The choice on the high-street has turned writer Alix Walker’s passion into a chore. Here, she speaks to fashion experts about how to fall back in love with shopping
Some people have the kind of family dynasties that films are made about, full of intrigue and corruption and drama. Me, I come from a family of shoppers.
You can leave my Grandma Kath in Morrisons and she’ll still be sniffing melons in the fruit and veg aisle three hours later. My mum sees a potential friend in every shop assistant she meets and can justify literally any purchase with the kind of creativeness normally reserved for Hollywood screenwriters. Shopping, you see, is in my blood.
Growing up, Saturdays spent buying bath pearls and wrap-over skirts with my best friend at Bradford Arndale centre were my first taste of freedom. At university, I spent as much time in Morgan trying on leather boob tubes as I did in lectures and in my 20s my weekly Saturday pilgrimage to Oxford Street to buy my outfit for that night was always the best part of my week.
I loved shops and shops loved me. Buying made me high; I felt like my spiritual home was under those fluorescent strip lights in the changing room, my closest friends in the cubicles next door. And I never left without a new purchase. Ever.
But I’ve fallen out of love with my family legacy. Shopping and me just don’t work anymore. In fact, shopping bloody terrifies me. The high street is now a behemoth of choice… so much choice that five minutes on Oxford Street brings me out in a cold sweat.
Every week there is a new Swedish concept fashion store that I should now be buying all by basics at, a new cool Danish label that I should automatically know the name of, a new trainer – there are so many trainers! – or boot that I should already be wearing.
While there used to be a clearly defined line between high street and designer, now there are bridge lines, contemporary lines, high-end high street and designer diffusion lines. The rules are blurred, the choice is overwhelming, the clothes I order online never look like they did in the photo and it’s all turning me off shopping.
While shops were once friendly places I whiled away my weekends in, they’re now giant, brightly lit warehouses which blare out stressful music. And they don’t just sell clothes but lifestyles with make-up and interiors and even food to buy into, too.
I go in to buy a summer dress and come out with a pen holder, a trio of nail varnishes and a designer’s interpretation of the new season in the shape of a chocolate bar. And no summer dress. It’s as though the more choice I am offered the more confused I become.
Shopping has also become a physical endurance test, which I don’t have the stamina for. Long gone are the days when you ticked off the holy trinity of Dorothy Perkins, Topshop and Kookai (all helpfully within a few metres of each other) before rewarding yourself with a goat’s cheese salad from Café Rouge.
Now you have to walk a half-marathon just to get to the jeans section in each department store, where you can find approximately 70,000 pairs of the new season ‘must-have’ jean shape. Trying on jeans is not the most relaxing of things at the best time. When you have to get through enough denim to clothe a small country, it becomes actual torture.
Even if I did have the athletic prowess to actually get around the 10 miles of shops that now line the high street, I no longer know what my style is. Because there are too many people telling me what it should be. Remember when style was basically Sienna Miller circa 2004?
Everyone knew that she looked the best so every shop did a version of a gypsy skirt, cowboy boot and a giant studded belt. We may all have looked the same but we knew what the rules were.
Now I have fashion magazines, fashion bloggers, fashion influencers and fashion YouTube channels all telling me what I should buy. I can shop the look of almost every person I follow on Instagram, including my mum’s friend Wilma. I just want someone to tell me what to wear. But who am I supposed to trust when so many people claim to be experts now?
As for online shopping… if you can find me a bigger head f**k, I applaud you. New stuff ‘drops’ every day. Every day. I have a job, how can I keep up with this turnaround?
Then there are the ‘trending now’ sections which promise me the ‘top look’ item but which actually push me to buy a fringed bikini just because Margaret from Manchester has got one in her basket, too.
Everyone else seems to find ASOS a fashion utopia – and no doubt every well-dressed woman I know swears by it - but looking at it literally hurts my head. There’s just so much. So many clothes in one place. So much pressure to pick the right thing before it goes.
The new rules of shopping
I’m sure I can’t be the only one left reeling by the maze that is 21st Century shopping - so I’ve consulted a few experts to get their take on how to navigate this vast territory, and reclaim your love of retail. Here’s what they had to say:
1. Start with your fashion rules
It sounds counter-intuitive but to inject the fun back into shopping it helps to give yourself some ‘rules” – essentially self-imposed parameters to shop within. These rules become the shorthand to fall back on when you’re tempted to take 25 items into the changing room or when the sight of the sale rack sends you spinning or when you have no idea if you really need bright orange mules in your life.
For example, you might have keywords your purchase has to fit in to, like print, tailored and denim. Or you might be more focused on the longevity of the item, judging each purchase on whether it’ll last longer than a series of The Handmaid’s Tale. Whatever your rules they should be fluid enough to allow for the frivolous but strict enough so as to reduce the excessive amount of choice available to you. Take inspiration from others:
Lisa Aitken, Fashion Director at Net-a-Porter: “The test for anything I’ve purchased is, ‘Can I wear it more than four ways and do I want to wear it tomorrow?’ If you can’t answer yes to both of those questions then it’s probably not a good purchase. Also, it has to look good with blue denim or a white T-shirt. Something will only come into my wardrobe if I can wear it a multitude of ways.”
Polly Knight, Stylist’s Fashion Editor, says: “’Will I wear it forever?’ and ‘Can I dress it up or down?’ I want the clothes I buy to work really hard for me so I need to know they can work in lots of different situations and for longer than one season.”
Erna Leon Stokes, founder of fashion edit Mercer7.com: “Versatility and timelessness are my key words when I’m looking at any new item. Can I wear it lots of different ways? For example, can I team it with a skirt, trousers or different jacket styles to create different looks? And is timeless? Take a leather jacket - cool in the Sixties and still cool now.”
2. Create a fashion uniform
This might sound incredibly prescriptive but every single fashion expert does it. “It’s not a new concept,” says Erna, “but it makes both shopping and styling your daily look so much easier. By basing your wardrobe around a few essential items of clothing that don’t go out of fashion and which are interchangeable, you can maximise the number of outfits you can create.
“It is essentially a uniform of items that can be worn together in many different ways, or alongside more seasonal pieces, so you want to make sure the items that make up your capsule wardrobe will compliment not only each other, but the fashion trends you don’t yet know about.”
The uniform approach means when you shop you’re either replacing the stalwarts of your fashion wardrobe, in which case you know exactly what you’re looking for, or you’re shopping for specific trend-led items. Remember, your ‘uniform’ doesn’t have to be dull - it could be paintbox brights with denim or feathers, florals and faux fur - but having one which you dress in day-to-day means adding to it is much more straightforward than ‘shopping blind.’ Here, our experts suggest their uniforms for inspiration:
Erna says: “For Autumn/Winter my uniform will be: a great pair of jeans, leather leggings, blazers (menswear inspired), oversized jumpers with high crew neck, a logo sweatshirt, a white, grey and black t-shirt (Arket and Cos do great ones), a biker jacket (Arrivals NYC has some excellent ones, Annie Bing are great too, as are AllSaints), a pair of ankle boots and knee high boots, a silk blouse and a cotton shirt.”
Kitty McGee, Stylist’s Executive Fashion Editor agrees: “My basic uniform is straight leg jeans, flat shoes (switching for heels for evenings) and a shirt or crew neck jumper. But sometimes I get bored with this look so I also have about six midi-skirts which are plain, polka dot and floral which literally swap into my uniform in place of jeans – with all of the same tops and shoes.”
3. Have a high-street strategy
The more the high-street offering grows, the more it overwhelms. Right? Not if you look at in a different way. You’re not supposed to go to every shop on the high-street and fondle every item - that is the route to madness. All of our experts agreed that most high-street shops have superior collections that they focus on, ignoring the rails and rails of other ‘stuff’: go straight to Marks and Spencer Autograph, Topshop Boutique (everyone raved about this), H&M’s Trend and Conscious collection and Selfridge’s high-street edit.
They also tend to go to specific stores for specific things, so: Uniqlo for good t-shirts and crew neck jumpers, Cos for elevated basics, Zara for seasonal trends and shoes, Mango for bags and earrings, Gap and Topshop Denim for jeans, Arket for workwear and basics, New Look for shoes, ME +EM for everyday dressing and & Other Stories ticks both the basics and trend boxes.
Finally, all high-street shops are not built the same. Zara on King’s Road is known for its superior edit, Marks and Spencer at Marble Arch tends to get the best stock and only venture to Topshop Oxford Street when the shop doors open and get out before the crowds hit.
4. Have an online shopping strategy
It’s so easy to get lost down a very large hole when you’re internet shopping, scrolling through so many options that your head starts to spin. The key word here is: filter.
Most websites will offer a filter option, so use it. “I tend to filter by colour – usually monochrome as it’s the most wearable and works with everything in my wardrobe - and size to avoid wasting time looking at hundreds of items,” says Erna.
Kitty agrees: “General browsing is too soul-destroying. I search Net-a-Porter according to my favourite brands (Ganni, Frame, Tibi, Rejina Pyo, Nanushka, Zimmerman) or by item – so swimwear, jewellery or shoes, for example.
“Net-a-Porter breaks categories down well so I can search for bikini’s specifically rather than getting swimsuits and beachwear thrown in there, too – or I can browse ‘hoop earrings’ specifically or ‘mules’ which I find very useful. Mango, I usually browse shoes or separates, Zara I look for shoes and dresses and Topshop I shop their boutique label.”