Skirting the issues.

Commentary about business and finance.
Aug. 20 2008 5:49 PM

Skirting the Issues

Reading between the economic hemlines of September's fashion mags.

Amid reports that retail sales are getting pummeled, the September fashion magazines have hit newsstands in the past week. We all know that hemlines tend to drop along with the economy, and it's no surprise that (thankfully) upper thighs are about as rare in these issues as robust mutual funds. Fashion mags have long walked the line between presenting themselves as shopping guides of wearable trends and offering glossy spreads of five-figure frocks. But do women in today's economy want to confront pages of $1,000 shoes when they are struggling to pay the rent? Or do they prefer practicality over fantasy in these trying times? We looked at six magazines to see how editors responded to the current economic waist-cinching and whether ads—not hemlines—are up or down from last year. Here, from Elle's reaction of What recession? to the recessionary lack of glamour at Glamour, are the results.

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Elle
Attitudinal hemline: Micro-mini
Ads: Up 7 percent

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Perhaps we can credit Elle's September spike with a presence in television—Stylista, this fall's real show set in fake Elle offices, and, on Project Runway, Nina Garcia's "at-large" position with her ex-employer. Last month, the magazine commissioned a study that found that 8 percent of American women are recession-proof shoppers. Ladies, this mag's for you. In its pages, we meet a law student in $1,375 Giuseppe Zanoti boots and learn that the accessories editor "jetted to Tokyo for the Prada fete." One feature on jewelry's "major fashion moment" names "designers within reach" like Lanvin, for the design house's $2,000 art deco cuffs. (Yes, they are lovely.) Need office supplies? Pick up a $90 sterling paperclip—why not get a whole box? —or a $160 cell phone strap. "Must-haves" include a $2,100 Malo flared miniskirt and $2,960 Givenchy pants. This month's advice column soothes the relationship woes of a 23-year-old with a boyfriend who won't commit but offers her a "comfortable" life "complete with private jets and superyachts." (Is that even a word?) Elle's next co-branded show might just be a remake of Fantasy Island.

Vogue
Attitudinal hemline:
Midthigh
Ads: Down 7 percent

Anna Wintour wants her reader to know she's sensitive to their slimmer wallets: The cover beckons with "value conscious chic" while her editor's letter solemnly acknowledges that "in putting together these stories, we were always conscious that fashion may not be, in this period of economic and political uncertainty, at the front of our readers minds." Yet one of the magazine's features stories is on a mink and lambskin coat that has been misted with 24 karat gold—to the tune of $100,000. Because "fur is glamorous, but sometimes it's  not enough. It needs to be supercharged." It looks like we'll also be supercharging our credit card: A feature advising ladies how to dress for less instructs, "This is the season to adopt a strict, limited uniform of staples—Prada, Chanel, and Oscar de la Renta to name a few." And, wait, here's a relatable fashion pictorial featuring women combing supermarket freezer cases for bargains in a spread titled "2-for-1 Special." But of course, they're wearing exquisitely tailored $2,300 Bottega Veneta dresses. (Don't you?) It seems Vogue has created a new editorial category for these trying times: aspirational frugality.

W Magazine, September 2008.

W Attiudinal hemline: Lace bloomers Ads: Down almost 18 percent

W's response to its own relative free fall is positively tongue-in-chic. "What Recession? The New $1,000 Skin Cream" is the cover tease to a piece on La Prairie moisturizers loaded with actual platinum particles. "Can a Bentley be micronized?" wonders the author, reflecting the issue's tone. While the issue kicks off with a feature on otherwise-inaccessible Rei Kawakubo's new collection for mass-market giant H&M, the rest of the issue is  100 percent glamazon—with a wink. Like the 40 pages of photographs of Tilda Swinton and friends clad in high-end collections as outrageous as their poses and settings: at the plastic surgeon's, in a bouffant and red nails behind a giant executive desk, gathering canine waste in a plastic bag in front a massive gold door. It practically cries out, Who buys these fabulous things?

Harper's Bazaar
Attitudinal hemline:
Knee length
Ads: Up 3 percent

Even the mastheads and editor's notes are framed in ornate, glittering necklaces, like a $9,875 Balenciaga number. That price tag is nothing compared with a spread on furs—PETA is so surplus era—most of which you couldn't get out of layaway with the average American's salary. This is a magazine refusing to be anything other than it is—and yet is equally unwilling to play coy to our sinking dollar. A feature titled "Gucci or Gas: Recession-Proof Your Wardrobe," grants that "the notion of staring down the barrel of a wicked winter without Balmain booties, Prada lace, or Balenciaga's sleek silhouettes is depressing."

*Bazaaro-world: Apropos of not much—economic policy?—Tyra Banks poses as Michelle Obama in this issue, in the Oval Office, curled up next to a fake Barack in bed—both sporting Harvard sweatshirts—and flashing a perfect Barbie smile in a purple inauguration gown.

Marie Claire Magazine, September 2008.

Marie Claire Attitudinal hemline: Midcalf Ads: Up 6 percent

Q: "What stresses us out now?" asks Marie Claire. A: Only one Prada sheath? Right. How about "widespread layoffs, housing foreclosures, and record-high gas prices." The economy is clearly heavy on the minds of the editors churning out pithy headlines for this relatively light issue—at under 300, pages it's easily the thinnest of the weighty bunch. "Recession jitters? Stash your cash in a hardware-fastened top-handle bag," recommends one perky page. But the best venue to address those jitters isn't the mall, the magazine suggests, but in your cubicle, dressed in "ladder-climbing accessories" and "401K traditional pieces," and aided by the gleanings of several office-related advice features. Of course, if you're one of those ladies stressed by layoffs, consider the following Jane Birkin quote, accompanying a model in a $1,675 Blumarine top and $305 Just Cavalli jeans: "When you've got nothing left, all you can do is get into silk underwear and start reading Proust—"or your horoscope.

Glamour Magazine, September 2008.

Glamour Attitudinal hemline: Ankle-length Ads: Down 10 percent

Does Louis Vuitton make a life vest? If they do, you can't afford it! The magazine's "Life & Happiness" section offers suggestions for "10 jobs that need you now … you'll never be out of work until you want to be," and how to deal with credit-card interest. (We're tanking, girls, tanking!) The alarm rings on in the fashion spreads. Victoria Beckham advises readers to invest in a good pair of jeans, not because they're fabulous, but because they'll last. Nicole Richie, in a pair of Anna Sui sunglasses, is effusive instead about her $3 pair at home, "from the gas station." And a drugstore-vs-department store beauty roundup recommends a $10 Bath & Body Works body lotion because it "smells like a $60 perfume"—and those perfume inserts smell like panic.

Lauren Sandler writes for Slate, Time, the New York Times, and other publications, and is the author of One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One.

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