The new luxe: Getting down to practicality

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NEW YORK — The world of high fashion is coming down to earth a bit.

Trench coats, jumpsuits, sumptuous sweater sets and billowy dresses intended to flatter a wider range of body shapes and sizes ruled the runway at New York Fashion Week, which showcased spring 2010 designs for buyers and fashion editors.

It’s a big departure from the elaborately beaded evening gowns and unwearable flights of fancy such as see-through pants that have dominated runways in recent years.

The everyday looks are vivid examples of how the industry is responding to a new thriftiness that has extended to the rich, who have grappled with declining net worth since last year’s financial meltdown. Even megamillionaires have re-evaluated their spending.

And while the luxury business has stabilized a bit since last fall’s free fall, it’s still weak.

Luxury sales fell a little more than 15 percent from January through August compared with the similar period a year ago, far more than the 9 percent decline for all U.S. apparel sales, according to SpendingPulse, a data service provided by MasterCard Advisors, which estimates U.S. retail sales across all payment forms, including cash and checks. In past recessions, luxury sales had held up much better than other areas.

After almost a decade of feeding consumers’ increasingly voracious appetite for luxury goods, the industry is catering to shoppers looking at clothes as investments and dressing down for even society galas.

Designers are channeling their creative energies into more practical and less expensive clothing. They are creating lower-priced collections and offering more casual and multipurpose clothes such as coats that can double as dresses.

Upscale stores such as Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue are focusing on low- to midtier luxury prices, ordering less and emphasizing clothes that shoppers can wear for several seasons. That means more dresses from $400 to $600, and fewer above $1,000.

Sure, the price tags are still eye-popping to average Americans, but they’re a dramatic change from the past six years, when designers kept pushing prices up and piling on more elaborate trimmings on everything from shoes to handbags.

Designers “want to produce clothes that are going to sell. We are seeing clothes that are well designed but not as experimental,” said Robert Burke, a New York-based luxury consultant and former fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman.

Among the changes:

• Narciso Rodriguez, who burst on the fashion scene when he designed the wedding gown for Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, is broadening his reach under a deal with online auctioneer to sell an exclusive clothing line priced from $75 to $350. As for Mr. Rodriguez’s signature collection, he’s still designing dresses that are priced at $1,800 and up for the spring 2010 season, but he also is adding dresses in the $1,000 price range.

• Italian clothing maker Brioni, known for hand-sewn suits priced from $4,700 to $47,000, plans a collection of $250 T-shirts starting in January. They aren’t what you’d find at the mall and feature hand-stitched Italian embroidery. The company’s casual business now accounts for almost 40 percent of its sales, up from 15 percent to 20 percent three years ago.

• Dress designer Nicole Miller is expanding into casual sportswear with a collection of pants, blouses and skirts for fall 2010.

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