Fashion: It's quality. It's designer. And it's yours for pounds 45

High fashion and high street shops: a marriage for all seasons? By Susannah Frankel
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The Independent Culture
Designer of the year Hussein Chalayan is not a man whose name is obviously associated with the Great British high street. One of our most rigorous and uncompromising talents, he is known for offering up innovative and modern designs to the highest production standards - and with prices to match. No Lycra-mix, canary yellow crop top and hotpants combination from this particular designer, thank you.

This summer, however, and for the second season running, Chalayan's work will be available at a high street store near you - at Top Shop, to be precise - along with work by Sherald Lamden (the creative talent behind the Seraph label), Tracey Boyd (think pretty, eclectic London-girl good looks) and London's most feted design duo, Clements Ribeiro. Attracting names such as these is quite a coup: all four designers are perceived as directional; all are also limited to small production runs catering to a fashion-knowledgeable clientele.

Such designer/high street link-ups are by now an integral part of this country's fashion infrastructure, however. Without the help of the UK's second largest retailer, Arcadia - the company that owns Top Shop as well as Principles, Racing Green, Evans, and Dorothy Perkins - designers such as these would not be able to afford to show. The money they receive for producing capsule collections for the high street, as well as more set aside by Top Shop specifically to sponsor their own twice-yearly collections, helps them to do so.

For Arcadia, meanwhile, the press coverage that such high-profile relationships has by now generated has been worth more than its weight in gold. Not only are designers' names flagged up in-store, earning the chain serious fashion Brownie points, but the Top Shop logo is also very much in evidence at each designer's show, too.

Fashion supporting fashion in this way can, of course, only be a good thing for the consumer. There are very few women, after all, who are willing, or indeed able, to part with hundreds of pounds of their hard-earned cash for designer garments. TS Design - and other designer/high street collaborations like it - at least allows them to buy into the concept.

Jane Shepherdson, brand director at Top Shop, is the woman who oversees the buying and merchandising of TS Design, started in 1997 with Chalayan and Lamden: Clements Ribeiro and Tracey Boyd are new this season.

"We are very keen to link up with designers like these," Shepherdson explains. "In terms of Top Shop's credibility, it takes us way forward." She acknowledges, however, that an awful lot of time and energy has gone into the project so far.Where designer clothing is concerned, money, within reason, is no object. For the high street, producing commercial designs, and to a budget, is all important.

"There's been an awful lot of toing and froing," Shepherdson admits, "but we got through it. It's a learning process for both sides and the first ranges in particular took longer than they should have done."

It has been a costly, if rewarding, business. For this reason, the TS designer ranges are still around 20 per cent more expensive than the majority of Top Shop merchandise, although they remain far cheaper than the designers' own ranges.

"It was a struggle," agrees Ignacio Ribeiro, one part of the Clements Ribeiro team. Clements Ribeiro formerly designed for Dorothy Perkins but, by mutual agreement, have moved this season to Top Shop. "The press were shooting our clothes and wearing them when we were at Dorothy Perkins, which was great," he says, "but the customer didn't seem to get it." At Top Shop, a mainly teenage clientele with its finger firmly on fashion's pulse will have no such trouble.

It wasn't until the early-Nineties, and in response to a post-Eighties design-literate consumer, that the high street saw the potential of designer link-ups. The concept goes back to the Sixties and Geoffrey Wallis, however, who made a name for himself by selling more Chanel suits than most of us have had hot dinners. These were copies of the originals that inspired them, of course, but copies with a difference. Firstly, they were made up directly from patterns bought from the Chanel haute couture atelier in Paris. Secondly, Coco Chanel herself, whose great contribution was perhaps to rid designer fashion of its fussiness and over-elitist approach, took the time to travel to London to help put the look together.

In this, as in many things, Madame Chanel was ahead of her time. Today, it's hardly news that without the designer collections there would be no high street. Chanel realised it would be better for her, Wallis, and the consumer if there was a dialogue between the two and money changed hands.

If this seems only natural, it's not insignificant that it has taken almost 30 years for designer/high street link-ups to exist on a more widespread basis. That is mainly because British retailing is unusual in that it is dominated by high-street chains (a massive 70 per cent) and a public that has until very recently fixated on low-priced merchandise.

Despite resistance, however, collaborations now exist at Debenhams (where Jasper Conran, Philip Treacy and Lulu Guinness among others design ranges), Marks & Spencer (M&S have been working with Ghost's Tanya Sarne, Betty Jackson, Paul Smith and more for years), and Bhs (Owen Gaster and Paul Frith produce small but perfectly formed ranges for the store).

Is there not a danger, though, that with designer's producing collections on the cheap they will detract from their own far more expensive main lines? "I'm not doing sub-Seraph at a lower price for Top Shop," says Seraph's Sherald Lamden. "The collection is far younger than that. It's also very simple - anything too subtle gets lost in production."

Ribeiro agrees. "We're very careful not to let the range overlap with our own collection, but we have no prejudice against the high street. Sometimes the price of designer clothes is quite sickening. This works for them and it works for us."

Tracey Boyd for TS Design is available now. Hussein Chalayan, Clements Ribeiro and Seraph for TS Design are available from May