I bet you think you know how to shop the high street. I mean, who doesn’t? It’s what we all do. You, me, the women I squish up next to at fashion shows, the women I squish up next to on the Victoria line. Yes, there are women who wear exclusively designer clothes, but even on the fashion front row they are in a tiny minority. That there are rich fashion pickings to be had at high-street prices is not news.
Still – and don’t take this the wrong way – most of us are shopping the high street all wrong. The principles by which we approach what we buy from what shop lag behind the reality of what is out there. To get the best out of the high street, we need to think again.
For the past decade, we have lived by two unbreakable commandments of high-low shopping, repeated and reprinted for so long that we have absorbed them as gospel. Like the Lord’s prayer of retail, we mutter them under our breath as we shop.
Commandment number one: the high street is great for basics, while designer boutiques are unbeatable for special pieces. Sharon Stone is the patron saint of this mantra, appearing on the Oscars red carpet in a Gap white shirt and a satin Vera Wang skirt, smiling as beatifically as a stained-glass angel. Commandment number two: beyond basics, the strength of the high street is throwaway, blaze-of-glory party dressing of the buy-today-wear-tonight school. Look at the price per sequin and ignore the fact they will fall apart in the taxi home.
These principles are out of date and out of touch. The best new high-street fashion of 2017 moves beyond the tired tropes of elevated basics and magpie sparkle. If you know where to look, there are interesting, eyecatching, wearable, well-made clothes that are made to last and do not require “elevating” with the addition of a designer piece.
This is the post-basic high street. Some of the best clothes of the new season originate from names you might have had down as – let’s be frank – a little dull. Next is known to many of us as a source of good-value workwear and great kidswear, but the new designer-led, limited-edition collection Label/Mix has produced a camel coat with a wide faux-fur panel that runs behind the lapels like a football scarf that I have been obsessed with since I saw it at a press day months ago (it’s by Osman and launches on 9 November for £275). LK Bennett gets flak for a kitten-heel mentality, but the LK Bennett x Preen collaboration has kick-ass desk-to-dinner dresses (such as the sequin dress above), while the Patti cashmere sweater with multicoloured jewels on one shoulder is excellent value at £195. The perfect high-necked statement blouse, in striped crepe de chine and with micro‑pleated ruffles? It’s £170 from the Icons collection at Boden.
The following is a conversation I have about once a fortnight. Me: “Ooh, that dress/coat/jumper is nice, where is it from?” The reply: “Cos – but one/five/eight years ago.” Label/Mix by Next and LK Bennett x Preen are this season’s hottest collections, but credit for the slow-burn trend for grownup-but-not-boring high-street pieces goes in large part to two H&M-owned brands, Cos and & Other Stories, which launched 10 and four years ago, respectively.
These brands introduced us to a new way of shopping. We bought pieces that were special, but not showy – and, crucially, discovered that we were still wearing them seasons later. Whereas Cos is all about the subtle detail, & Other Stories has a winning line in quirk: you could go for corduroy culottes in traffic‑light red for £59 or this season’s block-heeled ankle boots in a shiny tortoiseshell effect for £125.
Finery launched three years ago with a mission “to put the excitement back into shopping”. Originally online only, it’s now sold on the shop floor in John Lewis. These clothes are special, confident and exude a joy in fashion. “Say ‘hello’ to the dress you didn’t know you need, but you really, really do,” reads the blurb for an asymmetric-hem rose-print patchwork midi dress.
A by Jigsaw is an upscale high-street line; its exquisitely made Italian wool coats are often seen at fashion week. Like Finery, it’s powered by the philosophy that design integrity should be accessible to a consumer who has been left behind by the ever more stratospheric prices of Bond Street. (I want the Ellsworth-Kelly-ish pleat skirt, £199.) With a price tag of between £1,000 and £2,000 now standard for a dress from a luxury name such as Gucci, Prada or Balenciaga, the rise in prices has fuelled another fashion industry obsession: a clandestine love of the discounts at Bicester Village, now the fashion editor’s favourite day out.
At this point, I must come clean. There are certain pieces about which I am unmovably snobbish. I have no qualms about wearing £30 shoes – I often sing the praises of M&S (so comfy!) on the front row and plan to buy its £49.50 ankle boots for Christmas parties – but I cannot, however much I try, be satisfied by a cheap bag. If I can afford it without whimpering, it leaves me cold. While I will happily wear a Next coat (see above), I would rather become a hermit than carry a diary that wasn’t Smythson. And don’t get me started on my luggage snobbery, which is out of control. I can only give thanks for the supply of Louis Vuitton holdalls on resale site Vestiaire Collective.
Snobbery isn’t dead, then. It’s just that – like everything else in fashion – it doesn’t mean what it used to mean.
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