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The must-have item might be yours alone

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NEW YORK -- The clone wars have ended: It is no longer cool to carry around the must-have handbag that all your friends have, too. Nor do you need to have matching designer outfits or easily identified mass-market kitsch.

Tastemakers say there's more value these days in owning the unique, even if it sometimes costs a little more.

At a recent brainstorming session held by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, designer Betsey Johnson told her peers that it was her "special things" -- the items that didn't look like they could come from anywhere else -- that were her best performers.

When it comes to trends, Johnson says, a chain like H&M can get them out there before she can, even if the style started on her runway. But, she says, those stores can't capture the Betsey Johnson signatures, so that's what she's concentrating on.

"The idea of a cookie-cutter idea of style can seem more stale than it used to," says Claire Hamilton, retail and events consultant for style forecasting firm WGSN. "This is a reaction to the sheer amount of fastness in the fashion market ... people are looking for what is unexpected."

Even retail giant Macy's (NYSE: M) is trying to carve niches to appeal to the uniqueness customers are craving.

The company is the sole U.S. department-store source for the Spanish label Desigual, which has a global-infused contemporary look achieved through embroidery and patchwork, and it will be the only place for Rachel Rachel Roy, the upscale designer's contemporary line.

"We want to make Macy's a destination for these things," says group vice president of ready-to-wear fashion Nicole Fischelis. "We can't go anymore and focus just on the basics. We want to offer pieces that stand out."

The company is actively seeking out exclusives, serving a twofold purpose, according to Fischelis: Shoppers get distinctive items and the store differentiates itself from its competitors.

Cathy Calhoun, a jeweler in Royersford, Pa., and New York-based Max Osterweis, who launched Suno, a collection of bright cotton apparel made from traditional East African kangas, both have found success during the recession by offering one-of-a-kind items.

Osterweis, in fact, now is moving away from using vintage printed fabrics to creating new vintage-inspired printed fabrics at a factory in Kenya partly because the demand is exceeding supply. (Also, part of the mission of Suno is to create a sustainable apparel industry for the local population.)

First lady Michelle Obama was photographed this summer in a Suno top, which almost certainly increased brand awareness.

Even as it grows, however, the business will stay intentionally small, which allows him to maintain control, explains Osterweis. "Suno is trying to create a new paradigm for what luxury goods are by going back to the old paradigm of what luxury goods were -- things that are very special, difficult to get and might have a story behind it."

Calhoun Jewelers sells the traditional milestone items such as engagement rings and confirmation crosses that one would expect from a suburban store, but Calhoun says it's the vintage pieces, which are often more expensive, that are generating interest and excitement.

"Here's the No. 1 thing people are looking for: a piece of jewelry with provenance or a story. If there's a story to it, they have to have it," she says.

Recently, she had a quick sale of a diamond brooch with open platinum handwork from the early 1920s that came in its original box. It had been passed on from generation to generation and, for 30-plus years, it belonged to a woman who wrote a note, kept in the box, asking the next bearer of the brooch to "wear it and cherish it as I did."

"People don't come in knowing they want a story, but once you start giving a story, they are enthralled by it and that's when they have to have it," she says. "You feel important in this jewelry and you are given the chance to retell the story every time you wear it."

Consumers are attracted to the craftsmanship they associate with vintage jewelry, as well as top-tier leather brands and couturiers, says Greg Furman, executive director of The Luxury Marketing Council, which advises CEOs and marketers on how best to reach potential customers.

It helps if you can make an emotional connection too, because then shoppers aren't concerned with price -- or at least the price tag, he explains. They'll amortize the cost over the long period of time that they'll cherish that special thing or experience, which will be perceived as a better long-term investment than a here-today, gone-tomorrow fashion trend.

"It's stuff you understand why there might be a high price tag on a product," Furman says. "That brings the joy to have great things."

Furman also sees a growing movement toward customization, in which consumers have a say in how a final product turns out -- and ensuring its rarity.

"We're moving away from the old push form of marketing. Image ads don't work anymore. Now we want to understand what you want, it's pull marketing -- tell us what you want," he says. "How much more special can something be than if you help make it. It's a clear shift from the 'it' bag mentality."

Hamilton, the trend analyst, says the change is largely a byproduct of a more savvy marketplace. "We're all a little more sophisticated in how we dress and think about fashion. The ability to have something no one else has is total luxury."

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