in new and fresh directions. I also predict customisation to become a massive trend and to be the next stage of fashion evolution. Fashion retailers now need to sell an engaging experience, rather than just goods and a service. Consumers will engage and be part of the design process. They'll also end up with something more tailored to their individual needs, so they'll be happier with the garments and wear them more often and for longer. This is better for the environment, as there is then less waste. People want to be engaged – this is obvious from the internet; just look at the rise and dominance of social media. It's time now for "social fashion", with the new looks and trends coming from the streets rather than the fashion houses.
CW The McQueen show this season was amazing and like nothing I had seen before, and even things that you think might be old – such as the drapery on Lanvin dresses – are actually very innovative when you see them up close. There is always going to be some level of repetition, because otherwise we'd end up in spacemen suits or something equally silly. But it's good that there is repetition in many ways – you can go back to pieces you bought 10 or 15 years ago and change it slightly and wear it again. I noticed that really long coats are back on the catwalks and I've got a brilliant camel one that I was going to put on eBay and now I'm so glad I didn't.
SC There's nothing wrong with reinventing things – I love striped tops and this season I have bought another two because they're sufficiently different from earlier ones I own – one has a zip detail on the shoulder and the other has some sequins. But I guess the trends that you have lived through first time around probably aren't as relevant to you as they are to younger people. It's worth remembering that there's always a new generation who will be wearing these things for the first time.
So, is there a difference between 'fashion' and 'clothes'?
LY Clothes are simply practical – for warmth and protection. Fashion is about self-expression. In the same way that people want their homes to look beautiful and to reflect their personality, people want their clothes to say something about them and fashion gives them lots of possibilities. And fashion can also have the practicality of simple "clothes" too.
AB I think there is now less segmentation between fashion and clothes, or trends and personal style. One is feeding into the other all the time. It's about mixing both and building a wardrobe over time, and I think the high street and designers are both supporting that.
AH For me, "clothes" conjures up images of something functional and practical – such as clothes for walking, doing exercise in and so on; while "fashion" is a much more fun form of art.
CW Fashion is emotional; clothing is functional.
SC Fashion is what makes clothes exciting. And, for me, that does not necessarily mean the big trends themselves – look at the differences between what's on offer this season, from very structured pieces to floaty kimono-style jackets – as much as the choice. Clothes aren't inspiring, but having a choice is. n