Imagine a time when wholesale is a status symbol and one extreme, "shop till you drop," is replaced with another "drop shopping."
"It's the end of the world," suggests New York-based retail analyst Kurt Barnard.
No, it's the beginning of 1992.
This new spirit cannot be pegged only to the recession, or to the fact that aging baby boomers now have houses and families to support and less cash for grown-up toys. There's another, more fundamental source: shame.
"People are embarrassed by the amount they spent and bought in the late '80s," says Susan Hayward, senior vice president of Yankelovich Monitor, a New York-based marketing research company. (It was her group that came up with the phrase "drop shopping," for a trend report published this fall.)
You can already see it in the way shoppers swap toll-free numbers for their favorite mail-order catalogs (of the J. Crew-Tweeds variety) and compare notes on the hottest in-and-out jeans and T-shirt stores. The moderate price tags and the pepped-up generic styling will make their offerings more than just popular in the new year -- it will make them status symbols. Already, people boast about wearing the labels, and lately, some have started sneering at those who don't.
"It's stupid to spend $80 on a DKNY T-shirt when you can get one at the Gap for $32," says Denise Cohen-Scher, fashion director for the California Mart.
The same thrifty attitude seems to drive almost every trend coming our way next year: pastel denims, Western wear, "secondary" designer labels, discount mall shopping. Exceptions to the rule must at least promise a dual purpose: luxury along with practicality.
Teen-agers are pushing the anti-status trend to a new limit. One of their latest looks is built on blue-collar wardrobe staples. Denim coveralls, black construction boots and other elements of classic worker wear are likely to find a place in plenty of teens' closets next year.
The equivalent for their fathers will be a look only forest rangers and game wardens could get away with in the past. Businessmen with tastes just shy of the cutting edge may find themselves mixing down-filled parkas, anoraks or field jackets -- "rough wear" as Ralph Lauren dubbed them -- with sport coats and dress slacks for work.
Designers, from Claude Montana in Paris to Nino Cerruti in Milan, have been showing the look for a couple of years. But as it filters down to the real world, authentic versions will surpass designer labels in sales. Outerwear by Timberland, Patagonia and Eddie Bauer, companies known as expedition outfitters, are already setting the style in the urban canyons of the East.
Looking rough and ready will not necessarily come cheap; one waterproof leather field jacket by Timberland sells for more than $1,000. But the new year's dominant fashion message will be conveyed by the jacket's dual purpose: Hike the Sierras or the steps to your office.
The feminine equivalent is cashmere twin sets (a crew-neck sweater and matching cardigan): pricey but versatile enough to wear weekends with leggings or evenings with ball-gown skirts. "I get constant requests," says Rebecca Schaefer of TSE, a hot new label. Her company charges about $450 per set. (Designer labels, such as Oscar de la Renta, command $1,000 or more.)
In the same spirit of less is more, look for many women to give up designer signature labels and switch to lower-priced spinoff collections. Last year, some of the biggest names in the business launched or upgraded their existing secondary -- or diffusion -- lines, priced at about 30 percent to 40 percent less than signature lines.