PARIS (Reuters) - You could call it fashionalism. At a Vivienne Westwood show, buyer Amanda Ware lists new trends she has spotted in London: quirky hats, trendy scarves — and British-made designer accessories featuring the Union Jack.
Several fashion buyers visiting this month’s Paris shows reported a jump in nationalist purchases, especially in London, which before the economic crisis prided itself on being the capital of multicultural style.
“I think it’s this whole Britishness thing,” said Ware, who buys accessories for luxury store Fortnum & Mason in London. In the boom years, the French and Italian brands she stocks were more popular than British ones, she said. That has changed.
Ware has adjusted her purchases accordingly, buying visibly British accessories such as a Paul Smith scarf with a London city print, which she expects to do well despite the general retail slump.
“There’s been a lot of support for both Vivienne Westwood and Paul Smith, it’s been the strongest this season,” she said.
“Vivienne Westwood is more tartan, Paul Smith is strong with the Union Jack. It’s really flown over the past 8-12 weeks.”
From workers protesting against foreigners taking jobs to governments bailing out failing local industries, fashion executives point to a global wave of nationalist protests and policies since the world economy turned sharply down.
The World Bank said in a report this month that since last November, 17 of the G20 nations had implemented measures whose effect is to restrict trade at the expense of other countries.
“The trend in protection is up and the full effects (of) recession have not yet been felt,” said the report by Elisa Gamberoni and Richard Newfarmer.
The patriotic shopping spree suggests such nationalism is seeping into the middle classes, steering those who can afford designer accessories costing several hundred pounds.
“I think there is a general trend of people buying from their own country. Globally, protectionism is growing, and you see that in fashion,” Geoffrey de La Bourdonnaye, chief executive of Liberty of London, told Reuters at the Christian Lacroix show in Paris.
In a curious backlash, the trend appears to be strongest in Britain, whose former Prime Minister Tony Blair was one of the most vocal defenders of globalization.
The French have supported protectionist policies such as aid for the car sector but designers and retailers say they are not particularly looking to buy French fashion brands.
In the United States, which came under fire last month for a “Buy American” campaign, clothes and accessories featuring President Barack Obama are popular. But fashionable New Yorkers see wearing national symbols such as the flag as an expression of right-wing politics.
Nostalgia could be a factor for older Britons remembering campaigns since the 1960s that encouraged citizens to support the British economy with T-shirts, Union Jack badges, songs and ubiquitous slogans like “Backing Britain.”
“There has always been in Britain a tendency to buy local, for a couple of reasons. There’s the green reason, and also national pride — the British are very proud of their craft — and now it’s also cheaper to buy British,” said de La Bourdonnaye, referring to the weak pound.
A few weeks ago, the left-wing Guardian newspaper ran a fashion spread in its weekend magazine under the tongue-in-cheek headline: “Women of Britain - your designers need you!”
Featuring pictures of World War Two propaganda posters and a model in typically British labels such as Burberry and Stella McCartney, it urged shoppers to “buy British this season.”
Historically, the use of fashion for nationalist purposes stretches across the political spectrum. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini created a government institution to promote fascist fashion, while Mahatma Gandhi called upon fellow Indians to wear homespun cotton in the struggle against British colonial rule.
Proponents of free markets argue that in economic terms, campaigns to buy local are ultimately detrimental.
While such campaigns may shore up companies and jobs in the short run, they argue, they have the opposite effect in the long term by stifling international trade and stunting growth.
If protectionist sentiment in fashion spread, it could close off lucrative foreign markets for Italian, French and British designers, whose businesses have been buoyed by demand from the new middle classes in fast-growing emerging economies.
Retail and wholesale revenues at Burberry, for example, were up 53 percent in Asia in the last three months of 2008 compared with the previous year — making the region the luxury brand’s strongest performer, along with the Middle East.
But in times of turmoil such arguments risk losing out. Jason Broderick, head of menswear purchases at Harrod’s, has also seen a greater focus on British-made products.
“I think people are concerned with keeping the fellow countryman in work and supporting British-made will ensure this to a level,” he wrote in an e-mail to Reuters.
Of course, just how British such products are is questionable: top fashion houses use Chinese-made soles for their shoes, Indian-embroidered silk for evening gowns and designers from, well, anywhere for their creative direction.
For a sector that thrives on meshing different cultures, a trend toward buying one’s own seems a mismatch.
And the Stella McCartney brand featured in the Guardian’s “Buy British” spread is, of course, owned by the Italian-rooted Gucci group, which in turn is part of French retail giant PPR.
Additional reporting by Astrid Wendlandt in Paris and Martine Geller in New York; Editing by Sara Ledwith