"There have always been designer hat shops," says Anna Harvey, deputy editor of Vogue, "but bag shops, no. There have been designer bags: Hermes, Gucci, Chanel. But there's no Mr Hermes or Mr Gucci, just a stable of designers. An independent bag designer setting up shop really is quite unprecedented."
The accessory has finally earned its lace in the high street pecking order. Accessories like hats and scarves used to be fashion's poor relation, slotted in around the edges of a designer's show. But accessories are now big business. Accessorize, the high-street chain specialising in hats, scarves and bags opened its first door in Covent Garden in 1984. It now has 52 shops nationwide and plans another thirty for this year.
Accessories have become more than mere afterthoughts. In the sixties and seventies, scarves were wrapped around hips, tied around heads and turned into bikini tops. They were cheap and versatile. Now, they are made from exquisite fabrics, and cost a fortune - anything from pounds 80 to over pounds 500.
The first scarf designer to make a name for herself was Georgina von Etzdorf. "Dior, Jacqmar and Liberty scarves at various times have been coveted," says Anna Harvey. "But Georgina is a person, not a brand name and there's a difference."
A Camberwell School of Art graduate, von Etzdorf started designing 15 years ago and was the first designer to work with printed velvet and devore. She now has two shops in London - in Burlington Arcade and Sloane Street. Sue Holmes, the scarf buyer for Liberty confirms von Etzdorf's status: "Ten years ago customers would come in and ask for a scarf, now it has to be a Georgina von Etzdorf scarf." Harriet Anstruther and Neisha Crossland, the next generation of designers specialising in scarves, are the names to watch and are already hugely popular.
Name dropping is now quite the thing in Liberty's hat department "Lots of customers come in looking for Philip Treacy and Stephen Jones hats," said the sales assistant, "and not just those who are off to Ascot. It's amazing how many people have heard of their names." And can afford the prices.
Although there have been well known milliners in the past, few have enjoyed the fame Stephen Jones and Philip Treacy now enjoy. Their styles are very different; Jones' hats are simple, understated with strong colours and start from pounds 50 and go up to pounds 500; Treacy's are intricate, flamboyant and eccentric, and start at around pounds 400. They both have their own shops, international clientele and the attention of fashion magazines.
The economic climate, says Caroline Darke, a lecturer in accessories at the Cordwainers College, has also helped raise the profile and desirability of accessories. "Designer clothes have become so expensive, people spend money on accessories because they are relatively affordable. A beautiful hat, handbag or scarf lasts a lot longer than an outfit which can date very quickly."
The fact that Lulu Guinness' Florist Basket (pounds 225), a Bucket bag in black satin with red rose buds on the lid, is soon to be on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum confirms Darke's assertion that a bag is no longer just something to stick your purse in: "It's a fashion statement. Take the rucksack. People wear them regardless of what they need to carry. Hiking, most definitely, is not on the agenda."
Hats are the same. Squashy velvet hats, streetwise Rasta caps, skateboarders' "Beenie" bobblehats and fleece pull-ons are now widely worn for reasons other than head warmth. There was a time when everyone wore hats, and not just for weddings. Then, from the Fifties, demand fell and by the Seventies, many hat manufacturers had gone out of business. Christy's, Britain's oldest surviving hat making company, established in Stockport in 1773, survived this lean period by making riding hats. Now, says Roger Hulme, factory manager, demand is picking up. "Youngsters are wearing hats again. I saw some lad roller-blading down the street the other day wearing a bowler."