Clean Sweep

8 minute read
Kristina Zimbalist

As other actresses roamed the Golden Globe Awards dressed in wisps of lemon yellow and cerulean blue and glistening with diamonds, Angelina Jolie showed up wearing a solemn sheath the color of a Mao jacket, as if perhaps she had missed a turn on her way to a very chic commune. While her look indeed turned heads, conspicuous for its anti-glamour, in a way it made more sense than the alternative. After all, with her philanthropy and travels through Africa and emphasis on family values, motherhood and global awareness, wouldn’t it have been a glaring clash to be flashy?

Was it possible Jolie was using her clothes to express a hint of conscience on the red carpet? While the very notion may still be a bit of a shock to the fashion world, it is just the gloss on the very surface of a trend that promises to infiltrate all levels of consumerism and design, one that analysts say is a wave of the future to the tune of billions and billions of dollars.

Forecasters are calling it a new austerity or—instead of conscious consumerism—conscience consumerism or even conscious abstention. After decades of excess and extremes, consumers are showing signs of a surprising turnabout: a collective drive toward responsibility, discretion and moderation.

According to recent research, passions about the environment are skyrocketing. Sustainability is key. People want less, not more. Simplicity is yearned for and, increasingly, a necessity. Time means more than money. Experiences and relationships matter more than gadgets, stuffed shopping bags and shoes. People want health and peace of mind. They want things uncomplicated. They want to live more, not to own more.

“We’re seeing a fundamental shift in the way people think about the things they buy,” says Chris Sanderson, co-founder of the Future Laboratory, an international brand strategy and trend-forecasting consultancy whose clients include American Express, Morgan Stanley and Veuve Clicquot, “which is taking them out of a period of bling-or-bust spending and into a more reflective and concerned phase of consumption. It’s no longer about relaying how fabulous or wealthy or ‘arrived’ we are. It’s not just austerity as an aesthetic. It’s as a way of life.”

Far from the soft-spoken, muesli movements of the past, the migration toward austerity has the deep rumblings of a widespread shift in thought, complete with a sense of mission and hope last felt in the 1960s: motivated, demographically powerful twentysomethings, who came of age shopping at Apple and Whole Foods Market and driving a Prius, expect the companies behind their brands to be nothing less than responsible. Aware thirtysomethings, who are cash rich and credit savvy, are determined to vote with their dollars. And consumers in general, according to a recent Future Laboratory report, “are becoming … civically motivated in their shopping and purchasing habits. They are becoming more judgmental, less forgiving, and more determined to use their power.”

“Everything is about simplifying, paring down, making it easier, less work,” says Lillian Von Stauffenberg, a fashion insider who recently moved from New York City to London. “I only wear black and white, so I simplified my wardrobe. I’m trying to buy a Prius, because I’m obsessed with emissions. For me, it is a huge change because I’ve never thought that way before, and now I do. I consider the amount of garbage I produce. And all the things I buy, I ask for the least packaging possible.”

In an ironic about-face for industries known for making consumers dizzy trying to keep up with their trends, this time around, consumers and their growing beliefs are calling the shots.

“We are clearly entering into a new time, and it is being driven by the consumer,” says Marshal Cohen, industry analyst at NPD Group in New York. “The consumer is buying products that are more relevant, and it is swaying the way the industry operates. Brands are having to make their products’ functions speak louder than their blitz.”

A recent sign of the turnaround is the changing fate of the DaimlerChrysler/Mercedes Smart car, which is a megahit in Europe, Australia, Asia and Canada because it gets up to 69 m.p.g. (diesel) and is so small that two can fit into a parking space but which Mercedes delayed bringing to the U.S. for fear of tarnishing its identity as a status brand. Now the company is scrambling to get it to the States as quickly as possible.

Elsewhere, as at Mercedes, status is increasingly measured by what’s on the inside. There was not a logo in sight on the runway of young designer Doo-Ri Chung, whose spare and ethereal designs have garnered her a devoted following and the 2006 CFDA Swarovski’s Perry Ellis Award for Emerging Talent. Similarly, Belgian designer Raf Simons has made a return hit of Jil Sander’s clean collection, which he describes as “pure,” “silent” and “romantic.” “The aesthetic that comes out is ‘Let’s not add what’s not necessary,'” he says.

And for menswear designer Thom Browne, any bells and whistles come hidden in the stitching. His dinner jackets and tuxedos, fashioned out of workaday cotton canvas, are bedecked with old-world details like grosgrain lining on a working sleeve vent or hand-stitched working buttonholes. “The detailing is never overt,” he says. “Sometimes only the owner of the thing knows about it.”

Best-selling authors and trend spotters Marian Salzman and Ira Matathia, in their recent book, Next Now: Trends for the Future, call the phenomenon “inconspicuous consumption”—”shoppers who are buying discretely designer clothing that only insiders would recognize as such.”

If anything is to be conspicuous in this new austere era, let it be the ethics behind a product. Jolie, in her everyday life, is spotted carrying Whole Foods bags as often as a Louis Vuitton bag. Cameron Diaz and Leonardo DiCaprio drive Priuses. Labels like People Tree, Edun and Rogan are favored by the likes of Sienna Miller. And the hip British chain Topshop has appointed its first buyer to source ethically made clothing. As Salzman and Matathia point out, “Shopping with a conscience is now cool.”

Happily, this is not your grandmother’s Depression-era conscience—or the products that went with it. In design, the austerity movement is spawning a renewed sense of creativity, challenge and products that feature a sophisticated, ultramodern mix of artisanship and utterly advanced.

“It may appear austere on the outside, but it’s actually quite fanciful thinking,” says Murray Moss, owner of Moss Gallery in New York City’s SoHo, of a table by designer Ineke Hans that uses technology to create an austere wood look out of a much heavier and more practical plastic.

At the architecture firm Marmol Radziner in Los Angeles, sustainable prefab homes are on the rise, and while the factory-produced modules are made of recycled steel frames and covered with environmentally sound paints, the custom layouts bring nature and the landscape into the home, and interiors are made of wood and stone with all of their natural blemishes. “We spend most of our days in front of a computer screen. What you do touch you want to be as authentic and least processed as possible,” says design principal Ron Radziner.

Indeed, on a deeper level, the collective drive seems less toward austerity than toward a longing for authenticity. The age of YouTube, MySpace and reality TV has created a palette for things original, unexpected and ever changing as well as a climate of discovery and surprise. And if the luxury conglomerates have become too much like ocean liners to oblige, smaller shops are ready to catch the prevailing wind.

Nina Garduno has captured this mentality in her Malibu, Calif., store, FreeCitySupershop, which carries, along with the hand-designed, vintage-style graphic T shirts, an ever changing array of custom turntables, teepees and free fresh-squeezed orange juice. “People say, ‘Is this a rock shop? A clothing shop? A bike store?’ It’s whatever you want to take from it. I’m just putting it out there,” says Garduno, who, as a vice president for Ron Herman menswear and a buyer there for 20 years, has made a career out of predicting trends, including vintage denim and studded jeans.

Perhaps the wave of the future is captured most completely by Joshua Onysko, founder and CEO of the cosmetics company Pangea Organics, of Boulder, Colo., whose face creams and shampoos are made from food-grade natural products, support women’s farming initiatives and are produced using 100% wind power. And every aspect of the packaging has a secondary use, from the glass bottles to the 100% postconsumer-waste boxes that are folded using origami to avoid glue: thousands of seeds are incorporated into each box so they may be planted to grow Genovese basil, amaranth flowers or a sea buckthorn tree. “It comes down to one word, respect,” Onysko says. “For the earth, your employers, farmers and for yourself, not burning yourself out. If you think about things that way, it’s amazing how your life starts changing.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at