IN an economic climate in which buying a handbag with a four- or five-digit price tag is starting to seem gauche, the free-spending style hounds formerly known as “fashionistas” are rebranding themselves.
Consider the $1,235 patent-leather satchel with golden hardware designed by Anya Hindmarch.
Mary Hall, a marketing manager at I.B.M. in Redondo Beach, Calif., heard its siren call. Then she went to Target to purchase a similarly shiny purse, made out of polyvinyl chloride, by the same designer. Price: $49.99.
“In the current economy, I thought I would reform,” Ms. Hall said.
Welcome to “recession chic” and its personification, the “recessionista,” the new name for the style maven on a budget. That the word represents the times could explain why Sarah Palin’s new wardrobe ($75,000 at Neiman Marcus and nearly $50,000 at Saks) struck some as distasteful.
In part, the word reflects the efforts of fashion and beauty publicists to spin the economic downturn as an attractive retail trend. For instance, Bourjois, a moderately priced makeup line from France, sent a recent press release by e-mail to reporters promoting the brand’s cheapest mascara and lip glosses as “the Recessionista Collection,” an antidote to gloom. An e-mail message sent last week on behalf of Salon Eliut Rivera in Manhattan promoted “Recessionista Beauty,” offering discounts on haircuts and eyebrow shaping.
The use of the word recessionista is “making light of a situation that isn’t so favorable for the consumer-driven industries of our nation, spinning it ... and delivering a luring message to the masses — PR 101 ladies and gentlemen,” wrote Heather Viggiani on the blog of a public relations firm where she works part-time, www.piercemattiepublicrelations.com.
Ms. Viggiani, who is also an undergraduate student in advertising and marketing at Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan, went on to describe a “recession chic” movement in retail. “A host of discount brands kneel graciously at the feet of recession and position their products and services not only as the smart thing to do, but the posh one.”
Grant Barrett, a lexicographer who specializes in new words and slang, said the word is being used to give Americans an excuse to buy more stuff.
“It’s kind of permitting consumers to have justification for their spending habits,” he said. Mr. Barrett included “recessionista” as an up-and-coming catchphrase earlier this month on his Web site, DoubleTongued.org. “The idea is, because they are spending less or getting more value, it is still O.K. to shop,” he said in a recent phone interview. “It’s a very self-serving message.”
“Recession chic” is yet another in a long line of terms created by fashion writers who have an affinity for the suffix “chic”: hippie chic, Seventies chic, tribal chic, military chic, geek chic, Camilla chic, rehab chic, eco chic.
Back in February, the headline “Recession Chic” topped an article in The Times of London by Lisa Armstrong, the newspaper’s fashion critic, who noted a return to tailored dressing among businesswomen. In April, the same headline accompanied a piece by Kate Betts in Time magazine that described the new somber collections of fashion designers.
“Come fall, fashion will follow the downward spiral of home values and investment portfolios, as designers embrace restraint with a dark palette and severe silhouette,” Ms. Betts wrote.
For recession chic to become a trend, however, the stigma of profligacy associated with shopping for clothing in an uncertain economy would have to be played down.
Style.com, the Web site of Vogue magazine, has declared passé the free-spending fashionista of the type lionized in “Sex and the City.” In her stead, the Web site fashioned a new icon for the new austerity, a plucky heroine able to fixate on designer logos even at a time when her house might face foreclosure.
Derek Blasberg wrote this summer on style.com: “You should know that while the fashionista may have locked herself in the vault with her tiaras, her younger, hipper sister — recessionista — is at the mall finding designer threads (or diffusion designer threads) at discount prices. Look for her at Target, Uniqlo, Payless or Kohl’s, all of whom have inked deals with designers recently. That’s because recessionistas aren’t letting a little thing like falling stock prices and rising gas bills get in the way of their wardrobe.”
The nomenclature may be new. The idea of moving merchandise in a tough climate is not.
A Sears catalog from 1930 at the beginning of the Great Depression offered “coats of the new mode in the spirit of smart economy” priced to sell at $9.75 to $25. Phrases like “be smart and thrifty” and “look at the chic economy” promoted dresses that cost $4.98 to $8.98.
In the wake of the stock market crash of 1987, designers began to offer less-expensive second lines. In 1989, for example, Donna Karan introduced DKNY.
Certainly, the word “recessionista” has its roots in economic hardship. Finance executives first used the term to connote a person predicting a recession or a person who believes a recession would benefit the long-term health of the economy, according to lexicographers.
But, over the last six months, publicists, retailers and even a few consumers have refashioned the word that rhymes with fashionista.
“It’s a sound-alike word,” said Paul McFedries, the proprietor of an on-line dictionary of catch-phrases called wordspy.com, which added “recessionista” to its lexicon in July. While it may seem inane to make use of a weighty word like “recession” to form a playful neologism that embraces shopping, people are using it because it is fun to pronounce, he said. “If you are a grammar pedant, you are going to lose a lot of the joy of the language.”
Ms. Hall of therecessionista.blogspot.com said her friends like the word so much they have nicknamed her Recessionista. “It is more lighthearted to say ‘I am the Recessionista, and I don’t really go for that,’ instead of saying ‘I can’t afford that or I don’t want to spend the money,’ ” Ms. Hall said. “The ‘ista’ on the end there, it gives it a little touch of the bling, I think.”
Indeed, “recessionista” carries an upbeat tone that recalls an earlier credit crisis neologism: “staycation,” a euphemism for spending one’s vacation at home. Similar terminology — “frugal chic,” “recession-proof dressing,” going on a “spending fast” — with more negative connotations has not caught on among consumers or the fashion world.
Mr. McFedries said the word is a more encouraging term than phrases like “conspicuous austerity” or “inconspicuous consumption.”
Publicists “want to come up with a word or phrase that makes things seem not as bad as they are,” Mr. McFedries said.
He added: “You’ve got to put a positive spin on it because you have to get people to spend money when they don’t want to on an optional purchase.”
But recessionista may not be the final incarnation of a style hound on the scent of designer discounts.
In the event that the economy worsens, make way for the depressionista.