PARIS — The idea that expensive, designer fashions are the most desirable seems so last-millennium.

More and more marquee designers are applying their creativity to lower-priced apparel on a temporary or full-time basis, with Karl Lagerfeld the latest to join the masstige movement.

“Fendi and Chanel are so established, you cannot compete with them,” said Lagerfeld, who last month unveiled plans to shift the focus of his signature ready-to-wear line to access-pricing — and online selling — starting next fall. “You can’t dance at three parties the same evening.”

And in Lagerfeld’s estimation, the masstige party — which he really got going in 2004 when he teamed up with Swedish fast-fashion giant H&M on a one-time collaboration — is the one to be at today.

“I think it’s the only modern way to do it,” Lagerfeld told WWD. “We live in the age of jeans.

“It’s funny for a person who has money to buy something inexpensive and it’s great for a person with not so much money to be able to get something by a designer,” he continued. “It’s the new snobbism.”

Designers, executives and other observers agreed, saying the democratization of design, weakened spending power and shifting consumer preferences are giving lower-priced “designer” fashions a higher industry profile — and a bright future.

“It’s no secret that the designer and high-end market has become crowded in this economy, and people are looking at new ways of doing business,” said Robert Burke, head of the New York-based Robert Burke Associates consulting firm. “The old rules of defining the consumer and defining the price point — and the idea that you can play in only one category — are passé.”

Indeed, designer-led projects in lower-price categories continue to multiply, from Olivier Theyskens’ new contemporary range for Theory and Stella McCartney’s just-revealed partnership with PPR’s La Redoute on an affordable children’s wear collection to Lanvin’s forthcoming one-off line — from evening dresses to lipstick — for H&M.

What’s most intriguing are designers shifting permanently downstream, as Jil Sander did last year when she joined Japanese fashion giant Fast Retailing Co. Ltd. and launched her new +J brand for its flagship Uniqlo chain.

“Today, we are in a different phase of fashion history,” Sander said. “I took part in the transformation of fashion from a couture craft into a contemporary industry. We are much better equipped to realize quality on a much larger scale.

“To me, luxury has nothing to do with high prices, but a lot with enlightened taste and the possibility to be in step with your age, to feel at ease in your body, and to project a confident image of yourself,” she continued.

According to Jean-Jacques Picart, a Paris-based industry consultant, big-name designers cannot ignore a strong, worldwide trend toward more eclectic dressing, with lower-priced elements a key ingredient.

“A modern girl doesn’t hesitate today to mix quite expensive clothes and affordable-priced pieces: say, shoes by Christian Louboutin, a skirt by Diane von Furstenberg, a T-shirt from H&M, a vintage handbag and a belt she bought at a market in Istanbul,” he said. “What Karl did with H&M pushed up to the top level of prestige any co-branding between big names and popular names.”

Concetta Lanciaux, principal of Switzerland-based Strategy Luxury Advisors, also ties the rise in masstige — accessibly priced products with some prestige elements — to economic factors, principally a “sharp decrease in standards of living that has hit the mainstream middle class who used to buy entry-level luxury products or second lines.”

Changing tastes play a role, too. “The new generation is much more fashionable than the jeans-and-T-shirt Generation X-ers born after the Seventies that loved Gap — the antidesign, accessible brand,” Lanciaux said. “For those born after the Eighties, looking fashionable in a personal way is cool, and they mix and match styles to achieve a more adult look while adults dress generally younger.”

Lanciaux said celebrity lines, mostly accessibly priced, have “given a new impulse to this trend,” while Gap is morphing into a more design-driven brand, evident in collaborations with young American designers and, coming in November, a capsule collection by Valentino available in Europe only.'

Burke highlighted the popularity of Target’s tie-ups with designers such as Isaac Mizrahi, Zac Posen, Alexander McQueen, Anna Sui, Rodarte and Jean Paul Gaultier. Designer names “speak to the consumer” more than a “nameless, faceless masstige brand,” he said.

In a recent report, Bernstein Research analyst Luca Solca asserted that mass retailers like Inditex, parent of the Zara chain, and H&M are changing the apparel industry from the ground up. “Their short design-to-market lead times, compelling fashion content and superior scale are allowing them to gain market share across the world and push traditional apparel retailers aside.…Even high-end designer fashion is feeling the pressure,” Solca wrote.

“The customer is clever,” added Margareta van den Bosch, creative adviser at H&M and the former head of design who launched its annual designer collaborations with Lagerfeld, subsequently teaming up with Viktor & Rolf, Jimmy Choo, Sonia Rykiel and others. “He or she wants the best of all things, and mixes and matches from all different kinds of offerings and brands. It’s something that we encourage: Fashion should be about finding new ways to express yourself, at a reasonable cost.”

Van den Bosch said consumer interest remains high in the retailer’s designer collaborations, helping the fast-fashion giant widen its reach.

“Since we started doing collaborations, we have seen new types of customers that normally did not shop at H&M. For example, Comme des Garçons attracts a different type of customer than Roberto Cavalli,” she said. “And from what we can see, we have also kept them.”

Colette, the ultrahip Paris boutique, has also been a hot spot for launching and popularizing masstige products — an Azzaro range for cataloguer La Redoute being the most recent on the floor last month — amidst the crème de la crème of designer creations.

“Our philosophy is to introduce anything we like, so it can go from a luxury brand to a special mass market collection we would get in advance,” explained Sarah Lerfel, Colette’s creative director and buyer. “For sure it opens our door to many customers who are usually not coming to our boutique, so that’s positive. The downside would be the mess it can generate, but that’s a positive mess, too!”

Lerfel said the accelerating speed of trends, no doubt fuelled by the quick-turn fast-fashion players, means “you always want something new, but with quality and a good price to update your wardrobe fast.”

Christian Lacroix — now focused on stage costumes and industrial design projects since his couture and ready-to-wear house was shuttered last year — said the financial crisis and exaggerated runway styles have undermined the appeal of designer fashions in recent years.

Meanwhile, “real people found their own style tricks and pleasure through eBay, low-priced shops, vintage and secondhand, Internet, flea markets or all these chains such as Zara, H&M etc., which are so clever interpreting runway styles into more edible products,” he said. “That’s why designers are more and more attracted by lower-priced products if they don’t want to lose the connection with their audience.”

In Lacroix’s estimation, there’s an “enormous space for these lesser-priced lines — if they are right and connected with street desires. And this space is stolen from deluxe fields.”

Said the consultant Burke: “If you can offer good design at a great value, you get a customer. It’s that simple.”

Most observers agreed that high-end designers can dabble in masstige without risk, so long as the latter projects are not overexposed or too derivative of their high-end offerings. Burke mentioned Vera Wang as a good example since her Simply Vera Vera Wang line at Kohl’s has not hampered her draw as a go-to, luxury bridal designer, as Chelsea Clinton’s July nuptials attested.

Lanciaux warned that while embracing masstige “would mean slow death for a luxury brand, it becomes particularly interesting for clever designers and marketers capable of offering design, functionality and a decent quality at a low price. In a way, it could replace the income from licenses and secondary lines.”

Alber Elbaz, creative director at Lanvin, said he had initially spurned invitations from H&M to collaborate, but he was ultimately seduced by the “democratic” nature of the project.

“We thought it was a very relevant move. High-street fashion is really becoming stronger and more important,” he said. “We were always doing high fashion and I thought it would be interesting to understand this market.”

“The business requires innovation and evolution,” agreed Andrew Rosen, president and co-ceo of Link Theory Holdings (U.S.) Inc., which just launched the Theyskens’ Theory collection by the former designer of Nina Ricci and Rochas, someone famous for couture-like creations with nosebleed prices. While the new Theory line is hardly mass, and is described as “high contemporary,” it is more democratic.

“I think designers are very forward and innovative thinkers. Clearly their reach can be much more than at the luxury end,” Rosen said. “I don’t think clothes have to be expensive to have value.

“You don’t get to be Jil Sander, Karl [Lagerfeld] or Olivier [Theyskens] if you don’t have a special point of view,” he continued. “And if you have a point of view, it’s relevant at any price or in any category. At the end of the day, I don’t think someone is going to buy an Olivier Theyskens jacket because they can get it for $600. They’re buying it because it’s really special.”

McCartney, who rose to fashion fame as the designer of Chloé, launched her brand as a joint venture with Gucci Group in 2001, and her accessibly priced forays have included a one-time collaboration with H&M in 2005 and her ongoing partnership with Adidas.

“I don’t really believe in elitism for the sake of it,” said McCartney. “I think it’s really important and modern and contemporary if you can make clothes that are affordable and accessible, but with still a great quality attached to them and timelessness.

“I think our brand isn’t snobbish and that’s why we started looking into this early on,” she explained. “It comes very natural to us.…We are a brand that can appeal to many different demographics of people, and so we’re interested in playing on that and testing that and pushing that within the brand.”

While most designer forays into lower-price zones have centered on women’s apparel, observers agree other categories, such as men’s wear, could be further developed.

“There is a strong tendency toward a less frivolous lifestyle. You find people of style on all levels of income: quality and attractiveness wins over snobbism,” noted Sander. “I see many possibilities in my cooperation with Uniqlo. I am very interested in accessories, and I would also consider doing optics, fragrances, homewares and even watches. I guess I would draw the line at jewelry.”

In Lanciaux’s estimation, accessible products with a designer edge will remain “a valuable choice for consumers formerly buying secondary lines and mass” as long as this slow-growth economic cycle lasts.

“But nothing is eternal,” she said. “In a new economic cycle, the same consumers will be buying higher because the aspiration to luxury — of which quality is a key element — is definitively stamped in the DNA of the new generations.”