Monsoon guru finds he's fashionable on the Stock Market

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Peter Simon, the founder of Monsoon, found himself pounds 88m better off yesterday when a quarter of his company was floated on the Stock Market. Tamsin Blanchard analyses the appeal of the fashion chain which epitomises ethnic chic.

It all started on a trip to India in the early Seventies. Peter Simon, a former fishfinger salesman, purchased some locally made garments, and brought them back to London to sell from his Portobello Road market stall.

The first Monsoon store opened in 1973 in London's Beauchamp Place, and since then Mr Simon has opened 179 Monsoon and Accessorize shops. Combining modern design expertise with traditional materials and techniques, the company has traditionally sold a range of colourful handprinted cotton clothing and other natural fabrics. One of the first best sellers was a shaggy coat made from the wool of a shoat - a cross between a sheep and a goat.

But Monsoon has an image firmly rooted in the brown-rice eating, cheesecloth wearing days of the Seventies. Some people doubt whether it can be successful in today's minimalist fashion climate.

"Monsoon? It's for middle aged women who were once hippies," was one fashion editor's response when asked for an opinion on the chain yesterday. "Women don't want to look frumpy. Everything is shaped like a tent. The colours are wrong and the shapes aren't right," was another comment.

The snooty fashion cognoscenti however, have never been the core customer for Monsoon. A 32-year-old social worker, Anne Maher, pops into her local branch from time to time to see what's new. Her most recent purchase was a necklace from Monsoon's sister chain, Accessorize. It was pounds 8.99, what Ms Maher describes as "cheap and cheerful".

Indeed, the shops have a loyal customer base. According to a company spokeswoman, she is typically aged between 25 and 45. "She is a customer who is not a slave to fashion, who loves the colour and the individual look of Monsoon clothes. However ... we feel that we are increasingly able to attract the customer who wants a stronger, simpler, more fashionable look."

Monsoon is in a very strong position to move forward. As the merchandise in high street chains becomes increasingly interchangeable, it is Monsoon's very difference from the rest of the high street that the company should be exploiting.

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