When it comes to high-street shopping, I’m something of a bore. A sneaky spare half hour between meetings in town? There I am, whizzing through the rails in Zara, along with every other woman in London, buying the same shoes that, l’ll soon discover, 50 per cent of my friends also own. Or nabbing a nice princess jacket that I later realise is so ubiquitous it’s got its own Instagram account.
Party-dress emergency? Hello, my beloved & Other Stories.
Hankering after yet another sweatshirt? Whistles it is, then.
But while it’s all well, good and sensible knowing which brands work for you, sometimes it can get a teensy bit dull. Time, I decide, to rouse myself from my retail rut. And time to go shopping in the stores I normally ignore. (Well, within reason – I’m not going to stand in a queue outside Hollister, obviously – I do have some pride.) Let’s go.
I kick off with two 90s classics that I hadn’t ventured into since I used to dance on podiums (not for a living, I hasten to add, just during a good night out). First up, Jigsaw, which I always felt was a bit “pony club” for me. Well, it sure ain’t any more. Within seconds of entering the shop, I’d seen 10, nay 20, pieces I’d happily try on. There’s an abundance of pared-back, high-quality daytime basics that won’t wow your Insta followers, but will make getting dressed in a rush that bit easier. Well-cut T-shirts in a various shades, endless variations on the Breton top, minimal white trainers, a sharp flannel coat in berry red and stylish, grown-up day dresses in chic prints. I loved it all.
Busting out of your retail comfort zone means you get to wear things that a) haven’t found fame as a social-media meme and b) won’t also be worn by three other women at any given party
Karen Millen was a similar revelation. Back in the day, I had a thing for its aspirational ultra-glam frocks – I have fond memories of raiding the Leeds store for all things glittery before going clubbing. But then we all started wearing jeans and a nice top to go out and it fell off my radar. But, Kazzer is back, back, back – not literally; the actual KM left in 2004 – rather, it’s got its sartorial groove back, thanks to a new design team. It’s still glamorous, but in a more modern, lower-key way. I made a beeline for a red velvet trouser suit (available in-store and online soon) and was also wowed by sculptural white shirts. Next time I need a party outfit or quality workwear, this will be my first port of call.
Next up, er, Next. Now, I am actually a loyal customer – but only when it comes to childrenswear. (I buy a lot of my kids’ clothes here, as the boy’s stuff tends to not be plastered with crap logos or slogans and the girls’ range isn’t an all-pink horror zone.) This time, however, I stop in womenswear and peruse properly for a change. Here, you have to look a bit harder for the gems, but I was impressed by their jeans – flattering cuts and comfortable fits for around £25 a pop. Apparently, it’s all down to their denim technology – the fabrics have a four-way stretch, constructed for 360º movement. What’s more, many styles come in a petite fit, which is manna from heaven for a shortie like me. I pick out a cropped boyfriend pair that look great with a red bouclé coat over the top.
I’m hitting my stride now, so bring on the big beasts: the department stores. And, no, not the cool ones like Selfridges or Liberty – I mean the ones my mum used to drag me around in the 1980s to buy dresses for her elaborate dinner parties. While I might venture in for perfume/spatulas/buggies, they’ve never been my first choice for fashion. But now that I have basically turned into my mum and have minimal free-time/patience/shopping stamina, I understand the appeal – all those brands under one roof. Lemme at them. John Lewis’ fashion sales are up since the arrival of the store’s first female MD Paula Nickolds and a whizz around womenswear shows why. The in-house denim brand And/Or has a laid-back Californian feel, a good range of styles and washes, and supremely flattering cuts, and it’s not just jeans – I also clocked this cute red/black print midi dress. Big tick too for the Italian cashmere slouchy sweaters and cardigans in Modern Rarity, the other in-house brand that launched last year. Then there’s – deep breath – Somerset by Alice Temperley, with its prim-yet-sexy knitwear and day dresses at a zillionth of the price of the designer’s main line, casually chic daywear from Hush, the newly rejuvenated Warehouse (otherwise known as jumpsuit nirvana) and Toast for all your androgynous Danish sculptor aesthetic needs. The newest arrival is Boden, which launched in the store on September 8. I’ve got my eye on the print Folklore dress.
I would also urge you not to dismiss Debenhams. The acclaimed Studio by Preen collection majors this season on high-neck blouses and printed midi dresses, while I’m also a convert to Nine By Savannah Miller, especially the Bowie-esque silver lightning-bolt leather ankle boots and her trademark star print which, this season, comes splattered over a midi dress, blouse and skirt.
Also worth a honourable mention, Brazilian brand Issa, known for its celebrity-catnip va-va-voom printed dresses, makes a return this season under House Of Fraser’s roof and is well worth a look.
I hope I’ve inspired you to reprogramme your shopping sat nav this season, as there really is a whole new world out there. You just never know, Dorothy Perkins, Monsoon or Hobbs could turn out to be your new special place. And busting out of your retail comfort zone means you get to wear things that a) haven’t found fame as a social-media meme and b) won’t also be worn by three other women at any given party. So, this is hard, but I’m going to just come out with it – Zara, I’ll always love you, but it’s time I started seeing other people.