Fashion: A little order in your life

Cheesy models. Naff clothing. Tasteless trinkets. That's mail order catalogues for you. Think again, says Rebecca Lowthorpe. Upmarket mail order provides stress-free shopping for discerning shoppers whose leisure time is at a premium

Are you too busy to shop? Do you suffer from what Doctor Cary Cooper calls "time famine"? Cooper knows all about it. As professor of occupational psychology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, he compiles Umist's annual Quality of Working Life survey, analysing the lifestyle of 5,000 UK-based managers every year. "Gone are the days when we had lots of personal disposable time," he says. "Work now intrudes into everybody's personal space." If you know how that feels, then perhaps you should consider the unthinkable and pick up the phone.

The mail order catalogue, traditionally considered as terminally naff as toilet-roll dollies, has turned into the most sophisticated, not to mention the easiest, way to go shopping.

Until recently, catalogues the size of breeze blocks would thud on to the doormat. You know, the ones with endless pages of lawnmowers, DIY tools and garden sheds sandwiched in between the "luxury" items: gold- plated trinkets, leather three-piece suites and those unforgettable mantelpiece "must-haves" - porcelain ladies carrying parasols.

Models posed with cheesy smiles; the men, one hand placed strategically on the hip, looked stiff-as-boards in dodgy shiny blazers and Sta-prest trousers; the women, equally artificial in their make-up masks, posed in foot-long thermal knickers. The old-hat catalogue had about as much visual panache as a copy of Meatpacker's Journal.

Mail order was for the blue-collar class, who bought expensive goods on "buy now, pay later" terms and were fleeced into the bargain by absurdly high interest rates.

It's all changed now. Ever since George Davies launched the Next Directory 10 years ago - a slim, stylish coffee-table book instead of one with the size and aesthetic appeal of a telephone directory - mail order has gradually moved upmarket.

Indeed, it says a lot about mail order's new-found sophistication when The Cross, a shop based in west London's affluent Notting Hill and regularly profiled in Vogue, starts producing a catalogue.

"It's for all those people who can't reach us in London, and for everyone whose worst nightmare is thrashing around shops every Saturday," says Sara Conroy, mail order director of The Cross. It's a natty booklet, reminiscent of a glossy magazine supplement, which specialises in exclusive products: lounging-around clothes by hip label Dosa (orchid flip-flops, pounds 25, silk sari bags pounds 45), sweet childrenswear by Little Badger, and lots of home knick-knacks that look more than worthy of the pages of Elle Decoration.

Small businesses that offer eclectic, unusual bits and bobs, and not the sort of blanket uniformity that sometimes seems to wash over the high street, may only have one retail outlet in London, which is pretty hopeless if you live in, say, Glasgow or Birmingham. Mail order completely changes that accessibility.

Take APC, the hip, urban clothing company based in France, which started mail order in direct response to those who couldn't reach its 15 stores worldwide. APC is well worth a look. Not only are its jeans second- to- none, and a snip at pounds 48, but its stringent range - the perfect shirt dress, cropped trousers, Cuban shirts, shorts, bikini, beach bags and the like - are presented in a no-fuss, modern booklet. APC's designer, Sylvie Besse, is into anything that can't be bought en masse, hence the rigorous editing of her collections, even down to the music selection. "I wanted to distribute CDs along with the clothes because huge stores are so frustrating with their endless items," she says.

It's the small, independent store philosophy - that of individual, quality goods matched with a personal service - which has steadily leaked into the mail order market, transforming it beyond recognition.

Toast, a company based in Carmarthenshire, may not have a store, but dive into its catalogue - yet another slick booklet full of desirables - and you automatically get the impression that the modern, easy pyjama shapes in muslin, cotton and silk have been designed with the individual in mind. So utterly simple that it's up to you to dress them up or down. It's also up to you whether you buy into the Toast lifestyle - heavy, crisp bed linen, Syrian tea glasses, large "bricks" of soap and even Seville orange marmalade can also wing their way to you within seven working days, courtesy of the Royal Mail.

It's not only small, quirky companies whose catalogues are a visible treat. (Another tip is Space NK, the apothecary mail order catalogue with cosmetic delicacies from Kiehl's, Philosophy and Nars.) Even the traditional big "books" are moving with the times. Littlewoods catalogue, now in a more palatable bite-size format, includes designer collections by John Richmond and Ally Capellino. The Book, slickest of the big hitters, showcases ranges by the ever-popular Joseph, Whistles, Betty Jackson, Jasper Conran and Ben de Lisi, and shoes by Robert Clergerie and Patrick Cox.

Meanwhile, most of the high street has entered the mail order market as another way to entice the time-pressurised consumer. Newest player on the block is French Connection Buy Mail, set up last year, whose tag line "Too Busy To FCUK" neatly encapsulates the changing social (indeed, lack of it) trend.

The traditional profile of the mail order customer - the lowest socio- economic group - no longer exists. Today, all of us are targeted by the home shopping market. Market research company Mintel estimates the total home-shopping market to be worth almost pounds 8bn in 1997. Clothing and footwear accounts for nearly 60 per cent of all mail orders.

Quite simply, we have less time to do anything, let alone shop. "Nearly 40 per cent of us work at the weekend at home, mostly on computers," Cooper says. "During the week, the average family is going to work earlier and leaving later. People are burned out when they get home; the last thing they want to do is shop in people-polluted environments, which is why more consumers are shopping from home."

So are you feeling burnt out? Pick up the phone. You might be in for a big surprise.

White organza dress (71N27, pg 3), pounds 75, by French Connection Buy Mail 0870 606 3285; cushions, from a selection (PA827080, pg 204), pounds 12, from The Book; white Ramses sandals, pounds 39.95, by Birkenstock, enquiries 0800-132 194

Photographer; Anna Stevenson

Stylist; Holly Wood

Make-up; Firyal Mooney using Christian Dior

Hair; James Mooney at Windel using Philosophy

Model; Myriam Little at Bookings

Red crochet vest (YJ0647, pg 21), pounds 27, from Littlewoods, (enquiries 0345-888 222); denim jacket (J15020, pg 26), pounds 75, by APC (00331-49 87 04 04); green hat (M84010X23, pg. 121), pounds 9.99, by Next Directory, (0845- 600 700)

Orange jumper (V34144F, pg 10), pounds 65, denim shorts (R18027F, pg 15), pounds 35, both by A.P.C, ; check bag (0045, pg 29), pounds 14, from The Cross Catalogue, enquiries 0171-221 8616 (catalogue costs pounds 2.50)

Fuchsia crochet dress (NO576380, pg 33), pounds 90, by Karen Millen, from The Book, enquiries 0800 3288 488; silver compact (0036/0149, pg 25), pounds 26, by Stila, from Space NK, enquiries 0870-169 9999

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