Downturn has its upside on high street

Life&style As Stella McCartney at Gap and Karl Lagerfeld for H&M have proved, the alliance of top designers with retail chains is proving a winning combination.

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As Stella McCartney at Gap and Karl Lagerfeld for H&M have proved, the alliance of top designers with retail chains is proving a winning combination, Tracy Nesdoly reports. Shops enjoy the cachet, designers profit, and ordinary people can dabble in catwalk style. The fashionable have always known there is a huge gap between what one wants and what one can afford. If this were not true, the word "shopaholic" would never have been invented and credit card companies would be scrambling for business.

Happily for clothes horses and their like, one of the biggest recent trends has been the alliance of elite designers with mass-market retailers. Thanks, perhaps, to the global recession, the divide between what we want and what we can afford is narrower than ever, with designers as established as Vera Wang and Stella McCartney, or as fresh as Christopher Kane or Alexander Wang, doing budget-friendly collections for the high street.

For McCartney, going cheap and cheerful for Gap is simply prudent. "I believe that kids clothing should be more accessibly priced, which is particularly important at the moment, given the current climate," she says. Whether this trend spells a correction in the economies of fashion - has the industry finally accepted it's no good to create stuff few can buy? - remains to be seen. High-end retailers still seem packed, and Dh7,350 still seems reasonable to some for a pair of boots. But it is also cool for design to be accessible to a lot of ordinary people.

One of the latest marriages is Rodarte and Target: Rodarte, the ultra-conceptual but beautiful line created by sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Los Angeles; Target, where your mum goes to buy household stuff and cheap underwear if you live in the US. The award-winning Mulleavys have the constant support of Vogue and legions of followers, including Natalie Portman, Kirsten Dunst and Emma Watson. Britney Spears is wearing Rodarte on her latest album cover. Followers, alas, may not always mean customers; not many people can afford Dh11,000 for a jumper made of filaments. Beautiful as it is, it is not the sort of thing you can wear to work. And so the deal with Target, where they will offer a 55-piece collection ranging from US$9.99 (Dh37) for knee-highs to $79.99 (Dh295) for a leopard-print jacket, may have the same effect as a patron might to an artist - paying the bills so art can happen.

For emerging designers, an alliance with the likes of Target brings huge benefits. "I've heard some of the designers have appreciated the compensation, sometimes several million dollars, but most find the experience of working with a large company more compelling," says Sharon Edelson, a senior editor at Women's Wear Daily. "None of these designers expects to convert a Target or H&M customer into a designer collection consumer, but the exposure, through advertising and in stores, is impossible for most designers to duplicate on their own."

The earliest examples of this spate of designer-retailer fusions were Isaac Mizrahi for Target, and Karl Lagerfeld for H&M. Mizrahi's impulses were probably the most understandable; his eponymous line was popular but under-purchased and he closed his business. In 2002 he joined Target and coupled this work with a couture line for friends and socialites. What he gave Target was added heft, a unique selling proposition. Wal-Mart was about cheap toilet paper; Target was about inexpensive, excellent design.

Lagerfeld's work with H&M gained him a profile among less wealthy consumers for his affordable K Karl Lagerfeld collection. Did he fear cheapening his name? He told Business Week he didn't have time for such worries. So successful were these launches (Mizrahi's collection sold as much as $US300 million/Dh1.1 billion a year), the rest of the fast-fashion market quickly jumped aboard. Today, Vera Wang designs for the American discount chain Kohl's, Jil Sander will produce a line for Uniqlo, and H&M has taken the idea further by taking on a designer a year, ranging from conceptualists such as Rei Kawakubo and Viktor & Rolf, to trendier ones including Roberto Cavalli and Jimmy Choo. There is barely a high-street chain today without a prize thoroughbred.

The cachet such designers give a retailer is obvious. But what does it do for a designer to battle it out with low-priced, sometimes indifferently made merchandise? Sometimes, it's personal. "Perhaps the best at bridging this high-low divide have been H&M and Target. One standout partnership was between H&M and Roberto Cavalli," says Edelson. "Clearly, H&M customers are not regular Cavalli clients. The collection did, however, give Cavalli the chance to expose his name to a new group of customers and also offer aspirational fashionistas the opportunity to own a Cavalli garment.

"But Cavalli also clearly enjoyed the frenzy surrounding his event. When he visited the New York flagship for the launch, he was treated like a rock star by consumers." The added bonus for designers is that Mizrahi and Lagerfeld have taken away any stigma that might flow from going down market. The winners, of course, are the stylish, fashionable but not always financially flush consumers of clothing. Everyone's wardrobe now can contain a work of art.