But where to go? Which store has got it all? Or, more to the point, which store has got everything you desire or aspire to? Are you a Harvey Nichols woman? (There are at least 50,000 in the UK.) Or do you wish you were, but really end up in Miss Selfridge or Top Shop? Perhaps you are Debenhams woman? (The UK has 1.1 million.) Or does Dickins & Jones suit your tastes?
The good news is that each of the five department stores we have chosen has carved out its own niche; all cater to different types of women and their fashion preferences. Harvey Nichols, for example, is known as the ultimate store for devotees of expensive high fashion, closely followed by Liberty and Selfridges.
Indeed, no episode of Absolutely Fabulous went by without some reference to "Harvey Nicks", and with good reason, for it is truly the place to indulge a fashion fantasy. But it is not swarming with fashion editors and real-life Edinas and Patsys. "That is a misconception," says Anna Marie Solowij, the editor of Harvey Nichols' quarterly glossy magazine. "Through research we found that our core customers are single women between the ages of 26 and 55 who work in television, film, the arts or design. I reckon most of them are in their thirties, 85 per cent of them work, and their average salary is pounds 83,000 a year. Most important, [our customer] is not a fashion victim because she knows exactly what she wants out of fashion. In fact she's someone I'd quite like to be," she says - and who wouldn't?
In the past, Harvey Nichols woman has been a Sloane, a glamour queen, a fashion freak and a bit of an upmarket Shazza; but today she is altogether more clued-up, chic and stylish.
"She generally doesn't wait to see what's on the rails," continues Solowij. "She starts mentally buying as soon as the catwalk reports for the following season appear in the newspapers. We had a waiting-list of 30 women for the grey cashmere Fendi Baguette clutch bag a few weeks after it appeared on the catwalk, but the buyers bought only eight for the store, because they cost pounds 595 each. It was a similar story for Matthew Williamson's beaded `snowflake' skirt, which sold out before we had a chance to put it on the rails."
Among the most popular labels in Harvey Nichols are Costume National, Ann Demeulemeester, Michael Kors, Calvin Klein mainline, Dolce & Gabbana and Givenchy - hardly the kind of overblown glamour you would immediately expect from the shop. Antony Miles, head of press relations, puts its fashion success down to a careful editing process between catwalk and shop floor. "We sell only the best pieces from a collection - we call them the `edited highlights' - and this saves our customers trawling through the store to find what they want."
Selfridges, too, has recently cottoned on to the idea of selling the highlights of directional collections, and has even given them a new place to live, thanks to a refurbishment of the store, which will celebrate its 90th birthday next year. Some pundits say that the "Design Lab" on the second floor is the coolest fashion pit-stop in London, thanks to its eclectic mix of contemporary designer labels - some new and untried, such as Y-Dress, Wim Neels and Jurgi Persoon's, some established, such as Miu Miu, Alessandro dell' Acqua, D&G, CK, and DKNY and others Selfridges call "dynamic", such as Margiela 6, Owen Gaster, Sonja Nuttall and Hussein Chalayan. Susanne Tide-Frater, the head of fashion direction, has been on a mission to separate the store into coherent fashion areas. "Selfridges is like a town where you can buy absolutely anything," she says, "but we do focus different areas. The second floor, for example, is for fashion- literate consumers, and covers everything from diffusion lines such as Philosophy and Sportmax, to lifestyle brands such as Nicole Farhi and MaxMara. This is in addition to the Design Lab, and, of course we have Miss Selfridge and Spirit," she adds, referring to the huge area for teenage fashion on the ground floor.
But that is not all. On the upper levels of Selfridges they do a roaring trade in tried and tested fashion labels. The Marellas, Viyellas, Feminellas, Four Seasons and Windsmoors of this world may sound like tampon brands, but both Selfridges and Dickins & Jones cater to thousands and thousands of women who keep coming back to buy these labels because they are reliable, and do the job for British women who, as we all know now, average a size 16, and don't have pounds 150 to spend on a designer skirt.
Dickins & Jones is probably the best place in London for older fashion customers, and those who don't fit into the typical "fashion" bracket of a size 10-12, high-maintenance woman. It does cater to the young market, with every diffusion jeans line on the planet, and sports ranges from American designers such as Ralph Lauren, but its strong points are the lingerie department, which has amazing finds tucked away in shady corners, the shop's own label, Linea, which is well priced and offers all the key fashion trends, and the plus sizes, coats, and casual wear on the upper floors, which take ages to walk around, but are worth the schlep.
"The important thing for us at Dickins & Jones is that we offer variety," says a spokeswoman. "We don't want to alienate our core clientele." Namely, the 45-65 age group. Two of the store's most successful labels are MaxMara and another, lesser known American brand, St John, which provides a version of Chanel's classic Eighties look of neat two-piece tweed suiting with trimming and gilt buttons. A particularly amusing section belongs to YSL Variation, whose garish leopard-print dresses and red-and-blue chocolate- foil-wrapping jackets are pure Blondie circa 1981. On my visit to the store it was the busiest section, next to MaxMara.
Over in Debenhams they take a totally different approach to high fashion. In fact, they don't stock a single high-fashion label, but have cleverly, some would say brilliantly, captured the diffusion line market by inviting designers to guest-design collections exclusively for them. Ben de Lisi, (BDL), Pearce Fionda, (Pearce II Fionda), and Jasper Conran, (J), capsule collections for the store have been a major draw over the last few years, and Debenhams continues to build on this success with new names. Interestingly, the company report reveals that it considers its rivals to be Marks & Spencer, Bhs and Boots, not Harvey Nichols or Selfridges, and that womenswear, which accounts for 41 per cent of sales, is the most important part of the business. "Our philosophy at Debenhams is `number one for choice and value'," says Belinda Earl, a trading director, "and we offer this through our exclusive brand offering." To translate, this means that Debenhams develops its own in-house lines, much like M&S and Bhs, and that its 92 stores nationwide are the only places to buy them. Their policy works: at the last count the company had 2.3 million active storecard holders.
There is only one department store in London that hasn't broken down its customer to the nth degree, and that is Liberty. "It is definitely not an age thing at Liberty," says Angela Quaintrell, the senior fashion buyer. "It's a spirit thing. The Liberty woman is definable only by the way she dresses to please herself. She is not a sheep; she loves and understands textiles, and appreciates good design." Lovers of the offbeat and unusual in fashion flock to Liberty for its vast array of labels, which covers the Japanese crew, including Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake, the English eccentrics Zandra Rhodes, Charles and Patricia Lester and Helen David, the Brit Fash gang of Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chalayan, Clements Ribeiro and YMC, and the modern Continental designers Helmut Lang and Kostas Murkudis. Far and away Liberty's most successful labels, however, fall under the lifestyle bracket: Shirin Guild, Nicole Farhi, Betty Jackson, Dries Van Noten and Wall. "We sell about 90-100 pieces of Shirin Guild a week," says Quaintrell, " it is our absolute best-seller."
Liberty is also a pleasure to shop in. The staff leave you alone, and they do cute Christmas presents such as stuffed Liberty purple frogs, and a beautiful range of own-label velvet and embroidered scarves (which are currently on special offer: `buy any velvet bag and receive 20 per cent off any scarf purchase').
If you haven't worked out which department store woman you are yet, try my little trick. Look in the cafe of each store, and if you feel that you would fit in there, that's your store. Easy, eh? I'd better start saving up for my Givenchy coat; the coffee at the Fifth Floor Cafe in Harvey Nichols is divine.
Photographer: Anna Stevenson. Stylist: Holly Wood. Hair and make-up: Helen Walsh at GSM. Model:Erica at Models One
Fuchsia velvet dress, pounds 180, by BDL at Debenhams, 334-358 Oxford Street, London W1 and branches (0171-408 4444); shoes, pounds 195, by Gina, 189 Sloane Street, London SW1
Turquoise shell top, pounds 329, rose print skirt, pounds 755, scarf, pounds 135, all by Dries Van Noten, from Liberty, Regent Street, London W1 (0171-734 1234)
Black top, pounds 260, denim pedal pushers, pounds 160, both by Seraph, from Selfridges, Oxford Street, London W1 (0171-629 1234), and Manchester, (0161-629 1234)
Harvey Nicks chick
Cowl neck jumper, pounds 670, jacket, pounds 1400, and trousers, pounds 440, all by Givenchy, from Harvey Nichols, Knightsbridge, London SW3, (0171-584 0011) and Leeds (0113 2048888)Reuse content