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Buy Less, Spend More

There are signs consumers are willing to spend more for fewer clothes of higher quality

Here is a thought for shoppers getting ready to work on their fall wardrobes: Buy less.
Amid the chaos and excess of New York Fashion Week, which starts today as dozens of designers and brands show their Spring 2015 collections, some experts say a "buy less but better" movement is brewing.
A generation of consumers has grown up wearing what is often referred to as "fast fashion"—trendy, inexpensive versions of runway looks that shoppers wear for one season, or one occasion, and often toss. Now, many of these shoppers are graduating to a philosophy of quality not quantity, industry executives say.
In an appeal to the changing mind-set, a number of new retailers are encouraging shoppers to build simpler, smaller and longer-lasting wardrobes. Retailers including Zady, Cuyana and Everlane are featuring edited assortments and fewer promotions, while promising higher-quality fabrics, better construction, and transparency about sourcing and manufacturing.
The retail industry's own statistics suggest a shift in consumer-spending habits is starting to take root. While Americans are spending more each year on clothes than ever before, the quantity has leveled off since the 2005 peak, according to statistics from the American Apparel & Footwear Association.
"People are not buying just to buy anymore," says Nate Herman, vice president of international trade and resident economist at the association. There is evidence people are willing to pay more for clothes that last longer, he adds.
A swing of the fashion pendulum away from disposable fashion would be a big change for both stores and shoppers, following a roughly 20-year period of relentless discount-driven spending. Consumers were trained to wait for price slashing before buying, and then they would buy impulsively and in quantity—often only to suffer from a bad case of buyer's remorse.
This summer, Grechen Reiter says she came to the simple realization that she had too many clothes—an especially frank admission for a shopping blogger who has been chronicling her purchases over the past decade on her website, Ballooning beyond the walls of the bedroom closet in her Dallas-area home, Ms. Reiter's wardrobe also took over the closet in her guest bedroom plus three big plastic storage bins.
Ms. Reiter recalls scouring sales racks and thinking, "I need to buy it because it's so cheap"—only to regret the purchase later. "No person needs as much stuff as I had," says the 41-year-old.
This summer, determined to cut back, Ms. Reiter went on a ruthless purge, selling some pieces online, giving others away and donating the rest. She documented her attitude change in a series of blog posts titled "The Minimal Closet," where she offered advice to readers who want to do the same. Now, her clothing occupies just half of one closet. Going forward, she says, "I want to be really thoughtful about what I buy."
F. Martin Ramin/The Wall Street Journal, Styling by Anne Cardenas
Designer Misha Nonoo, who is set to show her latest collection in New York this week, says she designs with her customers' closets in mind. She wants customers to think about how her new separates will pair with things they already own. A plaid tweed jacket with a fur collar and matching trousers shown on the runway for her Fall 2014 collection could be purchased separately: The pants could go with a black blouse, she says, while the jacket would work for the office with slacks or on the weekend with jeans. "There is a versatility to each item," she says.
Online retailer Of a Kind, which features emerging designers' pieces in limited quantities, launched in 2010 with a price cap on items of about $300. The brand's founders, Claire Mazur and Erica Cerulo, say the ceiling reflected their own personal spending limits at the time. In recent years, the ceiling has crept up. The brand introduced a $350 leather jacket in early 2012 and, last year, fine jewelry nearing $400.
The Of a Kind founders say they are sensitive to the surprise shoppers might feel when coming to their brand from stores like H&M and Zara, which focus on trends and price. "A lot of our customers are graduating from fast fashion and trying to wrap their heads around how to spend $200 on a dress," says Ms. Mazur. Ms. Cerulo says part of the website's marketing job is to ease shoppers into new spending categories. "We have an audience who is growing with us," she says.
An important influence over apparel spending is the competition for wallet share from technology. "Are you going to buy a new dress or the iPhone 6?" asks Richard Jaffe, apparel retailing research analyst at Stifel Nicolaus. But among the specialty retailers duking it out at the mall, fast fashion remains ahead of the pack, thanks to speed—their ability to identify a trend and quickly produce it—as well as price. "There is still an appetite for bargains out there," says Paul Lejuez, senior retail analyst at Wells Fargo.
For shoppers who make the move away from fast fashion, there is often an "ah-ha" moment. Of a Kind's Ms. Mazur says her moment was when she gave herself permission to repeat outfits more often. "I can wear this shirt twice in one week, and no one is going to get hurt," she says. Ms. Cerulo says she was relieved to step off the relentless trend treadmill that fast fashion creates. "This spring was all about a drop-waist dress. Well, a drop-waist dress looks terrible on me," she says. "There is nothing that will ever happen to me or to my body that will make this a smart purchase for me."
(Clockwise from top left); Zady; Of a Kind; Cuyana (2)
Others find a wake-up call in headlines about manufacturing issues abroad. Maxine B├ędat, co-founder of the online retailer Zady, likens the movement to the farm-to-table trend in food. "People are looking at labels, they are curious," she says. "Fast Fashion is Fast Food" is the headline on the preorder page for a new, private label holiday sweater on Zady's website, which encourages people to join "the Slow Fashion Revolution."
Shoppers at Everlane, a clothing line that launched in 2011 with the promise of "radical transparency," can read on its website about the factories the brand works with, as well as about their number of employees, the goods they make and even the local time and weather. Founder Michael Preysman says first-time visitors often click on those pages. "They like that it's there," he says.
Karla Gallardo and Shilpa Shah last year launched Cuyana, a women's apparel and accessories brand with the mantra "Fewer, Better." Each season, Cuyana introduces a handful of new pieces that revolve around a timeless, classic aesthetic rather than trends. Best-selling items become part of the permanent offering.
Unlike the daily email blasts many apparel brands send, Cuyana sends its customers a single email each week. And it doesn't discount. The brand's marketing message is one of encouragement, says Ms. Shah. "We don't want to make people feel guilty," she says. "It's more about getting rid of all that excess and creating a wardrobe of what you love."
Ms. Nonoo, the designer, recommends careful shopping, with a ratio in mind. About three quarters of a wardrobe should be basic, versatile pieces, and the remaining quarter "special" items. "It's the more grown-up approach to dressing," she says. "Don't just go and buy everything in one shot."
There is another benefit to this restrained approach—it is a time saver, Ms. Nonoo says. "Women are so busy, in the morning the last thing you want to be thinking is, 'Oh my god, what am I going to put on today?' " she says. "The more you have, the more distracting it becomes."
Elizabeth Holmes at Wall Street Journal

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