Chapter 1. The Different Markets for Womenswear – How to Create Your Final Collection



The most important parts of any design brief are usually those that refer to the client and this is no different for the final collection. Your design should target a particular woman, one who represents a section of the market. In order to do this successfully you need to develop an in-depth understanding of this woman. Not all teaching institutions require that you carry out this exercise but you will find that it acts as a guide and an inspiration. The notion that this real person could wear your garments can prove very motivating. When you finally show your work and explain whom it is for, your answer will be ready and articulate.

There are various ways to choose and define your client. You may select her because she belongs to a segment of the market you are interested in or, on the contrary, because her needs are not currently properly addressed. You may pick this woman because you have an affinity with her or because she challenges you. To design for her you will need to gain a deep understanding of who she is and what she requires. She will be ever present throughout this project and better company if you like her.

Your research will help you to build a picture of this woman. The information you collect could include socioeconomic factors such as cultural heritage, lifestyle, demographics, attitude to fashion, and affluence. You are not expected to provide a characterization of your target market as detailed as those provided for market research. However you must be able to describe this woman in a clear, precise way. This can be achieved through a written description of your client in a narrative form. In the fashion industry, however, it is common to build a visual representation of this woman, with images gathered to form a client board. This invaluable tool is often displayed in a prime location of the design studio as a reminder and a source of inspiration.

In general your work should be evaluated on its ability to fulfill the requirements of your chosen client. One way to assess this is to compare your work to that of other designers catering for the same woman. In the next section we outline the five main markets for women’s fashion and some key specialist areas. You should be able to place your client, and thus your collection, within one of these markets. In highly competitive industries such as fashion, understanding clients and the competition goes hand in hand. Often designers, like retailers, carry out a comp-shop—a market study in which information is gathered about the style, quality, and price of successful ranges designed by their competitors.

Verena Zeller’s approach is to evoke the spirit of a woman. Her approach is not a marketing one but one that provides her inspiration; she shows an understanding of the woman she wants to design for. (See case study on page 158)

By specifying a few facts such as job, age, and affluence, Bernice Chua clearly identifies the women she intends to design for. She is also aware of the existing labels she will have to compete with. (See case study on CD)



There are five main markets in women’s fashion: haute couture, prêt-à-porter and international luxury brands, designer wear, mid-market (bridge and better), and high street (mass market). Each has a different style, standard of quality, and price range. The evolution of these markets reflects the changing role of fashion in women’s lives. The following sections describe each market and give a short historical perspective. Before we begin to look at these markets, though, we need to consider the concept of the bridge, or diffusion, line, as it plays an important role in the historical development of the fashion industry.

Fashion labels must achieve two apparently opposing goals. They must offer wearable and affordable garments yet project a strong and recognizable style. Flamboyant and creative garments favored by the fashion press are worn by cutting-edge individuals and represent only a small proportion of sales. Designed to attract public attention, they are sometimes referred to as window dressing and help to establish and maintain a house style. Perception of quality is often associated with high prices. However, most customers require competitively priced practical clothing. A commercial solution to this dilemma is to complement the original collection with a bridge line.

While the main collection asserts a strong visual identity, the bridge line offers garments in a similar but softened style and at a lower price, making the label accessible to a larger portion of the market. The development of the Donna Karan brand is a perfect illustration: in 1985 Donna Karan showed her first women’s designer wear collection under the label Donna Karan New York; in 1988 she launched her secondary label DKNY, in 1990 DKNY Jeans (a denim collection), in 1991 her first signature collection for men, and in 1992 DKNY Men.


Haute couture is a French expression that translates literally as “high sewing.” It evokes luxury and glamour. Haute couture’s extraordinary garments are made to measure, often by hand, in the Parisian workshops of grands couturiers.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, fashion was set by the leading ladies at court. Reported in illustrated almanacs, those styles were copied by seamstresses on the instructions of their patrons. Dressmakers had very little artistic license.

Charles Frederick Worth is credited with the “invention” of haute couture in 1858, when he opened a workshop in Paris. Worth is considered the first fashion designer as the concept is understood today, proposing fully designed garments and refusing any alteration suggested by his clientele. He established many nowcommon practices, such as designing collections and showcasing them on live models. Worth became the dictator of fashion in Paris and his business model was quickly imitated. Haute couture was at its peak in 1946 when Paris counted more than 100 haute couture houses.

Today, haute couture has become a legally protected label, governed by its union the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. In order to be awarded this label fashion houses must have a workshop in Paris of at least 15 people (“correspondent” and “guest” status are available to designers not based in France), present two collections a year to the press, and make garments to order with at least one client fitting.

Haute couture garments are cut from the best fabrics and produced with a wide range of sewing techniques, often involving hand finishing (see bridal gown on page 24). They are expensive, with prices sometimes reaching six digits. The regular clientele for haute couture is estimated to be in the region of 200 to 300 women worldwide.

Given this, it is no surprise that the economics of haute couture have proved difficult to sustain and many famous labels no longer produce such collections. Only three correspondents and six guests members showed haute couture collections for Spring/Summer 2010, alongside the ten remaining Parisian names: Adeline André, Anne Valérie Hash, Chanel, Christian Dior, Dominique Sirop, Franck Sorbier, Givenchy, Jean Paul Gaultier, Maurizio Galante, and Stéphane Rolland.

Some of these grand couturiers focus solely on haute couture and carry no prêt-à-porter (or ready-to-wear) line, which may explain why their names are less familiar. They tend to run leaner businesses with strict cost control. Their collections are usually smaller and less dramatic than those of the other houses.

The more established names, such as Chanel or Dior, benefit from their haute couture collection in many ways: They have cultivated a clientele that allows their haute couture collection to remain profitable; the know-how and technical skills preserved in the haute couture workshops are useful to the design of the other collections of the house; but mainly the increasingly extravagant and avant-garde haute couture collections are used to promote more commercial lines and contribute to their image and perception.


Prêt-à-porter refers to the ready-to-wear lines designed by haute couture houses (the French expression literally means “ready-to-wear”). Prêt-à-porter is the next level down in quality and design from haute couture and is at the very top end of the ready-to-wear market. Like haute couture, it offers a typically French style of fashion and benefits from a powerful heritage with a style and an interpretation of fashion inherited from the founding figure of a particular house. House archives are often used as a rich source of inspiration for new collections.

In 1959 Pierre Cardin caused outrage as the first grand couturier to launch a prêt-à-porter collection. While he designed the collection, its production was outsourced to an industrial facility away from his haute couture workshop. In 1966, another haute couture designer, Yves Saint Laurent followed suit with his “Rive Gauche” label. This strategy enabled the haute couture houses, under increasing competition from ready-to-wear fashion, to offer high-end designs at more affordable prices while increasing their return on investment.

Since the 1960s most haute couture houses have also run prêt-à-porter lines—usually inspired by the haute couture collections, exploiting their prestige as well as ideas and designs that have been favorably received by the market and promoted by the press. However, they have had to compete with other international luxury brands such as Gucci and Burberry, which started as manufacturers of leather goods and specialized garments respectively. Despite an absence of connection to Paris fashion these brands have achieved international recognition, often thanks to the prestige of these specialist origins.

The high standards and historical lineage of former couture houses, such as Lanvin and Balmain, have kept them at the core of the international luxury market. Increasingly, however, they feel the competition of the most successful designer wear labels.

Produced to a high standard, and sold worldwide in house flagship stores and concessions, prêt-à-porter garments are a diffusion of haute couture. This ready-to-wear F/W 2010 coat by Jean-Paul Gaultier is clearly related to the one included in his F/W 2009 haute couture collection (opposite page).


In the twenty-first century many people associate fashion with designer wear. Designer wear is ready-to-wear produced to a high standard in good-quality materials. Such garments are usually innovative and reflect the unique style of their creator. Designer wear sells at a premium because of the attention to design detail and the relatively small production volumes. Haute couture and prêt-à-porter promote French fashion to an international luxury market. In contrast, designer wear labels have their origins in many parts of the world, often targeting regional markets and covering a wider range of styles and clients.

The life expectancy of designer wear labels varies greatly. They usually have humble beginnings and are initiated by small groups of friends, often with little financial backing. This light structure makes them susceptible to financial difficulties. Until recently they relied on upmarket, multilabel boutiques and highfashion department stores for exposure and sales. However, the development of retail via the Internet has modified the rules of the game by allowing them direct access to their markets.

Designer wear labels must have a strong identity and offer a recognizable and successful style over a number of seasons to establish themselves. In order to grow, they must then develop their style to address a larger market without losing their identity. A common strategy is to increase the product range of their collection, eventually developing secondary lines and possibly crossing over into other markets such as menswear or accessories.

Although designer wear labels are commonplace today, they only gained market dominance in the late 70s and early 80s. Their emergence contributed to the establishment of modern national styles of fashion in Italy, the USA, the UK, and Japan.

UK designers often demonstrate individuality and creativity. Dame Vivienne Westwood, at the forefront of punk fashion in the late 1970s, has reinvented herself many times, as illustrated here with her S/S 1983 Hobos collection.

The Japanese label Comme des Garçons rose to prominence internationally after making its Paris debut in 1981. Along with other Japanese designers it has relied on the use of black, distressed fabric, asymmetric design, and oversized detailing. This piece from S/S 1989 illustrates some of these characteristics.

Italian style, such as that of Versace in F/W 1986, uses a wide palette of colors and happily mixes fabrics of different weights.


This market, covering the span between luxury and budget, is difficult to situate precisely. It incorporates bridge (more expensive) and better (less expensive). Mid-market fashion is not merely the area defined by two price points; it also implies a conscious attitude to garment purchase—one that favors style and quality over short-term fashion trends.

Although it is usually produced in larger quantities than designer wear, this is not a mass market. It sells because its garments are perceived as good value for money: they are manufactured to a good standard, produced in quality fabrics, and designed in a style that does not age too quickly. They tend to be targeted at the more affluent woman in her 30s and 40s, and purchased as career apparel, for special occasions, or as staple garments within a more varied wardrobe. Strongly influenced by social and cultural conventions, bridge and better tend to be designed for a national market since occasion wear, in particular, does not cross borders easily.

From left to right: outfits by Emporio Armani F/W 2005, IKKS France F/W 2002, and Ann Taylor S/S 2010. Influenced by developments in international fashion, mid-market labels usually focus on national markets.


High street fashion is affordable ready-to-wear designed for a mass market and sold under a brand label. The UK high street (main street, or local shopping district) has often led the way in fashion retail worldwide and gives its name to this market. While fast fashion and celebrity endorsement have existed in the UK since the 1960s, they became common practices among chain store labels in the 1990s. In the same way that grand couturiers produced prêt-à-porter collections, today’s designers develop exclusive collections sold under chain store labels, lending them their style and prestige.

Fast fashion, the rapid design and delivery of collections to stores, enables chain retailers to satisfy increasingly reactive markets. Real-time stock management, made possible by EPOS (electronic point of sale), provides market intelligence about the styles and colors that sell well and enables retailers to respond quickly to new or micro trends. Collections are designed with high frequency, as often as twice a month, but also rely on injections to satisfy client demand. These consist of a single piece or a very limited range which can be designed, produced, and delivered in as little as 12 days. Together, these practices not only improve stock management but also spread production and delivery, all of which have financial implications.

Fast fashion and the increased affordability of garments encourage a culture of disposable fashion. In 2006, the Cambridge Institute for Manufacturing estimated that an average of 65 lbs of clothes per capita per year was disposed of in the UK. Such an approach to clothing has raised social and environmental concerns. Campaigns to promote ethical and fair trade, as well as the use of organic cotton, have raised public awareness of these issues and prompted the industry to address them. Recycling is increasingly considered as an option by individual designers as well as the major chains, and many labels favor organic cotton while new synthetic materials gain market share.

High street fashion and retail in the UK greatly benefited from the likes of Barbara Hulanicki who, with her shop Biba, imposed the idea of affordable good design, illustrated here by a design from 1968.

Celebrities and famous designers have collaborated with high street labels. Kate Moss, for example, designed several collections for Topshop.


Too often perceived as restricted or limited markets, specialist areas of fashion can be very profitable when approached with flair and creativity. There are three main underlying reasons to regard a market as “niche”: first, its clients may have very specific requirements in terms of style or function; secondly, the techniques involved in the production of the goods are specialized; thirdly, the garments are only bought for a special occasion. Each niche market can be further segmented on the basis of price, style, and quality.

Maternity/Plus size

Both maternity wear and plus sizes provide garments for individuals who cannot wear average or standard fits but each market has distinct issues. Women require maternity wear for a few months only and therefore are often reluctant to spend money on such garments, making maternity wear a difficult business proposition. The relative absence of designer wear targeted at plus sizes is more surprising given the potential of this segment. There is, however, an emerging offer for plus sizes in Italy (Cinzia Rocca, Elena Mirò, Marina Rinaldi) and in the USA (Anna Scholz, Lafayette 148), and from international designers. While the silhouette for these markets may be different, designing clothes for them requires as much creativity as designing for any other market.

Mature market

As the western population ages, mature consumers are increasingly influential. In 2009, a Mintel report estimated that in the UK around 80 percent of national wealth is controlled by those aged over 55. Exposed to a dynamic fashion market, today’s older women aspire to look stylish but cuts and styles must be adjusted to suit them.

Club wear

Club wear appeared in the 1990s on the rave scene. Some club wear designers, such as Cyberdog, have proved very creative, using new fabrics, embellishment techniques, and quirky silhouettes. Through its music, graphics, and fashion, the club scene has had a significant impact on youth culture.


Activewear plays an important role in streetwear. Tracksuits and sneakers first popularized by Bob Marley and the reggae scene have been embraced by fashion designers and are worn by many away from the playing field. A more recent example of crossover into fashion is surf wear. Other types of activewear remain pure performance wear, however, and their design demands an in-depth knowledge of their use and function. Often their production also requires specialist material and techniques.

The ever-increasing use of activewear as casual wear has led to increased investment in its design and to collaboration between fashion designers and sport labels such as Adidas, as illustrated here with a design from 2004.


The status of accessories in fashion has significantly changed in the last 20 years. Accessories, like fragrance, represent an affordable way for the consumer to buy into a label. Today most fashion designers have very profitable accessory lines, often organized as a separate collection alongside the main garment lines. In 1997 Louis Vuitton hired Marc Jacobs to design its bags collection and to develop a ready-to-wear line. A great sympathy between the two collections is evident and the garments at times seem to be accessories to the bags.


Despite the decline in marriage since the 1970s, brides-to-be continue to spend significant sums on the perfect wedding dress. Indeed, many small fashion ateliers make a living designing and producing such dresses and some designers, such as Vera Wang, have established their name thanks to them. However, it is not a good idea to consider bridalwear for a final collection as its design constraints seriously limit the expression of student creativity and skills.

Intimate apparel

Intimate apparel can be a very profitable activity. It is reported that having been on the edge of bankruptcy in the early 90s, Calvin Klein owes its survival in part to the success of its underwear lines. Intimate apparel and swimwear, like other forms of contour wear, require stretch-fit patternmaking skills as well as specialist sewing and coverstitch machinery.


A few fashion houses such as Missoni specialize in knitwear. Most fashion labels however include knitwear as part of wider collections, particularly Fall and Winter. Some knitted fabrics, such as jersey, can be cut and sewn using common techniques and equipment and may not actually be considered to be knitwear. Knitted garments produced directly from yarn—fully fashioned knitwear as opposed to cut and sew knits—require specific knitting skills and production facilities, however, and these are not covered by this book.

Like haute couture, high-end bridal gowns are often made to measure. This gown from the Chanel S/S 2010 collection took 1,300 hours to make. Its wide media coverage helped to strengthen Chanel’s luxury image.

The house identity of Chantal Thomass will be forever connected with intimate apparel. This design is from 2004.

Missoni, originally a family knitwear company, known for the colorful patterns of their materials—such as the one in this 2005 design—is now a fashion empire branching into many areas, including hotels.

Wrapping Up

The business of fashion is complex and its markets are sophisticated. The purpose of this chapter is not to analyze each market in great detail but to make you aware of the importance of choosing one. Some markets, such as haute couture, are focused on a small clientele. In contrast, designer wear covers a multitude of styles and a broad section of the public; it extends from demi-couture, the most expensive of ready-to-wear, to the middle market. Similarly, the high street, or mass market offers a broad range of styles. Once you have chosen your market, you will need to do more research to narrow your scope and focus on your client.

However choosing a market and understanding your competition is not enough; it can only help you to understand what is current, what works and sells today. As a designer you must design today what people will wear tomorrow.