Economic Uncertainty Is Driving Demand for 'Quiet Luxury' — But Will it Last?

Fashion is embracing the "wearable."

It might seem ironic that at fashion week — a traveling trade fair filled with runway shows designed to reveal next season's aesthetic direction — the biggest trend was "wearable" clothing.

Yes, that much reviled term, often deployed as an insult for the insipid, is the flavor du jour.

The industry's leading designers all shared the same sentiment. In their press releases, designers mentioned going back to basics for Fall 2023. In Milan, Prada talked about an exchange "between the familiar and the exceptional." At Courrèges, Nicolas di Felice expounded on "daywear archetypes" and the "inner workings of [the brand's] ever-evolving wardrobe." Even Demna, at his first Balenciaga show since the brand became embroiled in controversy last fall, said in a précis: "Fashion to me can no longer be seen as entertainment, but rather as the art of making clothes."

It was a belief that reverberated at Proenza Schouler in New York, Tove in London, Ferragamo in Milan and multiple collections in Paris, from the likes of Dior and Valentino. Miu Miu closed the season with models dressed in cocooning hoodies, cardigans and trainers, with capacious satchels on their arms or slung over their shoulders like cool girls shuttling from the gym to their co-working space. Even the unlikeliest of contenders, like Demna, peeled back layers of obfuscation that typically surround their shows.

Miu Miu's Fall 2023 collection has hoodie styling inspiration for days.<p>Photo: Imaxtree</p>
Miu Miu's Fall 2023 collection has hoodie styling inspiration for days.

Photo: Imaxtree

Logomania, extravagant sets and other tactics devised to win over audiences on social media were scrapped or stripped bare. Quietness replaced bombast in both style and substance. What unfurled was a palette largely in black, navy, grey and beige, silhouettes kept lean and lines clean.

It recalled the late 2000s — a period defined by the perilous financial crash, when crumbling stock markets dictated that fashion ditch the turn-of-the-millennium ebullience in favor of restraint. Quiet luxury (or "stealth wealth") became the currency that Phoebe Philo's Céline and The Row traded in. As many livelihoods collapsed, a cohort of high earners shielded themselves from the prying gaze of their struggling peers in swaths of discretely elegant (and expensive) fashion.

The resurgence of "wearability" comes at a time when economic uncertainty looms large over the globe, the world reeling from the impacts of various geopolitical occurrences and pockets strained. In times like this, economics typically preclude luxury shopping, but those who still have the means tend to sharpen their focus on their wardrobes, disguising ever-growing wealth through carefully-planned fashion choices.

"The very wealthy don't want to stand out," says Cathleen Sheehan, professor and chairperson of the Fashion Design MFA at FIT in New York. She associates the trend with heritage brands, noble fibers like cashmere and classic shapes and silhouettes. Think about the prescriptive uniform of tech titans like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg — you only have to do a quick Google search to learn Jobs wore Issey Miyake turtlenecks and Zuckerberg's signature grey tees are custom made by Brunello Cucinelli.

"It's less about a 'look at me!' attitude and more 'look at me closer,'" Sheehan adds.

Models at Brunello Cucinelli's Fall 2023 presentation during Milan Fashion Week.<p>Photo: Imaxtree</p>
Models at Brunello Cucinelli's Fall 2023 presentation during Milan Fashion Week.

Photo: Imaxtree

At the Loewe show in Paris, Jonathan Anderson listed the cashmere knits, trenches and faux-fur coats in black, brown and camel as markers of an "introverted stance," and talked about "putting into focus what may seem unclear right now" in the show notes. This reductionist vision felt like an allusion to the cost of living crisis and current financial uncertainty. He arrived at a story about silhouette and texture with blurred images of silk duchesse sheath dresses and muted cashmere knits that resonated with the austerity of the moment, but remained undiluted in their quiet opulence.

Other highlights of Fall 2023 included Tod's and Khaite, one an old-world luxury brand and the other a newcomer with a distinctly modern slant. Both pursued elongated silhouettes and bundled models up in supple knitwear. The longer lines corresponded with the "hemline index": the theory that during times of economic uncertainty, hemlines also trend downwards. (Longer hemlines first entered the Fall 2023 conversation back in New York at Puppets and Puppets, PH5 and Jason Wu.)

"More than ever, my clients are interested in buying pieces that will last them a lifetime, as opposed to in recent years, when it was all about statement pieces," says Gab Waller, a personal shopper based in Los Angeles who specializes in sourcing hard-to-find luxury goods. "This shift towards investment shopping is because a recession is at the forefront of people's minds right now."

Those that are willing to spend now (even Waller's younger clients) are gravitating towards understated pieces, such as The Row's 90s bag, and brands like Khaite and Totême.

Sofia Bernardin, co-founder of fashion consignment destination Re-See, likens the return of stealth wealth to the months following the 2008 financial crisis, "when one would see shoppers leaving luxury shops on 5th Avenue carrying their purchases in brown paper bags."

Khaite — a brand that epitomizes "quiet luxury" — staged its Fall 2023 at its brand-new SoHo store.<p>Photo: Imaxtree</p>
Khaite — a brand that epitomizes "quiet luxury" — staged its Fall 2023 at its brand-new SoHo store.

Photo: Imaxtree

"In times of crisis luxury clients embrace a less flamboyant form of shopping," she says, adding that Re-See — which stocks the likes of old Céline and Maison Margiela — has witnessed a huge increase in demand for brands like The Row and in product categories like worn-in Hermès bags, especially lesser-known models like the HAC or Plume, "which have become true underliers of taste and know-how."

The re-popularization of these markers of coded luxury is primarily in response to the culture of boasting and flaunting perpetuated by the capitalistic nature of social media. According to her, "extreme opulence has led true luxury clients to seek refuge in a discreet luxury."

"We're tired of seeing peacock looks and flashy bags hanging in celebrity closets, which had led to a more aspirational luxury with consumers spending on brand recognition versus quality and craftsmanship," she argues.

Luxury fashion and retail consultant Robert Burke explains that during the pandemic, young people with stimulus packages entered the luxury space with a penchant for branded merchandise. It paved the way for logo-heavy collaborations in 2022, like Balenciaga x Gucci and Fendi x Versace, which indulged in a post-lockdown mindset driven by a certain maximalist frivolity. Now, the inverse is true: At the start of 2023, Balenciaga and Fendi respectively harked back to their aesthetic roots, ruminating on core details of the brand instead of simply slapping their logos on merchandise. Low-key minimalism dominated on both Fall 2023 runways.

Liane Wiggins, head of womenswear at MatchesFashion, confirms this trend extends to the retailer's clientele: "Enhanced by the current global climate, we've seen that our customers are investing in more understated luxury pieces, looking for versatility and longevity."

Like Waller and Bernardin, Wiggins notes that the "clever wearability" of the Fall 2023 collections is already sweeping the accessories category — specifically, handbags that are luxurious but almost unidentifiable, with softer silhouettes and subtle brand details, rather than bold logos. She counts Lemaire's Croissant, Demellier's Vancouver and Bottega Veneta's Andiamo as recent bestsellers. Meanwhile, The Row's Margaux tote continues to sell out "within a few days of upload."

The Row's Margaux top-handle handbag is a consistent favorite among MatchesFashion's clientele, according to Liane Wiggins.<p>Photo: MatchesFashion</p>
The Row's Margaux top-handle handbag is a consistent favorite among MatchesFashion's clientele, according to Liane Wiggins.

Photo: MatchesFashion

However, despite the pervasively coded luxury collections, homogeneity threatens brands' capacity to stimulate its customers. Broadly speaking, commentators find that, at worst, it could lead to a period of fashion that's largely boring and dull in its offering, if the trend becomes widespread. Burke suggests that the latest rise of quiet luxury is tempting faith for many brands.

"When things start to look similar, like with this particular season, you will find that the consumer will start to long for signature pieces," he says. "When everything starts to look the same, we run the risk of having boring fashion choices. There's only so much minimalism you can put into your store, and there's only so much minimalism someone can buy."

However, Burke is confident in brands like Loro Piana, The Row and Totême — and generally brands that are excellent at executing a more minimalist vision — "will come out ahead."

Ahead of his debut ready-to-wear runway at Schiaparelli, Daniel Roseberry told WWD that the Paris Fashion Week collection "isn't Zara for rich people." In the show notes, he wrote that Fall 2023 was "a wardrobe, yes. But a Schiaparelli wardrobe."

Hermès and Sacai pursued a similar angle with rich displays of innovation in terms of fabric and silhouette. In sumptuous shades of vermilion, scarlet and ochre, the latest Hermès runway witnessed a parade of braided wool accents, shiny alpaca coats and knotted cable knits tied with Kelly belts. In a smashing attempt at office-dressing, Sacai ruminated on abstract silhouettes, hybridizing various fabric permutations. Both resonated with a more forward-thinking stance on quiet luxury, beckoning a sense of intrigue that was lost in many other collections.

Sumptuous knits at Hermès Fall 2023<p>Photo: Imaxtree</p>
Sumptuous knits at Hermès Fall 2023

Photo: Imaxtree

As with everything in the cyclical world of fashion, some — like Waller, Burke and Sheehan — are already predicting the pendulum will swing towards something meatier and more visually stimulating. Per Waller, "this shift [towards minimalism] won't be forever."

"We're going to see a big wave of it — it'll be heavy throughout 2023, but I think it will potentially shift again," she says. "While it's a beautiful concept, I don't think it's something that can last for every brand."

FIT's Sheehan, whose background is in trend forecasting, explains that fashion trends don't exist in a vacuum: Typically, for every collection that bases itself on quiet luxury, there are plenty of others positioning themselves diametrically opposite to that. For example, Rick Owens, Noir Kei Ninomiya and Comme des Garçons, in addition to newcomers like Chopova Lowena, showed no signs of relinquishing their fascination with the cerebral or obscure.

"We don't ever just move in one direction," she says. "These days, there are so many different influences and trend directions that are coexisting because it's up to the individual more than ever before."

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