Armani pins hope on the designer T-shirt

GIORGIO ARMANI, the Italian designer, opens an Emporio store in central London tomorrow at a time of uncertainty in the fashion industry about the future of the 'designer' market.

The fear is that consumers are no longer excited by the allure of designer brands. The problem has been further exacerbated by recessionary pressures on both sides of the Atlantic.

However, Mr Armani believes he has found a means for designers to continue to prosper in the Nineties. The Emporio Armani chain, which now includes four shops in the UK and 109 worldwide, is bringing a designer fashion brand to a wider public.

By high street standards prices at Emporio Armani are still high. The new shop in Covent Garden, which is the designer's fourth in Britain, sells women's jackets for pounds 300 and jeans for pounds 80. But these prices compare favourably with Mr Armani's main collection, where a jacket sells for pounds 650.

Launched in Milan in the Eighties, Emporio Armani's turnover is pounds 110m, out of total group sales of pounds 340m.

Perfume sales also contribute heavily to group turnover, reaching pounds 60m in 1991. The designer launches a new fragrance in Britain next month called Gio

In the United States Mr Armani has broadened his appeal still further with the launch of A/X: Armani Exchange, a new chain of stores that sells jeans and casual clothes at prices similar to The Gap. Most clothes are under the dollars 100 ( pounds 52) mark.

The irony is that the man who made the pounds 600 power suit a symbol of Eighties' affluence is now banking on jeans and T-shirts as the staples of the Nineties.

Since the launch of A/X last December, Mr Armani has opened 21 stores in the US. Another eight follow next month. Industry sources say the A/X formula could eventually be introduced to Europe.

Fellow designers in Italy, France, the UK, and the US are following a similar strategy. British designers, including Paul Smith and John Richmond, have launched jeans collections within the last 18 months.

Fashion designers are paying closer attention to the needs of their customers. Mr Armani said: 'The consumer dictates. Designers cannot simply make anything and assume it will sell. They have to have a complete respect for the balance between quality and price.'

The feeling in the trade is that designers' signature collections may soon become as rarefied as made-to-measure or couture collections: drumming up useful media coverage but bought by increasingly few customers.

Mr Armani made it clear yesterday that he wanted no more than one store in each big city to sell his top-priced collection.

The risk for designers is that they cheapen their name by producing too many lower-priced collections.

When Emporio Armani and Armani Jeans were first launched in 1981, Mr Armani's strategy drew criticism within the industry.

The upmarket appeal of his brand, however, was unaffected.

Other designers who have courted a wider market, particularly Pierre Cardin, have been less successful at maintaining their image of exclusivity.

(Photograph omitted)