On the cult-favorite prime-time American drama "Gossip Girl," Jenny Humphrey, a pretty blonde from the wrong side of the New York City tracks—otherwise known as Brooklyn—goes to great lengths to project a soignée appearance in order to court popularity at her exclusive Upper East Side prep school. She saves her allowance, frequents secondhand shops, stitches her own party dresses and does whatever else it takes to keep up with her better-off peers.
Frequently she's able to one-up them; in one episode she dons one of her dresses and crashes a society gala, ending up in the New York Post's Page Six gossip column.
As the global economy continues its free fall, social climbers around the world might take inspiration from Jenny's ability to put forth a prosperous image regardless of the balance in her bank account.
For those who don't feel fully dressed without a big, shiny bauble on their finger or a sparkling collar around their neck, a well-done costume piece should fit the bill nicely. Since 1890, houses like Gripoix have been turning out couture-quality creations that rival genuine jewels. Today the field's best-known champion is Kenneth Jay Lane, whose highly collectible designs have sold at auction—including the diamante orchid brooch that sold at Sotheby's for $500 last year—and graced grandes dames like Jackie Onassis and Elizabeth Taylor. He's still one of the best sellers at Bergdorf's, but for those who find his look too old-fashioned, there's a new generation of avant-garde costume jewelers to choose from. Tom Binns and Subversive by Justin Giunta both offer innovative collections that use such materials as crystal, metal, glass and plastic to create eye-catching fantasy pieces that cost much less than the tens of thousands of dollars real gems would fetch. They're chic enough that Michelle Obama has been spotted sporting a Binns necklace at a Vogue-sponsored fundraiser—proof that high-end facsimiles have become fashionable in their own right. Costume is no longer fine jewelry's embarrassing poor cousin—though, happily, it still comes at a fraction of the cost.
Technological advancement has introduced an esthetic anomaly that blurs the line between the authentic and the artificial: the "cultured" diamond. Grown under laboratory conditions, cultured diamonds have characteristics identical to naturally occurring ones in terms of carbon composition, hardness, brilliance and transparency, so there's no chance of being called out on a fashionable fake. In fact, cultured diamonds are so realistic that experienced jewelers using a loupe usually aren't able to distinguish them from natural ones, and they're enough of a threat to the industry that De Beers has sent jewelers special machines free of charge to help them determine the difference. Cultured diamonds are currently sold only in colored variations (pink, yellow and blue) by companies such as Takara and Sona. But white ones will soon become available and, at one fourth the cost of mined stones, they're likely to completely upend the market.
A handbag is another accessory that allows women to keep up appearances without breaking the bank. The days of customers plunking down the equivalent of a year's private-school tuition for a few tote bags are waning, but shrewd sites have sprung up to cater to a customer's need for a short-term fashion fix. Bag Borrow or Steal rents bags by the week, month or longer, with the option to purchase a piece. Those accustomed to carrying Bottega Veneta hand-woven clutches might turn up their nose at the presumably plebeian selection, but Bag Borrow or Steal is as up-to-date as the most on-point fashion victim, with sought-after limited-edition Richard Prince for Louis Vuitton carryalls, and vintage Hermès Birkin bags. Even in the halcyon days of profligate spending, these were the kinds of waitlisted items that the richest customers couldn't get their hands on; now, with a few mouse clicks, anyone can have one Fedexed to their doorstep by the next day.
Some women would rather invest in a couple of authentic luxury pieces each season than approach their wardrobes as they would a DVD rental. To that end, Gilt Groupe and Yoox specialize in selling new designer goods at sample-sale prices. Yoox, an Italian company that delivers designer merchandise door-to-door—often at a discount of 50 percent or more—features a roster of designers that rivals Barneys New York: Maison Martin Margiela, Balenciaga, Chloé and Prada, among others. Gilt Groupe is a members-only Web site—which has grown steadily to encompass 500,000—that invites users to participate in 24-hour online sales highlighting the merchandise of a single designer, such as Zac Posen or Marchesa, at markdowns of up to 70 percent.
We might be on the brink of the second Great Depression, but appearances will always be the last thing to go. This time around, however, the Jenny Humphreys of the world—those who have earned their status not through lineage but through creative savvy—will be the biggest winners, saving significant sums of money without forsaking the luxury merchandise they have come to covet. As retail forecasts sag, with the upper end particularly hard hit, companies that carry the luxury-lifestyle message without the cost will be best positioned to weather the financial storm. But for the overall industry, their success is a double-edged sword. You can almost hear the luxury conglomerates shaking in their calfskin boots, praying for the day when customers will be ready, once again, to pay full price.