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Fashion: From one-off to rip-off: a short step from the catwalk

Why spend pounds 1,000 on a Stella McCartney original when you can get the look for a tenth of the price down the high street? Tamsin Blanchard follows the journey from catwalk to chainstore, asks top designers how they cope, and suggests how to mix high fashion with good value wearables. Photographs by Sheridan Morley.

The fashion industry is one long chain reaction. Fashion designer sits in ivory tower and sketches clothes that make little compromise for the wearer. Clothes appear on catwalk, worn by superhuman woman. Six months later, clothes go on sale at designer boutique or department store at uncompromising prices.

The story does not end there, though. Somewhere along the line, high- street retailer muscles in on the action. Ideas are plucked from the catwalk and reworked for mass production. Such is the speed and sophistication of our high-street chain stores that often their version of a designer dress will appear on the rails before the original. This sequence of events is a fact of life. The designer can but feel flattered that their work is worthy of mass consumption. The consumer applauds and races out at the beginning of each season to shop at whatever level fits her wage packet. She has the choice: Stella McCartney for Chloe suit and lacy top for pounds 1,000 plus, or a similar look - without the precision tailoring and the antique lace - from Principles for less than pounds 150.

Take Matthew Williamson. Last September, young Mr Williamson was feted as the new, shining star of British fashion. His collection of 11 outfits was not scary, shocking or hideously unwearable. It was bright, pretty and thoroughly desirable. One dress in particular was singled out by the fashion press, a fuchsia-pink shift with a black chiffon overdress embroidered with a single peacock feather. And, not surprisingly, that same dress has also caught the imaginations of design teams working for high-street retailers.

"For me, it's not really a problem at the moment," says Williamson. The original dress is so expensive and exclusive - pounds 480, and available at only a handful of chi-chi outlets - because it takes each one three days to be hand-embroidered. Each tip of the feather is beaded by hand with a needle and thread. The difference between the painstakingly made genuine article and the mass-manufactured, printed dress is like the difference between an original Picasso and an Athena print. "What I am doing cannot be reproduced on the high street. The mass-produced version can but nod to the original idea. It is not a true copy. It's weird, though, when you see the high-street version in the shops before your own designs are on the rail."

There are ways for designers to protect their own ideas, but the process is lengthy and fraught, not to mention expensive and time-consuming. Most designers take imitation as the sincerest form of flattery simply because they have no choice in the matter. Designers Clements Ribeiro have had to stand by and watch their luxury cashmere, multi-coloured, stripy cardigans and sweaters filter down into the mass market. Their story is different, however. The relationship between high street and high fashion can work two ways. While Matthew Williamson has no desire to offer his services as a designer for a high-street retailer, despite the fact that he has had offers, Clements Ribeiro signed a contract with Dorothy Perkins four seasons ago. Instead of simply watering down ideas from their collections for the Dorothy Perkins customer, Suzanne Clements and Inacio Ribeiro design a capsule collection tailor-made for the high-street customer.

Designers have to be careful not to alienate their own customers, who will happily spend pounds 600 on a dress, by apparently offering designs from their main collections at a tenth of the price. "It's for a completely different person, a different customer," says Suzanne Clements. "Working for the high street, things have to be much more practical. For instance, a designer range can have the most fragile chiffon dress, but for the high street, clothes have to pass a rip test." The designers are now fairly well adjusted to the cheaper copies they see whenever they venture on to Oxford Street round the corner from their studio. "When we first started out, I was completely outraged," says Clements, who bought all the rip- offs she could find and took them to their solicitor. "Once I figured out it was not worth the battle - who wins against these giants? - I stopped letting it be an issue. Now we're being paid to rip off ourselves."

Often, the high street is not so literal. It is after all, its job to interpret trends and looks from the international catwalks. For the mix of romance and serious tailoring that Stella McCartney is re-injecting into Chloe, we have taken one grey suit from Principles and teamed it with a lacy little camisole top. For the modernist minimalist look, as perfected by designers such as Calvin Klein, Richard Tyler and Marc Jacobs, we have picked out a pair of satin pedal-pushers and a short-sleeved polo- neck. Drawstrings are another major trend for spring/summer; they cropped up on the catwalks of Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Nicole Farhi and MaxMara, as well as in the collection by Clements Ribeiro for Dorothy Perkins. While Julian MacDonald has made an art form of textural knits and painterly devore, Warehouse has hinted at the look with a black jersey devore dress layered over a fuchsia-pink slip. It won't stand the test of time, and if it is an heirloom you're after, then invest in MacDonald, McCartney or Williamson. For a bit of one-season fashion frippery, however, take a look at your local high street and snap up some well-informed bargains.