Everyone has a few guilty shopping pleasures. You know, those secret shopping destinations that you thought nobody else knew about. The ones with bad lighting and a few too many diamantes, where you forage for fashionable pieces amid the lycra shockers. They’re hard work, but it just makes bagging that bargain all the sweeter in the end…
Cast your mind back, if you will, to a time long, long ago… around 2002, perhaps. Remember how Primark was then? Before it upped its style game and started churning our catwalk copies faster than you can say ‘sweatshop’, Primark was a well-kept style secret. A diamond in the rough. At least 85 per cent tat, you had to wade through scores of housewives wrestling over velour tracksuit bottoms to stumble over hidden treasures – cute pyjamas for pocket change, accidentally trendy shoes and dresses that weren’t designed to be hip but somehow managed to be.
Fast forward eight years and now this is Peacocks; a trashy, brashy and occasionally fabulous haven for bargain shoppers. My personal theory is that among their team of jaded designers, there is one bright young spark who hasn’t quite lost their Central St Martin’s ambition and is determined to channel it into outfitting the nation’s undeserving tweens. Which explains the startlingly on-trend shoes and jewellery pieces that crop up among the standard cheap and cheery fare.
Great for: shoes, and not being seen in the same Primark dress as eleventy million other people.
Not great for: classy investment pieces. But then you probably knew that.
An odd concept, where cut-price candles and patchwork denim mules nestle up against Guess jeans and Fiorelli leather bags, TK Maxx is one of the most egalitarian shopping experiences on the high street. Unlike other designer outlets, the key to shopping ‘to the Maxx’ seems not to be looking out for labels, but scouring for styles you might actually wear (then crossing your fingers and hoping it’s Chloe). Other tips include: take your time, take water, take a break and take a friend who is good at saying “I know it’s Versace, but you look like the Cookie Monster.”
Particular highlights are the underwear section, which looks like a church hall jumble sale but houses every size of bra imaginable, from egg cosies to bonafide boulder holders. I once found a beautiful balconette from Damaris’ Mimi Holliday diffusion line for about a third of the RRP. Keep that story in your head as you wrestle through the granny pants.
Great for: an enormous range of designer jeans and an eclectic, wide-ranging underwear selection.
Not great for: statement pieces. Most tops and dresses are straight out of an Italian drag queen’s wardrobe.
Matalan seems to exist in that exotic collective of stores that nobody seems to live anywhere near, like Ikea. And DFS. And Furniture Village. Unless of course you live in Purley Way, Croydon, which I assume means your life is a veritable carnival of furniture-buying and interest-free credit. For the rest of us, Matalan is one of those places you go on a bank holiday with your Mum while Dad is buying a new lawnmower. Hardly the makings of a devastating style adventure.
But, what do you know? The clothes are often right on the money. And hardly any money at that. The store’s Designer Collections are full of little treasures like this swirl print dress and this on-trend playsuit, all far cheaper and far less ubiquitous than their Topshop counterparts. And with such a comprehensive online store, you don’t even need to drive to that out of town retail park. Bonus.
Great for: Fun, playful pieces that you’ll wear for a month or two.
Not great for: Quality, or anything especially edgy. You’re with your Mum, remember… ooh, what a nice cardie.
We all know them – some of us fondly, some with scorn – as musty places to pick up Jilly Cooper paperbacks, beige handbags and Primark dresses costing more than they did in the shop. But ever since Mary Queen of Shops gave that Orpington branch of Save the Children a makeover, charity shops have been quietly upping their game. It’s been out with the old, moth-eaten garb and in with ranges customised by local designers, well-sourced vintage and quality high-end pieces the like of which our pennies would never stretch to new.
Oxfam shops are a great example of this development, with fashion-focused ’boutique’ branches opening across the country, a new online store recently launched with vintage from the 1950s onwards, and a new pop-up store opening in Selfridges next month. The Oxfam Curiosity Shop, running from 14-20 May, will be staffed by celebrities and stocked with donations from big fashion names, including Alexa Chung and Elle MacPherson.
Even better is the warm, fuzzy glow that comes with knowing you’ve contributed to a good cause, rather than slipping a bit more into Phillip Green’s pockets. How very Lily Cole of you.
Great for: one-of-a-kind finds, vintage rarities and quality cast-offs.
Not great for: smelling boxfresh. Get some Fabreze in.
And the rest…
Great for: those floral t-shirt dresses that are so overpriced in so many places.
Not great for: avoiding VPL or pregnant teenagers.
Great for: great concessions and designer ranges, like H! by Henry Holland. And when the shopping’s taken the wind out of your sails, you can refuel with a nice teacake in the cafe.
Not great for: cred.
Great for: picking up some decent, trend-led pieces along with your cauliflower and Coco Pops.
Not great for: an indulgent shopping experience. Who can concentrate on whether a dress is flattering with the smell of pastries wafting over from the bakery counter?