NEW YORK – ‘Change’ has become the slogan for the New Year in the United States. With a new American President ready to shift the tides of a rapidly deteriorating financial market, solve problems in the Middle East, and upgrade America’s image abroad, the US is ready for a new look.
Such change begins with perception and how people see their own lives. And fashion, more often than not, is a principle element in the art of perception. The new administration’s goal to look into the heart of what it means to be American in order to resolve issues, is fostering a new sense of American nationalism. And now more than ever, ‘buying American’ is important in capturing the country’s newfound hope and spirit.
Believe it or not, American luxury brands seem to be surviving the economic downturn in part through a renewed sense of national pride. Amidst a variety of creative strategising to whittle down unnecessary spending, brands such as Tommy Hilfiger, Donna Karan and Calvin Klein are trying to upgrade their image at home and abroad by revisiting American tradition and values. Many American fashion brands believe that there has been a resurgence of and preference for US produced labels over the past year, a trend bolstered by positive feelings for the country since Obama took office.
To gain greater appeal overseas, Tommy Hilfiger is focusing on international markets, especially in Europe, and working on its brand image as an American classic. “In the last, let’s say, eight years, the image of America has gone down quite a lot,” said Fred Ghering, CEO of Tommy Hilfiger in a recent interview with the International Herald Tribune. “We’ve all found ourselves being more apologetic about America than we wanted to be.” Designer Italo Zucchelli described his new line for Calvin Klein’s his menswear for Spring/Summer 2009 as “Graphic, masculine and more American.” Several American brands consider international sales to be an important cushion in what will prove to be a tough year for domestic sales.
Kim Vernon, President and CEO of Vernon Company, previously Executive Vice President of Calvin Klein, Inc., does not see American designers changing what they do, but instead an incitement to buy more American brands. “I think there will be a desire in America for American-made products as consumers will know that they are helping jobs and economy by buying American. The American-based designer brands like Jason Wu, Isabel Toledo, Maria Cornejo that Michelle Obama wore at various public appearances, are a nod to American brands/companies, not American designs. They all do beautiful clothes that are not identifiable to a ‘look’ except their own. Very public figures, like the first lady and celebrities, wearing American brands sends a very clear message to the consumer to wear these brands. The stores will buy what the magazines cover and trendsetters will wear. Jason Wu, for example, recently received an onslaught of calls after the inauguration dress,” says Vernon.
Michelle Obama in Isabel Toledo
But will the American political shift really have a big impact on sales? Vernon seems to think so and Milton Pedraza, CEO of the Luxury Institute in New York, agrees. “America is at a turning point. It is now time for America to live up to its promise,” he says. The last eight years were the worst years in our history. American leadership now needs to deliver a set of principles that the US can adopt. Returning to a sense of tradition and distinctly American values is what is needed for America to upgrade its image. If American brands can succeed by capitalising on this renewed sense of optimism, then they will be a success!”
There have always been significant differences between the US and European luxury markets. However, these distinctions may now play in favour of American brands. As Vernon explains, “In apparel, America was known for the look of modern chic sportswear brought to larger life by Calvin Klein and Anne Klein in the beginning. The old traditional French houses with big ateliers were known more for hand-finished, delicate tailoring, more dressed up, more formal, and much less based on the movement of women in the workforce that America led. As the world became wealthy, those houses had the structure and discipline to continue to make elaborate clothing, and even more elaborate accessories which women bought. The birth of the ‘it’ bag, for example, was from companies like Vuitton and Fendi and Balenciaga; old houses that have the manufacturing and backing to develop. American brands have not caught up with those companies and won’t. However, super fashion-forward items will not be what people desire, possibly giving American designers like Michael Kors and Donna Karan a more level playing field. They have always had classic and beautifully-made products that might now be of greater appeal.”
Michael Kors S/S 09 ad campaign by Mario Testino
Image is going to help forge this new identity for American brands as they expand overseas, which, as Pam Danziger, CEO of Unity Marketing said, is really what they need to do. “US brands can only succeed and grow now by going into the foreign market. It’s not about exclusivity, but about making connections with consumers in foreign countries,” she explains.
Take designer Donna Karan, for example. She believes the election of Barack Obama will boost America’s image in Europe and around the world. Karan currently has just one collection that she operates worldwide. “There is an optimism now, you’re proud to be an American brand,” she commented in a recent IHT article “American Sportswear is the universal language of dressing. Jeans and a T-shirt are where it all began. They’re the common denominator. Street fashion is inspiring everything. What’s more American than that?”
Glamour and charm certainly hold a trans-human aura that attracts imitation. Many great leaders have charisma – and the Obamas certainly are no exception. Their image has become one of power to control their environment.
But, because we’re living at a time of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, style is impacting the presidency more than ever; for people eager to read the ‘signs of the time,’ each gesture the first couple makes will give meaning to this new moment in American history.
It may very well be this return to Americana — the encouragement to buy ‘American’ that will inspire the most hope in securing new markets overseas and recapturing a renewed sense of American promise in fashion and luxury.
Rebecca Anne Proctor, New York Correspondent