Luxury Retailing in a Post-Recession Washington

Photo courtesy of
‘Louis Vuitton Dog @ Atatürk Airport’
courtesy of ‘lrumiha’


While within the District and around the region the recession seems to still be felt terribly – the census numbers reported yesterday, for example, which show a marked rise in childhood poverty – other pockets of the metropolitan area are recovering faster. It was reported recently that, for the fourth year in a row, Maryland ranks second in the nation for millionaire households. Virginia holds seventh place in that ranking, and the District tenth. According to Forbes, six suburban counties in our area are among the wealthiest in the country. Loudon County Virginia, the richest in the region is also top in the nation, followed closely by Fairfax County.

Moneyed suburban Virginia – the flushest area within a region with one of the strongest economies in the country – made an appropriate setting, then, for experts to convene on luxury retailing in the post-recession world. The first event of 2010′s All Access Fashion encouraged journalists and marketers to delve into what is meaningful for consumers today. Even if some individuals still have the cash to buy them, how does one – brand or shopper – justify “luxury” goods?

The most popular theme amongst the panel was a simple one: Provide something meaningful in a world of fast fashion and disposable materialism and people are willing to spend for it. That meaning comes from building a relationship with the customer and allowing them some ownership and interaction with the brand and from a product of high quality and good design, intended to last.

“The boom-boom times when we were all excited to buy the same brands is gone,” said panel moderator and president of Unity Marketing Pam Danziger. One might disagree there was ever actually a time when we were all excited – but no one can deny that head-to-toe brand names are long since passé.

Instead, as Ned Martel, senior editor of The Washington Post Style Section, pointed out, the blurring of the lines between high-end, luxury, designer fashion and street fashion has been the major narrative on the runways for years now – and is still in full force at the shows currently on at global fashion weeks. This, combined with the trend towards “heritage” brands, has lead to more and more stores stocking a variety of brands, special and collaboration lines, and one-off projects – all to allow the shopper to feel that they are crafting an ensemble of their own, even if they do pick it all up at a single well-edited retailer.

Men have been the driving force in high-end retail for the last few quarters, coming back to stores strong and with a renewed interest in buying quality clothing. Panelists noted that, in a down economy, the job market is more competitive and looking sharp gives an individual an advantage. When they go to the shop to buy that new suit, they no longer want the trendy outfits that typified the 1990′s with fads in colors, shiny fabrics, and ever-growing numbers of buttons, because they see how quickly these have become terribly dated and they want to invest in something which will last more than one season (to say nothing of the always-questionable nature of those Friends-era getups aesthetically).

“It is a return to traditional looks that remind men of continuity, their grandfathers, generations who have endured hardship before,” Mr. Martel noted, gesturing to his own wrists on which he wore his grandfather’s cuff-links below the nonchalantly half-unbuttoned sleeves of his grey suit jacket.

What remains to be seen is how popular this embrace of classicism will be in womenswear. For the current season, much has been made of the demure, traditional style as a trend – but it can be harder for a woman to look “classic” without looking “retro” than it is for a man. Certainly, plenty of shops are stocking heritage brands for women, but fast fashion has a hold on how many Americans think about shopping which will be hard to break. My own wardrobe might contain the same Levis jeans and Frye boots my mother would have worn at my age, topped with my grandmother’s pearls, but for a party dress I still tend to look at Forever 21 for something cheap and new first, instead of wearing something classic already hanging in my closet.

Kimberly Grabel, senior vice president for marketing of Saks Fifth Avenue may be right when she says, “Customers today want to buy things that have value, but also reflect their values,” but at the same time – with many people still feeling uncertain about the economy, many are willing to look the other way and compromise on products consistent with their politics to get a cheaper price. After all, the rich keep getting richer only when they save that money, right? To wit, Ms. Danziger mentioned that, in her firm’s research, the very wealthiest 2% of the population is outspent thrice-over by the segment between top 20% – 3%, a group she calls “H.E.N.R.Y.” – High Earning, Not Rich Yet.

Tyson’s Galleria, where the panel met, well-reflects the hesitant optimism about the economy, especially in this region: On a Thursday night, the mall of mostly higher-end stores was sparsely populated around dinnertime, in spite of a half-dozen restaurants and plenty of parking out of the rain – but the shoppers who were there, like the three women who walked by, laden with bags, some as big as the women themselves, from a newly-opened Michael Kors boutique, were ready to spend.

Brittany has tried to leave DC, it just never lasts. She has lived in Chicago, California, and China – but she always comes back home. Brittany is a drinks, nightlife, and style correspondent for We Love DC. Between columns, you can find her on Twitter, Tumblr, or standing by the bar. Email her at brittany(at)welovedc.com.

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