The River's edge

When today's fashion-conscious youngsters head for River Island, they follow in their parents' and grandparents' footsteps although, back in the day, the High Street chain was known as Chelsea Girl and Concept Man.

It's been at the forefront of British fashion for more than half a century, recently winning awards for best bags, best jeans, best high street retailer and best online retailer.

River Island is the latest incarnation of a retail phenomenon that started 55 years ago from a small lock-up shop in east London selling wool and womenswear, expanding into a nationwide chain, Lewis Separates.

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In 1968, the stores were renamed Chelsea Girl, adding Concept Man in 1983. In 1988, both brands were brought under one banner and renamed River Island.

Targeted at customers aged 18-35, it actually has customers aged 10 to 80. A new two-storey River Island which opened last year in Harrogate has proved popular among all ages and both sexes – mums, dads and grandparents who ventured inside to find something for Christmas for their offspring came out of the doors with something for themselves too, from sequin berets to watches to faux fur jackets.

It's River Island's commitment to strong British design that has fuelled its success. The company has one of the largest design studios of a British High Street brand and over the past four years alone 69 new graduates have joined to become part of its 100-strong design team.

The chain's sponsorship of Graduate Fashion Week means it's also the first to spot the brightest new stars in fashion.

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Menswear is an important factor and River Island has introduced increasing numbers of boys and men to the wonderful world of fashion.

"Men's fashion has become more adventurous over the years and it is more acceptable for a guy to dress stylishly with fashion-forward thinking," says menswear accessories designer James Lawrence.

James, 27, from Hull, was spotted by River Island at Graduate Fashion Week after winning the Gold award, following an Art and Design Foundation Course in Fashion at Hull College, then a BA (Hons) degree in Fashion Design at Northumbria University.

"River Island is seeing a younger customer, due to the fact that that younger generation is now surrounded by fashion in everyday media. We offer an indie, grungy style, right through to a smarter, preppy look," he said.

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River Island now has more than 200 stores in the UK and Ireland and 25 stores across the world, with more planned.

n There will be casting calls for would-be models as River Island looks for six young women (18 plus) to appear in its fashion spreads, including the April issue of Company magazine, encouraging women of all shapes and sizes to love their own figure. The spotters will be at the Leeds Lands Lane store on January 28, and at Sheffield Meadowhall store on February 3. All auditions will be held from 5.30pm.

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