March of the High St clones

Amanda Kelly bemoans the glut of identical 'fashions' in our stores
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SHOPPING for clothes may be losing its variety. A startling similarity between the clothes sold in the high-street stores has prompted accusations that the fashion industry is turning us into a nation of Stepford wives, all wearing the same thing.

Competition among the big chains has become so fierce that buyers are increasingly opting to play it safe and fill their shops with exactly the same kind of classic garments.

Stroll through any shopping centre in the country and you find all the well-known stores selling near-identical goods: leopard-print T-shirts, Chinese embroidered-silk trousers and outfits in lilac.

Tamsin Kingswell, features editor of Drapers Record, said: "Britain is riding high on this notion that British fashion is the best in the world and we are so hot on individuality but when you look in the high street it doesn't ring true. The choice in the shops is dismal. "

She added:"You expect to find certain basic items in all the shops but not things like party clothes. I have dreadful visions of going out to a nightclub to find everyone in exactly the same little dress."

Richard Hyman, chairman of retail consultants Verdict, agrees that this stagnation is a major cause of concern. He believes overly cautious buyers are to blame.

They have the tricky task of predicting what will be popular a whole year ahead and if they get it wrong and piles of clothes are left on the shelves they are blamed for costing their company millions of pounds.

Mr Hyman said: "I went down Oxford Street yesterdayand quite often I saw the same outfit in five or six different mainstream shops.

"Buyers are playing safe, and consumers are paying for a legacy of fingers burnt in the past. There are no definite trends, and lots of convergence among major multiples."

Hyman cites middle-market shops such as Wallis, Etam and Top Shop as examples. He feels this sector has become particularly crowded as more and more competitors fight for the same piece of pie.

He said: "Another cause of the problem is that, to increase their efficiency, the chains have cut down on the number of different suppliers they use. "

Bill Webb, lecturer at the London College of Fashion, believes the problem has reached international levels.

"Everyone gets on the same jumbos and goes to the same trade fairs and gets the same stuff from the same factories. In the old days buyers used to go and find their own pet source of supply but this is no longer true. There are also more and more chains like Gap and Etam opening shops up all over the world so this also creates a uniformity."

But the high-street multiples are bullish in defending their choice of merchandise.

Paul Fabian, managing director of Fifth Avenue Holdings, which supplies a number of chains including Bhs and Evans, said: "I would be surprised if most people who shop within the middle market are dissatisfied. When we do try bright colours or something a bit different it often ends up not selling. It is sheer economics."