The name behind the famous names? Christina Ong

Catherine Pepinster on the woman buying Bond Street
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The Independent Online
Take A walk along Bond Street, London, and the names above the shopfronts are among the most famous in the fashion world: Armani, Prada, and Donna Karan. But appearances are deceptive. The person who is really behind them - and makes her multi-million pound profits out of people's dreams of elegant living - is a little-known, secretive Singaporean called Christina Ong.

Mrs Ong knows all the tricks in the fashion-store book. The power of a name, the seduction of an image, the promise that spending just a few hundred pounds gives you access to the world of couture. And she's done it by turning high fashion into franchising. "The high street is about franchising," said Russell Schiller, head of research at property advisers Hillier Parker. "McDonald's is about franchising. Now Bond Street, once one of the most exclusive streets in the world, is as well."

The daughter of a Singaporean multimillionaire and the wife of a billionaire, Mrs Ong runs a pounds 45m clothing empire that includes all Armani's outlets in Britain. She holds the franchises for Donna Karan and her cheaper outlet DKNY, the Prada stores and Bvlgari jewellers. Her own label Unity is part of her distribution and manufacturing conglomerate, Club 21, which also distributes such labels as Industria, Mui Mui, and Armani underwear.

Traditional fashion houses such as Hermes and Dior, have long been on Bond Street. But the county set, who once visited to buy their daughters' trousseaux, have been supplanted by ladies who lunch and browse in Gucci, Versace, and Valentino.

As British designers took Paris by storm last week with their couture shows, international houses are battling to get space over here - especially in Bond Street. Among the latest arrivals are Polo Ralph Lauren who has acquired a 40,000 sq feet flagship store and American designer Tommy Hilfiger. Calvin Klein, who last year made pounds 2,400m in sales worldwide - more than any of his competitors - says he picked Bond Street because of "the energy and style to be found there which reflect the image of CK".

But it is Christina Ong who dominates Bond Street. Spot a troop of builders working against the clock and the chances are that they are putting together another store for Mrs Ong. There's number 43, where Collezioni Armani, also known as the Italian designer's White Label, will be sold. And down the road at number 55 there's the old Kurt Geiger outlet, for which Mrs Ong has just agreed to pay pounds 343,000 a year in rent and has paid pounds 50,000 to persuade the former tenants to quit.

Selling the fashion dream is simple - if you have the money. Rents have soared in Bond Street in the last 18 months, spurred on by the Ong clout. "She shoots from the hip", said one agent. "She walks in to a store, says they'll take it, and the deal is done. Then they change their minds and put it back on the market, and the price has gone up. Few people can operate like that."

Nor is any expense spared in getting tenants out. Premiums - one-off payments to persuade people to quit - have jumped in recent months, with up to pounds 600,000 being offered to one store.

How do fashion retailers like the Ongs recoup their money? Through you, the customer. Mark ups of up to 100 per cent on the most chic items are common. In some stores even a black sweatshirt, made in Korea, leaves little change out of pounds 60.

What Mrs Ong and her husband Ong Beng Seng are doing in Bond Street is repeating the formula which has made them millions across the world - turning the latest fads and fashions of the Eighties and Nineties into profit. Exercise? The Ongs were into the fitness obsession with health clubs. Celebrity restaurants? They bought into Planet Hollywood and Hard Rock cafe franchises. Movies? Mr Ong got himself a stake in Richard Branson's Virgin cinemas. Fast cars? Ong part-owns car dealers selling Mercedes, Ferraris, Alfa Romeos and Jaguars. Sexy image? They have the licence for Haagen-Dazs ice-cream in the Far East.

But it is hotels and fashion where the Ongs have made their biggest impact. After successfully running the Sydney Hilton, London's Inn on the Park and the Halkin, the couple open their most ambitious hotel to date on 17 February, the Metropolitan on Park Lane.

The staff will be dressed by DKNY, while at the Halkin she used her successful business relationship with Giorgio Armani to persuade him to design the uniforms. It's not surprising Armani agreed. Mrs Ong takes away the headache of setting up shop - which can cost around pounds 4m for a Bond Street site - leaving the designers to design.

Ongs' hip hotel, Spending, page 1