With recession-hit designers forgoing catwalk shows in London Fashion Week, and high-street clothing chains feeling the pinch, these are dark days for fashion retailers. For fashion followers, on the other hand, the atmosphere of economic austerity is providing an unlikely boost for sartorial flamboyance. As consumers tighten their belt, in the usual financial sense, various innovative websites offering couture for free (or nearly free) are enjoying a surge in activity. All they require of their users is a willingness to share.
Clothes-swapping websites such as Whatsmineisyours.com and Bigwardrobe.com - which allow members to trade high-class cast-offs with one another at minimal cost - are flourishing. Most were set up in a spirit of "eco-consciousness" back in those distant times of easy credit and conspicuous consumption, but as thrift has become less of a trend and more of a necessity, business for them has boomed. According to Judy Berger, managing director of Whatsmineisyours.com, the website has had a 200 per cent increase in activity since December and a hundred members join the network of more than 20,000 each day.
Meanwhile, catering to those without a wardrobe of last-season Lagerfeld to exchange, the US site DressVault.com is a social network whose members can borrow couture dresses from one another for a small percentage of their retail price. The founder, Patricia Harr, a former beauty queen, was inspired to create the site when she realised that "through community service events, local appearances and Miss Delaware pageant events, my family would have spent thousands on gowns, cocktail and career dresses" - perhaps not circumstances that all of DressVault.com's users will sympathise with, but ones they can they can all be grateful for.