Shoppers Choose a Design for All Seasons

As recently as a decade ago, a customer who didn't like or look her best in a season's key fashion trend—pencil skirts, say, or sleeveless blouses—was pretty much out of luck if she hoped to appear au courant. Not any more. On Neiman Marcus's Web site, for one, focused selections of seasonal trends have given way to a supermarket of style, in which every conceivable look seems to be in vogue at the same time. Shoppers can click on a capsule collection of long, draped jersey dresses from Halston's Heritage label, then make their way to Herve Leger's skintight "bandage" minidresses, then take their pick of Aquilano.Rimondi's ultra-embellished, Old World feminine confections before ending their spending spree with Jil Sander's minimalist architecture. The days of a small cabal of designers and magazine editors dictating hemlines and silhouettes are over, replaced by the free-market ethos in which consumers wield the power.

Seasonless fashion is the latest development in the democratization of the industry, an evolution that has given rise to the fast fashion of stores like H&M and Topshop and the high-low brand mixing favored by everyone from Michelle Obama to Kate Moss. As consumers have become more educated, they have grown more comfortable ex-pressing their own personal style. That helps explain why the populist title Elle for the first time surpassed elitist Vogue in ad pages last year. Bloggers like Diane Pernet and the teenage media sensation Tavi can exert as much influence as power editors and critics like Anna Wintour and Suzy Menkes of the International Herald Tribune. Kelly Cutrone, the PR powerhouse behind the agency People's Revolution and the star of Bravo's reality show Kell on Earth, which offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the industry, sees a seismic shift. "The thing that's exciting right now is that the keepers of the gate are being knocked over the head with new social media, and their opinion is less important," she says. "Things are getting through that never would have been allowed before, and people should pay attention. Ultimately the consumer decides ... [They are] more powerful than the brand."

And they want everything in style all the time. In the pre-Internet days, each season yielded a small enough number of discernible trends that magazines could authoritatively report the direction fashion was heading. But under the twin influences of new media and globalization, the last decade brought an end to this domination. "Everyone has a voice now, due to the great accessibility of fashion in general," says Robert Burke, principal of the influential luxury consultancy Robert Burke & Associates. "In years past it was edited and served to the fashion consumer, and the magazines had a very dictatorial take on things. They would communicate what the 10 must-have items were. Today there are many different opinions." This diversity of perspective can even be seen in a single designer's collection: for spring '10, for instance, Diane von Furstenburg is selling harem pants, capris, and wide-legged trousers alongside knee-length dresses, miniskirts, and baggy jumpsuits.

Consumer demand for a steady stream of new merchandise has helped spur the move toward seasonless dressing. Luxury labels have had to ramp up production cycles, orchestrating major prefall and resort collections that, from a revenue standpoint, are as important as the spring-summer and fall-winter collections. The industry has caught up with contemporary lifestyles, which are increasingly global, casual, and frenetic, and for which the old-fashioned concept of seasonal dressing no longer applies. Thanks to ever-shrinking attention spans, aesthetic turnover is faster, resulting in a flood of merchandise attempting to anticipate every possible desire. "With more retail options than ever, the consumer has many choices and is the one deciding what's hot and what's not," says Fern Mallis, senior vice president for fashion for IMG, the international conglomerate behind New York and other Fashion Weeks. "It doesn't matter what futurists predict or fashion editors edict, the ones spending money rule today." As a result, satisfying shoppers has replaced setting an aesthetic agenda as a designer's raison d'être.

Burke sees the shift as ultimately good for the industry. "It allows for many opinions, and potentially more creativity," he says. "Designers aren't so worried about chasing particular trends; they're doing what they feel is right for their customer and filling a void in fashion. [And] retailers have multiple choice. In the past, if you were to buy all short skirts and they didn't resonate with the consumer, you were stuck with a bunch of short skirts. Today you can have multiple options and spread out your risk."

But the biggest winners are the customers. Fashion for all means that shoppers expect not just a wide range of products but products delivered across a spectrum of price points. "It's only going to get more democratic and individual," says Burke. "It's becoming Darwinian: whoever is producing the best design at the right price-to-value relationship is going to come out ahead." That's what shoppers want, and they're the ones determining next season's don't-miss trend.