NEW YORK – Amid the deafening modern whir of electronic devices, “it” bags, McMansions, reality TV and celebrity hijinks, something else has emerged: a craving for simplicity.

The status car has gone from hulking SUV to hybrid. The status bag is a canvas tote. The status shoes? Ballet flats. But no one’s ready to dump the BlackBerry just yet – the 21st century search for simplicity is just a notch removed from our overdrive lives.

Getting rid of flash is the easy part: Sequins and loud logos are out of favor anyway, gone the way of body glitter and long red nails.

The harder choices come when considering giving up the modern conveniences that got us here. And faced with a hard choice, most of us decide not to choose: We’ll take the simplicity with a side of complicated.

Give us a family dinner around the table – so long as it’s prepared by Whole Foods. We’ll use canvas bags – and get in bidding wars for totes by Anya Hindmarch. And we’ll wear pure, organic cotton – designed by Stella McCartney.

When superstar designer Tom Ford opened his 1930s-style, gentleman’s-club store last year with an emphasis on made-to-order three-piece suits, he said he was trying to undo the fashion frenzy he helped create during his tenure at Gucci. The man who sent out some of the sexiest styles ever on a runway said he realized that he was more interested in making well-tailored clothes that last.

And as he did in the ’90s with Gucci, he might be leading the way. The question is: Will any of this stick?

Being less conspicuous could just be a trend, much like bling was five years ago. Consciousness, however, might last longer.

“It’s not just one thing causing all this. It’s a perfect storm of trends interacting with one another,” says Michael Solomon, director of the Center for Consumer Research at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. “There’s the economy, there’s what I think is this tsunami of eco-consciousness that we’re just scratching the surface of, there’s over-stimulation.”

Solomon, who has written several textbooks on consumer behavior, also mentions the war and concern about America’s place in the world with strong competition from China and India as factors in the new attitude.

“This has brought a neo sobriety. It’s a fashion statement to be understated,” he says. “It’s a push back against the excesses of the last few years.”

Being understated is not the same as pulling back, says Jayne Moutford, vice president of trend reporting at StyleSight, a company that provides forecasting, design and merchandising analysis. She sees the appearance of retrenching as a new form of trading up.

“Part of this trading up is we desire more exclusivity. The people who are green or eco-conscious are still lusting for luxury goods but they want to do it more discreetly,” Moutford says.

You don’t necessarily want to carry the “it” bag since it’s far more prestigious to pick up something unique that you obtained while on a remote trip somewhere, she says. “You don’t want to be part of the pack. You pay for that.”

The rebellion against all things corporate and cookie-cutter probably started in Scandinavia and has worked its way west, according to Solomon. He notes that many consumers still don’t realize that their new favorite craft beer is brewed by a Budweiser subsidiary or that Levi’s trendy Red Tag jeans are a slightly tweaked version of the brand’s original 501s.

It’s too early to say how this subtle shift away from consumption will play out, says trend analyst Faith Popcorn, founder of BrainReserve. She thinks we’re only 20 percent into the real movement of decreasing purchases and usage.

“We’re staying home, cocooning, but we’re buying expensive big screens. Instead of spending $10 to go out and see a film, you buy a $2,000 TV,” she says.

If anything, it will be the environmental concerns that force permanent changes in behavior, she says.

“Now we’re dealing in the symbols of paring down – we think it’s cool to buy our kids wooden blocks or you’re buying a Prius even if you think it’s dreadful, you have EarthPledge fashion, you talk green. … These are little signs and symbols of a less consumer-driven society,” she says.

“Now we have to watch these symbols and signs to see if they’re real.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.