So, does the Devil wear Prada? Not if he wants front-row seats at London Fashion Week

All eyes will be on the size zero models at the shows this week. But the big money is in the chic seats dressed, as Hollywood would have it, in Prada. But is the fashion house losing its crown? By Katy Guest
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Contrary to all expectations, the Devil did not wear Prada. Nor did Victoria Beckham, and nor did Kanye West. Roger Federer, on the other hand, was clad in the label from head to athletic toe. Glenda Bailey had on a pair of its shoes.

As hordes of fashionistas came to see, and more importantly be seen, at last week's New York Fashion shows, Anna Wintour was mostly wearing Oscar de la Renta. But then, the Vogue editor and thinly disguised anti-hero of Lauren Weisberger's bitchy, magazine world exposé novel, The Devil Wears Prada, cannot be expected to conform to expectations. She is, after all, the leader of the fashion pack. Where "Nuclear" Wintour goes, in whichever brand of shoe, others will follow.

Which is why the fashion houses are desperate to ensure celebrity guests who attend their shows wear plenty of their product. This weekend, the consensus was that, despite the graceful might of Prada, American Marc Jacobs had come out ahead. With London Fashion Week about to start, the battle for editors' favour begins again.

"In the 1980s heyday, fashion editors would fully expect to have a rack of clothing, in their size, waiting for them before a show," says James Sherwood, the fashion curator and author. "And they would be expected to wear the designer's clothing. I remember seeing the booty piled up in the Four Seasons hotel next to Prada's headquarters. Wintour is one they really want to dress. She is the best-dressed woman in the world. Not the coolest or the most fashionable, but the best-dressed. Of course, she was born to wear Chanel."

At the New York shows last week, most of the front-row patrons were loyal to the designers. At Oscar de la Renta's show, Wintour forsook Chanel for a de la Renta-designed frock. And at Marc Jacobs, nobody dared not wear at least one piece of archetypal Jacobs (including Victoria Beckham, who also crammed into a Dolce & Gabbana shirt, Cavalli shoes and Giambattista Valli trousers, which is not at all bad for a woman who does not really seem to wear many clothes).

It was, then, a successful week for the New York Fashion Week elite. But a top designer walks a tightrope. To be on the top rung, everybody who is anybody must be wearing their clothes. But not just everybody. That way, Burberry lies. The label lost its cool, and many of its sales, when it became ubiquitous.

The rivalry was not always this fierce, nor the fashion weeks so crowded. Ten years ago, there were Armani and Versace, with Prada and Gucci waiting in the wings, and that was it. The market has changed drastically since then, and become huge.

In the mid-Nineties, the fashion world consumed itself in a gigantic buying spree. Suddenly, the French company LVMH (Moët Hennessy - Louis Vuitton) owned Dior, Givenchy and Fendi. The Gucci group bought McQueen, Stella McCartney and Balenciaga. Prada bought Helmut Lang, Jil Sander and Church's shoes. And, more recently, Diesel bought Martin Margiela and is said to have its eyes on Viktor & Rolf.

In the midst of that change came September 11. A world recession crippled the luxury goods market, and companies that had overspent - Prada in particular - had their fingers burnt. Now sales are slowly recovering, and companies are desperate to get the balance absolutely right. Gucci has done exactly that: the French luxury goods group has a market value of €1.3bn.

Unlike Versace, which still makes most of its profits from clothes, Gucci's profits come mostly from accessories (80 per cent from leather goods alone), a fact it is not keen to promote. The name constantly teeters dangerously close to the edge of the "mainstream", and that is a label that no high-end designer can bear to wear. Lots of people buying your label is good for profits, of course. As long as they are the right sort of people.

There is one word to describe what happens when an exclusive fashion label becomes one tiny step too accessible, and that is "Burberry". In 2004 the group suffered a sharp decline in UK sales after a website calling itself portrayed the trademark camel check as the badge of the underclass.

Other designers have trodden the line between big name and big shame more successfully. Marc Jacobs, the New York designer, is the darling of the fashion world, adorning A-list celebrities while the likes of Top Shop imitate his clothes in cheap-and-cheerful versions for the rest of us.

Balenciaga, likewise. Its clothes are uncompromisingly fashionable and hard to wear, but one handbag, the Lariat, turned around the fortunes of the company. Gift bags were sent to fashion leaders, from fashion editors to supermodels, and everybody wanted one. This month, Balenciaga's parent company announced a 42 per cent surge in half-year profits, to €196m. It was due in large part to the success of its fashion business.

The trend now is towards anything but the middle ground. Prada can be worn with Primark, and there is a satisfying cachet in finding a bargain at TK Maxx. But middle-market retailers such as Whistles saw profits fall this summer, as customers flocked to the unashamedly cheap.

At the other end of the market, the major fashion houses pushed up prices. The more accessible the market (and, with copies of designer lines hitting the high street quicker than Marc Jacobs can draw a frock, it is more accessible than ever), the more big-money buyers want exclusivity. The most recent Dolce & Gabbana runway collection included a selection of dresses that cost tens of thousands of pounds.

And now that £500 trousers have become standard, the real fashion desperado is keener than ever on that £100,000 Chanel haute-couture dress.

Most fashion insiders, meanwhile, are looking to the small, independent designers. Marchesa, designed by Harvey Weinstein's partner Georgina Chapman, is painfully cool. But Versace is experiencing a welcome revival now that its matriarch, Donatella, is off the drugs and into the black. The small, independent Lanvin is a winner with those in the know.

But then, having just launched a perfume, perhaps Lanvin might soon lose its too-cool-for-school cachet and become just another label that all the wrong people have heard of. "It's fairly inevitable," says James Sherwood, "that if a label is fashion's latest discovery, and if Anna Wintour is on top of it (and she always is) then it's going to be cool." Once it becomes well-known, the shine is bound to fade.

So how has Prada managed to remain the epitome of fashion perfection, just populist enough to be affordable, just exclusive enough to be desirable? Martin Raymond, a former lecturer at the London College of Fashion and now a leading light at the Future Laboratory, explains. "Prada is directional for two main reasons: first, it collaborates with artists and architects ... and looks into new innovations and technologies in fabric production and design. Second, wherever you are (New York or Tokyo) Prada stores are about experience, learning and knowledge, like galleries. They respect the idea that customers have knowledge about the fashion."

Prada is gearing up to trumpet its power in Milan in two weeks. But it faces preliminary assault tomorrow as London Fashion Week kicks off. New York is about big business, but London is about innovation; new ideas executed with daring and panache. Giles Deacon is Britain's new hotness, and Bella Freud will relaunch Biba on the world.

The London event will be dominated not by Prada but by Armani, showing its Emporio collection in the capital for the first time. One fashion insider, who did not wish to be named, said: "They're just going to come over, flex their muscles and take over the whole thing." The Devil would, no doubt, approve.

New Designs: Five must-have looks and where to get them

LAYERING (Marc Jacobs)

Dresses over polo-neck sweaters. Charcoal wool, high cowl neck, blouson jersey dress

Price, approx: £1,869

Cashmere blend polo neck taupe sweater

Price, approx: £760

WHITE (Calvin Klein)

Stretch cotton fitted shirt

Price, approx: £130

LOOSE FIT (Marc Jacobs)

Ruffle edge shawl

Olive chunky knit wool blend shawl

Price, approx: £3,550


Mohair V-neck sweater. Anthracite long sleeve mohair v-neck sweater

Price, approx: £185

SPORTSWEAR (Michael Kors)

Charcoal knee-length shorts

Price, approx: £275



Show: Luca Luca

Wearing: Hooded top by Streetz Iz Watchin'

Normally wears: Louis Vuitton, Versace


Show: Luca Luca

Wearing: Luca Luca dress

Normally wears: Versace


Show: Luca Luca

Wearing: Marc Jacob top, J Brand jeans and Gucci shoes

Normally wears: Chanel


Show: Luca Luca

Wearing: Dress by Luca Luca

Normally wears: Dolce & Gabbana


Show: Oscar de la Renta

Wearing: Prada

Normally wears: Emporio Armani


Show: Marc Jacobs

Wearing: Ryan Kenny blazer and Turnbull & Asser shirt

Normally wears: Dior Homme


Show: Marc Jacobs

Wearing: Proenza Schouler

Normally wears: Stella McCartney, Dior


Show: Oscar de la Renta

Wearing: Prada shirt and suit

Normally wears: Nike, Valentino


Show: Marc Jacobs

Wearing: Marc Jacobs dress and Prada shoes

Normally wears: Alber Elbaz

10. Anna Wintour

Show: Oscar de la Renta

Wearing: Oscar de la Renta one-piece dress

Normally wears: Chanel


Show: Marc Jacobs

Wearing: Dolce & Gabbana shirt, Cavali shoes, Giambattista trousers, Marc Jacobs bag

Normally wears: Gucci


Show: Marc Jacobs

Wearing: Flowing knee-length Marc Jacobs dress

Normally wears: Marc Jacobs, Kenneth Jay Lane


Show: Marc Jacobs

Wearing: Black Marc Jacobs suit jacket, skirt and boots

Normally wears: Marc Jacobs


Show: Marc Jacobs

Wearing: Louis Vuitton Shirt, Marc Jacobs boots and 'super-expensive hand-wash jeans'

Normally wears: Versace


Show: Marc Jacobs

Wearing: White Marc Jacobs cardigan top, Virtue denim jeans, Alexander McQueen shoes, Tiffany earrings

Normally wears: Stella McCartney


Show: Marc Jacobs

Wearing: Knee-length Marc Jacobs dress with plunging neckline

Normally wears: Versace

17. Emily Mortimer

Show: Marc Jacobs

Wearing: Black Mark Jacobs one-piece dress

Normally wears: Chanel


Show: Marc Jacobs

Wearing: Marc Jacobs cardigan top and shift dress

Normally wears: Marni

Ian Griggs and Tom Anderson