Life&style Even if the credit crunch is snapping at your heels, you can still ride out the storm in style. The key, says Tracy Nesdoly, is to embrace your inner Frenchwoman and invest in classic key pieces.
Recession chic: how to outsmart the slump
Even if the credit crunch is snapping at your heels, you can still ride out the storm in style. The key, says Tracy Nesdoly, is to embrace your inner Frenchwoman and invest in classic key pieces. It's one thing for the business pages to be screaming about economic meltdown, recession, depression and total financial collapse. But recent observation finds that even the pages of the glossy fashion magazines are now thinking about belt-tightening - in its figurative rather than literal sense. Today, all the talk is of cutting back, being careful, even - whisper it - making do, where once no price was too high to pay in the name of being fabulous.
Conspicuous consumption is starting to look a little, well, conspicuous. Like showing up in Versace at a party at Ann Demeulemeester's house. How strange, then, that just when we need to cut back on the shopping, designers showed spring collections (this being the current season in the topsy-turvy world of fashion) that were outlandishly exotic, full of colour, their sci-fi shapes more like stage props than clothes one might want to wear.
There were padded pants at Balenciaga, leather skirts covered in what looked like dragon-scales at Christopher Kane, while Louis Vuitton seemed to be suggesting that we'll be wearing grass skirts next summer. That harbinger of many a trend, Miuccia Prada, said her spring collection was about "going back to what counts". What counts, therefore, are glorious semi-outfits - a drawstring pencil skirt shown with a bra; an open-sided or transparent dress, a top that - oops - has only hospital ribbons at the back. These are hardly in the realm of "practical" or penny-pinching. What's going on?
"Fashion very much responds to the economic and political climate, with immediacy," says Andrew Bolton, curator at The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. "The most creative and romantic moments in fashion happen at times of strife. Look at Christian Dior's New Look, created in 1947; such beautiful things created in the aftermath of one of the most hideous wars of mankind. Fashion responds to such events with escape. If you can afford only one dress, you will want the most beautiful dress possible."
If fanciful fashion is the harbinger of bad times, then we're really in for it. Suddenly, the way we have been shopping for years - the waiting lists, befriending the sales assistants, the personal shoppers and the stylists to get you the It item - seems a bit, well, tacky. Or careless. Welcome to the real world of recession dressing. "We French have been recession dressing all along," says Mireille Guiliano, author of French Women Don't Get Fat and an expert on the mysteries of the Frenchwoman's psyche. "Conspicuous consumption has never been a French trait."
Debra Ollivier, author of Entre Nous - A Woman's Guide To Finding Her Inner French Girl, says Frenchwomen have a natural sense of style because they have an innate sense of themselves. "Their philosophy is all about finding a look that reflects who they are, rather than going for whatever 'look' is being hawked at the moment," she explains. "A lot of it has to do, believe it or not, with cultivating an inner life. French women are very self-possessed, and they have an entirely different concept of sexuality and sensuality than Americans do."
Aleksandra Woroniecka, a Paris-born, New York-based stylist to the super-groovy, has pared down her own wardrobe to include just a handful of staples: "I want fashion to have some meaning, and to last," she says. For her, that means owning a handful of perfect navy Balenciaga or Chanel blazers (see Rule 3), dark skinny jeans, striped matelot T-shirts and four bags: a Hermès Birkin, a Balenciaga and two classic Chanels. So if French women practise restraint, really do have just a few perfect items and still manage to look great all the time - in fact, manage to look so supremely great the entire nation is known for its sense of style - how do they do it? Can a recessionista watching her wallet also be glam, sexy and fabulous? Oh yes. Here's how to outsmart the recession:
"Most of us make life too complicated. The more stuff you have, the more stressful it is, and the more you find yourself searching for that dress you can't find," says Guiliano. More than that, a simple, perfect background allows you to be the centre of attention. You have a signature, and when you want to "change clothes", add red lipstick, a scarf or a bold piece of costume jewellery.
Splurge wisely. No more impulse shopping. Think before you buy and work out how a new piece will fit into your wardrobe. "You don't need a perfect outfit, with the pink shoes to go with the pink suit," says Guiliano. "A French woman has a good, classic jacket that she might wear with perfect pants, and on Saturday with leggings she found for Dh100." Train your eye to see how things will work in your wardrobe and how to change the look with a scarf or a belt or a necklace.
If you want just one dress, make sure it is the most gorgeous thing you can afford. This will mean you feel great every time it's worn. It will fit properly, the fabric will wear well and it will look special for years to come. A great cut and great tailoring take you a very long way, and one witty, perfect piece can elevate an entire wardrobe.
If you're curvy, dress for your shape. If you're a tomboy at heart, don't stifle your basic nature in rigid tailoring. As Barbara Atkin, a fashion director who travels and shops the world, says: "Have a personal code. Know your look, play with it, but stay true to it. That's what makes you fabulous."