A Time to Sell Green, Not Greed

By SUZY MENKES From the New York Times:

September 13, 2009  

“Fashion’s Night Out” — an evening of open-house shopping last week in New York and other major cities around the world — was designed to brace up nervous customers and convince them that consumption is joyous.

But it also proved that there is more to e-commerce than buying online.

The key “e” words were “emotion” and “energy” during this Vogue-sponsored fight against retail gloom. After a long period of credit-happy consumers and easy sales, stores and designers are having to work much harder to engage customers and make them feel that their purchase is worthwhile.

“There has to be an emotional connection — we can’t live without it,” says Humberto Leon, co-owner of Opening Ceremony, with stores in New York, Los Angeles and, now, Tokyo.

Mr. Leon says the fashion world has changed dramatically since designers and retailers were in control of image and sales. “Fashion used to be for insiders — now everyone sees everything,” he says. “That is the importance of the runway shows. It is the first look the customer sees and then the same emotional connection has to deliver when it gets into the store.”

For Julie Gilhart, senior vice president and fashion director at Barneys New York, engaging customers is about far more than producing desirable clothes.

“The customers need to be emotionally allied to what they buy — as with a car, with food or architecture,” Ms. Gilhart says. “They want to know the worth in value, craftsmanship and unique partnerships. This is something that is brand new, and there has to be a constant stream of communication.”

The story is told in Barneys windows, where the focus is on sensitive, ethical issues transformed into desirable clothes.So a “Made in America” window, filled with U.S. flags, focuses on labels like Alabama Chanin, where organic pieces are handmade and embellished by local artisans in the Deep South. Or a window devoted to the Loomstate brand offers what Ms. Gilhart calls a “sexy, stylish and eco-friendly collection” that includes T-shirts patterned with endangered species as seen in National Geographic magazine.

The idea was developed two years ago as part of Barneys’ “green” projects. They include giving new fashion life to made-over vintage clothes, charm necklaces made from 22-karat recycled gold and Bolivian knitwear created as a nonprofit government project to help maladjusted teenagers.

Ms. Gilhart’s commitment to the store, where she has worked since 1992, is passionate and absolute, a “feeling of doing something better as a retailer.”

“Everything is changing — you have to keep moving forward,” the fashion director says. “People no longer just buy a blouse for $3,000. They want to know why it costs so much and why it is extraordinary and beautiful. Our projects are vehicles for education. But the bigger picture is about looking at something with different eyes.”

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