Cheaper Armani shops to vie for T-shirt trade

October 02, 1991|By Pat Morgan | Pat Morgan,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

Imagine, if you will, the fashion fight of the century.

In this corner, wearing the hoity-toity label and the price tag to go with it, is the Master of Chic. In the other corner, wearing a white pocket T-shirt and jeans, is the Master of Cheap.

It's Giorgio Armani vs. The Gap.

Armani has announced his intention to open a chain of boutiques stocked with jeans, dresses, skirts, coats, T-shirts, sweaters and jackets.

The boutiques will be called A/X: Armani Exchange. The labels will read Armani Jeans. The price tags will, for the most part, be under $100.

That's right: $100, not $1,000.

Why would Armani, perhaps the most exclusive of the exclusive, do such a thing? The reason is likely that Armani along with other designers of very expensive clothing is struggling with a sluggish economy and a clientele not quite as willing to spend $1,000 on a jacket.

The first A/X is scheduled to open in New York in December. Five more will open in 1992, but Armani spokespeople say the locations have not been determined.

By March, 25 A/X boutiques will open in department and specialty stores. Again, nothing is firm, but the Armani people say that among the interested stores are Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus. Eventually, Armani plans as many as 200 A/X boutiques.

Armani says he isn't abandoning his wealthy customers; the man is no dummy. He figures A/X will allow him "to meet their every wardrobe need," as well as provide for what he tactfully calls "less affluent customers."

Bridge lines which theoretically fill the niche between ultra-expensive designer clothing and what mass-market lines are nothing new. But these secondary collections have experienced enormous growth in the past five years, as customers flee from high prices and designers try to win them back.

The most obvious example of a bridge line success story is Donna Karan's DKNY line, which retailers can't keep in stock.

True Armani fans can tell the difference between black label (sold only at free-standing Armani boutiques) and white label (sold in department stores).

Now that's status-consciousness, which has always been a huge part of the Armani appeal.

But suddenly we're talking about buying Armani for less than $100?

"This A/X idea strikes me as more of a parachute than a bridge," says marketing consultant Frederick Marx. "That is really starting to get into what we call popular-priced merchandise."

Exactly the point, according to Armani, who says he would do more damage to the Armani name if he introduced a traditional bridge line with department store distribution.

Such a line would compete with his couture line, because it would include lower-priced jackets and suits.

By skipping over the mid-priced bridge line and jumping right to the "popular priced" casual wear, the designer thinks he puts enough distance between Armani couture and A/X to minimize any loss of cachet. The concept makes sense to Marx, who says as long as Armani "sticks to his philosophy of each category being the best in its class, and as long as he doesn't start competing with himself, I think this could be wildly successful."

Whether an A/X T-shirt is any better than a Gap T-shirt or, for that matter, a Hanes T-shirt remains to be seen. But anytime a designer known for quality finds a way to make clothes more affordable, it's good news.

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