Comedown for couture?

High-street designer lines are now de rigeur, but do the benefits outweigh potentially lost cachet, asks Nicola Clark.

With pieces from Roland Mouret in Gap, Dutch design duo Viktor & Rolf in H&M and Celia Birtwell in Topshop, there is no excuse for not finding that perfect Christmas party dress. But news that British designer of the year Giles Deacon is to create a spring range for high-street store New Look has led observers to wonder whether designers are starting to sacrifice their cachet for cash.

Although permanent designer diffusion ranges, such as J for Jasper Conran at Debenhams, are a well-established marketing strategy, the growth of limited-edition designer collaborations is a relatively new phenomenon.

The surface benefits of such tie-ups for those involved are clear - H&M's Stella McCartney range flew off the shelves, with hundreds of the items appearing on eBay within hours. The lower price point brought McCartney's designs to a wider audience, while H&M secured substantial and lucrative media coverage in return for its significant investment.

Likewise, securing Deacon was a coup for New Look and will bring the designer - previously known only to dedicated follows of fashion - into the eyeline of a new audience.

David Mills, marketing and public relations manager at Jasper Conran, says the vision for the J range at Debenhams is to make the designer's signature style accessible to a wide audience. 'Jasper is a firm believer that quality design is not just for the wealthy,' he says. 'Most consumers are savvy enough to understand that major brands can be represented at multiple points in the market.'

These multiple entry points are perhaps best illustrated by the market for fashion perfume. While the average consumer cannot afford an £800 Prada dress, a £40 bottle of scent gives them a slice of the brand. What retailers such as Gap, H&M and New Look are doing is creating the fashion equivalent of this.

Gap is not running any advertising to support its Roland Mouret collection of 10 dresses, nor is it using the designer's name in-store or on the clothes. In fact, without having read the fashion pages, a consumer would have no idea that the range had been created by Mouret.

It is a deliberate strategy. 'You're not getting "Roland Lite", it is very much a Gap range created by Mouret,' says a spokeswoman for the retailer. However, the range has netted widespread PR coverage for Gap and ensured that the designer has stayed in the limelight.

In contrast to H&M's fast-selling Stella McCartney range, the Mouret range is not a limited collection and is being sold in 70 stores in the UK, as well as in France and New York. At the time of writing, 36 of the dresses were selling on eBay for more than £100, but unlike H&M, there are still plenty more to be had on the shelves in Gap.

The 'eBay effect' is a form of flattery, according to Elizabeth Walker, executive fashion and beauty editor at Marie Claire. 'The Celia Birtwell range at Topshop was sold out within a week and you were only allowed to buy three pieces at a time,' she says. 'The fact these ranges are limited creates excitement.'

The deeper benefits to designers involved in such initiatives are more complex. Virginia Featherston, trends planner at Publicis, points to Scott Henshall, currently stuck in the jungle as a contestant on ITV's I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, as an example of the need to connect with a wider audience. 'Designers are having to adapt to changes in society to stay relevant, whether by going on the high street or appearing in a reality TV show,' she says.

With fast fashion now the norm and websites such as knocking out designer copies in a matter of weeks, collaborations with high-street retailers are increasingly vital.

However, designers' luxury fashion kudos does not always translate well to the high street. Fashion insiders point to the poor performance of Matthew Williamson's clothing range for Debenhams as an example. 'There is a sense with some designers that they are just selling their name to the highest bidder,' said one. Representatives for Williamson refer enquiries about the range directly to the department store.

Shifra Cook, client services director at luxury media specialist BLM Red, claims the range has done nothing for Williamson's reputation. 'The Matthew Williamson brand is all about fashion, drama and excitement. But the range is weak and the whole experience, from marketing to in-store, is flat,' she says.

Despite consumer scepticism over the real level of involvement of designers in high-street ranges, most industry watchers agree the trend is here to stay.

'The stores that have secured these partnerships have been at the vanguard in the marketplace,' says Lisa McWilliam, global account director at branding specialist Brandhouse. 'In the future, more traditional high-street stores such as Marks & Spencer and Wallis will want to get in on the act.'

The fact remains that couture collections rarely pay designers' bills and, if British fashion is to flourish, funding remains vital. In light of this, collaborations should be encouraged, according to Hilary Riva, chief executive of the British Fashion Council. 'Designers generate the trends and inspire and stimulate the consumer demand that is the lifeblood of the retail market,' she says. 'By investing in designers, retailers are investing in the creative future of their industry.'

Of course, the partnerships are also good news for consumers. While few could afford last year's Roland Mouret Galaxy dress, the Gap alternative is rather lighter on the purse.


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