A Therapeutic Passion for Fashion

If it's over the top, downright indulgent, or incongruously plush, shoppers can't resist. Could it be that ostentation eases anxiety?

By Gerry Khermouch

The economy is languishing, superhero CEOs of the boom years are facing fraud charges, and we may yet go to war with Iraq. Even for America's special breed of ebullient, spend-it-before-you've-got-it consumers, it's a sobering time. So, once we've willed ourselves to the mall, what are we buying these days?

Try crew-neck sweaters decked out with nubs and slubs. Ruffled blouses, paisley tunics, sequined shawls, coin-inset belts, and anything in an overscaled houndstooth check. Pants decorated with velvet, brocade, tapestry, or lace. Linens and wallpaper in orchid-patterned Jouy and other elaborate floral motifs. Consumers may be losing their confidence in the economy, but when they spend, it's often for stuff that at least looks lavish and luxe.

Given all the valid reasons for gloom, this national outburst of frivolity might seem irrelevant at best, faintly immoral at worst. Still, it's not hard to figure out what's behind consumers' irrational exuberance, stylistically speaking. "An interesting mix of lust and anxiety," says Ellen Ratchye-Foster, a trend analyst at ad agency Fallon. Consumers may have ample reason to be in a sober, reflective mood, but bad news has been piling up so relentlessly there's "pent-up demand to be bad," she says. Bad means not just the blatantly sexy styles of a rediscovered Roberto Cavalli, but bold colors and intricate patterns, or a startling juxtaposition of materials.


  Nobody pretends this trend will resolve any fundamental problems. Few of these items represent real product innovation. Most are made overseas, so we're still swelling the trade deficit when we buy them. Still, some retail watchers think it could make the difference in drawing shoppers to stores and avoiding a holiday retail bust that might tip the economy into a second recessionary dip. Ernst & Young expects novelty clothing and accessories to be a key contributor to its projected 4.8% sales increase for the November-to-January holiday season, beating the 3.9% gain of 2001.

It has happened before. The silly cycle in fashion often seems to coincide with difficult economic or political times. Yves Saint Laurent conceived his gypsy look during the stagflation of the 1970s, another period when jobs were scarce and people found themselves at the mercy of external shocks (oil embargoes back then). It's a bit different this time because the booming 1990s were characterized not so much by lavish displays as by an austere, minimalist (though still expensive) look -- the barely furnished downtown loft in Manhattan as status symbol.

As the new millennium approached, a reaction already was setting in, via rhinestone-encrusted jeans, peasant skirts, and neo-hippy commune wear. The sagging economy and the shock of September 11 were expected to stop this nascent trend in its tracks. Somewhere along the line, though, consumers seem to have forgotten about the scheduled return to austerity. Sackcloth, it turns out, is not the new black.


  Not only have shoppers continued to shop, but they've been gravitating to ever more outré looks in their apparel, accessory, and home-décor choices. "We've heard for a while that embellishment is over, but that's just not happening," acknowledges Jamie Ross, creative director at fashion consultant Doneger Group. Thus, this new "maximalism," if we can call it that, is taking on an unusual form. "It's not straight baroque or rococo," says architect and designer Jay Valgora, creative director at Walker Group/CNI. "It's layers of pattern and richness, but over a minimal framework."

In other words, it's slathering with embellishment the same basic items on which we all overspent in the 1990s. Denim jackets? Add a detachable fur collar and it jumps off the shelves, as with Wal-Mart's George line. Ditto for Todd Oldham fleece blankets in bold pinks and greens -- a big seller at Target. Or Jennifer Lopez' J.Lo line of lace turtlenecks. Even Gap's Old Navy chain is touting leopard-print pullovers in its TV ads.

And it's not just cutting-edge consumers who are buying in. "It's across the board," says Wendy Liebmann, founder of WSL Strategic Retail. Over-the-top doesn't necessarily mean unaffordable, either. The wildly scenic $350 Isabella Fiore handbags may be going to Hollywood starlets shopping for their Academy Award night wardrobes, but those of us at the fringes of the red carpet can still grab a decent knockoff for one-tenth the price.


  This all might be somewhat disturbing if it suggested that consumers have already abandoned their post-September 11 embrace of family and home. They haven't, though. They just see no reason not to fulfill their nesting instinct in sumptuous bedding, trimmed with leather and suede. Even holiday standbys like the muffler are undergoing a "maximalist" adjustment: Check out Coach's cashmere-and-leather muffler in a red-and-fuschia color combination.

There's little reason to expect "maximalism" to max out right away. Fashion and home décor items previewed in Paris in October and November betray no hint that designers' inventiveness is flagging. And the drumbeat of worrisome developments is not likely to disappear overnight either. "The sense of acute crisis after September 11 has now become chronic crisis," says Fallon's Ratchye. For those who haven't yet joined the fray: "You can only hold back so long," says Ratchye. I for one stand ready to put my bouclé-clad shoulder to the wheel.

Khermouch is an associate editor at BusinessWeek

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