There was an idea to share high fashion with mainstream America by creating diffusion lines that were designer in name but moderate in price point. Designers like Ralph Lauren had already tapped into this for decades with his namesake line serving as the flagship and brands like Polo and Chaps growing to such ubiquity over time that they carried themselves easily. Giorgio Armani was one of the first major designers to create several of these so-called bridge lines, including Emporio Armani, Armani Jeans and Armani Exchange, in an attempt to broaden the designer’s appeal and capture revenue from an aspirational demographic. By the 1990s, Marc by Marc Jacobs, Max Mara’s Sportmax, CK Calvin Klein and a swath of other designers had firmly planted their aesthetics and lowered price points in the hearts and closets of consumers high and low, near and far.
The machine kept churning through the years. The concept seemed to settle the issue of selling designer goods to the general public, whose appetite could now be satiated with a $180 Michael by Michael Kors handbag versus $1,800 for the high-end version. Previously, the price point was achieved for designer goods only through licensed products such as accessories, optical goods, fragrance and cosmetics. People would buy a Chanel powder compact in lieu of a jacket; it was a way to participate in designer fashion on an incremental, affordable level. With the advent of bridge collections, you could wear something Karl Lagerfeld, Paul Smith or Alexander Wang actually designed.
It was a triumph for the democratization of fashion.
Through the early 2000s, these diffusion lines were so prevalent it was more common than not for a designer to oversee at least two collections rather than one. Even forward, avant-garde designers like Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood took on contemporary lines. In some instances, sales from bridge lines outpaced their flagship counterparts. Bridge became a fixture in high-end fashion.
Then came the massive growth of discount internet outlets and the slew of designer collaborations with low-end fast fashion retailers. And of course, there was eBay. The grasp of cache and control that fashion houses once held began to loosen, and as a result, the myriad of lines went from feeling aspirational and new to being perceived as confusing and excessive, segregated and unclear.
In 2011, Dolce & Gabbana stopped production of D&G. Burberry then consolidated its lines into a single collection. Paul Smith, Vivienne Westwood and Sonia Rykiel followed suit. Even Ralph Lauren announced this summer that it would focus its business on three brands. Suddenly a decades old game plan was crumbling.
Part of the shift is attributed to the increasingly sophisticated consumer who can imagine an inexpensive item next to a luxury piece worn together without being confused. Ironically, the existence of bridge lines played a large part of the ability of consumers to unite high and low. Another reason is that while price point is still relevant, spending habits of consumers are beginning to become dictated more by desire first, price second, which is a clear turn of habits in the last 30 years.