Marks & Spencer’s decision (MW November 6) to expand its portfolio of designer “consultants” to include cutting-edge menswear designer Griffin Laundry and ex-Chanel knitwear specialist Julien MacDonald might seem an odd one for a retailer whose stock in trade is middle-brow, no-nonsense value for money.
In fact, M&S has been carrying lines of clothing using famous designers as consultants since 1985, when Paul Smith began a ten-year stint advising on the retailer’s fashions. The clothes brandish the St Michael label, and are not flagged as designer ranges within the stores. So what’s in it for M&S?
The retailer has given itself a tough remit on its fashion floors. It has to cater for all age groups and all tastes. Designers can provide the cutting-edge clothing that appeals to both the fashion conscious and the youth elements of the market.
An M&S spokeswoman says the deals with designers are reciprocal: “We get their technical expertise and use it to develop a range which can be translated onto the high street. The arrangements bring unusual looks to a wider market.”
Retail giants are falling over backwards to sign up famous designers to devise diffusion lines for their stores. M&S has carried lines using designers Nicole Farhi, Betty Jackson and Ghost. Bhs has ranges by Paul Frith and Owen Gastor, and Debenhams carries clothes by Ben de Lisi, Pierce Fionda and Jasper Conran – the list goes on.
Richard Perks, retail analyst at Verdict research, says: “Debenhams’ fashion department is doing very well. The designer ranges give it a distinctive edge and the sales figures are good.”
And the designers are happy to help. Fashion is a high-risk business and deals with a high street retailer provide the money to pay for catwalk shows and for opening stores for their designs. The amount the individual will receive varies, but five per cent of the wholesale order is not unusual.
News that M&S is to launch womenswear-only stores to fill some of the retail space it has at its fingertips since it bought 19 Littlewoods sites in July, has led to speculation that the chain may begin to attribute its clothing to the well-known fashion figures behind it. However, the strength of the M&S brand is likely to hold off such a move for the foreseeable future.
The womenswear stores are also likely to be used to roll out M&S’s customer service initiative, which trains staff to advise customers on putting together outfits.
For the moment, designer diffusion lines are a booming business. But the speed with which deals are being sealed is in danger of creating an overkill – undermining the perceived value of both top designer gear and the diffusion lines themselves.