Fashion: A breath of fresh Yorkshire air: Rita Britton knows her labels and her customers. Therein lies the success of her Barnsley shop, Pollyanna, says Roger Tredre

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Indy Lifestyle Online
DOES the experience of a fashion retailer in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, suggest that designers have been getting British women wrong all these years?

As London Fashion Week opens, it is worth questioning whether British designers have been too obsessed with export while ignoring the opportunities available here.

The conventional wisdom is that British women are not fashion aficionados. Research seems to confirm it: British women spend less per head on fashion than the French or Italians. Many feel safer in the arms of Marks & Spencer than in the big-bucks world of designer labels.

So what's been happening in Barnsley? For the past 25 years an energetic Yorkshirewoman called Rita Britton has been selling the world's most exclusive labels to the locals. Her shop, Pollyanna, sells Comme des Garcons, Yohji Yamamoto, Romeo Gigli and Donna Karan, Jil Sander and Jean Muir.

The success of Britton's shop has certainly impressed Baroness Denton, the minister at the Department of Trade and Industry responsible for design. She says: 'For years I had looked at the captions on fashion photographs, and the stockist lists would read Harvey Nichols, Sloane Street, all the usual places, and then Barnsley. So I went to meet her and found her a breath of fresh air.'

Pollyanna is successful because Ms Britton does not allow designers to dictate the way she sells clothes to customers. She knows far better than they do.

'When I go to Paris to buy the new collections, I work on my own,' she says. 'I select clothes that fit with the look of the store, not necessarily the look of the designer. So if a designer is pushing silly pink jackets with curly piggy tails, I'll ignore them and buy the beautifully cut jackets.'

Rita Britton says that her customers are quite prepared to spend large sums of money on designer clothing if they believe their buys will last.

'If they can't see five years of wear in a jacket, they shouldn't buy it,' she says. 'There's a sort of inverted snobbery among my customers. They love showing off how long they've had their Jean Muir cashmere sweaters.'

Rather than trying to change her customers' desire for value-for-money, Ms Britton has gone out of her way to appeal to the frugal, cautious, British mentality.

'All right, they'll gasp at the price and they might even go home and sleep on it, but at the end of the day, if they believe the quality is right, they'll buy.'

She is convinced that British designers have got their priorities wrong. They are venturing too early into the export business, where orders are often dependent on the whims of the currency market. 'You've got to be strong in your home market first. Export should be the cream on the cake.'

She tells the story of an intended trip to London to buy from the new collection of a leading menswear designer. 'I've just had my appointment cancelled because the Japanese are going in. Our designers don't care enough about their British retailers.'

There are signs, however, that designers are beginning to take Rita Britton's point. Some of the country's most successful names have concentrated energetically on their home market. Jean Muir sells to 65 shops in Britain, Betty Jackson to 45, and Caroline Charles to 31.

At the young 'street' end of the market, names such as Red or Dead and John Richmond have also built up strong business in Britain, which has given them a stable base for exporting.

Few of the top-notch foreign store buyers will be in London over the next few days. Young British designers will have to look closer to home to put their companies on a strong financial footing.

They may discover that while British women may not be the most fashionable in Europe, they are more enthusiastic about buying designer clothes than the designers themselves think.

Pollyanna is at 16 Market Hill, Barnsley, South Yorkshire (0226 291665).

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