High fashion's debt to the lowly Chavs

Brand-obsessed urban youngsters are the unlikely saviours of a depressed luxury and designer clothes market
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The Independent Online

Forget Elizabeth Hurley and Victoria Beckham, the real saviours of the designer clothes industry are an emerging class of twentysomething urbanites known as Chavs.

From the tips of their Burberry baseball caps to the toes of their cashmere Calvin Klein socks, Chavs are a walking advertisement for luxury brands, and are helping to maintain sales for many designers. Their uniform includes Hackett tops, Versace jeans and Adidas trainers. Accessories are Louis Vuitton graffiti handbags for girls; an English bull terrier and gelled hair for the boys. And there is gold - lots of it - for both sexes. Sovereign rings, huge hooped earrings, thick neck chains and heavy bangles are the Chav's jewellery of choice.

The word Chav comes from an abbreviation of the birthplace of the genus - the Medway town of Chatham in Kent. But variations on their type, also known as Neds, Charvers and Townies, can be spotted across the UK. Their icons are Posh and Becks, Daniella Westbrook, singer Charlotte Church's former boyfriend Stephen Johnson and the pop star Brian Harvey.

Much of the coverage is derogatory, focusing on the average Chav's lack of education, taste for fighting and loud fashion tastes. The website www.chavscum.co.uk satirises their culture, describing them as "Britain's burgeoning peasant underclass".

But they may also be the unlikely, though not entirely welcome, saviours of the luxury goods market, which has been plunged into depression since the 11 September terrorist attacks.

Melanie Rickey, a fashion analyst, said: "What we are seeing is a new tier of customer for these brands, and the companies are responding to that. The companies don't want to admit it, but these people [Chavs] are the ones making the money for them."

Burberry, the ultimate Chav brand, reported a 12 per cent rise in third-quarter sales for last year, with particularly strong profits from its accessories and perfumes - the more affordable bits of the brand. The world's largest luxury goods company, LVMH, recorded a 17 per cent sales growth for the last three months of 2003 and said the result was down to "outstanding sales" of Louis Vuitton handbags and luggage. Its profits come at a time when other designer labels, such as Stella McCartney, are suffering serious losses.

Companies are expanding their range of perfumes, sunglasses, bandanas and underwear, keenly aware that groups like Chavs may not have the money to buy haute couture but will happily spend £50 on a top to buy into the world of their celebrity icons.

Ms Rickey said: "When Burberry relaunched a few years ago, it made its check pattern the really big thing. For a short time all the stars and the fashion world were into it. Then Burberry moved them on to another trend, but kept the check as the instantly recognisable thing for people like Chavs to buy."

However, there is a downside. Market analysts are warning that as Burberry becomes more popular, it loses its cachet. Those in the know call it "jumping the shark" - when a successful brand crosses from aspirational cool into "so over" mediocrity.

This trend is epitomised by a recent photograph of former EastEnders actress Daniella Westbrook with her baby daughter, clad head to toe in Burberry check, right down to the fabric on her pushchair. As any self-respecting Chav would say, "pure wax". That's "very good" to anyone else.