Back in 1993, Debenhams was considered a hub for fashion innovation. With the launch of its debut ‘Designers At Debenhams’ range, it became the first retailer to recognise the power of the high-end / high-street collaboration, boasting a roster of relevant young labels (Ben Di Lisi, John Rocha and Jasper Conran were among the earliest recruits) as partners.
Trouble is, those were still the names responsible for propping up the department store’s fashion kudos when it finally slid into administration this week.
Debenhams has barely tinkered with its line up of womenswear product ranges in the last 25 years - even when the designer collaborators have lost their own sparkle. John Rocha closed his namesake label and retired in 2014. Matthew Williamson stopped showing on the catwalk in 2016, moving to Mallorca to become an interior designer. Julien MacDonald and Henry Holland, whose respective Star and H! offerings at Debenhams were launched in the early 2000s, were originally recruited as rising stars, but neither is considered a young It label now.
These are all talented British designers, certainly, and it is admirable of Debenhams to have maintained such long standing partnerships in what is a typically fickle fashion industry. But newness is what gets people coming into stores and there has been very little of that to report on for some time - even the one, very recent electric shock from Richard Quinn was unfortunately not enough to resuscitate the patient. His was the first new name to be added to the line up in years, since the one consistently great line, Studio by Preen, arrived in 2017.
You might think I’m placing too much importance on the designer collaborations but, when they worked, the Designers At Debenhams ranges accounted for 16.9% of the retailer’s sales. Debenhams made its partners into household names and, in return, the designers with their biannual London Fashion Week catwalk shows, elevated the feel of the whole department store. Even if you weren’t going in to your local branch to buy the new purple sequin midi dress from Preen’s latest capsule range (you might have seen it in a magazine and subliminally registered that, aha! there are new things at Debenhams) it might have prompted you to go into the shop and buy something else.
There are, still, wonderful things to be found in Debenhams. I tried and tested a wedding dress from the Savannah Miller collaborative collection for Stella Magazine last year and it turned out to be one of the best for quality and price on the high street. But why would you think to shop there for your big day, when the environments at most regional stores involve dusty floors and bad changing room lighting?
The website also is a virtual jumble sale. There are currently 5,634 dresses, 6,287 tops and 7,218 pairs of shoes available to buy for women on debenhams.com, my thumbs have seized up just thinking about trying to scroll through it all in search of a dress to wear to an upcoming wedding.
Debenhams, of course, is just the latest in a long line of British high street stores to have found themselves in trouble recently. Marks & Spencer is planning store closures, even John Lewis has experienced profit drops. But the difference with the others is that they are at least trying. M&S is revamping all of its core womenswear collections, John Lewis has constantly been adding great new ranges and making its store place you actually want to visit.
There is space, certainly, for a department store with a fashion range that is led by clever designer collaborations, accompanied by a sharp edit of quality classics and basics. Debenhams is a much-loved British institution and should be able to weather this storm. But when it comes to the fashion department, it would be best advised to start from scratch.