Back to Basics: Why Brands Like The Elder Statesman and The Row Are Winning Big

This week, Greg Chait of The Elder Statesman took home the top prize at the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Awards, earning a $300,000 investment, mentorship, and the official endorsement of Vogue. The fact that The Elder Statesman's cashmere sweaters and The Row's perfectly-constructed t-shirts have beat out the more fanciful and intricate designs of their contemporaries is a telling indication of what direction the luxury market may be headed in--namely, back to basics. After years of increasingly over-the-top runway looks and a lightening fast trend cycle, discerning consumers seem to be searching for items with more permanence--and they're willing to pay a premium price for it.
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Hayley Phelan
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This week, Greg Chait of The Elder Statesman took home the top prize at the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Awards, earning a $300,000 investment, mentorship, and the official endorsement of Vogue. The fact that The Elder Statesman's cashmere sweaters and The Row's perfectly-constructed t-shirts have beat out the more fanciful and intricate designs of their contemporaries is a telling indication of what direction the luxury market may be headed in--namely, back to basics. After years of increasingly over-the-top runway looks and a lightening fast trend cycle, discerning consumers seem to be searching for items with more permanence--and they're willing to pay a premium price for it.
A knit blanket by The Elder Statesman

A knit blanket by The Elder Statesman

This week, Greg Chait of The Elder Statesman took home the top prize at the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Awards, earning a $300,000 investment, mentorship, and the official endorsement of Vogue.

Chait, who was up against better known designers like Wes Gordon and Suno, is somewhat of a surprise win. After all, the cashmere t-shirts and winter hats for which Chait is known, don't exactly scream cutting edge design. However, Chait's focus on creating luxurious, timeless basics is something he shares with another recent CFDA-winning duo: Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen who were named 2012's Womenswear Designer of the Year for The Row. [Chait and Ashley Olsen also used to date. We're just putting that out there.]

The fact that The Elder Statesman's cashmere sweaters and The Row's perfectly-constructed t-shirts have beat out the more fanciful and intricate designs of their contemporaries is a telling indication of what direction the luxury market may be headed in--namely, back to basics. After years of increasingly over-the-top runway looks and a lightening fast trend cycle, discerning consumers seem to be searching for items with more permanence--and they're willing to pay a premium price for it.

While some of these basics might be going for a hefty sum, Jeffrey Kapelman, Co-CEO and Principal of fashion-focused factoring and finance company Hilldun, says the understated, timeless aesthetic is in line with today's troubled financial times.

A cashmere blanket from The Elder Statesman--talk about comfort.

A cashmere blanket from The Elder Statesman--talk about comfort.

"Clearly in times of stress people revert to what they are familiar with, whether it's comfort food or comfort clothes," Kapelman wrote to us in an email. "So it makes sense that [in this time of financial stress] basics are gaining in popularity today."

David Wu, a luxury goods analyst at Telsey Group, agrees that the shaky economic environment may be creating greater demand for luxurious basics. "If you look back at the past economic down turn, luxury consumers really gravitated towards inconspicuous consumption." Which means designer's over-the-top, ostentatious runway creations were out--and under-the-radar expensive staple items were in. "Since we've emerged from the recession, trend and fashion oriented looks are doing better and are actually a major driver of the luxury goods sector, [but] I still think consumers are conscious of the [shaky economic] environment and still gravitate towards more timeless looks that will last longer, and aren't as ostentatious as they were pre-recession."

Now, it seems luxury consumers are more interested in buying one expensive piece that will last a number of years, as opposed to buying several trend-oriented items that will look outdated after a season. And, thanks to fast fashion retailers, you no longer need a lot of money to look on-trend.

"Now you can get a lot of your very high fashion pieces through Zara or H&M, disposable trend based pieces that you can replenish season to season depending on the trend," Wu said.

A look from The Row's fall 2012 collection.

A look from The Row's fall 2012 collection.

Buying timeless luxury items isn't just a smart investment for consumers--it's a safe bet for investors too. Perhaps the real reason The Elder Statesman won out over the likes of Wes Gordon, Suno and Giulietta, has less to do with design, and more to do with dollars and cents.

"Luxury basics sales self performance tends to be more stable [than more fashion-focused luxury items,]" Wu said. "You have less risk to have to any potential fashion missteps. It's a safer look and it's a safer investment."

Kapelman added, "Certain things are always in fashion--your favorite sweater, scarf or gloves." And it's these categories that are more popular than ever with luxury consumers. See: Why accessories have become the most profitable sector of the fashion industry.

It's not just the luxury market that's trending towards higher-premium basics. According to Businessweek, "fast-fashion fatigue" has set in among Millenials. Now, young consumers want better-quality items that will last more than a season, even if it means paying more.

"American culture has been ‘Give me more for less,’ and I do think that’s shifting," Robin Lewis, a New York-based retail consultant, told the weekly. "It’s being driven by young people today, Millennials. They are over time reversing, and quality is beginning to trump quantity."

"There’s a great opportunity now for quality basics that are very, very well-priced," David Wolfe, creative director of the Doneger Group, a New York-based trend forecaster, added.

It's an opportunity that's not gone unnoticed. According to Businessweek, Gap and Uniqlo are charging more for premium basics, while Zara and H&M are chasing more discerning consumers with up-market brands Massimo Dutti and COS, respectively.

Of course there will always be those individuals who prefer a more over-the-top, trend-focused aesthetic (Anna Dello Russo we're looking at you), however interest in well-made, higher-priced every day pieces is definitely on the rise. And that means we can expect more brands like The Elder Statesman and like The Row, to emerge as major players in the industry.