Low-priced lines bring high fashion to the masses


October 10, 1991|By KIM TRAVERSO

It looks like designers are finally coming down to earth.

The clothes of haute couture creators like Giorgio Armani and Emanuel Ungaro are becoming more accessible to those of us who can't shell out big bucks for an outfit.

Instead of paying thousands to own a garment with a Giorgio Armani label, it'll soon be possible to buy an Armani sweater for no more than $50. And while Emanuel Ungaro dresses can cost $5,000 apiece, in his new Emanuel line, you can get one for closer to $500.

A few secondary lines, such as Donna Karan's DKNY, have been around for several years, but the weak economy of recent times has caused their numbers to explode.

The new lines help design companies keep the old customers who've had to cut back their budgets, as well as wooing new clients who can't afford the prices of original lines.

"There are sophisticated, attractive women out there who don't have the pocketbooks to match their taste," says designer Michael Kors, who has one of the most successful secondary lines on the market. "With secondary collections, shoppers don't have to wait until the end of the season to buy clothes they can afford."

A few collections -- such as Ellen Tracy Company -- are not less expensive than the main line, but provide the company with the opportunity for greater profits by addressing another aspect of its customers' wardrobe, such as weekend wear.

Donna Karan is credited with being one of the first designers to see the potential of a secondary line. In 1989 she started DKNY, a lower-priced collection of career wear and weekend wear. She slashed prices of her fashions from the thousands to the hundreds, and made the clothes widely available in department stores.

Now, she's found a new niche to fill and is branching out with another line, Donna Karan Jeans. "No designer has come close to addressing women's different figure types like Donna," says Nancy Sachs, fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue at Owings Mills Mall.

With white denim miniskirts, jean jackets, and cotton work shirts, Donna Karan Jeans emphasizes relaxed styles. "While DKNY does a very professional line with jackets, skirts and trousers," explains Ms. Sachs, "Donna Karan Jeans is playful and weekend oriented."

Most of the secondary lines are addressing casual wear aggressively.

Designers are hoping that the women who wear their designer clothes will also begin to look to them for their weekend wear, instead of spending their play clothes money elsewhere as they have traditionally.

"There are designer customers who don't want to wear Gap on weekends," says Mr. Kors. "Kors is workout dressing at the designer level." He's found such success with this formula that he's anticipating sales of his new line to reach $29 million this year.

Like the Kors line, Ellen Tracy's Company is more casual than work oriented. Dyed jeans, baggy cardigans, and oversized jackets highlight this collection.

A LINE Anne Klein, which premiered locally last June, takes up the casual slack that Anne Klein II and Anne Klein don't address. Unlike the traditional work-oriented Anne Klein II, A LINE has a more avant-garde edge with sleek-fitting silhouettes and lots of metallic finishes for fall.

But secondary lines are not necessarily as wonderful for the consumer as they can be for the designer.

"Not all secondary lines are equal," says retailer Ruth Shaw. "Some are just copies of old patterns and old looks."

Judgment is necessary on the part of the consumer. In some cases, a more up-to-date garment might be found under the label of some unknown design company for the same price as that of an old look that a famous designer is pedaling from a successful collection of seasons past.

Two lines that Ms. Shaw believes are distinct exceptions to the rule are Kors and DKNY, which she says offer new styles that are completely different than their high-fashion lines.

"DKNY is not a knock off of Donna Karan's collection," says Ms. Shaw. "It's successful because it's not competing with itself."

In addition to the possibility that a secondary outfit might look too dated (which may only matter to true fashion mavens), the quality of offspring merchandise is usually not as good as that found in the signature line.

While signature apparel is often hand sewn in Italy, many designers of secondary lines can only keep their prices low through the use of cheaper fabrics and mass-production in the Orient.

Michael Kors says he is one of the few designers who is able to find a way to manufacture his cheaper line economically in Italy. "Labor is more expensive in Italy," says Mr. Kors, "but the quality of production is better there."

While Giorgio Armani's less expensive line, under the name of A/X Armani, will not hit the masses until the spring of 1991, nearly all the secondary lines can be found at area boutiques and department stores.

One last word of caution. Even if a garment has a famous designer name on it, that doesn't mean it's worth paying more for it.

"Pieces with the designer labels will cost twice as much as other merchandise that's manufactured in the same factory," Ms. Shaw says.

"People need to get over buying a label."

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