Walking the floors of the Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Barneys New York trifecta last week in Beverly Hills, I was struck by how empty the stores felt, empty of shoppers and empty of merchandise. Even with the fall season upon us, there were seating areas and bare walls where there used to be clothing racks, which makes sense because store buyers bought 10% to 30% less than they did the previous season.
On the positive side, there's room to see everything. A new price consciousness is becoming noticeable too. More shoe department real estate is devoted to "bridge" lines such as Tory Burch and Elizabeth & James, both of which have great renditions of fall's must-have shoe-boot. And there are many more of what the luxury market deems "entry-level" styles, such as $395 canvas Fendi flats and $395 Miu Miu velvet bow-front ballet flats.
At the high end, there are a lot of terrific, wear-forever clothes -- Peter Som's colorful pixel-print shift dress ($1,295); Alexander McQueen's fitted trench coat ($1,835), Michael Kors' one-shoulder paillette dress ($1,995) and Yves Saint Laurent's grown-up, full-pant jumpsuit ($1,690).
Almost as notable is what's happening in the under-$1,000 category, the "new bridge market," as the industry calls it -- clothes that have designer style without the uber price -- Phillip Lim's $675 double-breasted, cropped cream jacket and $420 faux-wrap ruffle front skirt, and Elizabeth & James' boyfriend blazer ($395) and striped slouchy tee ($195).
Of course, the recession is a theme in the fashion media. The September issue of Marie Claire talks about CPW, or "cost per wearing", as a consideration for fall shopping; Lucky has tips on how to maximize your clothing budget, who has the best low-cost cashmere and online shipping rates. It's puzzling that Elle has so many pages of high-end jewelry. And though Vogue does devote its entire Index section to items under $500, I wish some of them had shown up in the fashion spreads too.
Vogue is doing its part in other ways, partnering with the Council of Fashion Designers of America to host Fashion's Night Out on Thursday. It's an initiative designed to restore consumer confidence and get the cash registers humming. (Retail sales in July fell 0.1% from the previous month, department store sales 1.6%.) It's a smart thing to do, because to get fashion out of its slump, designers need to communicate with their customers, and this is an opportunity to see and meet them. Gone are the days when you design something, put it out there and expect it to fly off the racks. You really have to sell.
In New York, the fashionable pep rally will include events at stores from Macy's to Madison Avenue boutiques, all of which will stay open until 11 p.m. Oscar de la Renta will be singing in his store, Diane Von Furstenberg will be hosting fitness expert Tracy Anderson (of Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow fame) and the Rodarte girls are going to be selling clothes out of the trunk of a car.
In L.A., the Fashion's Night Out hubs are Fred Segal on Melrose Avenue, where designers from Whitley Kros, Rory Beca, Paige Premium Denim, Chan Luu and other labels will be offering demonstrations and styling advice, and Neiman Marcus Beverly Hills, where there will be New York-themed food and drink, and an exhibition of photos by Norman Jean Roy. For a full listing of L.A. events, see latimes.com/fashionsnightout.
"New York is a center and the runway shows are there," says Ron Herman, owner of the Ron Herman boutique in the Fred Segal complex. "But the world looks to L.A. for guiding the way in the fashion of living. We need to have this and participate. Our evening is a way of saying to our customers, 'Have fun, shop a little bit.' I'm not trying to sell you a gas-guzzling car, I'm just trying to entertain you."
So get out there and do some fall shopping. You don't have to buy a leather jacket, you could just buy a lipstick. Because it's fun and, as Lisa Love, Vogue's West Coast editor, puts it, "you could be saving someone's job."