FASHION : Endangered Species : Shopper Backlash Sends a Clear Message to High-End Designers: Get Real

TIMES FASHION EDITOR

Starting this week, some of the most expensive clothes in the world are flitting down the fashion runways of Milan and Paris as designers show their spring '93 collections. But this season they face a tougher test than usual. It's not a question of whether anyone will like what they see. The question is: Will anyone buy it?

In glaring contrast to the 1980s, top-notch designer labels are fashion's endangered species. With prices hovering around $2,000 per outfit, unemployment and the recession lingering, the clothes seem out of sync with reality. And they don't exactly mesh with a recent change in attitude, either.

"We're in a much more conservative period," notes Alan Millstein, a New York-based retail analyst who publishes the Fashion Network Report. "It's unfashionable to flaunt it."

Designers can only agree.

"Fashion isn't in fashion," says Jean Paul Gaultier, here from Paris last month to stage a show of his wackiest creations. And he ought to know. Halfway through the extravaganza, the audience started sneaking out. (Despite the discouraging climate, he will show in Paris later this month.)

"Everybody in the world has their 501 jeans," says Gaultier. "It's a good product and it only gets better with age. Like antiques."

This $44 fact of life is chipping away at the old-time designer mystique. But so are plenty of other things. Fashion news shows supply endless tips on how to get a designer look-alike for less, TV series and videos are inspiring trends, inner-city street styles are showing up on the runways, and well-priced catalogue clothes have become a sort of proletariat status symbol. The big guys don't have the same clout. Or even, the credibility.

Some of their most influential promoters seem to be losing interest.

"This year I'm doing less and less with designer labels," says Alisa Bellettini, who produces "House of Style," MTV's fashion program. "I was starting to feel used. The clothes cost too much and the designers are all ripping each other off, anyway. I decided, just show audiences the look. "

Bellettini gears her show, hosted by model Cindy Crawford, toward 15- to 35-year-olds. But older audiences are looking for change as well.

"Designer clothes didn't make me happy." That's the bottom line for the fortysomething generation, according to Ross Goldstein's research. A San Francisco-based psychologist, his Generation Insights consulting firm does lifestyle studies for the garment industry.

Lately, these baby boomers are more likely to shop the Price Club than the status boutiques. And it's influencing the way they dress. "My kid wears a T-shirt and a backward baseball cap, " says Goldstein, a boomer himself. "I'm inclined to dress the same way."

It's rare that an entire nation of shoppers gives a whole category of clothing the gong at the very same moment. But 1992 may go down as the year that actually happened. And like most other fashion trends, this one was forged in the nation's wallet.

"It's been a dreary economic moment that's lingered," says Fabian Linden, executive director of the New York-based Conference Board, which is known for its Consumer Confidence Index. Linden oversees polling of 5,000 households per month. Among his September '92 findings: 20% of households included one or more unemployed people during the past 12 months. The average layoff lasted 26 weeks.

"And those not elected for the chop are proceeding with caution," he adds.

"I think people feel silly spending a lot of money on the real thing," says Lee Moore. The Los Angeles-based stylist has helped everyone from Prince to Milli Vanilli get dressed for photo shoots and music videos. Instead of using pricey designer-label outfits, he puts together wanna-bes from Hollywood Boulevard. One of his latest was inspired by Italy's hottest duo, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana:

"Get yourself a $20 motorcycle hat on Hollywood Boulevard, a cheap bustier from Frederick's of Hollywood, a pair of gloves and some boots at Leeds. Lately they've been right on the money."

Faced with financial limits and steady slippage among Establishment status symbols, designers are starting to fight back in the most effective way. They are dropping their prices. Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani, Genny and Perry Ellis are among many who have announced cutbacks from about 10% to as much as 30% by spring '93.

"We have to adapt to what the market is telling us. We'll go back to our prices of several years ago, " says Umberto Calastri, chief executive officer of Genny, as well as sister companies Byblos and Complice.

"We cut prices up to 27% for spring," says David Pergola of the Grief Co., which manufacturers Perry Ellis, among other brands.

Not only consumer demands, but the rocking, rolling retail business forced Grief's hand, says Pergola. As department stores folded, went bankrupt, got bought, sold and merged, manufacturers and designers alike lost some of their biggest customers. Over the past two years one of Grief's top department store accounts dropped its list of high-end lines from 31 to 9. So far, Grief has survived the cuts.

And then there is that attitude problem to contend with.

This summer Bergdorf Goodman unveiled its newest shopping concept, an entire floor with no signature labels. "It's for the contemporary customer who buys items, not a whole new wardrobe, and shopping isn't her only interest," explains fashion director Ellin Saltzman.

The store still lays claim to head-to-toe designer label shoppers, Saltzman says. And those customers still want the newest that designers have to offer, whether it's a dress of harness straps by Gianni Versace, a leopard-print outfit of Valentino, or a long, rib-knit skirt by Chanel. But even they are buying less, and it has to do with more than money.

"I think it has to do with morality," says Saltzman. "People looked at how much they were buying and spending, and decided it wasn't right."

That mind-set is only adding to designers' troubles. Still, Gaultier and others reflect on how they've seen it all before. He remembers the mid-'70s, when he opened his business, as an anti-fashion era.

"There will always be a market for high-end designer apparel," predicts Barbara Caplan, a vice president for Yankolovich Monitor, the New York trend-tracking institute. "But the marginal audience is shrinking." A smaller number of people will buy, at least for the near future.

But others believe the '90s knock-down of designer status symbols will have a lasting effect. The appeal is image, "not necessarily that the clothes are better," says Goldstein. "Deflate the image and it's very hard to pump it back up."

Maybe.

Those overpriced, overbearing, overblown designers still come up with most of the ideas that make the fashion machine go 'round. Fashion for television may show how to do it for a fraction of the price. And stylists may put it together with Hollywood Boulevard equivalents. But the primary sources are still the same.

Designers are still the mothers of invention. Whether anyone buys it or not.

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