Getting your hands on designer clothing has never been easier, or cheaper, than on today's fashion-forward high street. Diffusion lines are now second nature to many major brands - Dolce & Gabbana's D&G spin-off was followed by the likes of Marc by Marc Jacobs and Alexander McQueen's younger McQ range.
High street fashion lovers can even get a piece of their favourite designers at bargain prices courtesy of the big multiples - Stella McCartney and Karl Lagerfeld designed ranges for H&M, Roland Mouret teamed up with Gap, and Giles Deacon is planning the summer line for his New Look tie-up, after the success of his Gold range.
So, with all this closing the gap between designers and the high street, smaller labels are seeing the opportunity to reach a new customer base. Also, although fashion houses provide plenty of design inspiration for high street multiples, there is now a risk that retailers will look to more niche brands for new styles to emulate. When faced with convincing copies, not only may loyal customers be tempted elsewhere, but new business will be a lot harder to attract. Why splurge on a designer piece when there is the option of bagging five high fashion imitation items for the same outlay?
With this in mind, lesser-known niche brands are bringing out their own diffusion lines to protect their market share. By moving closer to the high street's key selling point - price - these well-designed, more affordable lines will target everyday shoppers keen to get their hands on designer pieces. "Diffusion lines open up the brand to a wider audience by creating a more accessible price point," says Mark Baverstock, head buyer at Matches Spy, which stocks several diffusion lines and has branches in Wimbledon and Notting Hill in London. "They allow stores that can't carry the price points of the first line to buy into the essence of high fashion ranges."
Of course, there is the danger that a less expensive range will be viewed as a halfway house, not having the true exclusivity of a designer collection, nor the cheap-as-chips price tags found on the high street. "It is not simply a case of a diffusion line being cheaper," says Baverstock. "Yes, the price points mean you don't necessarily get the fabrication and development of some first-line collections, but as long as the ranges carry a suitably different message, one can complement the other and provide an entry level to the brand without compromising on the clothes."
Knitwear brand Goat launched its spin-off line Goat Library last year. Designed mainly to achieve wider distribution, Goat Library takes a two-pronged attack - the lower prices aim to increase sales among existing customers, but also hope to target an audience that would not normally be able to buy into the main range.
Despite the lower price, Goat designer Jane Lewis is very aware of keeping the quality high. "The diffusion line is cheaper, but we haven't dumbed it down. It is more commercial, but we haven't skimped on design. For example, we still have the same trims and buttons, which are a signature for the Goat brand."
As well as protecting a brand's market share, adding a diffusion stream can also be vital to sustain its commercial viability. "Knitwear is now so prevalent, yet it is a Goat signature, so Library was created to improve our relationship with both our stores and customers," says Lewis. "If you take an independent such as Matches, it buys both lines. Library gives us the room to mould to its demands, with each collection complementing the other. It helps to make us a healthier wholesale offering."
Price point difference is not always the reason behind a diffusion line. Aimee Berman, one of the founders of womenswear brand Sara Berman and its Berman Black range, says: "Although Berman Black is in the lower 40% price bracket of our collection, we think of it as an extension of Sara Berman. We are not trying to offer the same thing as the mainline, and we have not created it as a cheaper option - the clothes are not made in cheaper factories, or with cheaper fabrics. Instead we have used neutral shades to create a more classic range. But those are the only points of difference - everything else is still Sara Berman."
On the dangers of the diffusion line overtaking the main range or cannibalising existing sales, Berman says: "We are running a business and always try to be equally creative in every area of what we do. The idea is for a diffusion line to go hand in hand with the main range to reflect the brand ethos."
EROS BY EROTOKRITOS
Diffusion line Eros by Erotokritos debuted last year, 10 years after the launch of its womenswear parent label Erotokritos. Aimed at twentysomething women, Eros is about a quarter of the size of its parent - with 50 pieces to Erotokritos's 220 - and priced about 30% lower than the mainline.
Eros is also smaller in terms of choice of fabrics and colours, but the brand's signature look remains constant through its use of jersey and Lurex, and detailing such as buttons and bows. It also features the strong prints synonymous with the mainline.
The Eros design ethos takes a younger, more casual theme, with silhouettes reminiscent of Erotokritos's first ranges back in the late 1990s. Prices range from £25 to £80, compared with £120 to £250 for the mainline.
The key piece to look out for this summer is the brand's relaxed trench coat in beige gaberdine with gold belt.
020 7436 3037
BERMAN BLACK BY SARA BERMAN
Officially launching for autumn 07, Berman Black aims to provide the cut and signature shape of Sara Berman, but with a more classic, traditional feel.
While the mainline changes to reflect key looks each season, Berman Black works with existing shapes for a more reserved feel. This leaves the main collection free to experiment with trends, colours and detailing.
The diffusion line comprises about 35 pieces, making it one third the size of the mainline. Prices range from £110 to £385, while the mainline is similarly priced at £135 to £395.
Keep an eye out for the brand's £128 black dolly swing coat. A Harris tweed version also features in the mainline to appeal to more adventurous customers.
020 7485 1425
GOAT LIBRARY BY GOAT
Women's luxury knitwear label Goat produces simple but elegant silhouettes suitable for day to evening wear. Goat Library was a new addition for autumn 06 to complement the brand's mainline, and features styles born directly out of the core collection.
The key difference between the two lines is the fabric - less expensive merino wool is used for the Library knitwear pieces, as opposed to cashmere in the mainline. However, the Library designs follow the Goat mainline's signature look.
Library currently has 10 styles, compared with 50 in the parent range, and the diffusion collection is priced to appeal to a broader customer base.
Prices range from £70 to £140, as opposed to £50 to £300 for Goat's mainline.
020 7487 3401
PAUL & JOE SISTER BY PAUL & JOE
Designer Sophie Albou founded Paul & Joe in 1995. Originally a menswear label, womenswear was added in 1997, with the Sister diffusion line introduced for spring 06.
Sister was launched to answer what Albou saw as a clear market demand - women in love with the Paul & Joe style, yet unable to afford the product.
The Sister collection focuses on accessibility, both in terms of style and price. Sophisticated dresses and tops have a commercial edge with childlike detailing, while the use of denim softens the label's grown-up silhouettes.
Wholesale prices for Sister are up to 30% lower than the mainline - £22 to £110, as opposed to £38 to £620 for the core range. And with 100 pieces, the offer is a third of the size of parent label Paul & Joe's 300-piece collection.
020 7221 9383