Knockoff lines put top designs of fashion into the mainstream COUTURE COUSINS

April 21, 1994|By Vida Roberts | Vida Roberts,Sun Fashion Editor

The fashions of fall were presented in New York last week in the flash of paparazzi cameras and thump of rock -- top models, top designers, top press and big-budget retail buyers. Fashion and its trappings was reported, hyped and criticized by press and TV.

The recurring question among the uninitiated was, "Who would wear these clothes?"

We all will, in some fashion or other.

Screaming neon fake fur coats and mini-skirts were the butt of jokes from trend-immune fashion watchers, but lower-priced copies by the thousands are going into production even as the real world is still sorting the spring closet.

"Call it a giant fashion food chain which starts in Milan and Paris, then New York and works its way down to Baltimore," says Patrick McCarthy, executive editor of W magazine and Women's Wear Daily, the chroniclers of the fashion industry.

That industry, always hungry for something new, feeds on the ideas served up by the world's most creative designers. The reality, however, is that designer originals are too rich for most fashion consumers.

"Only a very small percentage, 10 percent perhaps, of the big volume at fashion retail is in designer labels," says Mr. McCarthy. "For the most part, retailers don't sell designer clothes. They sell designer ideas."

Those ideas are lifted from runways, magazines, news photos and a good memory for detail by manufacturers of the lower-priced labels, which are the bulk of each season's fresh fashion. And the ideas are lifted -- or knocked off, as the industry calls it -- only from the best.

"Chanel, Armani are knocked off big-time," says Mr. McCarthy. "It's a matter of timing, because the Europeans show first, but it's also a matter of talent. They're both huge and successful businesses and people want to get in on some of those bucks."

So the working woman who can't afford to shop the Armani boutique can get the look with a Gianni label at her nearest department store. She may want the zip of a Chanel micro-mini and bustier, and chances are she'll find a version of it at Contempo Casuals at the local mall.

Some designers have tried to foil copycat manufacturers by starting their own secondary, less-expensive lines -- DKNY by Donna Karan, CK by Calvin Klein, A/X by Armani, Ralph by Ralph Lauren.

"That was always the theory behind secondary lines -- less expensive, broader distribution. However, they have not been massively successful because they are not close enough to the original," says Mr. McCarthy. "Designers can't really bring themselves to knock off their own vision in polyester. They can't bear to see a skirt in a cheap fabric."

Leaping into the field

There are plenty of manufacturers out there who aren't at all precious about today's trendy must-have. Lloyd Singer, president of a. b. s., a bridge-priced line that hops on a hot item quicker than you can say Karl Lagerfeld, says his company is there to deliver fashion at a price.

"We see vinyl at $1,200 for a jacket, we have one to retail at $150," he says.

"Ideas are borrowed back and forth, and we pull ideas from everywhere," says Mr. Singer. "If you don't know what's happening and just sit there, that's bad business.

"We see magazines and celebrities wearing an idea, and we come up with the same lines . . . very quickly. We concentrate on items -- a little dress or jacket -- the way we did silver and athletic stripes -- we were the first on to the trend."

He says his customer is the woman who understands what fashion is all about and wants next week's trend now. "We were the first to ship bell-bottoms when they hit, the first with the micro-mini. . . . when silver got hot overnight, a. b. s. was the first to ship a silver trench coat for the Saks catalog."

At the department store level, knockoffs and inspirations are the volume, and stores that deal at both the designer and moderate price level have to watch their items. Donna Karan would not be pleased to have her silver trench coat in the designer salon, a moderate-priced version in the career shop, and a throwaway plastic number in the junior racks.

Carolyn Moss, director of women's ready-to-wear for Macy's, says the bulk of the retail market is in knockoffs and adaptations, which line the trade shows. "Customers can have a designer look and proportion at any price. The number of customers who can afford an original is infinitesimal."

Buying the look

Everybody wants the designer look, she says, and they can buy the look, if not the original, almost as soon as the shows are over. "Designers and their clothes now have instant recognition, not just among fashion people. Everybody knows a Chanel or Versace from TV and press coverage."

The information superhighway disseminates designer fantasies as fast as models strip off their makeup -- runway, to photo, to sketch, to fax, to the pattern maker.

Andrea Behar designs a collection under her own name, but much of her work for A. R. B. Inc. is designing "designer" look-alikes for other labels and retail chains.

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