It used to be that big-name designer labels sought to make fashion affordable for a younger, more casual customer.

Marc Jacobs launched his diffusion Marc by Marc Jacobs label with great success in 2001, and others like See by Chloe (also launched in 2001) and McQ by Alexander McQueen (which originated in 2006) followed suit.

Haute names like Viktor and Rolf and Roberto Cavalli have launched budget-friendly capsule collections for chain retailer H&M, and Target (or shall I say, “Tar-jay”?) has become an unlikely fashion heavy-hitter with its GO International design collaborations that bring the styles of Proenza Schouler, Erin Fetherston, and Temperley, just to name a few, to the masses.

It is interesting, then, that in the midst of a movement toward democratic fashion, – delivering high style to even the most budget-conscious shoppers – suddenly mid-priced chain retailers are attempting to move into a more upscale market.

Over the past few years, brands like Gap Inc. and J. Crew have steadily increased price points within their stores. In corroboration with the noticeable shift in pricing, such brands have now started to up the ante in terms of design and garment quality, to give the customer something worth paying those extra bucks for.

Banana Republic, a division of Gap Inc., recently launched their “BR Monogram” line, as well as a high-end line of sunglasses. The Monogram collection is marketed as more upscale and exclusive than regular Banana Republic merchandise, as all pieces are limited-edition and selectively sold online and in a separate store, which recently opened on NYC’s Bleecker Street. 

While prices aren’t astronomically high – in fact, most pieces are still less expensive than those from designer diffusion lines like McQ – a BR Monogram dress retails for $225, while an ordinary Banana Republic dress runs about $130. So why the disparity in price? Reps for BR state that the quality of fabric, in addition to better tailoring, accounts for the boost in cost.

Higher up on the label ladder is prepster favorite J. Crew, which debuted their new, high-end J. Crew Collection online last fall. Sample items for Spring 2008 include a pair of beaded sandals for $250, a metallic jacquard jacket for $268, and the lovely plaid  “Peggy” halter dress for $395.

The line’s main selling point is that it pairs the same classic styling J. Crew shoppers have grown up loving with better craftsmanship, unique detailing, and “couture-quality” fabrics (the J. Crew Collection reportedly sources from the same companies that provide fabric to real high-end labels like Chanel and Vera Wang).

But will these offshoot labels click with customers? Abercrombie and Fitch learned the hard way that sometimes less is more – at least when it comes to price. Their Ezra Fitch line, a collection of stylized denim and higher-end items like leather jackets and cashmere knits, has been discontinued due to lagging sales following its launch in the early 2000s.

It may be difficult for consumers to justify spending $118 on a pair of Banana Republic sunglasses when they know they can purchase a trendier pair of Marc by Marc shades for the same price. Only time will tell if these newest luxe lines have real staying power in fashion’s ever-changing climate.