your armani or your life

In Manchester, label fever has turned ugly. Gangs are holding fashion shops to ransom - but it's not money they're after. Oliver Swanton reports

Sly, a 19-year-old from Manchester's Moss Side, wears dark blue jeans by Armani (pounds 100), shirt by Versace (pounds 80) and boots by Rockport (pounds l25). His whole outfit was stolen by an "acquaintance" and cost him only pounds 100. He doesn't think there's anything immoral about it. "There's nothing wrong with a little bit of taxation," he says. "These shops take loads and never put anything back. Sometimes you just gotta take it back."

It's open season on Manchester's designer emporia: a fashion crime wave has left few of the city's clothes shops untouched.

Alex Ghelichi opened his exclusive menswear store, Marklynn on Deansgate, in mid-June. At 2am on 11 July it was ram raided by four men in two stolen cars. They left with bootfuls of Italian designer menswear. Three weeks later in the middle of a bright and sunny Friday afternoon a stocky red- haired white youth and a taller slim black youth strolled into his newly refurbished shop. They tried on several different pairs of Armani jeans, casually inquiring about any further stock "out back".

Finally they decided on the six pairs they preferred and had them neatly wrapped and bagged, before announcing they had no intention of paying. Ghelichi ran to the door, confronted them and managed to grab one of the two bags back. Because he put up a fight they came back first thing the next morning with three friends and threatened him with a knife. They only left (with another six pairs of jeans) when he dived over his counter and hit the panic button, wired to the local police station.

The day Ghelichi's shop was "taxed", the same two men stole 15 pairs of Armani jeans from another city centre store. The month before, a gang of youths raided another and walked away with pounds 4,000 worth of clothes.

This "trend" began last Christmas, when Manchester's notorious gang the Gooch Massive arrived en masse at a local designer menswear store. There was a jungle dance the following weekend and they wanted to make an impression. They dropped over pounds 5,000 in used notes, kitting themselves out in Armani, Versace and Valentino. Two weeks later the Gooch went shopping again. This time they wanted a 10 per cent discount. When the manager declined they purchased a couple of jumpers and left. Later that day members of the gang returned to clear the shelves. They could afford to pay for their designer labels but that wasn't the point: they had been shown disrespect.

Annabel works on the front line, in a clothes shop. Two months ago the shop was "taxed". She hasn't felt safe since. "I've never known anything like it. You're at work, in the middle of the day, in a shop for god's sake." She says she feels angry, frustrated and frightened. "They know where you work and they can come back for you anytime."

The police and local council are acutely aware they have a problem. Detective Sergeant Mike Rawlings, from the Bootle Street's crime management unit says that the police try to keep in touch with the fashion scene, in order to pre-empt raids. "What I'm always very worried about is the period when new styles change in the shops. We try to jack up our operations when we know that's going to happen." He says that targeted policing, fortified grills, and regular visits from well-briefed crime prevention officers have helped.

On the mean streets of Moss Side, three-figure designer casuals are not status symbols in the conventional sense. Malcolm, an extremely label- conscious young man explains: "It's about closing the gap. It's about saying 'Boy, we're doing it, we can afford this shit, it ain't nuffin'. We're just saying 'What you [the establishment] regard as heaven and earth are just garments, just material. We wear them, take 'em off at night and fling 'em down on the floor, it ain't nuffin' big.

"When you check someone from head to toe you can immediately see where they're at," says Malcolm. Armani and Versace and Rockport and Valentino is serious street wear. Dolce e Gabbana on the other hand tends to be favoured by middle-class wannabes. For the proper bad boyz, though, Tommy Hilfiger is still the man - he dresses gangsta rappers like Snoop Doggy Dog, 2 Pac and Coolio. "But sometimes you gotta look beyond the labels and read the attitude," adds Malcolm. "Man can do his research and buy all the right names, but if he ain't got the attitude you're gonna spot him."

Back on Deansgate, Alex Ghelichi keeps his store locked and alarmed during the day, vetting people closely before opening the door. The good news is that he may be spared any more visits this year: Valentino and Hilfiger are two labels which he has decided not to stock.

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