Upending Fashion—From Niche to Mainstream, and High to Low
Harriet Mays Powell is fashion director at New York Magazine and a former editor at Tatler. Her work has also appeared in Glamour and Elle magazines.
Question: How has Tory Burch evolved into a serious name in fashion?
Tory has found a niche. Her prices are very, very good. She not at that high level designer price point, she just isn’t up there with a $4,000 dress, or a Two and a-half thousand dollar jacket. She’s at a lower price point which I think allows her to have more popularity with more – a larger audience and I think that was a very smart decision. She has also capitalized, I think she’s got a kind of preppy, sort of a preppiness with an edge is how I consider Tory. It’s kind of classic conservative on one level, yet she breaks out. Either the prints are a little bit bolder, or the colors are a little bit more cutting edge, so she’s got a bit of nuance and a bit of style, but based on the more classic genre; however, it’s not tedious, it’s not preppy, it’s not Lily Pulitzer. It’s definitely something bigger and more interesting than that. And again, at a great price point.
Question: Is this a model for other designers?
Harriet Mays Powell: I do. I think Diane Von Furstenberg, one of the doyennes of American fashion and certainly a fixture of New York fashion, and Head of the CFDA now. One of Diane’s great successes is, again, her price points are reasonable. They are just underneath that designer price point. So, she allows people to have access to fashion, to her brand, the way Tory does. But at much more affordable prices. And I think so. You know Alber Elbaz is now doing a great T-shirt line. He’s going to be doing a lot of Lanvin classics. Those are going to be at less prices. I think all of the designers are looking at price; they are looking at how to bring more value to the customer as well as keeping the customer excited and wanting to buy. So, while they are doing color, texture, fun prints, getting everyone’s eye popping as they get into a retail space, they are also having the price tags come down a bit. And I think it’s a big trend and they are all thinking about it.
Question: Will we continue to see high-end designers doing affordable, mainstream lines?
Harriet Mays Powell: I love it. I love the high/low. I think when Karl Lagerfeld, infamously of his own line and obviously of Chanel came and did H&M. He just becomes, for him it’s such a brand extension, he becomes a kind of iconic person. You know, it’s sort of Karl like Anna Wintour. It’s Anna Wintour and its Karl. So, I think it’s very smart from their point of view, I think its great that the masses can touch a bit of designer merchandise. I mean, I went to H&M and bought one of Karl’s sequined jackets and have it in my closet as just kind of an archival piece. I love that they do that high/low thing and they don’t stay in their ivory tower with their $20,000 Couture dresses.
Question: What is the future of luxury brands?
Harriet Mays Powell: I think luxury brands are – there’s been a real reset button going on. There was a big piece that we discussed in The New York Times yesterday discussing how luxury brands in Japan have really taken a dive. You know, the Japanese used to consider buying a Louis Vuitton bag as a kind of right of passage. They would sacrifice rent and food to be able to do that. And that generation is no longer. The generation of now is more interested in more vintage things. Slightly more eclectic designs. So, I think luxury brands are used to having an ongoing meteoric rise that they no longer can sustain and they are going to have to readjust. All that to say, the world has had to readjust. I think we’ve all had to readjust, personally, professionally for sure in the great recession. All that to say, I think some of the key classic brands like Louis Vuitton, like a Chanel, like an Hermes, those tired and true established brands, those have a quality that is without sounding like a cliché, really timeless. And to buy a Louis Vuitton bag will always be that. To get a Chanel suit will always be that. To have something from Hermes again, will always be there forever. And I think that’s where people are going to buy investment pieces. They’re going to go back to the recognized classics that will have value, even if it’s something that’s going to be an heirloom for your child. Even if it’s something that you know, that if you need to, you could sell it on e-Bay. Or that something that’s not going to fall apart because you know the quality of a Vuitton, a Chanel, of a Hermes has an enduring longevity. It’s not going to fall apart in three years the way some things do. So, I think those guys, those houses, will be fine and will be even smarter in the way they edit and make their collections.
Are the days of people buying nine handbags a season over? Absolutely. Will they come back in my opinion. No. Is everyone going to have to readjust that? For sure. I think the things, again, that are true and real and have quality and integrity will stay and sustain.
Question: Are we witnessing a change in the ideal body type?
Harriet Mays Powell: You know, I wouldn’t call it a big change. I think maybe there was an occasional girl here or there that’s a little bit more eclectic looking, a little different. There’s a big store out of Europe called Laura Stone. You know, she is quite full-chested; she’s got the crazy big gap in her teeth. She’s not a size 0. She’s kind of an ‘it’ model girl at the moment. But she stands out because of other things. She’s got almost a kind of actress appeal to her. I don’t think, unfortunately, we are going back to kind of normal sizes where a size 6 is the norm the way it was 25 or 30 years ago. Girls are still very, very tall, they’re still, I think, overly skinny. The samples – it’s difficult. A lot of the celebrities can’t even wear the samples because they’re so small because these girls are so tiny. I’d like to say it was a change and that we are going back to a slight sense of normalcy in the way because I do think it’s a problem and its been talked about certainly in the last several years in fashion what to do about it. But I don’t think fashion is ready for that. I don’t’ think the designers are ready for it, nor the model agencies. So, I’m afraid we are still in status quo mode.
Question: Why do designers favor the tall, thin body-type?
Harriet Mays Powell: To break it down, models are kind of hangers. They’ve got good shoulders, and then the clothing drapes off of them. And without it sounding calculating and dry, there is something easier about designing when the fit is not anything you have to reconsider or consider. And if you’ve got a beautiful long neck, a tall stature, and great shoulders, the clothing just hangs. The French have a great expression for that, she’s a porte-manteau, she’s a hanger. And that’s just an easier way to get your idea of fashion across when you’re not competing with waist, chest, hip, shortness of leg; when you’re not dealing with any kind of other physical issues. You can really go for the design that you really want to do in its purest form. So, that is indeed at the end of the day why the designers choose it.
Question: Is fashion empowering for women?
Harriet Mays Powell: I think when Coco Chanel took the course and through it out the window, and un-boned everything and gave a loose jacket, gave women pants, gave women oversized – gave women knits and jersey, I mean that was, we’re not a part of vernacular, they were wearing bustles and corset’s. So, Coco, as one of the first great liberating female designers. Yes, I think it is very empowering. I think there’s choice out there, I think that fashion is such a big business now, there’s so many choices for women. You can really, each season, find what you like. If you don’t like the 80’s, you can do the 40’s. That’s kind of, you know, a nipped in waist, a shoulder pad, you can for a more conservative look. You don’t have to go for sequined leggings and a big crazy brocade top from Gucci, you can go in a much more Lanvin-esque sort of version of that, which is the 40’s. So, yes, I think there’s great choice for women and I think women, more and more, have confidence to wear what they want, wear it how they want to do it, and not be constrained even by what we fashion journalists tell them is in and what’s cool. And I think that’s what’s really nice. And I think the other thing, I was chatting with Marc Jacobs the other day. You know, he can’t stand it when people wear his clothes head to toe, he likes it when you mix it all up and you buy one of his pieces and wear it with something else.
I was talking to another designer who said, “I love when you rediscover things in your closet. I think it’s really great. You’ve gone back in and found a great jacket, found a great blouse, you mix it all in.” So, I think women are more empowered. I think they are allowed to be sexier if they want to be. Stronger if they want to be, and the choices are really out there at all price points and actually, you can almost find what you want each season and every season. So, that’s a lovely amount of choice that women now have. [00:17:12.10]
With the advent of "Karl Lagerfeld for H&M" and eminently affordable designers like Diane Von Furstenburg and Tory Burch, Harriet Mays Powell thinks we may have seen the end of nine-handbags-a-season spending—but argues that there will always be a place for luxury.
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