it's smart to be simple

'Downshifting' is the latest trend to cross the Atlantic. It means throwing out your designer wardrobe and getting by on two jumpers and seven pairs of knickers. Tyler Brule reports on the jaded professionals who want to get back to basics
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Indy Lifestyle Online
it was almost two years ago that ever vigilant trend-watchers in the United States took note of a bizarre plague that was creeping through upmarket closet space across America's Pacific Northwest.

From Spokane straight down to the southern reaches of San Francisco, walk-in closets that were once packed with a multicoloured array of labels such as Anne Klein and DKNY were now almost bare. Out on the doorsteps were small mountain ranges of garment-stuffed bin liners that had the Salvation Army rubbing its hands.

As economists and sociologists tried to gauge the cultural climate that was making otherwise prosperous Americans sell their cars, subdivide their houses and even eat less, the trend gurus that advise corporate America were already assigning buzzwords to this unthinkable consumer emancipation and figuring out a way to cash in.

Phrases like "Voluntary Simplicity", "Downshifting", "Simple Living" and "Beyond Basics" started creeping on to the front pages of the national press and into marketing manifestos. Growing numbers of simplicity-obsessed citizens formed organisations and support groups to work out how to capitalise on their new found freedom from America's retail powerhouses.

The trend towards downshifting continues to gain momentum, not only in America but also in Australia and Canada. The good life for many is no longer about amassing more trappings of success than your neighbour; rather it's about living a life that's not guided by the decisions of ad planners on Madison Avenue or Charlotte Street and that views shopping is an act of necessity, not entertainment.

For followers of Simple Living magazine, one only needs seven pairs of knickers, two jumpers, one pair of shoes, six t-shirts, two polo necks, two skirts and two pairs of trousers to get by. For those who find Simple Living too decadent, you need only two pairs of knickers and one of everything else.

Not driven by ads for the latest BMW or the newest scent from Chanel, Simple Living magazine is a step-by-step, subscription newsletter from Seattle that already has 3,000 subscribers on its growing database. It is one of an increasing number of publications that are helping people escape from the dissatisfying world of sport shopping and maxed out credit cards.

Like most of the recent cultural fads that have swept the globe, "downshifting" is yet another one of those odd West Coast trends that manages to marry hippy realness with a dose of all- American entrepreneurialism.

Having been raised on a diet of basic fashion, basic food and back-to- basics politics, Americans are now trying to live the entire basic experience - much to the regret of the marketing departments that created the trend in the first place.

"Everyone got so caught up in this whole simplicity-in-fashion and simplicity- in-food that they eventually just said, 'Hey, I want to cash in my chips and lead the whole simple experience'," says America's most celebrated trend spotter, Faith Popcorn. "That means people are trading in everything from the big job in an ugly city and moving to a more manageable, urban centre and they're taking that whole clothing rail down to the Goodwill and getting rid of all the stuff that they just don't need."

For anyone with a product to sell, this is a rather frightening trend, especially when we're just coming out of a recession and most of the downshifters are the consumers they most want to reach.

Like the American coffee shops that are slowly trickling into the UK high street, downshifting is also showing signs of arriving on British shores.

"Deliberate downshifting is clearly one of the most interesting social and economic trends occurring in this country at the moment," says Ian Christie from the Henley Centre for Forecasting in London. "The reason why it's of such great interest is because it says so much about a generation who were just becoming consumers in the Eighties, and how they're reacting to it now. One of the biggest advantages of downshifting is that it reduces people to exposure, which I think is on many people's minds."

The Henley Centre was one of the first forecasting groups to track the "improve, don't move" shift in home-buying habits - a clear indication that deliberate downshifting was occurring. Now, the centre has also noticed a widespread "reality check" going on amongst twenty and thirtysomethings who are not setting their targets quite so high.

"We may have been saying it for a while but young people today are finally starting to realise that they're not going to have what their parents had, so they're going to have to settle for less and perhaps readjust their goals," explains Christie.

"The whole notion of reducing exposure to yourself means that you're more careful with your overdraft, your credit cards, and you live within your means. All of these are new trends that we're starting to see emerge."

Though people in this country may not be binning their old Gaultier just yet, downshifting might capture the collective conscious of the stylish when they realise there is a whole aesthetic value attached to it as well.

"Don't think that big retailers and designers are going to go bust," says Ken Holmes, a retail analyst on Wall Street. "All those 'Chic Simple' books that are selling thousands of copies are preaching the notion of a simple life and in the end are actually making you buy more.

"I think marketing strategists have been on to this from the start and have recognised that yes, there are going to be a small handful of puritans who will use an elastic band as their wallet instead of a Hermes pocketbook, but the majority will want to just throw all their ugly stuff out and buy things that make them look like they're downshifting."

Indeed, downshifting has been taken up by everyone from NatWest, which is shrugging off its landmark headquarters in the City, to Lauda Air of Austria, whose staff now show up to their flights in Levi 501s.

"A lot of this may be surface, but corporations should beware," says Popcorn. "Whether you're a British department store or an American supermarket, you're going to have to be on top of this movement. Of course it's not going to be for everyone and there will be those who go in the opposite direction, but the consumer is going to be wiser and more cynical because of this movement."

With retail sales in this country still slow on a good day, downshifting may well be grabbing hold, so start rifling through your neighbours rubbish bin for that Alaia dress you always coveted.

the downshifter's handbook

If you feel that you're bogged down by masses of meaningless stuff and want to live a Le Corbusier-inspired existence, then follow this three-point guide to simplicity.

1: THE WALLET

First, a note of caution. It is tempting to throw out your Gucci wallet. Don't. It is quite enough to resist buying that new one you had your eye on from the spring/summer collection.

Next, open your wallet up and dump out all your credit and bank cards. Keep one and cut the rest up. Place the credit card in a safe place at home and use only in emergencies. Example: using your credit card to book a flight to visit a sick relative is considered an emergency. Buying that suit you wanted all season from the Joseph sale is not.

Finally, keep a log of everything you buy, and review it every quarter. If you find that much of what you've bought you don't use, then you might be more inclined to resist impulse purchases in the future.

2: THE WARDROBE

Put an afternoon aside, arm yourself with bin bags and tell your local charity shop to clear some space - you're about to make their week.

Be ruthless, but not rash. If you can really convince yourself that studded cowboy boots are about to come back into fashion, then keep them. This way you'll save yourself money by not having to buy a new pair when the "urban cowboy" fashion rides back into town.

Downshifting is as much about saving money as it is about simplifying your life, so be brutal about all the things that you haven't worn in six months or more. Do you really need 30 t-shirts? Keep your favourites, keep the classic, ditch the rest.

From now on, buy clothes only when you need to and only in black. Colours will only create problems of co-ordination. Black will always go with black, no problem. And it's chic. (If you can't bear black, try brown ... anything, so long as you're consistent.)

3: THE HOUSE

If you live in a Tudor cottage then you're never going to be able to transform it into a pillarless, Mies-inspired space but the point here isn't about decorating, it's about cutting costs.

Have a shower instead of a bath, you'll cut your hot-water bill in half.

Reduce the wattage on your light bulbs; it saves electricity and everyone looks better in lower light.

Cook instead of throwing something in the microwave; all those ready- made meals can set you back more than pounds 80 a week.

Buy wine from South Africa or Chile; the quality of a pounds 4 Chilean is usually superior to a French wine at the same price. You're also making a statement about France's recent escapades in the South Pacific.

Try to split your satellite costs by wiring your neighbours into the same dish. This not only saves you money but also raises the value of homes in your neighbourhood by not having all those unsightly dishes everywhere.

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