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How 'It' Items Go in - and Out - of Fashion

Chronicling the lifespan of must-have goods.

Sitting front row at Paris Fashion Week last fall, waiting for a show to start, Lucky editor-in-chief Eva Chen overheard someone behind her let out a rather exasperated sigh. “God, if I see one more pink coat!” The statement was not pointed directly at her, but it was a throwing down of the fashion gauntlet nonetheless.

Yes, it was the season of that coat. You know the one - Carven’s cotton-candy colored confection, with an oversized collar and perfect belt tie. It seemed to be draped around the shoulders of practically every cool girl in the business and pictured in countless magazines as an essential of the season. There was an electric excitement and buzz surrounding it. It was “It,” so to speak.

So what makes something reach this kind of fever pitch? Outside of just generally being original and unique, there’s a strange alchemy that launches certain pieces—Birkenstocks, Céline bags, Isabel Marant wedge sneakers —into the trend stratosphere. “It has to have a reason to be,” says Roopal Patel, founder of Roopal Patel Consulting. “I think that’s what really constitutes an It item these days: What is it adding to the cultural space? What is it adding into a woman’s wardrobe?”

Well, in the case of Birkenstocks, that would be comfort and a subversion of traditional femininity; Céline bags, a form of understated luxury; the Marants, height disguised in a casual shoe. But that’s not to say purchasing these things is an exercise in wear-it-forever practicality—were it so, those very same Marants would not currently be languishing in my closet, literally collecting cobwebs. “'It' items tend to evoke a very emotional response from the consumer, which sometimes throws all reason out the window,” says Patel. “I think every woman could say she’s bought one on impulse and then been like, ‘Oh, OK, now what I am going to do with this? How am I going to wear it?’”

These precious pieces also don’t tend to last very long, at least in the so-called “fashion bubble,” i.e. among those who work in the industry (once again, see my languishing Marants). “I think most It items, they burn bright and they burn hot and fast and then kind of fade to a simmer,” says Chen. “I think what makes an It item is that it’s instantly recognizable and people immediately have a sense of time and feeling about it and what it stands for.” While this may be the desired effect at first, it also makes for quite the Catch-22. “That’s one of the downsides of an It item too, that people know exactly when it’s from—that it’s instantly identifiable can have an impact on longevity.”

But as far as what could create such desire on a mass level, one that causes shoppers to sometimes abandon all reason, well, it might be as simple as the age-old “I’ll have what she’s having” syndrome, only accelerated to warp speed because of onset of street style and digitization of fashion. “Thanks to the immediacy created by digital media, consumers are driven to purchase what they perceive as must-haves more than ever,” says Sheila Aimette, vice president of North American content at trend forecasting group WGSN. “Seeing an item worn by a certain group of people who are deemed ‘cool’ or ‘stylish’ helps create this appetite—social media exposes us very quickly to what is happening at that moment.”

Patel agrees. “It makes women and the consumer feel like they’re part of this club,” she says. “These items have a seal of approval on them. The designers have said, 'Yes, if you wear this, consider yourself fashionable.’ And in turn, magazines and editors are delivering the same message.”

While such insiders—be they editors, bloggers, celebrities or girls about town—may set the agenda for what trickles down to the masses, the early stages of the It game can be mini minefields fraught with precarious politics. Nowhere does this play out more prominently than during Fashion Week. When everyone’s outfit is so relentlessly documented, there’s a heavy premium put on the new and now (and, often, never again).

Chen recently relayed an anecdote in her May editor’s letter about how a photographer had approached her last September and said he thought it was “brave” that she was wearing identifiable pieces more than once. “I just lost it because that’s so lame,” she says. She, much like her readers, is not one to make fairweather fashion friends, but rather invest in something and find a million different ways to spin it. “I would say with most fashion people, usually the phenomenon and craze lasts for exactly one season. And that’s something to me, as a practical human being, I have a hard time with. I think if you truly love something, you should be able to wear it as long as you want and however you want.”

For street style photographer Phil Oh, it’s this kind of personal style that excites him these days, rather than simply capturing the latest in what’s appropriately called “street style bait” (though he does post some humorous roundups on his site, such as this one). “When I see It items, I snap a few photos just out of instinct,” he says. “But in the end, the photo ends up being about just the bag or the sweater and it gets a bit tiresome.” Instead, he’s more drawn to those who are able to incorporate them into a whole look. “It’s quite interesting when you see people wearing that same item but mixing it in as if it were just any ol’ piece out of their closet.” Case in point? Susie Bubble wearing Céline’s vivid brushstroke coat from spring 2014, which she paired with a color-blocked turtleneck and bag that picked up on the motif. “This is so cliché, but its like she’s wearing the coat and not just a walking hanger.”

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But there’s also a real consideration of showing up somewhere and everyone is wearing the same thing—the kind of “oh no!” scenario that movies portray as a woman’s worst nightmare. Patel ran up against this recently courtesy of a pleated Proenza Schouler skirt from the label's resort 2014 collection. “I coveted that skirt,” she says of the moment she initially laid eyes on it. “I went and researched it—where I could buy the exact color—not natural, not ecru, but crisp black and white.” Lo and behold, the first day she wore it during New York Fashion Week, there was Mary Alice Stephenson decked out in the very same one. “We both laughed, like, 'OMG! So funny!' says Patel. Then she saw Natalie Massenet, Indre Rockefeller and Jane Keltner de Valle all dressed in a similar version. After that, Patel went home and questioned putting it away. “I was like, ‘Do I want to wear this anymore?’”

Buyers, especially those with stores that cater to this kind of fashion-savvy crowd, have to do a similar juggling act. Elyse Walker, whose eponymous boutique and website, Forward, carries a mix of Alaia, Alexander Wang, Saint Laurent and almost every coveted label in between, says, “We definitely stock It items because even we want our customers to see them. Even though everyone’s not going to invest in it, they’ll have the confidence to be like, 'OK, these guys are on it—they know what’s happening.’”

Walker also has to know when something is not happening. “We don’t want our customers to invest in a piece that, by the next time we see them in three months, they’re going to be like, ‘Oh, I’m not into that anymore.’” So it’s her job to cut things off at just the right moment, which can be tricky. “Let’s say the trend has lasted for a year or even a few years,” she says. “If we think it’s about to be over, we will strategically slow it down in the store when people are still asking for it, but hopefully at the very, very tail end—maybe two months before it’s done.” Her goal, she says, is to kill something when it’s at 90 percent capacity (she adds that things tend to stay around longer online, due to a wider audience).

Meanwhile, mass retailers have most likely been flooding the market with almost identical product this entire time. “All of them are looking at what is coming off the runways and what is happening on the streets to create their versions almost instantaneously,” says Aimette. “It goes from the runway to in-store in four to six weeks, depending on the retailer.” Zara is probably the fastest at this—Patel saw an adaptation of her Proenza skirt in the chain’s window by the time she’d hit Paris during the show circuit. But even the Zara treatment could be considered early days when it comes to an item truly crossing over. “It takes two to three seasons to get something out into mass—to actually see the full effect,” says Patel. So essentially, we could be talking over a year and countless more “inspired by” renditions. (Just look at what the Céline skate slip-on hath wrought.)

This kind of duplication leads to over-saturation—probably the single biggest killer of It items, for both the fashion crowd and beyond, even if those timelines are very different. But the smart designers iterate, which keeps the style elite interested, while those outside of it might just be catching on to the initial idea. Chen points to Kenzo and the brand’s now ubiquitous but still very “in” sweatshirts, which started with a tiger graphic for fall 2012. “When Carol [Lim] and Humberto [Leon] first launched those, they were impossible to get,” she remembers. Indeed, they sold out at Opening Ceremony within two days and were all over the street style blogs. “But what they’ve done [over the years] is look for different motifs—they’re still doing sweatshirts—but they keep riffing on them, like with the ‘No Fish, No Nothing’ campaign. So they’ve almost become their staple.”

To have a staple is a very good thing, as it can often transmute into a “classic,” a status that is the end all, be all for an It item to reach, a final resting place where it can exist for all of fashion eternity, right next to a Chanel 2.55 bag. Patel, for her part, is ready to crown the Céline Luggage shopper. “It came out years ago and it’s still being bought,” she says. “At first, it was just by fashionistas, editors and insiders, but I’m starting to see it on more of an everyday woman who lives outside of this circle.” Meanwhile, much like with the Kenzo sweatshirts, the original champions of it haven’t dropped off because Céline is continuously looking at ways of revamping it, offering different fabrications and colors, including an especially enticing Lego-inspired version recently spotted on the ever chic Yasmin Sewell. “There’s always a great reason to buy it, and the black version is a classic, says Patel. “You can take that bag out and it still looks new.”

Keeping up this merry-go-round is tough financially, even for those who work in the business. “For most of the women I know, including ones in the fashion industry, the cost of goods is so high these days that when you buy something, you want to know that you’ll be able to rejuvenate it,” says Chen. Her trick? “When I buy an It item, I won’t get it in, like, the color.” Instead, she opts for classic shades, such as black, white, gray and navy, which—along with being what she naturally gravitates toward as a New Yorker—often have a longer shelf life. She brings up the time when she was on the hunt for a pair of Miu Miu glitter cat eye sunglasses, and passed up a chance to get them in hard-to-find pink. “I remember the salesperson was like, ‘This is the impossible color to get,” recalls Chen. “I was tempted for a nanosecond, but I’m glad I bought the gray version—it’s been about four years since and I think they’re still a classic.”

Or you could always stash something away for a while and bring it back. “Revisiting an It item requires a good sense of timing,” says Oh. “You want to drag it out of the closet once the fatigue has worn off and it’s faded from consciousness, but not so long that it’s been eaten by moths.” He compares it to DJing. “Once a huge song gets played out, how many years will it take before it becomes a nostalgic/ironic dance floor hit, instead of an eye-roll ‘this-song-agaaaaain’ thing?”

Both Aimette and Patel say that a decade is a safe bet. Although Anna Dello Russo went for it a bit earlier this past season and took her Miu Miu harlequin dress from spring 2008 for a spin, a piece she had on the first time Oh photographed her outside of a Balmain show years ago. “I had never known Anna Dello Russo to repeat an outfit!” says Oh. “I was really excited to see it—I think because it’s been long enough to where it felt cool again, rather than “Oh, it must be 90 percent off at Yoox now.”

But whichever way you decide to play it, investing in It items doesn’t look like it’s a passing fad, so to speak. “I think the idea of buying into trends and things that are of the moment and relevant is what keeps fashion interesting,” says Patel. In other words, It items are, ironically, here to stay.