Experts who can tell the winners from the dogs

It's a long way from the catwalk to the High Street. Linda Watson reports on the fashion buyers
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The Independent Online
I once met a fashion buyer who hadn't slept for a month. He wasn't ill, or jet lagged. He hadn't been harassed, divorced or bereaved. He was en route to a nervous breakdown with bags the size of Vuitton trunks under his eyes because he had been to a fashion show and hadn't bought a particular style of white shirt.

No wonder some buyers are on edge: sitting either side of the catwalk, separated by a pristine oblong, the odd supermodel, and a air of nervous tension are two types of people: one tells us what to wear, the other puts their money where their mouth is. Fashion pundits can say what they like: black is the new navy, lurex is hotter than velvet, or Harry Hill's shirts are the best thing since sliced bread. When it comes to human beings in designer labels, the buck stops with one: the buyer who decided to buy the collection in the first place. "I understand pretty well the motives of the press," says Josephine Turner, co-owner of the Knightsbridge designer emporium A La Mode. "Fundamentally, the aims are the same but the difference is that they are translating their thoughts into photographs and ink. Women think this is what's happening and that's an end to it. Buyers are the people who have to sell it. Ultimately, our responsibility is far greater."

The main purpose of a fashion show is to launch a two-pronged attack on the purse strings: first, generate the publicity. Next, get the sales. Often, the two are mutually massaging. Occasionally they exist in solitary confinement. Which is why the snakeskin jacket with Quasimodo shoulders, or the hat with horns growing out the side may have a starring role in your glossy catwalk report, but rest assured, there's only one of them - and it's staring at you from the page. "You can pretty much spot the winners from the dogs," says Liz McCarthy, Fashion Director at Selfridges. "There are many looks that are just done for the show. Even with the more wearable ones, there is room for manoeuvre: you know instinctively if a dress ends up around the bum on the catwalk, it will be a decent length when you buy it."

Fashion buyers do far more than just buy clothes. They choose colours, sizes, quantities and shapes. They need to know what will go with what, who goes where, and which labels will live happily as next-door neighbours on the shop floor. With budgets from pounds 30,000 per season for small independents to millions for department stores, they must know what went cold last season and what's about to be hot. The composite fashion buyer would be part psychic, part gambler, a walking advertisement for designer style with the psychological make-up of Paul McKenna and John McCririck. "We always say 90 per cent success, 10 per cent sale rail" says Deidre Kelly, Fashion Director at Brown Thomas, a beautiful Dublin department store which sells Prada, Armani and Gucci to locals and to celebrity residents of Paddywood. Ask buyers the burning question - how to pick stars from thousands of potentials - and they echo the same sentiment: it's not enough to have good taste - you need to put yourself in the position of the customer. "You are on the road to disaster if you choose your own personal taste," says Liz McCarthy. "Obviously, it plays a part, but it's a case of keeping your eyes open, listening to feedback from the press, trusting your gut feeling. You can't get too emotive about it." Josephine Turner agrees. "Sometimes I might see a dress which is absolutely exquisite but I don't buy it because it will be too difficult to sell. Being beautiful isn't everything: it just won't fit into any lifestyle."

According to one model who has seen them in action, "There are two breeds of buyer: the quite eccentric, quirky woman who has a little shop in the counties, has a zany way of putting things together and often buys for specific customers in mind. Then there is the department-store buyer. The British will arrive with one assistant and a laptop. The New York contingent are more like the Mafia, with 10 assistants and an unwritten rule that everyone knows their place - even down to who holds the Polaroids."

For some buyers, the task is more complicated. Claire Locke co-owns Artigiano, a mail-order company which sells Italian clothes to British women. She never sees her customers in the flesh. "Selling via a shop is completely different. If you see a fabric you like you can touch it, feel it. With a catalogue, there is a lot of trust involved."

Consider the case of Susan Whiteley. As Buying Director for Harvey Nichols, she scours the collections for tasty designer morsels, but has to put another head on when buying for Leeds. "In London, we have quite a big tourist customer and a very wealthy W1 customer with a huge disposable income. She might spend pounds 20-pounds 30,000 in one go. In Leeds, it's a different story. They don't want a Moschino jacket that is brand identifiable. They move in a smaller social circle. The last thing they want is someone to say, `God, she's got that jacket on again.' What about the Ladies who Lunch? "We realised there was a gap in our market there. So next season we're selling Versace couture - exclusive to us and the shop on Bond Street - which costs pounds 11-12,000 per piece."

Fashion purists are rare: Mrs Gill Smytheman has been selling Jean Muir on the outskirts of Birmingham to a hard-core following for 30 years. "Sometimes I might throw a dress on the sofa and watch it form its own shape. Often, I'm lying in bed and I just like looking at them hanging on the outside of my wardrobe. It doesn't matter how old they are, or if the first bloom's gone off. They're works of art. Much more than just clothes."

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