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Fashion Ace: Venus Williams launches apparel line at Steve & Barry's Tennis superstar serves up a trendy line of budget-minded athletic wear for Steve & Barry's

In the years since she picked up a racket and became a top-ranked U.S. women's tennis player, Venus Williams has attracted millions of fans. This month, she begins courting a new fan base, as she teams up with retail chain Steve & Barry's to produce EleVen, her women's apparel line. Williams will be at the Steve & Barry's Walden Galleria store at noon next Saturday as part of a multicity tour to celebrate the line's kick-off.

The EleVen collection, which consists of 120 items, is the largest ever launched by a female athlete. It includes nine styles of athletic footwear in a wide variety of colors, track suits, fleece outerwear, street active apparel, graphic T-shirts, puffy down jackets with removable sleeves, denim jackets and jeans, velour items, tote and gym bags, jewelry and sports socks and bras.

Every item will sell for $19.99 or under.

"I love fashion and the idea that I am using my design education to actually create clothing and footwear that I will wear on and off the tennis court is a dream come true for me," Williams said.

That vision, she said, has been to create a clothing collection that will allow women to "easily transition throughout their active lifestyles and still look fashionable."

The four-time Wimbledon champ is the most recent celebrity to join Steve & Barry's stable of exclusive designers with high name recognition. Actress Sarah Jessica Parker's "Bitten" line debuted at the store last spring, and comic actress Amanda Bynes' line, "Dear," over the summer.

These Steve & Barry's hook-ups highlight a growing trend in the fashion industry: that of big-name celebrities - as well as top designers - teaming up with big box retailers to make fashion-forward looks affordable for a wide audience. Remember Madonna's collection for H&M last winter?

The new deals differ from many licensing deals of the past in which stars contributed their names and little else during the design process.

>'Look for less'

These days, celebrity designers have a specific aesthetic, and, depending on their abilities, they work more closely with the stores' designers than one might imagine.

"I had input on every single piece, right down to the socks," Williams said in a phone interview this week. "It was very important to me to be very involved, especially with the on-court pieces."

Of course, Williams is no stranger to fashion design; for a while she got almost as much press for the self-designed, oncourt gear as she did for her killer serve. She has been working toward a fashion design degree - which she is about to obtain from the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale - while competing for the past several years. It's one reason why Steve & Barry's believe they have a winner.

But celebrity designers are the tip of this "look for less" iceberg. In the past two years, increasing numbers of well-known, respected fashion designers have made deals with stores that cater to women whose mortgages cost about as much as one Tshirt from the designers' regular lines.

Not too long ago, going downscale in this way would have marked these designers as turncoats - and crazy turncoats, at that - among their peers.

Eyebrows were raised and foreheads furrowed when Issac Mizrahi, an avant garde designer who was better known for his 1995 big-screen documentary, "Unzipped," than for his high-end line, began designing a line with sharp price points for Target in 2003. The partnership reinvigorated his sagging business and made him a household name.

Since then, Target has signed deals with nearly a dozen new, trendy designers, including Alice Temperley, Proenza-Schouler and Erin Fetherston, to release mini-collections (with mini-price tags) for short-term runs throughout the year.

Then there is Vera Wang's Simply Vera line for Kohl's; Abate and Lela Rose's hookups with Payless; Karl Lagerfeld, Stella McCartney and Roberto Cavalli's lines for H&M and Todd Oldham's upcoming designs for Old Navy, Ralph Lauren's American Living coming soon to JC Penney, among others.

According to Marshal Cohen of The NPD Group, a market analysis firm, designers are jumping at these deals because it helps them become household names, which is more important now than it ever was, because just as celebrities are becoming designers, designers are becoming celebrities.

>Gaining exposure

And why else is "slumming" in the land of the $39 dress OK now?

For one thing, selling across the board seems to be a winning situation for all concerned. Up-and-coming designers gain the kind of exposure they never could any other way, and designers whose sales have been sluggish can also get a big boost.

They also gain the advantage of the retailers' large-scale production. They benefit from the stores' marketing and manufacturing departments, and the size of the retailer's operations make it possible to translate their high-priced looks into more affordable ones without sacrificing design integrity.

And with short-term runs like those at Target, Kohl's and H&M, even if the line doesn't sell, no one loses the farm and no one's reputation tanks.

Mass-market stores, meanwhile, get the cachet of the designer name, which transforms the perception of "cheap" into the perception of "chic."

And we, the shoppers who can't afford Neimann-Marcus? We get some sharp clothes that we don't have to worry about spilling a latte on. At these prices, these clothes are nothing if not disposable, and no one need worry about cleaning the closet in anticipation of the next trend, either.

"Fashion isn't a luxury, it's a right," states Steve & Barry's Howard Schacter, quoting the store's the slogan for the Bitten and Dear lines. He notes that the world of fashion now is much more democratic than it ever was in the past.

>Cheap chic

In the age of the instant communication, designs from the runway that used to take several seasons to trickle down to the mass-market level are now replicated within weeks, and fashion fans are not only instantly aware of what the coming trends are, they want the looks now.

They have more choices about where they are going to get their clothes, and at what price. Shopping for the bargain is no longer a stigma.

According to NPD Group's Cohen, who is the author of "Why Customers Do What They Do," 10 years ago only 31% of shoppers were willing to admit shopping at both mass-market stores and department stores. Now, 67 percent confess to doing so.

Bottom line? Shoppers know that it doesn't have to cost as much as the February gas bill to be fashionable.

Fashion magazines now feature styles affordable to all women, not just the couture pieces that anchor the fashion spreads. Celebrities on the cover of gossip magazines are photographed wearing pieces from lower priced lines. Sharon Stone might have been the first to pair a Gap turtleneck with a designer skirt, but she certainly wasn't the last.

Sure, mass-market garments will never be mistaken for couture. But advancements in fabric- and garment-making technology, along with huge number of items produced, means that big-box stores can cut costs in some areas to improve quality in other areas.

In Williams' EleVen line, for example, the signature item is a high-performance on-court sneaker called the V-Court, that features high-end construction and styling similar to many of the highest-prices shoes on the market, but will retail for only $14.99. The six-time Grand Slam champ wore the shoe during the recent U.S. Open.

The first piece of clothing Williams remembers designing for herself, when she was about 18, was an one-piece look with an asymetrical neckline and a cutout over the stomach. "Then I didn't want to wear it because it showed too much skin," she said. "I never ended up wearing that."

She doesn't have that problem with her new line. Williams' favorite piece, she said, is a track suit with a flying V print. "It is very slimming and comfortable. "I wear it all the time."

bsullivan@buffnews.com

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