I’d describe it as mortifying, at first. The feeling when you’ve spent weeks figuring out what to wear for a friend’s wedding, finally pick out the perfect look from one of your high-street stalwarts and then show up on the day. To find the groom’s sister’s best friend wearing the same damn floral wiggle dress. The one you spent three lunch breaks deliberating over, before finally snapping up the Thursday before the big day. Shopping on the high street is fantastic, but it can also be a humbling experience, thanks to that fundamental question: if all these shops are making such covetable clothing at accessible prices, aren’t we all destined to dress alike?
It doesn’t have to be this way. Sure, picking up the trend item of the season at Zara or Topshop after work is fun – the sartorial equivalent of grabbing a kingsize KitKat at the supermarket till for dessert. But there’s only a small gap between noticing a woman’s enviable bright blue coat on the Tube and wondering where you can get one yourself, and then spotting the same coat the next day and thinking, “Jesus, that bloody coat again. Glad I didn’t buy it.” On top of this, the high street has a flattening effect – these days, it’s harder to make time to search for that perfect little independent store that really speaks to you, a hidden gem where you can fill your wardrobe without looking like a fast-fashion clone.
But things are starting to change, thanks to the newest generation of indie alternatives to the high street. The wave of disruption that swept Silicon Valley and created apps like Uber has made its way into the fashion industry, in the form of affordable trend-focused brands with smaller lines and less availability. Online-only retailers like Reformation are starting a small revolution in how our wardrobes can work. When done well, cult items with unique appeal lead to waiting lists and a healthy resale market on eBay and Vestiaire Collective. This is the effect that the likes of M&S and Gap have often tried to replicate when pushing “the skirt of the season” or similar. We love a cult product in theory, but there’s a tipping point where suddenly everyone on the bus is wearing your look. Taking a cue from streetwear brands, Reformation’s key pieces – like the now sold-out Wooster wrap dress – is dropped in quantities small enough for the shopper to avoid that feeling. Although the prices are in US dollars, Reformation offer free worldwide shipping.
A lot of indie brands are occupying a space that is hard to define on the high street – the tenuous "mid-market" alternative to fast fashion, which often works out as being too expensive to justify splurging on. This is where Finery and Sézane come in – trend-led brands that want to offer something a little different to the current fashion formula. Finery, launched by a former fashion director of ASOS and an ex-design director at Topshop, fills that supposed mid-market gap, selling you a dress for £80 and a coat for the same price. Sézane, lauded as France’s first e-commerce fashion label, stocks beautiful, inconspicuous outerwear which could easily be mistaken for designer, alongside eye-catching printed dresses around the €120 mark.
Things are starting to change, thanks to the newest generation of indie alternatives to the high street
And what if you’re not so into trends? Minimalism has long been tough on the high street – Cos and Gap are two reliable outlets for a classic dress or a crisp white shirt, but it’s not exactly the kind of inspiring, joyful experience that The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying has us imagining. The appeal of the high street often lies in its ease and convenience – popping in on the way to work or from the supermarket. But US brand Everlane uses the internet to cut out the middleman and bring simple, elevated basics direct to the customer. This appeals to the post-Marie Kondo shopper – those operating on a one-in, one-out system, aiming for the perfect capsule. It’s a world away from the current high-street model, where trend after trend is pushed upon us as the Ultimate Wardrobe Solution. Everlane sells its range of minimal pieces at prices that reflect the space they’ll take in your wardrobe. A shirtdress is $65, while a short trench coat is $135. So far, Everlane operates online, with physical "showrooms" (note, not stores) in New York and San Francisco to give shoppers a feel for the collection. It’s easy to imagine this working on a wider scale – a showroom in every city – but, at the same time, brands like Everlane prefer disruption over mass-market dominance, so hopefully even expansion won’t lead to the clone effect. They’re working on international shipping and have offered two temporary UK shipping windows over the past year. Look out for another chance to shop before Christmas this year.
A similar principle is now being brought to the UK by John Lewis, with their new in-store Modern Rarity line which they describe as "fewer, better pieces", at that same elusive midpoint between high-end and no-frills. They’re even working with London fashion favourites Palmer//Harding, to the delight of industry insiders. The duo, whose thoughtful, impeccable white shirts are favourites amongst more minimal dressers (and Theresa May) are bringing their signature tailoring to a more accessible price point (around £100) and, in doing so, John Lewis is tapping into a prime chunk of our shopping habits – a real investment piece that won’t leave you completely broke until payday. It's also worth talking a look at the loved&found section on the John Lewis website which is full of fashion, beauty and homewear from unusual brands.
According to the rules of our modern world, more choice is always a good thing. But I wonder sometimes if the high street is taking some of the inventiveness out of how we shop and how we get dressed. And, of course, it’s making it harder and harder to avoid those moments of wedding-guest twinning. But the latest wave of independent online options – each dedicated to being one thing, rather than pandering to everyone – will hopefully help clear a path back to individuality once again.