In their lengthy interview with WWD, Saks Fifth Avenue chairman Stephen Sadove and president Ron Frasch put forth a lot of somber statements about corporate belt-tightening and customer disillusionment.

But nothing was more telling about the state of luxury than the article's parting shot: "For spring, no hot item is seen. 'I don't think we're going to have a pet rock this season,' Frasch noted."

OK -- now you can panic. Forget unemployment numbers, housing indicators and big-bank stress tests. When the top brass at one of the country's most iconic department stores can't point to a single this-minute successor to the Tory Burch flat or the Juicy Couture track suit, we're in big trouble.

If Frasch isn't willing to bet on even one upcoming product, you can bet his fiscal predictions for the next season are pretty dismal, too.
Dreary outlooks aside, though, Saks is looking smarter. Most of their counterparts -- Barney's New York, Bergdorf Goodman, Bloomingdale's -- have soldiered through the downturn with a stony confidence in the resurgence of luxury.

Now Saks is breaking with that sentiment and acknowledging that the current retail environment may signal not a temporary setback but real, permanent change in the way Americans approach shopping. Sadove says that his customers still want to buy the brands they've always been loyal to, but they want them at a lower price point -- and they're serious about that.

So Saks is responding by commissioning a number of what Frasch calls "branded private collections." Traditional Saks names will design ready-to-wear, menswear and accessories exclusively for the store, and presumably the collections will cover a range of price points to cater to the Saks customer's current needs.

This is a great idea for several reasons. First of all, it's a ripoff of the Target GO collections and H&M designer exclusives model -- which we already know works. And if budget-conscious label hounds will trek to those stores to get their luxury fix, they'll be all too happy to buy on the cheap at Saks.

Which brings me to the second advantage: the effort will create buzz and get people into the stores. These "branded private collections," I'm guessing, certainly won't be quarantined from the higher-price-point items on the floor. Customers will be much more likely to consider that frothy Derek Lam frock if they just bump into it after purchasing something more economically sensible.

Lastly -- and perhaps most lastingly --this kind of initiative opens the door for Saks to become a more democratic and more exciting institution. If its customers never quite throw money around the same way again -- as many of them may not if real change is afoot -- it won't be the Chanels and Oscar de la Rentas of the world that will suffer.

The smaller, newer designers -- today's Rodarte and Thakoon -- will in the future have a harder time getting cautious big spenders to take a chance on them.

If the next generation of nascent fashion stars can enter the store at a lower price point,they'll reach financial solvency and accumulate staying power much more quickly. Which is a good thing, because one of them could be sketching the next can't-keep-it-on-the-shelves shoe or bag or jacket right now.

Let's face it: we'll all feel better when a 'hot item is seen' again.

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