Call it a silver lining, pun intended. Thanks to the so-not-chipper economy, women d’un certain âge (read: the type who don’t even remotely resemble a 16-year-old Slovakian supermodel) are about to get major props. Yes, in the perfect storm that is the fall fashion season, the gals who actually buy the bulk of designer clothes will be feeling the love. In these topsy-turvy financial times, it’s all about having a Plan G, as in Grown-up.
Though fall shopping is just beginning in earnest, the machers behind the scenes—the designers, department store buyers and boutique owners—have been reading the tea leaves for the better part of a year. And their mission to lure, entice and get the ladies to part with their dough has led them to champion “investment dressing,” a term not used this much since the last recession. Yes, there are bona fide trends; among them the NFL-caliber shoulder pads and the booty-high RuPaul boots that were all over the American and European catwalks. But on the runways this season, there was also plenty of acknowledgment that the woman who purchases the majority of designer clothes is also in the market for a boardroom-worthy suit, a perfect-if-pricey coat and a killer evening gown, along with those manageable trends that deliver of-the-moment chic sans silliness.
Of course there are several designers—Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera, Donna Karan and Ralph Rucci spring to mind—who have long put forth a mature vision. Others, including Alber Elbaz at Lanvin and Michael Kors, hopped on the grown-up train before the recession. But this season, even more designers, from Miuccia Prada and Dries Van Noten to Marc Jacobs (who offered lots of tailoring in a madcap package), are embracing an inclusive stance.
According to market research firm NPD, the fact that women in the 35- to 54-year-old age bracket account for the lion’s share of department store traffic isn’t news. Yet many runways often skew young, and not solely because of teenage models. In addition to skirts that hit just south of the border, over-the-top styling has the potential to alienate a career-minded fortysomething. “The designer business and the media spend so much time paying homage to about 7 percent of the market,” says NPD analyst Marshal Cohen. “That’s where all the action goes. But did everyone decide they want to dress like a 25-year-old? I don’t think so.”
Sounding wise beyond his years, 27-year-old Jason Wu says he’s known from the get-go who’s most apt to be plunking down the plastic for his duds. “Here’s a fact that very few people realize: The customer, and what appears to be the customer, is not always the same,” he says. “I really think I’m lucky to have seen this early on. My customer is 20, 30, 40, 50—every single age group. And I want to have something for, and appeal to, everyone.”