Hadley Freeman: How the credit crunch affected this season's fashion shows

Designers in New York and Paris scale down their ambitions and focus on sales, but the show goes on in Milan and London

As timing goes, the word unfortunate hardly suffices. Against the ominous rumble of the world economy collapsing, with the occasional cymbal crash of news stories about Fred Goodwin and Bernie Madoff, the international fashion shows grimly proceeded around the world, even though designers knew that large swathes of the customer base had surely been subsumed in the tidal wave.

There was a decided split between the four fashion capitals as to how to proceed: in New York and Paris designers focused on practical clothes in the finger-crossing hope of luring the custom they could; in London and Milan, the emphasis was on the pyrotechnics which might not sell clothes but do grab attention, consolidate brand images and, hopefully, sell cosmetics and accessories.

New York has always favoured commerciality over couture and Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren all eagerly towed the credit crunch-friendly line. Marc Jacobs jettisoned the increasingly experimental styles he has been favouring and went back to making cool but simple clothes for women.

While there were flashes of commerciality in London, particularly from the great white hope Christopher Kane, the majority showed off their more artistic mindsets, such as Giles Deacon whose show included studded stiff leather skirts and giant fur armpieces.

In Milan, D & G, Dolce & Gabbana and Gucci all predictably preferred flash. Marie Antoinette prize of the month goes to Roberto Cavalli who, a mere 72 hours after tearfully announcing that the licensing company for his secondary line, Just Cavalli, had gone into receivership, held a huge party for the launch of the Cavalli MasterCard.

It was in Paris where this city-by-city split was most evident. This is a town that may take fashion more seriously than most, but that is because they see it as a business. Nicolas Ghesquière at Balenciaga, whose previous collections featured rubberised clothes seemingly for skinny robots, showed uncharacteristically wearable dresses. Lanvin and Dior showed wearable clothes for women over 30, while one of the biggest trends in the city was smart dresses with long sleeves - a belated acknowledgement that older women don't always want to flash their arms.

Separates, as opposed to just dresses, were also popular in Paris, which was another commercially sensible decision as they are more versatile than dresses. The best show of the week, Yves Saint Laurent, had sculptural, elegant separates that looked both designer but also wearable, while Louis Vuitton cannily combined photo-friendly OTT frocks with sellable elegant black dresses.

There are, of course, some exceptions to this city-by-city rule: both Prada and Marni in Milan had beautifully simple (although, in the case of the latter, fur-heavy) shows and the Paris based Alexander McQueen's collection was almost wholly couture. Yet McQueen is still very much a London boy and, despite having shown in Paris for years now, his approach often reflects that. In the main, though, the divide was clear.

Despite appearances, ultimately this means that Paris and New York are aiming higher than their Italian and British colleagues, simply because the simplicity of their collections suggests that they are actually hoping to sell the clothes themselves. Those who opt for the more couture approach have clearly jacked in that aspiration long ago and merely see the runway as a means to grab attention and - hopefully - sell some make-up.

Few could have predicted that a couture McQueen dress made out of feathers was a sign of financial caution, but then this is an industry that launches name-brand credit cards in the middle of a recession. Common sense doesn't always apply.


Hadley Freeman

The GuardianTramp

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