Fashion: Luxury Brands Get Back to Their Basics

Before Yves Saint Laurent revolutionized the world with his first prêt-à-porter collection in 1966, fashion was a luxury that fell under the purview of the select few who could afford to spend thousands of dollars on a bespoke evening gown or suit. Everything else was just clothing. Today it's the opposite: what once would have been considered just clothing now aspires to the label of fashion—explaining the success of brands like J.Crew, the Gap, Topshop and H&M, which deliver the look of fashion for the price of mere clothing.

The current retail climate is undoubtedly friendlier to this model of design, but luxury designers aren't about to give up. After a dismal holiday shopping season, in which the sector's sales declined 34.5 percent over last year, according to MasterCard Inc.'s SpendingPulse unit, the luxury-fashion industry is making a prudent move to get back to basics. That means more than just simple but stylish garments, like a pair of $500 hand-dyed, custom-washed Japanese denim jeans and a $200 raw-edged pima-cotton tank top. It means translating the foundational elements that form a luxury brand's core identity into more muted—but still attention-getting—forms, in neutral colors and with sparse decoration. At Chanel, for instance, this would mean a wool bouclé suit in elegant winter white, layered with strands of costume pearls and worn with ballet flats—an ensemble whose "basic" cost would exceed several thousand dollars. The price is still high, but so is the quality, and any brash, in-your-face appeal has been abandoned for a measure of chic discretion.

I first noticed this trend at São Paulo Fashion Week, which took place in mid-January. Brazilian fashion is distinguished by bold color and powerful prints, but this season many designers turned out graphic, sculptural pieces in a more restrained, neutral palette. In their respective collections, Reinaldo Lourenço, one of the country's biggest design names, and his wife, Gloria Coelho, merged expressionism with minimalism. Lourenço sent out tailored coats and evening suits with armorlike elements, such as heavy metallic embroidery, and Coelho showed snug headpieces, perhaps intended to provide at least symbolic protection against the harsh economic realities of the day. Osklen, a successful Brazilian brand with stores in Tokyo, New York and Rome, had a similarly modern take on medieval garb, rendering tunics in gray, black and white, and limiting embellishment to graphite metallic beads and shiny black paillettes.

At the haute couture shows in Paris at the end of January, a similar movement was in evidence. At Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld presented an almost entirely white collection of dresses and suits in a '60s silhouette, updated with razor-sharp shoulders and covered in a breathtaking array of featherweight sequin, cellophane and paper embroideries. The line suggested both fragility and strength, and a more tasteful expression of the expensive handcraft that elevates the cost of the most elaborate dresses into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

At Dior, John Galliano doubled back on his typically exuberant catwalk style, toning down the over-the-top makeup and hair and unveiling a painterly procession of gowns and suits inspired by the soft palette of Vermeer and the architectural foundation of Dior's New Look. The pieces expressed a subdued majesty appropriate to both the current climate and the tradition of couture, while referencing the house's definitive esthetic in a contemporary way. Perhaps in reaction to fashion's lean financial prospects, Galliano's silhouettes often had a padded waist or rear end—cushioning for the fall, or perhaps a wistful projection of the kind of fertility that the industry is longing for. Even Elie Saab, a Lebanese couturier best known for an overload of bling, showed relatively understated silk gowns in sea green, pale lavender and champagne.

On the heels of Paris couture, Berlin Fashion Week took place over the last weekend in January. Teutonic rigor and restraint are touchstones of German furniture and auto design, but all too often the country's fashion tends inexplicably toward the froufrou. Not this season; the strongest brands, such as Boss Black and Joop, took a more streamlined approach, injecting sex appeal into slightly severe designs by using glossy black fur, leather and satin; their results suggested the no-nonsense sensual aggression of the late German photographer Helmut Newton's best work.

It will be months before luxury designers know whether their back-to-basics approach helped them survive these tough times. The coming year could significantly shrink the designer ranks, as some brands are forced to bow out because of bankruptcy. But if this kind of clever, modulated response to the crisis can't get people shopping again, who knows what will? There's only so much restraint a luxury designer can show before his or her effort begins to read like the emperor's new clothes—or even worse, like an ensemble you could get much cheaper at the Gap.