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L.A. designers urge a new shopping ethic in a down market

Go for quality, spend less and select pieces that reflect your personal style rather than the latest trends, they advise.

March 01, 2009|Reed Johnson

What's the right way to make, sell and buy luxury fashion goods at a time when many Americans are struggling to pay their mortgages and put food on the table?

The question wasn't quite as urgent as how to bail out the banking system or end the panic on Wall Street. But for the five participants in the Hammer Museum's panel discussion on "Conscientious Consumption" Monday, the issue at hand was as pressing as it was perplexing.

Moderator Sally Singer, the fashion news and features director for Vogue, had a recommendation for the sold-out Hammer audience: "Buy less and buy better."

For consumers, Singer said, the challenge is to think about "what can make you a peacock when you don't have any peacock feathers." And for designers, always itching to sketch, sculpt or cut something new and fabulous, the conundrum is how to make things for a planet "that doesn't need any more things," she said.

Joining the conversation on stage one by one, the panelists, all designers based in metro L.A., were by turns earnest, amused and eager to address the themes Singer raised.

There was broad agreement that consumers in hard times should think about buying fewer items with more lasting value. Mass-produced clothes with prestige labels may turn heads at the shopping mall. But buying fewer items, and favoring pieces that are unusual and carefully hand-sewn and assembled, can express a more individualistic style while causing less damage to your credit card and, maybe, the environment.

Here's a sampling of what they had to say before and during the discussion.

Kate Mulleavy

Co-founder and owner with her sister Laura of the fast-rising Rodarte label of Pasadena.

"I think there's a lack of connoisseurship," Mulleavy said. "It's not that mass production is bad; it's that things aren't really made well."

Rodarte has favored a handcrafted, labor-intensive, artisanal approach to design. It has steered its own instinctive path, Mulleavy said, by drawing on the sisters' idiosyncratic inspirations (the metaphysical cult-horror film "Donnie Darko," the deconstructed houses of conceptual artist-sculptor Gordon Matta-Clark) and "I think it's really important, especially in the U.S., for people to follow their gut and create things off their own point of view."

Tom Binns

Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the jewelry maker brings a spiky, punk-rock aesthetic to his work.

Binns, keeping faith with a Sex Pistols-socialist values system honed during his collaborative years with Kings Road style gurus Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, trashed the tyranny of the term "luxury," which he considers passe and "quite vulgar" in the current economic downturn. Luxury goods should be "treats," he maintains, and a designer dress loses that quality when it's made and marketed like a Big Mac, he said in a phone interview last week.

While there always will be "uber-luxe" for the ultra-rich who shop by helicopter (the exclusive Daslu in Sao Paulo, Brazil), Binns said, "I'm trying to make fine things out of nothing and reinvent them." He does this by frequently using found objects and by customizing and creating pieces not with expensive materials but by applying his imagination.

In Binns' ironic signature pieces from last fall, he replaced precious stones with small, silver-plated brass discs inscribed with such words as "Pearl," "Sapphire" and "Big Diamond" (sometimes accompanied by a juicy expletive). It's a biting sight gag, as if the owner had had to pawn her jewels.

Christina Kim

Founder of the dosa clothing and housewares collections.

Kim, a native of South Korea, runs her business in a way that Singer describes as "a model of scrupulous ethics," emphasizing recycling, the use of organic materials and paying above-grade wages to its workers, many of them Asian and Latin American immigrants.

She urged fashionistas to think more carefully about where the clothes they're buying come from and to question whether certain items like T-shirts are sold cheaply because the people who make them are badly underpaid.

Customers recognize quality goods when they see them, she said, and value them accordingly. "I think it's just part of our nature to understand when things are really lovingly made."

Adriano Goldschmied

A founding father of designer jeans.

Goldschmied, who often scans flea markets for new ideas, has predicted the recession may encourage his customers to want the reassuring comfort of looser-fitting jeans. "When the bad times are coming, people are scared and they need to feel safe and confident with something they know," he said in a phone interview. "It's said that when you're scared you call mama, and for us mama is a jean."

During the turbulent years of social protest in the 1960s and '70s, he said, "the jean was a kind of political tool and the flag of a young generation, the hope of a change." Today, he said, designers must again think hard about "what we do in our society and what is our function."

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reed.johnson@latimes.com

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