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Second Best : Lesser Fabrics and Fewer Design Details Add Up to Savings, but Not All Alternative Collections Are Created Equal


The world's top fashion designers make fantasy clothes. For most of us, reality bites painfully at the cash register.

But nowadays, it's common for the big names in the industry to put out one, two or three alternative collections. These so-called secondary lines, along with accessories, fragrances and cosmetics, support the corporate machine. Moschino's Cheap and Chic line, for example, represents 50% to 60% of its total revenue. Featuring less costly materials and less exacting workmanship, such lines give a designer a way to support his all-important image on the runways of Milan, Paris and New York. In turn, the style-hungry consumer gets more reasonably priced garments created by an industry star.

Everybody's happy, right?

Not always. Some secondary lines honor a respected designer's vision. Others don't.

The designer in chief sometimes has hands-on involvement with his secondary line. But at most companies, the boss merely serves as an editor, reviewing the sketches of an uncredited assistant designer or design studio committees. Who designs what is really a truth-in-packaging issue. A shopper who cares deeply about the shirt on her back might be disappointed to learn that its maker lent only his name to it. For most, though, it doesn't seem to matter.

"Some people will still buy designer clothes and pay more because the name means something to them. But a lot don't want to spend that kind of money," says Kal Ruttenstein, fashion director of Bloomingdale's. "The secondary lines are usually from half to two-thirds the price of designer. And they're getting better as the years go on. They started as watered-down versions of the designer lines, but they've become better designed and more specialized. They don't have to reflect the designer's look anymore. They just have to have a look and at a certain price."

The most commercial of the secondary lines succeed by filtering the trendiest fashion statements into affordable items, retailers say.

"There's always a trendy element in the second lines," says Shauna Stein, whose Los Angeles boutique focuses on European designers and their alternative lines. "I save the fun, silly pieces for the second lines. I display them with the more expensive designer things. . . . Today women don't want to spend a lot of money on everything in their closets. They will on one or two pieces, but they'll buy a more affordable pair of stretch pants to go with a pricey jacket. It's all in the mix."

In a marketplace where even the Gap copies itself at a lower price with its Old Navy stores, a shopper almost needs a scorecard to keep pace with which label is which.

The anonymous ICB collection, fashion aficionados know, is the work of Michael Kors. Trademark Kors designs, such as strapless day dresses worn under blazers with peaked lapels, are a tip-off to fans of the classics' master.

Istante closely resembles Gianni Versace's hip, edgy runway sensations. Versus, designed by Versace's sister Donatella, leans toward basics and is aimed at a younger customer. Prada, the Italian brand known for clean, ladylike clothes, doesn't have a lot in common with Miu Miu, its secondary line named for designer Miuccia Prada.

The less the secondary line mimics the primary, the better, says Jimmy Hanrahan, head wardrobe stylist of MTV.

"At least it's different from Prada," he says of Miu Miu. "The French call their second lines diffusion, and I think a diffusion line should have its own identity. I used to think of Emporio Armani as cheaper Armani. But it's a strong entity unto itself now. I wonder if there's a need for the same collection made in less expensive fabric. For me, the fantasy is still 'black label' [the top of Giorgio Armani's line]. When I fantasize about wanting designer clothes, I don't know if buying the diffusion lines sates my appetite."

But in the real world, where women are accustomed to substituting frozen yogurt for rich ice cream, designers' second lines are tasty enough.

DKNY by Donna Karan

Who It's For: A woman more in the mood for fun than elegance, who likes her clothes sexy and practical.

Report Card: The second line success story. DKNY has a broader range than the Donna Karan Collection, everything from evening dresses and work clothes to sports-oriented weekend wear and basics such as jeans, khakis and T-shirts. Excels at great interpretations of trendy fabrics and silhouettes.

Price: A tailored jacket goes for about $400 versus the $1,200 to $1,800 of the collection.

Quality: Sixty percent of the line is mass produced in Asia. Don't expect hand-sewn buttonholes.

CK by Calvin Klein

Who It's For: A young customer comfortable in basics.

Report Card: Not unlike the Gap the last few years, with lots of denim and casual clothes. There are always some great pieces, especially sweaters and unusual pants, but CK changes direction, as well as designers, from season to season. CK shows little of the simple luxury of the Calvin Klein Collection, but its intention seems to be more hip than lovely.

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