When Debenhams commissioned Philip Treacy to design a range of hats for the woman who wanted the milliner's style, but not the SW1 price-tag, it knew it was on to a winner. The hat collection is now into its fifth year and, along with Pearce II Fionda, BDL by Ben De Lisi, J by Jasper Conran, G by Maria Grachvogel, Nisha by Nisha Crossland, Lulu Guinness, Pip Hackett and Bill Amberg, it is earning Debenhams around pounds 5m per year. Next year, the designer division is expected to take more than pounds 15m. In five years' time, Terry Green intends to make that figure pounds 30m. Who says designers can't make money?
"My aim is to bring real designer wear to the customer at real high-street prices," Green says. And whether the clothes are by an unknown cufflink designer who Green happened upon at a party, or a big name on the London designer circuit, it doesn't matter. "They don't have to be famous," he says. If the clothes are right, they will sell. "We're not precious about it." It is not about designer names per se. That seems a strangely outmoded concept. More important is the unique style and quality available at the right price.
What makes Debenhams ranges so special is their clever branding. Apart from the swing tag, there is nothing to suggest the garment came from a department store and not some chic little boutique. Each label bears only the designer's signature and is free from Debenhams' own branding. The designer's reputation and integrity is on the line. And that way, the customers' best interests are looked after; they can be sure they are getting great design and good quality. As well as the designer labels, there is an eclectic collection of separates called I.Q.
The woman in charge of finding new talent is Stephanie Chen, the store's buying and merchandising director for designers. "The designers have the final sign-off," she says. "Ultimately, the garment has their name in the neck. It is important the designer is proud of their work for us."
She has a hit-list of names she would like to recruit over the next few years, although obviously it is top secret. "The key is that we are passionate about giving our customer value and style. It doesn't matter if you are 15 or 50. The designer simply has to be talented," she says. "This is an outlet for the designers to be creative and commercial and to reach a wider audience. It doesn't mean they have to feel compromised." There is no room for fashion snobbery. A designer has to get into the mindset of the Debenhams customer.
When the design duo Pearce Fionda had cashflow troubles a couple of years ago, the offer to join the Debenhams team was one they could not refuse. Their partnership with the store has meant that their label now reaches a wider market than they could previously have imagined. It is available at 45 stores up and down the country and is growing stronger every season. In the next year, their range will be carried in 75 stores. This summer, they have introduced a cruise and swimwear line, including glamorous all-in-one swimsuits and curvy bikinis in classic black and white. The first Pearce Fionda shoes will be on sale, available exclusively - and affordably - at Debenhams from September.
"We pretty much lead the whole thing," says Ren Pearce of Pearce Fionda. Debenhams keep in touch with the designers weekly and every single item that reaches the shop floor is signed off. "Our name is on it and we want to feel proud of it," says Ren. "The reason people come back and buy from the collection is we don't skimp on anything."
The same will apply to Mr Boateng when his collection launches. But don't get too excited. You'll have to wait until next spring. In the meantime, if you haven't already been designer shopping at Debenhams, it's well worth taking a look.
Main picture: Bikini, pounds 35, by Pearce II Fionda; Hat, pounds 28, by Kangol; flip-flops, pounds 15, by Maine Active; Top left: Cashmere wrap cardigan, pounds 85, by Neal and Curtiss; Slip dress, pounds 100, from G by Maria Grachvogel; Beaded sandals, pounds 199, by Acessorise at Senso, 23 Brompton Arcade, London SW3, inquiries 0171-584 3484; Centre left: Long black jacket (part of a suit), pounds 180, by Pearce II Fionda; t-shirt, pounds 22, from IQ; leggings, pounds 35, by Maine New England; black beaded sandals, pounds 250, by Accessorise from Senso as before, Bottom left: Crochet dress, pounds 100 by J by Jasper Conran
All available at Debenhams, 334-348 Oxford Street, London W1, Market Street, Manchester, 97 Argyle Street, Glasgow, and branches nationwide inquiries 0171-408 4444.