How Recessions Drive Fashion Innovation
In a country where the economy seems to be hurtling towards a recession (unless it’s not), everything from housing costs to consumer behavior can be expected to be affected. And you might imagine that in times of relative deprivation, spending time, attention and money on fashion would be one of the first expenses to be cut. But based on years of research into financial trends and consumer habits, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the most striking fashion trends are born out of economic downturns.
In 1982, fashion writer John Duka describes how consumer habits have changed during the economic recession of the early 1980s. The similarities to the present moment seem clear: unemployment topped 10% and oil prices soared, while house prices and retail sales soared. fall. Although we saw an increase in retail spending in 2021 as consumers began to rrevenge spendingwe start to see drop in retail sales. When retail spending slows, it has a serious ripple effect: businesses can’t afford to produce, distribute and employ workers. These workers, in turn, end up with less money in their pockets and, to put a 2022 twist, end up having to choose between paying rent or paying another drop in JJJJound.
But what’s true of retail spending in general isn’t necessarily true of the fashion world. Historically, upper-class high-end fashion shoppers don’t change their spending habits much, or even chill them by flaunting their wealth during recessions. As Duka put it in 1982, “retailers say that customers who can afford such expensive goods, although they too have become more selective, are still little affected by the vicissitudes of the economy”. On the other hand, shoppers who buy from cheaper designers usually stop spending and limit their purchases to high-quality items to replace lost or damaged pieces or “exciting” pieces.
Some things don’t change: this “newness” is still a specific challenge for fashion designers today as we head into a recession. “[Designers] must entice consumers to buy, they must present novelty—a change of mood— as the children say,” says Allyson Reechief strategist at WGSN Overview.
Greater economic forces can shape these mood shifts. As consumers adjust their personal style due to material inflation or reduction, we are seeing a pattern of new designs emerge.
In economically depressed post-war France, for example, Christian Dior published the “New look», with a cinched waist and wide shoulders, a new vision of femininity. “After a period of fabric rationing, his designs used many materials (such as Sweetheart Dressincorporating 80 meters of fault) which felt like a luxury,” explains Veronica Hylanddirector of fashion reports at She and author of Dress code. “Creating a new silhouette or a new ‘It’ item is also a way for the industry to entice people to buy new things, instead of settling for last season’s wardrobe.”
More recent recessions have brought their own new forms of dressing. The 1980s brought bold neon colors, abstract prints and the emergence of hip hop and punk fashion, while sleazy indie emerged in the years following the economic crisis of 2008. “When times are dull, maximalism seems to be the standard response,” Hyland said.