Turn for the Better

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The fashion world just got a whole lot better — literally. "Better" is a retail-fashion term that describes clothing lines that are not as expensive as designer collections — by implication, those would be the "best"--and are affordable for most middle-class consumers. This year has seen an influx into this market, allowing regular folks who like flipping through fashion magazines to finally live out some of their glossy daydreams. Retailers are carrying debut collections in this category from Tommy Hilfiger, Michael Kors and Calvin Klein, and new lines from historical better providers Liz Claiborne and Jones New York. "Better is affordable luxury," says LaVelle Olexa, senior vice president of fashion merchandising at Lord & Taylor. "Designers want to appeal to a broader customer base, and better is a way to do that."

This season, Lord & Taylor added five new collections to its stable of mid-priced lines, including new arrivals Calvin Klein and Realities. In the fall Lord & Taylor will showcase the new Michael line from Michael Kors. The Michael line features items from $30 to $1,600; prices in his designer collection range from $200 to $20,000. Designer Kors says customers who admire his clothes haven't always been able to afford them but now "the Michael brand opens up my looks to a whole new audience."

Not all the players in the better world are new to the field. Liz Claiborne's better label has been around for 28 years and represents approximately one-third of the company's annual business. But the category hadn't seen much change in several years, providing an opportunity for the company to make a splash with some new additions. "We already had four successful labels in the category when we decided to launch two new better lines," says Angela Ahrendts, executive vice president at Liz Claiborne Inc. The company's Intuitions and Realities collections were introduced this month in more than 200 stores across the U.S.

Is there much difference in quality between a major designer line and a less expensive better line? "The Michael Kors Collection is no-holds-barred luxury," says Kors. "The Michael collection is more about everyday luxury, but the attitude and taste level are consistent with both." To the fashion layman the differences are nearly imperceptible. Grades of leather in designer collections may be suppler, the stitching a bit more complex, and fabrics more exotic (silks instead of synthetic weaves). Overall, however, better lines generally feature good craftsmanship and reflect a stylish aesthetic. "My fingerprint is all over this collection," says Kors. And at about a quarter of the price. It doesn't get any better than that.