NEW YORK (Reuters) - The adage of choosing quality over quantity may never be so true as when a recession-weary consumer looks at the latest fashions.
At New York's Fashion Week, showing a piece that stands out as the season's 'must-have' item can capture the imagination of consumers who are reluctant to shop in a grim economic climate and are in no position to retrofit their entire wardrobe.
"With the economy, it's important for almost every piece should have an emotional reaction when you're looking to make a purchase," Cynthia Steffe designer Shaun Kearney told Reuters. "I design with that concept, whether you love it or hate it.
"With everyone being more careful about what they're spending, you have to fall in love with a piece," he said, pointing to a mint green suede dress with a ruffled, plunging neckline as a 'must-have' contender in his collection.
To evoke such a response, imaginative designers have to take risks.
"People want to spend their money on something that's really emotional, anything that gives you that really good feeling, that feeling of 'I've got to have that,'" said designer Rebecca Taylor.
In her spring line, Taylor said she would select a washed silk, deconstructed blazer to wear like a cardigan sweater.
"I'll put on a cardigan and think, 'I feel really cute,'" she said. "Then I'll put on a blazer and think, 'Now I feel really cool.'"
Consumers are emerging from recession's malaise as more selective shoppers, gravitating toward quality rather than spreading themselves thin, said Joe Lupo, co-author of a style guide entitled "Life in Color."
"Less is more," he said. "Very, very much less is more."
Asked to choose a 'must-have' item, several fashion experts chose a dress, with little hesitation.
"I always say a dress," said designer Marc Jacobs, who has been known at times to wear a skirt himself. "If I were a woman and I could buy one thing, I would buy a dress because it's a complete look."
Designer Tory Burch said she too would opt for a dress.
"You can dress it up, down, wear it to office and go out after work," she said.
Donna Karan suggested "an amazing scarf," and Vera Wang said: "I'm a sweater girl ... crazy, fabulous, knitted, edgy, cool."
For her choice, U.S. Vogue magazine editor Anna Wintour said: "Everyone has basic clothing. Go out and buy something that's fun."
Designer Nicole Miller, who said she would choose a sporty leather jacket from her collection, warned that buying one piece as a fashion investment can mean making too cautious a choice.
"Sometimes I think people buy investment pieces, and they tend to be boring," Miller said. "Buy some investment piece that is really special, interesting, something that's unique."
Grace Coddington, creative director of U.S. Vogue, advised consumers to pick out "something that's incredibly well made and not too outrageous, classic without being boring, something that they can play around with and something that they truly love."
Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by David Storey