Tuesday, March 09, 2010

CHEAP THRILLS: Are designer diffusion lines helping or hurting the fashion industry?

Let’s face it, in today’s economy, it can be hard to be a fashionista. As much as we would love to be able to shell out the money on the latest designer duds, for many fashion lovers, that is just not possible. However, in recent years, several high-end designers such as Karl Lagerfeld, Stella McCartney, Jean Paul Gaultier, and even the late Alexander McQueen have been jumping on the trend of designer diffusion lines. In essence, a diffusion line is an accessible collection produced for the masses that is inspired by the designer’s high-end couture, but at a fraction of the cost.

Hordes of women have been lining up to get their hands on these inexpensive garments and sales of these lines have been through the roof in chain stores such as Target and H&M. However, many fashion critics argue that this cheap, mass access to designer fashion is stifling the desirability and exclusivity of the designer’s high-end lines. Can these dual lines coexist in harmony? Or does it have to be one without the other?

For many of us, this huge surge of diffusion lines is like being in fashion heaven. It’s not every day that a 20-something-year-old student can say that she has a dress designed by Karl Lagerfeld or shoes by Jimmy Choo but these lines are making that possible. H&M has seen massive line-ups when premiering new collaborative collections, many of which sell out within their first week of being on the shelves. These frugal fashion lovers are buying in huge volumes and giving these lower-end lines exclusivity all on their own. You can even see some of these pieces up for auction on EBay for sometimes up to double their retail price, which is exactly what happened with many of the Stella McCartney for H&M garments.

These lines have also proven to create a mass amount of buzz for many designers and get their names and products available to individuals who would not have otherwise known they existed. Even women living in small towns across North America can now buy quasi designer goods. Designers have realized that, in this economy, it makes perfect sense to broaden their horizons and create for the masses, as opposed to the niche market of couture shoppers. This creates a way bigger market for designers and allows women who would normally be intimidated by the aspect of trying to purchase items by Vera Wang or Marc Jacobs the opportunity to own their favourite designer’s creations without breaking the bank.

On the flip side, even though saving money is a smart idea these days, with fashion it doesn't always work that way. The fashion industry has always maintained a certain level of exclusivity, which adds to the glamour of it all. The ability to possess a high-end designer piece that very few else will own adds a certain level of connection and exclusivity that true fashion followers feel towards a designer.

By introducing these new lines through mass chain stores, many fashion gurus argue that it is taking away the true meaning of "fashion". Many believe that fashion is an art form that is not meant for the masses. There are certain women who thrive off of the elite designer labels. The fact that anyone can go to their local Target to pick up something that these women pay thousands of dollars for could possibly hurt the high-end market.

These diffusion lines can possibly be taking away from the rarity of some historical fashion releases. Coco Chanel would never sell her designs at a store where you can also buy toilet paper! Chain stores also produce massive amounts of the same garment, whereas if that was a true "designer" item, the numbers would be limited, and therefore make the design one of a kind. Famous shoe designer, Christian Louboutin, was recently approached by H&M to do a diffusion line for the retail outlet and turned them down. He believed that “it’s an interesting idea” but he is ultimately happy with his current customer and has no intention of pursuing a diffusion line in the future.

Many argue that, to have massive assembly lines stitching these supposed “designer” pieces makes them no different from any random item that you can buy at your local mall. The reason all of the high-end fashion swag costs so much is because it's rare and not available to everyone. So much intricate detail and thought gets put into each high-end piece, unlike some of these diffusion lines. Purity is a huge deal in the fashion world, and it will always be that way. Critics believe that these lines are slowly erasing the history and artistic form of fashion, which helped so many extraordinary designers spread their views and opinions. Now it will be everywhere, and possibly not so intriguing.

So what does the future hold for these designer diffusion lines? If the rapid sales are an indication, there are only going to continue to grow. The masses clearly have a desire to own some designer duds without having to pay the typical designer price. However, it’s key for designers to be very picky when it comes to choosing where to sell their items and who is representing their name. Fashion is an art form and designer collections represent a certain allure and exclusivity that needs to be maintained. In order for both diffusion and high-end collections to continue to co-exist, designers must find a balance between the elite aura that their high-end collections represent and their desire to reach mass markets.

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