THE BLOG

It May Not Be Catwalk But It's Still Designer

28/11/2014 14:54 GMT | Updated 28/01/2015 10:59 GMT

In a brief hiatus from the gorgeous spectacle of fashion month, it's also worth looking at those designers who might never show on the catwalk and what their role is in fashion industry. I'm talking about the kind of designer classed as 'independent' or 'boutique'.

Arguably for all but the highest disposable incomes, luxury designers are becoming a rare treat. A Chanel quilted handbag, for example, was $2882 in 2009, five years later it's gone up by 70%. As much discussed, this has a lot to do with ensuring appeal for the phenomenally wealthy across the globe.

In contrast, boutique designers aren't aiming only for the international fraction of one percenters, but a much broader demographic. This means that even by selling just to their domestic market, as long as the price and product is right, they can sell enough to make the business viable. Good news for those fans of the original and aspirational designs of the luxury designer market without the means to acquire them.

Mintel classes the category that boutique designers fall under, premium womenswear, as a £5bn global market, with 6m female shoppers in the UK alone. Premium is defined as fashion relevant to AB demographic, 30-60 year old woman, with high quality production (fabric, fit and design). The giants in this space in the UK are high-street (for example Reiss, Jigsaw) or mail order brands (like Boden), leaving clear room for independent designers who provide alternative original options. In the UK alone there are hundreds of these designers: the antithesis of faceless brands who sell everything from jeans to candles.

While not trying to replicate the time (days, sometimes weeks) or materials (rarefied) it often takes to create a luxury designer piece ready for the catwalk, these boutique designers do have a lot of common ground with the luxury designer world.

One of the key reasons for buying designer fashion is the effort and expertise put into the pieces by the designer and their team. The original boutique designers were local independents selling specialist product direct to customers through their boutiques. Their knowledge covered every minute detail about their pieces, from the provenance of the cashmere fibres to the fit of a particular sleeve. Now digital allows a much larger audience access to these designers, who are in turn able to take advantage of that expertise.

It works both ways: like luxury designers, boutique designers spend a huge amount of time working to understand their customer, to produce collections that are as well targeted and relevant as possible. For example, boutique label Allium B was founded by two sisters: the former Topshop heads of buying and merchandising respectively. They call their target customer "a grown up woman, who is confident with her own style - who knows what suits her and who enjoys discovering new brands that are a little different. We produce slow(er) fashion not fast fashion - clothes designed to be worn and loved for more than one season." Clearly targeted at the AB demographic woman, their most expensive item currently is a silk print day dress for £150.

An example in a different category is Lucy Choi, Jimmy Choo's niece, who having spent years at French Sole, decided to set up her own eponymous shoe label with a similar focus on "affordable luxury". At under £200 for most of her pumps, she again has an eye on a broader market than just the one-percenters.

While not quite at the level of the catwalk pieces, sometimes produced in mere single digits, boutique designers still produce their original designs in small quantities, making the products feel special and enabling consumers to feel unique. This is perhaps the core of what makes boutique designers so different from their price-comparable and often ubiquitous high street counterparts: buying their individualistic designs is still buying into the concept of original designer fashion, just at a different price point.