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How the Great Recession influenced a decade of design

Examining the inextricable, complicated relationship between the economy and how things look.

Enough time has passed that it’s possible to look back on the fashions of the aughts with some fondness. It was an era of ruffled miniskirts and low-rise jeans, of rhinestones on everything. “It was colorful, it was sexy, it was obvious,” recalls Ron Frasch, who was president and chief merchandising officer of Saks Fifth Avenue in 2007.

“People were dripping in gold. There was bling on clothing, jewelry, accessories,” says Christina Binkley, who covered fashion for the Wall Street Journal. “Fashion had been really loud and it was a huge party, and then that shifted literally overnight.”

What happened was the Great Recession, which started in late 2007 and officially ended in June 2009, though many Americans are still feeling its effects today. Millions of people lost their jobs, and with so many consumers cutting back on spending, retailers got pummeled. In November 2008, Saks sent shockwaves through the fashion industry when it slashed prices by 70 percent in an effort to clear out inventory; competitors like Barneys and Neiman Marcus quickly followed suit, torpedoing their profit margins. Store buyers became more conservative, stocking less inventory and focusing on items that had performed well in the past.

The wealthiest shoppers still bought luxury goods during the Recession, but Frasch recalls pushback against items with noticeable logos, while more subtle designs gained respect. (Some research debates that this was uniformly true throughout the fashion industry.) There were rumors that the French luxury brand Hermès, maker of the coveted Birkin bag, was letting self-conscious customers carry their purchases out in demure brown shopping bags, rather than the usual bright orange ones.

“It doesn’t even matter whether it was true or not,” Binkley says. “The mere fact of those rumors reflected people’s response: that it was suddenly so uncool to look rich.”

It’s impossible to separate the aesthetics of consumer goods from the economic circumstances under which they were created. The ways we adorn ourselves and our homes — and the ways brands dress themselves up to get our attention — speak to our personal and national relationships with money. More than a decade out from the start of the Great Recession, standing on what some believe is the precipice of another recession, we’re in a position to examine the ways in which it shaped design and led to the aesthetics of the present moment.

During the Great Depression, design was meant to lift the United States out of an economic pit. Industrial design, which concerned itself with elevating the look of mass-produced consumer goods like kitchen appliances, was still a relatively new profession during the 1920s. It came to the fore when the economy tanked, as corporations looked for new ways to inspire customers to shop.

“[Industrial designers] didn’t reengineer how a refrigerator worked or how a car drove, but they changed the design to make it look better,” says Sarah Lichtman, a professor of design history at New York’s Parsons School of Design. “How do you get someone to buy a new car? You curve the headlights, change the color.”

Redesigned products alone didn’t end the Depression, which lasted 10 years, but they did sell. In 1934, Sears, Roebuck & Co. hired the industrial designer Raymond Loewy to redesign its inelegant Coldspot refrigerator. After Loewy got his hands on it, “the Coldspot became a single smooth, gleaming unit of functional simplicity — and with it Sears’ sales shot up five-fold by 1936,” reported Time magazine in a 1949 cover profile of the designer, by then a titan in his field.

A streamlined locomotive designed by Raymond Loewy on display at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
A streamlined locomotive designed by Raymond Loewy on display at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
Sherman Oaks Antique Mall/Getty Images

Depression-era industrial design tended toward “streamlining,” a modern look characterized by rounded edges and sleek shapes that emerged out of Art Deco. (Lichtman argues that streamlining wasn’t modernist in the formal sense, because modernism as an early 20th-century design movement prized form explicitly guided by function, and while streamlining has a natural function for, say, dolphins, a pencil sharpener doesn’t really need to reduce drag.) Crucially, streamlined household objects looked toward the future and projected a sense of optimism during hard times.

After the Great Recession, the country’s worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, it was venture-backed lifestyle startups, not established mega-corporations, that offered consumers a way forward through design. Direct-to-consumer lifestyle brands like Warby Parker and Everlane, both launched in 2010, began selling eyeglasses and sweaters without the retail markup, finding an uncomplicated aesthetic that suited their values.

“That first generation of direct-to-consumer successes started in that post-Recession moment,” says Leo Wang, CEO of Buffy, a one-year-old comforter startup. “They were about value, honesty, transparency of economics, and getting a good deal. All of that felt front-of-mind for consumers. Corporate America had swindled them.”

Startup minimalism, which became the dominant style of branding in the direct-to-consumer world, communicated this perfectly. It was optimal for digital consumption on small screens: stripped-down but warm, with lots of sans serif letters and white space.

Moreover, these brands were personable. Their ad and product copy was friendly and colloquial, which felt right because they were largely operated by millennials who were targeting their peers, creating a sense of shared values.

A woman in a simple navy blazer over a white shirt with navy pants, all made by Everlane. She also wears white sneakers.
Everlane’s clean, simple designs are emblematic of post-Recession fashion.
Glossier married startup minimalism with millennial pink.

“Trust wasn’t going to be created by officialness, but by brands sounding human,” says Wang.

They looked human, too. Their sites featured fun, unintimidating colors, most famously the shade of pale, faintly dusty rose known as “millennial pink,” and their simplicity was offset by cute, Matisse-y cut-out illustrations and line drawings.

The Recession certainly wasn’t the only reason that startup minimalism got so popular — the iPhone had come out in 2007, and Apple’s sleek, simple design sensibility was (and still is) massively influential — but it was the emotional backdrop for it.

That impulse toward simplicity was visible in interior design, too. White walls and innocuous fixtures became popular among home decorators in part because of the Recession — the housing bubble being the very root of the financial crisis — and the lifestyle magazine Kinfolk (est. 2011) elevated that look to aspirational levels with its pictures of clean, muted spaces. The spareness and earnestness of startup minimalism truly found its match in the ubiquitous decor style that the writer Kyle Chayka coined “AirSpace,” a reference to travel startup Airbnb. It typically features “raw wood tables, exposed brick, and hanging Edison bulbs.”

“Somehow scraping the plaster off a wall back to bare bricks is more authentic,” says Emmanuelle Dirix, a cultural historian who teaches at Syracuse University London, with heavy skepticism. “It’s that idea of stripping things away, showing off what a lightbulb looks like. Is this supposed to make me trust the business more, because I can see the wiring?”

However hollow this pared-down, industrial-yet-rustic sensibility rang to its detractors, you can’t say it didn’t sell.

A minimalist kitchen with cement floors, a wood countertop, and exposed bulbs.
A kitchen featured in The Kinfolk Home.
Simon Watson/Kinfolk

Minimalism was also a hallmark of the clothing that came out of the Recession. Everlane pushed elevated basics, like simple T-shirts and navy sweaters. Cuyana, a brand launched in 2013, piously encouraged shoppers to buy “fewer, better things” — not a new impulse in the aftermath of an economic shock. In a 1974 essay called “Recession Dressing,” a response to an economic downturn that had begun a year prior, the fashion writer Kennedy Fraser wrote, “The old interest in the cautious principle of spending more on fewer clothes of better quality is back.”

One of the most influential figures in Recession-era and post-Recession fashion, Phoebe Philo, won over scads of fans with her understated (but unmistakably expensive) womenswear at Celine, where she oversaw design between 2008 and 2018. By 2014, deliberately plain clothing (fleeces, New Balance sneakers) had become a full-blown trend in the form of normcore.

Like Dorothy stepping into Technicolor Oz, design has veered back into exuberance and opulence over the last few years.

A model walks the Gucci runway in a colorful outfit.
Gucci’s high-spirited maximalism on display at Milan Fashion Week in September 2017.
Estrop/Getty Images

The makeover of Gucci in 2015 is an inflection point in the return of maximalism. At Milan Fashion Week that February, the Italian brand introduced a new creative director, Alessandro Michele, whose style was all about eccentricity, romanticism, and ruffles. With each progressive collection, Michele’s work grew zanier, bolder, and more glittery. Gucci’s sales skyrocketed. In 2016, America elected a president known for his gaudy taste (diamond-and-gold furnishings, etc.) to replace unfussy Obama.

Many luxury designers have returned to the liberal use of logos, no doubt inspired by the raging success of streetwear brands like Supreme. Burberry’s much-maligned check print has reemerged in full force, with Beyoncé and Kylie Jenner wearing it head-to-toe. Fendi is slapping its logo, in large font, on sweaters, bags, and dresses. Frasch, the former Saks executive, says that today’s showiness surpasses even mid-aughts levels of excess.

Startup minimalism is no longer novel; it’s a baseline for companies seeking to develop their brand identities. Today, startups trying to differentiate themselves from the pack are pushing into groovier (though still highly legible) territory. Sans serifs are giving way to thicker, curvier, curlier fonts, as with the makeup brand Flesh, launched this summer; the months-old cookware line Great Jones; and Buffy, the comforter brand. Meanwhile, home decor has entered a new phase of rich paint colors and jewel-toned velvet furniture.

This transition took place as the economy improved, but the narrative is much more complicated than designers dialing things up and down in time to economic fluctuations.

Let’s go back in time to explain. On its face, the transition from the short, loose dresses of the Roaring Twenties to the nipped waists, long hemlines, and strong shoulders of the 1930s seems like a perfect example of a tough economy breeding conservative clothing. But Dirix argues that women’s skirts, which had reached an all-time high (literally) in 1925, were already well into their descent by 1927. The Great Depression began two years later.

There’s no one simple answer for the return to conservatism in the ’30s. When in the early part of the decade Hollywood adopted the Hays Code, which banned skimpy costumes along with other “immoral” visuals and plotlines in film, costume designers relied on form-fitting bias cut dresses to accentuate actresses’ figures. This pushed popular fashion toward a more mature look. On top of that, Dirix points out, fashion relies on newness in order to sell; successful styles are often those that feel fresh relative to what came before. Perhaps the ’20s had simply run their course. Perhaps the obviousness of the 2000s and the minimalism of the early 2010s had, too.

A West Elm-decorated room with blue walls, teal-printed wallpaper, a green velvet couch, and a yellow-printed chair.
Minimalist interiors are being replaced by colorful walls and bold plush furniture.
West Elm

Beyond the pendular swing of popular taste, the design world — and in particular the fashion industry — underwent major technological and cultural changes in the late ’00s and early ’10s, warping the lines we try to draw between the economy and design. Minimalism was definitely a trend in fashion, but it wasn’t the only game in town. Style had begun to splinter in a big way.

“In the ’90s, everyone wanted to have ‘the look.’ At the end of the ’90s and well into the 2000s, Prada was the kooky librarian look. In New York, you’d seen tons of people looking like kooky librarians,” says Cathy Horyn, New York magazine’s fashion critic. “That doesn’t happen as much anymore.”

Even before the Recession started, news and personal style blogs like Fashionista, Style Bubble, and Bryanboy had begun to infiltrate and democratize the fashion world. When Instagram launched in 2010, it completely disrupted the industry’s previously top-down flow of ideas, while accelerating the life cycle of a trend. As office dressing grew ever more casual — and with more people working from home — existing rules about what to wear and when to wear it were quickly becoming irrelevant.

Barriers shattered, we now have a cacophony of trends happening all at once. Designers are referencing the ’90s all over the place, with chokers and little slip dresses, but the ’70s are also having a moment. So are the ’80s. So are the ’00s, with Vetements resurrecting Juicy Couture tracksuits and Y/Project making outrageous thigh-high Uggs. While Instagram also came for other design sectors, the relatively fast rate at which many people buy new clothing amplifies this effect.

A model in thigh-high Uggs on a fashion runway.
Ugg boots, popular in the pre-Recession ‘00s, are back with an oversized, high-fashion spin.
Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images

Digital connectivity means that consumers have a boundless choice of aesthetics from which to choose. The Berlin-based magazine 032c put forward a theory of visual culture in its summer 2018 issue called “The Big Flat Now,” which posits that because the internet has made previously sequestered subcultures equally available to us, we can bob between them with unprecedented ease.

“The Big Flat Now is the infinite space on which our culture operates today. Its frictionless surface is composed of the obsolete hierarchies that have been melted by the Internet. Its shallowness belies a seamless texture that allows for the rapid collision of ideas,” write Thom Bettridge and Lucas Mascatello in 032c. “Raised by a global chorus of voices, our identities are voluntary, malleable, and unprescribed. We are everywhere, anytime, and everyone at once.”

At the same time, a lot of stuff looks the same, with trends endlessly regurgitated on Instagram and reproduced by brand after brand. Recent rebrands by fashion houses like Burberry, Balmain, and Balenciaga have resulted in a cohort of identical luxury logos. AirSpace is a prime example of the sameness of our time, applied to “coffee shops, bars, startup offices, and co-live/work spaces,” and it, too, represents a seamless way of navigating the world.

“The homogeneity of these spaces means that traveling between them is frictionless,” writes Chayka. “Changing places can be as painless as reloading a website. You might not even realize you’re not where you started.”

Despite the success of Gucci and its ilk, design today isn’t entirely freewheeling, and this is perhaps where the Recession’s effects are seen most clearly. Research shows that cohorts that have lived through economic downturns have lower appetites for financial risk. It’s not unreasonable to assume that the Recession will have long-term effects on today’s consumers.

In fashion, lingering financial fear, anti-consumerist impulses, and environmental concerns have contributed to the rise of a booming resale market. In November, Cowen & Company estimated that the secondary market for clothing, accessories, and footwear totals $20 billion today and could reach roughly $33 billion by 2022, growing significantly faster over time than fast fashion, department stores, and off-price channels.

Consumers’ growing interest in used fashion — which means more people are wearing clothing from different seasons and eras, all at the same time — supports the idea of the Big Flat Now. Similarly, Instagram is filled with fan accounts dedicated to the pop culture and style of basically every decade, including the ’00s; follow a bunch of them and suddenly time is a flat circle.

Environmental concerns also bleed into post-Recession home decor. It’s been difficult to miss the rise of status plants like the Monstera deliciosa and the finicky fiddle leaf fig, which add a needed dose of life to a millennial minimalist home. Not only are houseplants like these highly Instagrammable, but they have the convenient property of making us feel closer to nature.

“The sense of having abandoned nature has gotten bigger and bigger,” says Penny Sparke, a professor of design history at Kingston University in London. “Bringing a small plant into your apartment is a way of getting around that. It’s an easer of guilt. We’re all so worried about what we’re doing to the planet, and it makes you feel better about it.”

Adding to these existing stressors is the fraught political climate we live in, the consequences of which remain to be seen in the design world. Will we lean further into painting our walls soft pinks and greens, buy ever more velvet furniture, continue to seek out houseplants, with all their therapeutic properties?

And if we are indeed heading into a recession, what will become of our multiplicitous design landscape? One might suppose that it would be shot through a compressor, but as we know, aesthetics are much too slippery for that.

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