Fashion: New chain for a missing link: Roger Tredre meets Susan Woolf, bridging the gap between designer labels and high street

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SUSAN WOOLF, who has this week put her name to a new chain of stores, knows there is something missing in women's fashion. But she is doing her best to fill it.

While all her customers would like to wear designer clothes, some cannot afford them and others are unwilling to pay pounds 500 for a jacket. The problem is there is not much in the middle price range between designer fashion and the high street. If you do not want to shop in Sloane Street but the chain stores strike you as unappealing, your options are severely limited.

In the United States, they call the collections that fill this gap 'bridge' collections, because they bridge the gulf between designers and high street stores. American women are well served by bridge collections, which is why many well-intentioned British importers are introducing a flurry of US bridge collections to these shores.

However, the cost of exporting to Britain often puts a high price tag on such clothes. DKNY, Donna Karan's bridge collection, is a seriously tempting range of clothes in New York. Here it sells in Harvey Nichols, with jackets at around pounds 350 - designer price levels by anyone's standards.

In spring 1990, Mrs Woolf opened a store in Knightsbridge called Episode with the intention of producing bridge collections at more reasonable prices: jackets around the pounds 150 mark and silk blouses for pounds 35. Three years on, she has 13 of these stores in Britain and another four on the Continent. The prices are still excellent, with linen jackets from the new spring collection selling for pounds 159 and white organza blouses for pounds 69. This week, she has given all the stores a top-to-bottom spring clean and with it a new name - her own.

The change is partly practical. The business was jointly owned with a Hong Kong company; now S R Gent, Mrs Woolf's British backer, has taken full control. But the name change means rather more than that. The Susan Woolf customer is Susan Woolf. A former design director of S R Gent, which supplies Marks & Spencer, she identifies with women who want to 'trade up' from the high street.

'The clothes are the sort of things I like to wear myself,' she agrees. 'They are for women who don't want to look like fashion victims. They don't want to look overdesigned.'

Mrs Woolf believes that women want clothes in the right silhouette, shape and colours. 'But they don't want to look like they've tried too hard.'

She is wary of the fast-moving pace of designer fashion. 'Of course, the shops must be exciting but I don't believe in going overboard. My customers don't want grunge, although I will sell tea dresses. I might introduce bell-bottoms, but only in small doses. We'll put more of an emphasis on wide trousers.'

She adds: 'Women want newness and excitement, although they don't all pick up on the new fashions. We do long skirts, but make a point of also doing short, straight skirts as well.'

The spring collection is dominated by soft tailoring in subdued colours and natural fibres, always a strong feature of the stores' collections under their previous name. Look for long, simple, silk dresses, linen safari jackets and crisp cotton shirts. I also liked the unstructured cardigans worn over slim trousers or long lean skirts, and lightweight wool crepe jackets (slightly more expensive at pounds 199).

The best of these clothes are timeless pieces which represent value for money. Designer? Not quite. High street? Definitely not.

Susan Woolf stores at 9-13 Brompton Road, London SW3; Unit 3, 135 Bishopsgate, Broadgate, EC2; 70 New Bond Street, W1; 5 Union Street, Bath; 35 East Street, Brighton; 23B Capitol Centre, Cardiff; 109 Princes Street, Edinburgh; 78- 80 Buchanan Street, Glasgow; 116 High Street, Guildford; 24- 26 James Street, Harrogate; 13- 15 Church Street, Kingston-upon-Thames; 16 St Ann's Square, Manchester; 15 Exchange Arcade, Nottingham.

(Photograph omitted)

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