Martin Taylor, chairman and chief executive of Courtaulds Textiles, admitted yesterday that the future was now bleak for young designers aiming for an international stage. 'There are already too many brands. The international designer market is losing, and has got to lose some more.'
The company had reached the conclusion that, in a fiercely competitive market, the Arabella Pollen business was only viable 'at a much larger scale'. But ambitious plans for expansion had come to nothing.
The news has sent a shiver through the designer community. Most British designers are still small businesses, struggling to make an international impact. Arabella Pollen's turnover was thought to be less than pounds 1.5m, but Ms Pollen was considered to have strong commercial potential.
When Courtaulds Textiles, a giant in the clothing industry, acquired a minority shareholding in the company in 1990, it seemed its future was assured. The shareholding was later increased to a majority stake.
The deal was a rare example of a leading British manufacturer backing a home-grown talent. The British Fashion Council predicted that similar deals could turn British designers into world-beaters. Last year, Dawson International, the knitwear group, followed suit by acquiring the Edina Ronay business.
The fashion world was shocked yesterday by the collapse of Ms Pollen's business. The designer, Bruce Oldfield, said it was now very difficult for new names to make an impact. 'Perhaps the only way design in fashion can continue in this country is by staying small.'
He said he was disappointed by Courtaulds' attitude. 'Big companies don't seem to have the patience to see something through. I can't believe they gave her enough time,' he said.
Mr Taylor said: 'If we believed the business would be viable three years from now, we would have continued to back it. But the break-even point has moved since we first got involved.'
Arabella Pollen was successful in the small British designer market, selling to 40 stores. But last year, the company switched sample-making and production to France, and launched a major drive to establish her on the continent.
Gerry Beeby, managing director, admitted yesterday that targets had not been met. 'European markets have become much more difficult to penetrate. They are simply less interested in new designers.'
Courtaulds Textiles' remaining investment in designer fashion is Georges Rech, the French label, acquired in 1989 for pounds 13m.
Margins at Georges Rech have also been hit in recent months. However, unlike Arabella Pollen, the brand has strong distribution throughout Europe.
Ms Pollen, who is to continue to work for Courtaulds Textiles in a consultancy role, was yesterday reported to be on holiday in France and unavailable for comment.