Photo: Leigh Vogel/Getty Images
Ken Downing was at the airport late Friday, waiting for his flight to London to depart. Downing, the head of womenswear at Neiman Marcus, had only just completed the first leg of a month of fashion shows that span New York, London, Milan and Paris.
For him, the week that had just ended meant a series of conversations with buyers who will ultimately pick through the more than 300 collections shown, including big names like Marc Jacobs and Diane Von Furstenberg, and smaller ones like Peter Som and Joseph Altuzarra.
But for some traders, economists, and pundits, the month now proves one more thing beyond fashion: an indicator of how the economy will perform over the coming year.
“Like the stock markets, hemlines are going up and down daily and seasonally,” Mr. Downing says.
The Hemline Indicator
The Hemline Indicator was reportedly first introduced by University of Pennsylvania Wharton School professor George Taylor, an idea that women’s hemlines fluctuate and can even indicate macroeconomic performance. The higher the hemline, the better the economy looks.
From afar, bloggers and editors have offered anecdotal evidence regarding the direction of hemlines.
But for the first time, Business Insider conducted a full analysis of hemlines at New York fashion week, measuring some 2,092 images from 25 designers, comparing year-on-year changes in the length of skirts and dresses.
The findings were pretty clear: hemlines are getting shorter.
The BI Hemline Index is calculated by measuring hem length as a percentage of the length from floor to waistline. The shorter the hemline, the higher the index.
Overall, average hemlines in 2012 registered a 44.38 on the index, up from 35.04 for the Fall/Winter 2011 collections.
Complete looks from each designer were measured, however skirts and dresses were the only data points fed into the data set. Measurements were taken from images provided post-show.
On first glance, hemlines appeared to fall, with designers like Marc Jacobs showing little skin. However, when deconstructing outfits and measuring the skirts shown over pants, hemlines jumped. At Mr. Jacobs show for instance, the Hemline Index read at 45.6, compared to 41.1 last year.
80 per cent of the designers included in the analysis registered shorter skirts and dresses. Rodarte, the quirky womenswear label designed by Kate and Laura Mulleavy, eschewed the floor grazing gowns of 2011, showing half as many. Rodarte jumped 17 points on the Index, to 37.0.
Amanda Brooks, fashion director at Barney’s, said hemlines had moved both higher and lower on the runway this season.
“I would say in terms of the dress or skirt silhouette, it’s kind of anything goes right now,” Ms. Brooks says. “I wouldn’t say we’re seeing super short, to me what’s looking the most fresh personally is this mid-calf with a big slit up the front or an open vent. We’ve seen that on a lot of runways the last few seasons, and I think it’s addressing the same moment as the idea of the gaucho.”
Assembling the List
Business Insider chose 25 of the most influential designers that show at New York fashion week, clothes that will end up on hangers during the second half of 2012.
Beyond Marc Jacobs and DVF, the list includes 3.1 Philip Lim, Alexander Wang, Bill Blass, Calvin Klein, Carolina Herrera, Christian Siriano, Donna Karan Collection, J. Crew, Jason Wu, Jill Stuart, L.A.M.B., Michael Kors, Nanette Lepore, Oscar de la Renta, Prabal Gurung, Proenza Schouler, Ralph Lauren, Rodarte, Thakoon, Theysken’s Theory, Tommy Hilfiger Women’s and Vera Wang.
The names were chosen based on two key factors. The first, the designer have strong artistic relevance. Marc Jacobs collection, which will sell vastly fewer pieces than the offshoot Marc by Marc Jacobs brand, was used for the official index because the impact from his mainline will be far greater.
In a review last February, Nicole Phelps, Executive Editor of Style.com, noted that one retailer remarked that, “We have to come [to Marc Jacobs] in order to find out what we’ll be seeing next season.”
The second component: the brand be commercially viable, weather through wholesale, partnerships with broadline retailers like Target, or through their own sales channels.
Jason Wu, Rodarte and Proenza Schouler have all had surprising success with capsule collections at mass retailers, while Michael Kors and Ralph Lauren have an ever expanding retail network.
Click here to see how long hemlines were for all 25 designers >
A Contrarian View
Not everyone is convinced that hemlines hold much weight when predicting economic performance.
“It’s interesting, as a fashion director I no longer believe hemlines are a conversation on trend because its so particular to a designer and their point of view,” Mr. Downing says. “We are seeing hemlines below the knee, at the knee, and some that are still quite short.”
I caught up with Jeffrey Monteiro, the creative director of Bill Blass, after his show on Thursday evening, the last collection at New York fashion week.
“For me it’s just proportion,” he says. “Let’s make it longer, let’s make it shorter, and once we find a proportion we like we just keep going with it.”
Most designers mirror that viewpoint, that the economy has little effect on what they present. But that is hard to argue, when designers almost unanimously moved to a black and neutral colour palette as Lehman Brothers failed.
“The customer is definitely looking for something that will give her fashion credit in her wardrobe. This whole idea of when the economy went upside down that all that she would buy would be basics and there would be the return of the black turtleneck, was not what we saw in the luxury market,” Mr. Downing says. “She didn’t stop shopping, she just was not shopping as robust as she was before.”
Hemline Index aside, one of the best predictors of economic growth is consumer spending, and so far Mr. Downing is happy with what he sees.
“We feel very positive about the spring trends in stores now and customers are responding very favourably.”
3.1 Philip Lim: For 2012, hemlines are substantially shorter than in 2012, as Lim avoided floor grazing skirts and dresses. In 2011, he showed four skirts that touched the floor. Red bars indicate the collection average hemline length.
Alexander Wang: Unlike at Lim, Alexander Wang showed longer looks for the coming fall, with leather skirts falling below the knee. Last year legs were on full display with dresses hitting mid-thigh.
Betsey Johnson: At the more commercial Betsey Johnson label, hemlines jumped nearly 30 points to 62.68 on the Business Insider Hemline Index. The designer channeled the Beatles for her fall collection, and the girls greeting them when they first arrived on the tarmac at J.F.K.
Bill Blass: The American heritage brand under the helm of Jeffrey Monteiro is known for its luxurious take, and hemlines generally skew on the long side. However, this season the Blass line saw fewer gowns and a greater focus on outerwear, pushing hemlines up to a 40.97 reading on the Business Insider Hemline Index.
Calvin Klein: Looks stayed ultra modern at Calvin Klein, even as creative designer Francisco Costa lowered hemlines. On average, skirts and dresses now fall to the knee.
Carolina Herrera: The designer presented another collection filled with her floor grazing looks, but this year saw four more floor-length gowns. That makes sense when you consider her front row includes Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.
Christian Siriano: Siriano showed to a packed house at Eyebeam Studios in Chelsea and delivered dresses and skirts that were about the same length as last year, although reception to the 2012 show seemed markedly stronger.
Diane Von Furstenberg: The president of the CFDA delivered a strong womenswear collection, with hemlines about five points higher to 42.99 as measured by the Business Insider Hemline Index.
Donna Karan: DKNY may hit the mass market, but the trends at that brand take a big cue from Donna Karan Collection, where hemlines fell 161 basis points to 32.06 on the Business Insider Hemline Index.
J.Crew: The (mostly) critical darling is perhaps one of the most important indicators on the index, as its wares hit consumers through more than 300 stores. Hemlines increased to a 41.68 reading on the Business Insider Hemline Index.
Jason Wu: Hemlines at Jason Wu were 235 basis points shorter, according to the Business Insider Hemline Index. While still high at 42.2, the lack of thigh-grazing skirts seen last year accounted for the decline.
Jill Stuart: Stuart hit all the notes in her 38 look collection, with hemlines jumping to an impressive 56.3 on the Business Insider Hemline Index from 42.3 last year.
L.A.M.B.: Gwen Stefani's collection may not end up within the editorial pages of Vogue, but teens and 20-somethings continue to purchase her wares at department stores like Bloomingdale's. The Hemline Index showed a surge to 66.7, the highest reading of the 25 designers.
Marc Jacobs: The man who sets the tone at New York Fashion Week, Marc Jacobs, showed a whimsical collection this year, and at first glance it looks like hemlines are far lower. But take a second look, and take off the pants shown underneath dresses and skirts, and hemlines as read by the Business Insider Hemline Index rose to 45.6 from 41.1.
Michael Kors: Since his recent IPO, the Kors brand has seen huge appreciation in the market. That winning formula was on hand at his collection show this year, when instead of putting out another 34 pants and jumpsuits last year, he turned out three leotards. The Hemline Index increased to 31.5, from 29.8, meaning more legs left bare.
Nanette Lepore: Hemlines were hiked at Nanette Lepore, a label oft dropped at premiers and black tie affairs. The Business Insider Hemline Index showed a jump to 56.5 from 33.1.
Oscar de la Renta: Oscar is known for his gowns and each year he shows more than a dozen floor length looks. But some shorter skirts this year brought hemlines higher, with the Business Insider Hemline Index registering an even 40, up from 34.1 last year.
Prabal Gurung: The fresh faced designer who has gained critical attention (Vogue's Anna Wintour), did not receive the same high marks this season. He showed about half as many floor length gowns as last year, pushing his Hemline Index score up to 44.5 from 25.9.
Proenza Schouler: Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough, the designers behind Proenza, hiked hemlines this outing, registering a 66.1 on the Business Insider Hemline Index.
Ralph Lauren: Much like Mr. Jacobs, Ralph Lauren's shows are a must. But, the company also distributes its goods through 378 company owned stores and department stores as diversified as Macy's and Bergdorf Goodman. Hemlines at Lauren are shorter for 2012, with a 20.3 reading on the Business Insider Hemline Index.
Rodarte: Hemlines at the quirky brand shot up, revealing a lot more leg. The Mulleavy sister's didn't completely give up on their floor length frocks, but the Business Insider Hemline Index showed an increase of 17 percentage points, to 37.0.
Thakoon: Hemlines remained short at Thakoon, rising all the way up to 55.1 from 52.6 on the Business Insider Hemline Index. Thakoon showed few pants; less than a quarter compared to last fall.
Theysken's Theory: Hemlines remained pretty even at Theory, with a similar number of shorts — which at Theory taper off right at the hip. The Hemline Index read at 33.4 for 2012, up from 30.4 last year.
Tommy Hilfiger: Mr. Hilfiger, who collaborates with Peter Som and Simon Spurr on womenswear and menswear, respectively, shortened skirts and dresses this season, with a reading of 49.1 on the official Business Insider Hemline Index.
Vera Wang: The designer, better known for her bridal work, generally keeps hemlines long, but this season they inched slightly higher, coming in at 26.0 on the Business Insider Hemline Index.
Bonus: If you're looking for a good indicator of economic health, Marc Jacobs himself might be the right man to turn to. If relying just upon his kilt against the pants he wore a year ago, then the economy could see big gains.
NOW WATCH: Money & Markets videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.