Lily Cole, the model with a face like a Victorian painting of a flower fairy, skin like double cream and ridic long legs, has just got a Double First at Cambridge in History of Art.
So she’s rich, thin, beautiful and clever. Probably also really nice and funny. But can she shop a chain store? Can she? Huh?
There is an art to it, but it can be learned. What has been surprising to me was realising that friends who can shop a flea market like a pro, are like rabbits in headlights when they walk into, say, H&M or TopShop, Oxford Circus, or even the lovely branch of Zara in Regent Street.
Dorothy Perkins £30
They wouldn’t even walk into a branch of Peacocks. I frequently do and sometimes come out with a gem.
For me it’s like surfing (or what I imagine surfing is like, having watched other people do it from the bar of Bondi Icebergs, in very high heels, nursing a mojito). You wait, you bide your time, then wheeee… jump on and ride your wave.
I’m trying to analyse why I can do it and others can’t and I can only assume it’s so many years of painful practice. If you subscribe to the 10,000 hours theory of expertise (read the book, Outliers, it’s brilliant…) I’ve definitely clocked up mine, stalking Chelsea Girl and Miss Selfridge – the only cool shops for young women in the 1970s – for anything vaguely wearable. The skill to search out the one good thing among hectares of shiny polyester, already splitting at the seams, has stuck with me.
I don’t want to be rude but I have noticed that chain store freak out is particularly prevalent among my Aussie gal pals, even among the most stylishly dressed. Especially amongst the most stylishly dressed…
I think it must be because chain store culture just isn’t embedded there the way it is in the UK – the local market just isn’t big enough for the key economies of scale behind mass-produced kit to kick in. So I think my elegant Aussie pals are simply used to a much more exquisite shopping experience. With novel ideas like ‘service’.
I was bemused when I moved to Sydney in 1993 to find so many of my new friends, who I considered normal people with normal jobs, wore designer labels. Full retail!
None of my friends in London wore them, unless they got to go the sample sales. But I soon came to realise that it was because the lower priced clothing offer was so limited in Australia, it was better to invest in a few good designer pieces instead and I started doing it too.
That is actually a much better way to dress, but as soon as I moved back to the UK (to be near my elderly mum…) I was immediately re-seduced by the chain store.
And how they have improved! I shop right across the range from Primark and Peacocks at the lowest end, up through H&M, Next, Dorothy Perkins, River Island and TopShop, to the marvel that is Zara.
Ah, Zara… How I love it. All the Aussies who queued outside the branches there when they opened last week were right to do so. Such style, such élan, such quality – such prices.
Zara, floral blazer £39.99
But as my chain store-phobic Aussie friends tell me they find even that Aladdin’s cave bewildering – one texted me the other day, frozen with panic in a Rome branch – here is my guide to Zen and Chain Store Shopping.
Don’t go with any expectations
You can’t be looking for a particular thing, just be open and see what comes along.
Get into the zone
Switch your active brain off and just drift through seeing where your eye falls. It’s instinctive, there’s no method. Examine what you’re drawn to, then move on.
Don’t expect any service
If you’re really lucky some grumpbag might agree to go and get you another size, but don’t bank on it.
Never go chain store shopping at lunchtime
Every working girl in London is out looking for a new outfit for her hot date that night. Go morning, or afternoon, or you will have to queue to try on and to pay.
Rise above the other people
The place will be full of very annoying numpties. Just accept that as a given. Channel your inner Yoda and rise above it.
Buy and return
If possible, buy what you think you might like to try on at home/in your hotel room, with the right shoes, bra, jewellery, cardigan etc and return what you don’t like the next day. It’s a hassle but better than the heinous changing rooms.
Brace yourself for the changing rooms
If you do have to try on, be grateful they’re no longer communal as they were when I was a teen. That was hell. Remember the mirrors are tricked up to make you look taller. They deny it, but they are.
Put your handbag on the hook inside the changing booth
Even if the walls go down to the ground, hands can come through under the door when you’ve got a dress stuck over your head.
Check the fabric and trimmings
Don’t be entirely seduced by a cool and style, no matter how it flatters. Make sure the fabric, zips etc aren’t too cheap looking. Buttons can be changed but it’s a bit of a faff.
Check the seams and buttons
Make sure you haven’t picked one up that’s already been knackered by multiple try ons. Go back and pick up a fresh one exactly the same.
If you like it buy it
It won’t be there next time. Or not in your size.
Keep the receipt
Essential to return stuff.