The high street takes its place beside haute couture as fashion week opens

A month of designer catwalk displays and copycat big brands gets under way with a fundraiser in Manhattan this week

The biannual round of international ready-to-wear shows kicks off on Wednesday with a charity gala to launch New York fashion week. The crème de la crème of Manhattan society will gather at this high-profile fundraiser for Aids research, dressed in gowns by the likes of Badgeley Mischka, Vera Wang, Tory Burch and Ralph Lauren – all of whom will be sending their autumn/winter 2013 collections down the runway.

This is just the beginning of a month-long flurry of shows and opportunities to show off. With the world's media watching, it is a chance to bag lucrative column inches in newspapers, magazines and, of course, the proliferation of blogs and style websites that have an increasingly powerful reach. So it's not just people who want a piece of the action: brands want to play ball too.

February will see mass-market brands joining their elite designer siblings on the catwalks of New York, London and Paris in an incongruous blend of high street and high fashion. So where the likes of Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Diane von Furstenberg sprinkle their particular kind of fashion magic, attracting worshippers in their wake, you'll find J Crew and Diesel Black Gold basking in the unique glow of designer glamour.

When the fashion merry-go-round stops in London, we'll witness TopShop showing its Unique collection and Whistles launching its Limited range on the runway alongside the likes of Tom Ford, Christopher Kane, Paul Smith and Vivienne Westwood. River Island will also be launching its much-hyped collaboration with Rihanna, which will be sold in stores three weeks later.

In Paris, the great and good of planet fashion will descend on the Rodin Museum, previously host to presentations by Yves St Laurent and Christian Dior, to see Swedish fast-fashion chain H&M unveil key pieces from its autumn/winter collection. It would appear that the line between high street and high fashion is becoming increasingly blurred, with an ever-increasing range of "premium", limited-edition lines on offer from the big chain stores.

"The fashion industry is becoming increasingly sophisticated," says the editor of InStyle magazine, Eilidh Macaskill. "High street brands can utilise technology to streamline production and access the more intricate, technically challenging processes that were previously only available to high-end designer labels – who are now upping the ante too, creating ready-to-wear lines with couture-like finishing," says Macaskill.

"The high street chains can now achieve amazing results at accessible price points, for an increasingly discerning customer base. And when a high street brand does a great job marketing this, associating themselves with Fashion Week, they can dramatically shift their position in the market and extend their whole demographic."

Once, J Crew was a fairly middle-of-the-road American retailer, churning out capri pants and sherbet-coloured knits to the Waspier residents of suburban America – those who aspired to the Ralph Lauren Hamptons lifestyle on an out-of-town outlet mall budget. Then, the visionary Millard "Mickey" Drexler joined as chairman and CEO and, along with J Crew stalwart Jenna Lyons, re-positioned the brand as a covetable label worthy of a space in the wardrobes of Park Avenue princesses, Manhattan fashionistas and Michelle Obama. A key part of his strategy was to secure a space a year ago on the schedule at New York fashion week, sealing the status of his mass-produced wares as Officially Stylish.

However, they weren't the first to join the catwalk circus: TopShop has been showing its premium Unique collection during London fashion week since 2005. "It's the big sister to TopShop really," explains its creative director, Kate Phelan, who joined the business 18 months ago from Vogue magazine, where she was fashion director for 18 years. "It's important to have this offering as our demographic ranges from age 15 to 45, so we like to have something for everyone, from the basics such as jersey to a beautiful slouchy suit in a hand-drawn print from the spring/summer Unique collection."

Though they are not showing as part of the official London fashion week schedule, endorsed by the British Fashion Council, Whistles will be hoping to ride the shirt tails of Burberry et al and attract key buyers and media attending from oversees. "When we decided to put our Limited collection on the catwalk, we did so because we are expanding internationally with more shop-in-shop concessions and wholesale accounts in international department stores," says the Whistles CEO, Jane Shepherdson.

"Showing our collection at this time is a great way to communicate with the right people while they are in town. We'll be showing about 25 looks [fashion industry speak for "outfits"] at the Dover Street Arts Club, with a live stream of the show online. It is a way to nudge our way back into customers' minds, too, reminding them that we are doing something exciting."

Typically, the Limited Collection is priced about 20% above the mainline Whistles range, which is in turn more expensive than the youth-oriented ranges at TopShop, River Island and H&M. But what those brands are doing is tapping into that more mature, more affluent customer, who might otherwise have moved on.

"These more aspirational high street lines are all ways for retailers to woo back customers who've wandered off because they're no longer being serviced, or to attract new customers," says Francesca Zedda, executive fashion editor at Easy Living magazine, the glossy tome favoured by style-conscious yummy mummies. "They have a bit more of an edge, more of an attention to detail, with more luxurious fabrics and finishing. Women are prepared to pay for that."


Karen Kay

The GuardianTramp

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