This Time last year, Andrew Fionda (above left) and Ren Pearce were staring into a financial abyss. As the award- winning design duo, Pearce Fionda, they were close to giving up. The supposedly glamorous life of fashion had turned out to be pretty grimy and not much fun: the reality of their day-to-day, hand-to-mouth existence was far, far removed from the glitzy world inhabited by the women who bought their slinky, bias-cut dresses.

I felt that if these designers - specialising not in fanciful avant- garde whims of fashion, but in grown-up, elegant, well-designed clothes - couldn't keep their business together, nobody could. So, moved by their cash-flow nightmare (they had found themselves in the position, common in the fashion business, of having orders in their books but no money to fulfil them), I wrote a feature in the Independent highlighting their position. It came out the day of their Spring/Summer 97 show, and pointed out that behind the bias dresses and precision tailoring were two designers close to despair.

Fortunately, help was at hand. Terry Green, chief executive of the department- store chain Debenhams, read the feature in the Independent while he was away on business in Hong Kong. Immediately, he sent an e-mail back to HQ. "These guys are hot," he wrote. "Why aren't we using them?" Within weeks a deal was struck: the boys were back on track, with a three-year deal to produce two collections per year (under the label Pearce II Fionda) exclusively for Debenhams. That was the good news. The bad news was the deadline for the first collection: the first week of January, by then only a few of months away. That collection, which went on sale at stores nationwide recently, was still on the drawing board at Pearce Fionda's north-London studio last Christmas Eve. The team had to put their seasonal celebrations on hold - but the year ahead looked rosy.

Sitting on the large, battered leather sofas in their studio almost a year after our depressing meeting about cash flow and signing on, Andrew and Ren say they are now working towards their collections for Spring/Summer 98. Their finances will take time to recover fully, but they can afford to feel more relaxed about the future. "Debenhams haven't made us compromise at all with the collection. We haven't had to change anything, but we understand what they want too," says Andrew. "On our own, we could never have afforded to do a fraction of what they've done for us - they've given us our own carrier bags, put us in their windows, and we've even had our own advertising in magazines and newspapers. As well as all this, Pearce II Fionda has enabled our own Pearce Fionda label to carry on."

For the first time, the designers are experiencing the thrill of seeing their clothes reach a wider audience. "It's such an elite clique who can afford to buy designer clothing," says Ren. With Debenhams, the collection is still "designer" - each piece is drawn and overseen by them, from prototype to the shop floor - but it is more accessible and much more affordable. Jackets sell for pounds 200, as opposed to around pounds 600 for their mainline equivalent. As well as the pink slip-dress, the boucle wrap-cardigan and the skirt suit shown here, the collection includes other great pieces - cowl-neck evening dresses (from pounds 150), fine sequinned cobweb-crochet cardigans to shrug over the top (pounds 120), sexy calf-length side-split skirts (pounds 100), and fitted jersey shirts (pounds 80).

Comparing Pearce II Fionda with the Pearce Fionda line would be like comparing a VW Polo with a Mercedes: both are good, quality cars, but they are in totally different classes. Yet the designers' handwriting is all there in the Debenhams clothes: the sharp cut of a lapel, the sophistication of a jersey tunic, the sleek lines of the silk and satin evening dresses, the attention to detail. This is, in short, a retailer's dream: quality fabrics, clever cutting, classic, elegant clothes at affordable prices. And sizes range from a petite eight to a generous 16.

Already, the collaboration is proving so successful that the boys are working on a separate cruise line - swimwear, sarongs and beachwear to reach the shops in January - as well as sunglasses, and there is the possibility of shoes and other accessories in the future. All of this has had the effect of freeing up Ren and Andrew's creative juices and allowing them to pull out all the stops for their own line. "Before, it had to pay for itself," they say. "Now it doesn't have to, we can be more experimental." That doesn't mean that Pearce Fionda is about to become extreme, avant- garde and unwearable. It just means they can refine their ideas further, indulge themselves a little, and use more luxurious fabrics. They can push the line further upmarket: "The top end can be more top end," they say. For the women who like to buy super-luxury, this will be important - after all, as Andrew points out, in the past the designers have lost accounts because their clothes "weren't expensive enough".

Some designer clothing can seem like a waste of money - all you are paying for is a logo. With Pearce Fionda, however, what you pay for is really what you get. For pounds 600, your jacket will have been re-cut and re-tailored up to five different times, with no expense spared. "By the time the sample is perfect, it will have cost us thousands in tailoring and pattern-cutting time," says Ren. "I've personally spent a month on a single jacket. We're still such a small team, nothing escapes our attention.

It's practically a couture service."

For the likes of Francesca Annis, who wore a Pearce Fionda dress to this year's Oscars, and David Bowie's wife Iman, who had rung that morning to see the collection video and to invite them to see her husband play that night, Pearce Fionda is a couture service. For the rest of us, Pearce II Fionda is a step up the ladder. Tamsin Blanchard

Left: black fitted jacket, pounds 200; purple jersey shirt, pounds 80, black pencil skirt, pounds 80, all by Pearce II Fionda, from Debenhams branches nationwide (enq: 0171 408 4444); black clutch bag, pounds 135, from Russell & Bromley, 24-25 New Bond St, W1 (enq: 0171 629 6903); trilby, pounds 165, to order from Miss Jones by Stephen Jones, 36 Great Queen St, WC2 (enq: 0171 242 0770)

Below: belted cardigan, pounds 120, by Pearce II Fionda, as before; silver necklace pounds 22, and earrings, pounds 18, by Agatha, 4 South Molton St, W1 (mail order: 0171 495 2779)

Right: Pink dress, pounds 120, by Pearce II Fionda, as before; feather hair-grips, pounds 19.95, by Johnnie Loves Rosie, from Fenwick's, 63 New Bond St, W1 (enq: 0171 629 9161) and mail order (0171 828 1000); silver-heeled shoes, pounds 155, by Russell & Bromley, as before