During the last decade of conspicuous consumption, all it took was an exorbitant price tag and an "it" label - think $25,000 Birkin bags and Juicy Couture sweats - for an item to be considered luxury.
But as everyone tries to survive these frightening financial times - decreased personal wealth and steep job losses - luxury shoppers, manufacturers, and retailers are rethinking what defines the epitome of high fashion. Slowly, luxury is returning to its original form, with uniqueness and practicality more of a focus than astronomically high prices.
Thanks in part to first lady Michelle Obama's penchant for repetition (you may recall seeing her studded belt more than once), high society is learning how to mix high-cost pieces with low. Less has truly become more. Labels are tacky and price points have dropped.
"People were buying well beyond their means and consumers were trading up to luxury," said Marshal Cohen, an analyst for the NPD Group, a market research firm. "But now the bubble has burst and luxury brands have to come down to their level. . . . The party is over. Luxury has to earn its stripes again."
The proof is in luxury department store earnings.
Saks Fifth Avenue reported that its May same-store sales plunged 26.6 percent from the previous year, after analysts had predicted just a 14.5 percent drop. Numbers for Neiman Marcus - the parent company of both Neiman and Bergdorf Goodman - showed a 27 percent drop in May compared with a year ago.
After a Barney's Co-op opened on Rittenhouse Square two months ago, much of the store's merchandise was marked down within two weeks - a practice unheard of in the heyday of higher-than-high price points.
The numbers have prompted industry analysts to warn upscale retailers, designers, and manufacturers to change their strategy. First, stop catering to the narrowly defined ladies-who-lunch crowd. When the majority of sales are to an elite few, cutbacks in their shopping trips translate into huge losses.
"Designers and retailers have devoted very little attention to their customers because they have intuitively felt they understood them," said Pamela Danziger, owner of Unity Marketing in Stevens, Pa., and author of Why People Buy Things They Don't Need: Understanding and Predicting Consumer Behavior.
"Luxury will always be the best of the best of the best. What we've done is redefined how much we will pay for it," Danziger said.
Customers' unwillingness to pay top dollar for Christian Louboutin's shoes and bags can be traced back to the fall shopping season.
In a surprise move, Saks slashed prices on its designer merchandise by more than 40 percent weeks before its stores traditionally would. Of course, fashionistas came running. But in a luxury retail market where the Barneys, Sakses, Neimans, and Boyds of the world have a gentlemen's agreement to "break sale" within a specific time frame, the move made the competition stew. What Saks did was give away the luxury world's bread and butter: people who are willing to pay full price.
"Saks was the culprit," said Joan Spain, one of the city's best-known luxury shoppers. Several of Spain's Ralph Rucci gowns were a part of a fashion exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Perelman Building, in a wing that bears her name. "No one wants to buy designer at regular price. It's like the fashion industry has dug its own grave."
So what's the environment look like now?
At Cherry Hill Mall, Nordstrom opened in late March, and at King of Prussia Mall, Hermés' expanded store opened at the beginning of May, along with a Gucci and a Michael Kors store. A mall spokesperson said shoppers were "enthusiastic." So far, Boyds' sales from its women's department are up 10 percent this month compared with last year, said co-owner Jeff Glass.
Local retailers Joan Shepp and Bernie Robbins Fine Jewelers report they are, indeed, selling, but sales revenue remains below average because prices have been lowered.
Harvey Rovinsky, owner of Bernie Robbins, said two of his top watch brands - Cartier and Chanel - have lowered prices on select new pieces.
"We call it a readjustment," Rovinsky said. "But the fact that they are doing that on new models, not old models . . . is an indication that the world is changing."
"People are still buying luxury pieces; they are just putting more thought into it," said Ellen Shepp-Weinstein of Joan Shepp.
Personal shopper (and shopaholic) Adrienne Simmons agrees. Simmons, 42, said she's done her fair share of summer shopping: white jeans, high-heel gladiator sandals, and her "it" bag - a cream-and-tan snakeskin Nancy Gonzalez that retails for $2,400.
"I'm willing to spend money on quality things that will last a long time," Simmons said. "That is what I look for. But I also want to be unique, because I really don't want to see myself coming and going everywhere."
That's good news for younger, unknown retailers and designers who are experiencing a new freedom in the way they design, sell, and market upscale wares. Unlike bigger outlets, they do not risk alienating their core shoppers if they veer too far from the traditional luxury-sales formula: offer prestigious brands at top dollar.
One example is the shops that recently opened at Northern Liberties' Piazza at Schmidts. Here, dozens of virtually unknown specialty retailers and designers are hoping the style-conscious will discover a new kind of luxury: chic clothing and novel accessories that may be pricey, but not blatantly so.
New York designer Nima Taherzadeh, 27, is on the same track. Taherzadeh sells his Nima label locally at Boyds and Saks. His dresses sell in the $1,000-to-$3,000 range, and he said the recent economic downturn has forced him to make his commercial vision stronger.
"It's a fine line," Taherzadeh said. "You have to offer things the customer feels confident about and secure to purchase, but that's also edgier. We have to give them something to feel safe in."
Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or email@example.com. Read her blog at www.philly.com/ philly/blogs/mirrorimage.