The faltering economy has prompted a defiant response from designers this autumn, with opulent, ornate and embellished pieces dominating the new collections. But though it's time to shine through the gloom, this look is more class than flash, says Clare Coulson. When the global economy began its nose-dive last autumn, the mandatory discussion of markets and their relationship to rise and fall of hemlines soon followed.
Our skirts, so the theory goes, shoot up as our finances get more jittery. Sadly, for the theorists at least, there is another equally convincing school of thought, one that argues that, when the markets are unstable, our skirts plummet to well below the knee. There's probably some truth in both theories - if times are tough some of us will want to put on a brave face and be more daring, while others will want to wrap up and cocoon until times are better.
The same argument can be applied to the wonderful, opulent pieces that are currently filling stores. While many retailers believe that women shop for sturdy, reliable classics in a downturn - plain cashmeres, minimalist tailoring and investment accessories - what many of us really want is an uplifting shot of pure fashion, something that has nothing to do with need and everything to do with fantasy. As Miuccia Prada argues, when it comes down to fundamentals, what we really want from fashion is a chance to dream. And Prada, along with others, are responding to that desire with lush opulence.
This autumn there are intricately studded and ornately fanned sandals from Prada, beautifully embellished clutches at Bottega Veneta and fabulous bejewelled evening shoes from the new girl at Chloé, Hannah McGibbon, who also added whimsical evening bags with gold tassels and sumptuous jewelled flats to her autumn accessories line-up. Elsewhere, metallic appliqués, lashings of lurex, crystal embellishment and gold beading are ubiquitous.
But this isn't bling as we know it. It's nothing like the flashy style of a logo-ed gold leather bag from Christian Dior or a pair of crystal drenched Jimmy Choo sandals. It's more complex than that; many of these pieces look part vintage-inspired but they are also a thoroughly modern mix of texture, colour and clashing components. And this new flashy aesthetic isn't being championed by the labels we usually associate with all things shimmery and shiny either - it's being reworked by designers who usually err on the side of caution when it comes to ostentatious decoration.
Take Marni, for example. This is a label routinely associated with super hi-tech materials, graphic prints and arty, challenging shapes. It may be luxe - in its ultra-modern melange of pattern and silhouette - but it's rarely lush. At her Autumn/Winter show, however, designer Consuelo Castiglioni opted for opulence; from mink earmuffs and gloves to beautiful duster coats and neat dresses in plush Chinoiserie silks. All this was topped with extravagant jewels; there were chunky necklaces dripping in plump gilded flowers, pendants weighed down with shimmering flowers encrusted with silver crystals or jagged flowers cut from semi-precious stones. Other necklaces consisted of a cascade of jewels, pins and baubles that looked more like an antique assemblage on a jewellery shop tray.
The difference is also in how we will wear the new bling. The modern way to wear such ostentatious pieces is to mix them with something far more austere. Marni's necklaces may be loaded with gold flowers but, for day, Castilgioni combined them with heavy jacquard tunics, tweed tailoring or sombre knits. Chloé's bow- and crystal-dotted evening shoes - which look like a modern-day reworking of a Lacroix sandal circa 1986 - were paired at the label's autumn show with wafty cream silk drop-waisted dresses and smocks, pale coffee plissé columns or with slouchy black pantsuits.
At Miu Miu it was a similar story. There were heavily jewelled shoes with matching crystal-embellished hosiery, but they were paired with almost prim cardigans and straight calf-length skirts. Other designers created a sense of opulence with rich fabrics alone. At Balenciaga, Nicolas Ghesquière has produced one of his most sumptuous, couture-inspired collections to date. His heavily draped swathes of silk, which swooped around the hips on long or short silk skirts, trousers and exquisite evening jackets, are gloriously decadent - with an equally decadent price point, of course.
It's not just the economy that's making designers deliver uplifting, sumptuous pieces. The demise of the It-bag over the past few seasons - a trend that has hit the profits at big houses in a spectacular fashion - has sparked the need for other indulgences that are just as tempting. At Louis Vuitton, where the It-bag arguably has more precedence than at any other house, Marc Jacobs illustrates this point neatly. In his flamboyant Eighties-inspired Autumn/Winter show there were It-bags aplenty in embossed velvet, appliqués, metallic leather and, of course, the house monogram, but there were just as many other alluring trinkets - from silk platform sandals with velvet ankle ties and a pearl-studded heel to chunky collars and gold jacquard boots.
And whether the economy is in free-fall or not, Jacobs' Midas touch with accessories means that these opulent pieces have enough star power to shine long after just this season.