The sharp new face of Dotty P

Dorothy Perkins is shrugging off its 'girl next door' image this season in its latest offering by Clements Ribeiro. Tamsin Blanchard reports. Photographs by Bill Davies

Halfway down South Molton Street in the heart of London's designer land, Suzanne Clements and Inacio Ribeiro, the husband-and-wife team behind the British label Clements Ribeiro, are busy at work in their cramped studio. They are preparing for their spring/summer 97 catwalk show at the end of the month, and for a move to a three-storey studio and showroom in a swanky, newly refurbished building across the street. They have recently delivered their autumn/winter collection to the shops. At Liberty in Regent Street, and Pollyanna in Barnsley, their to-die-for cashmere twinsets with signature stripes are selling at the combined price of pounds 600.

If imitation is the finest form of flattery, Clements Ribeiro has had its fair share. Its brightly striped knitwear has been "inspirational" to high-street shops this summer. But Dorothy Perkins has done the right thing and given Clements Ribeiro a two-season contract to design a collection.

Apart from giving people who wouldn't normally buy designer clothing access to the Clements Ribeiro name, the Dorothy Perkins deal gives the designers an extra injection of cash, helping to even out the cash flow problems that plague young designers.

The high-street chain's 540 branches nationwide sells more clothes to loyal customers than any other women's high-street company. Launched in 1909 as a drapers, the company set out to provide accessible, affordable clothes to women up and down the country.

Since introducing Helena Christensen four seasons ago, the company's image has had something of an overhaul. Good old Dotty P's has become synonymous with Helena Christensen, who smiles her girl-next-door smile from every point of sale photograph. There she is in her brown Argyll- knit, short-sleeved wool jumper, or in a neat black jacket ready for a day at the office. The Dotty P customer, typically aged between 20 to 45, can relate to Helena: she has a womanly figure. But as from November, there will be a new girl on the block.

The model Anna Klevhag has a sharp, angular face. She is as far away from "girl next door" as can be. And it is she who has been chosen as the face of Dorothy Perkins' new venture into high fashion. This is the point were Oxford Street and South Molton Street meet: Clements Ribeiro has designed a collection exclusively for the high-street chain. There are just 12 well-edited pieces, each in three colourways. Each piece, from the lace dress to the toffee-coloured jacket and trousers or the multi-coloured striped shirt, is designed to go with each other.

The collection has that strong, unmistakable Clements Ribeiro stamp. The designers are adamant that there is nothing in the range that they wouldn't have put in one of their own collections - in different fabrics, of course. They have not taken the usual route with a range of boring basics with mass market appeal.

"We tried not to underestimate the public," says Ribeiro. "What makes the range work is that we haven't done watered-down basic boring clothes. We believe the Dorothy Perkins customer wants to buy something that will be really special to her. We decided we wouldn't have any black in the collection at all."

The designers oversaw the collection at every stage in its evolution, from approving the patterns to the swing tags and the labels and finally, the publicity and point-of-sale pictures. They were allowed complete freedom within the confines of the brief. "If we could have the same facilities for our own range, we'd be laughing," says Inacio.

The clothes are well finished, the buttons made specifically for the collection, and, the designers say, "everything was done in the best possible way. The only compromise came in the cut: comfort and practicality are more important on the high street; shoulders were cut a bit wider for more comfort." Sizes are larger, too. A Dorothy Perkins size 10 is more like a Clements Ribeiro size 12.

Meanwhile, Clements and Ribeiro are looking forward to selling their collection for spring/ summer 97 at London Fashion Week. Among their many customers from London to New York and Tokyo, where the duo have 37 outlets, is one Helena Christensen. The model recently bought one of their "Mrs Simpson" skirts on a shopping spree to Brompton Cross. She may be the face of Dorothy Perkins, but she wears Clements Ribeiro's clothes and they don't have to pay her a penny.

For your local stockist, call 0171 291 2604.

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