Fashion: Tonight I'm gonna party like it's pounds 19.99

High-street stores may have taken a battering of late, but they'll be every 21st-century girl's destination.

It's no secret that 1999 hasn't been the best of years for the Great British high street. In January, in a blaze of negative publicity, Marks & Spencer, this country's largest clothing chain, announced a 41 per cent slump in pre-tax profits. Around that time everyone from Arcadia (owners of Top Shop, Top Man, Principles, Evans, Dorothy Perkins, and, more recently, Warehouse and Richards) to Storehouse (Mothercare, BhS) issued their own profit warnings. But although this is clearly bad news for the retailer, as far as the consumer is concerned, the immediate future doesn't look anything like as grim.

It doesn't take a genius to work out that when times are tough, competition between rival companies is at its most fierce. And our high street has more than just home-grown competition to contend with these days. If the presence of French clothing companies Kookai and Morgan, Italian-born Benetton and Sisley and the hugely successful Spanish chain Zara isn't enough to be going along with, there's also the omnipresent American retail giant and fashion favourite Gap, soon to be joined by its younger sister brand Old Navy as well as Banana Republic and Club Monaco. It's a jungle out there, as they say, which means that, this autumn/winter, the consumer is likely to be spoilt for affordable choice.

Perversely enough, while retailers struggle to make ends meet, the biggest high street fashion story for the early part of this season is understated luxury: think butter-soft leather in indulgently pale colours, finest suede, sumptuous velvets and knitwear so fluffy that - in a highly pleasing Comfort moment - you can barely fit it in to the top drawer. Equally extravagant is all the subtle beading, sequins and embroidery a bright young West London girl could wish for. Come October/November, be warned that this is likely to become rather less subtle. As the new millennium looms, there isn't a big-name store on the planet that that has not been busy putting the finishing touches to collections aimed specifically at That Party which, in terms of fashion, looks unlikely to be one for the shrinking violets.

In the meantime, the overall consensus appears to be that there is not a lot of point in picking up on the catwalk's more flighty trends - certain designers' predilection for dressing us from head to toe in vivid orange, say, or swathing us in lightly padded garments that make us look, well, as fat as a house. With matters financial at the forefront of each and every outlet's consciousness, this would be taking rather too great a risk. Instead, the emphasis is on desirable separates that are likely to look as at home one season as they are the next with the emphasis on quality rather than just passing trends.

Gucci and Prada remain the designer labels with the most influence over the high street. In terms of style, it's not insignificant that the two could hardly be more different. Gucci is, after all, purveyor of hugely glamorous, in-your-face sexy clothing which veers perilously close to flashy - ironically flashy, of course. Prada, meanwhile, is a rather less obvious affair: slightly dowdy silhouettes, obscure colour and print, and a futuristic sportswear vent that Gucci steers well clear of.

It is only fitting that the jacket of the season - New Look, pounds 60, pictured - is a Gucci spin-off. Anyone wishing to get hold of one of these might be well advised to join the waiting list now. If that seems rather too troublesome (it isn't actually Gucci after all), Top Shop's skinny leather jacket costs only pounds 90 and Oasis's version of the look clocks in at pounds 150. Also at New Look, those with a yearning to pick up on fashion's current love affair with dweeby knits will be more than happy with a Fair Isle sweater that wouldn't look out of place on a geography teacher.

With its feet firmly in the Prada camp, is Marks & Spencer's cream leather funnel-necked coat which looks suitably English Rose, not to mention suitably now, teamed with plain blue Oxford shirt (French Connection - basics Nirvana) and tartan skirt. But its back to Gucci again for the inspiration behind Warehouse's panne velvet skirts. Panne velvet, in case you haven't noticed, is one of the fabrics of the season. Wear it during the day mixed with less shiny happy fabrics for that vintage clothing junkie/chic bag lady effect. Also large in the fabric department at the moment is felted wool. To this end, a box-pleated embroidered felted wool skirt (Warehouse again, a Prada derivative) won't disappoint even the most fashion-conscious consumer.

And neither will Top Shop's bright lilac cute fluffy poncho, for that matter. The rest of the high street, quite sensibly, has been less than quick off the mark to pick up on this particular trend which was first spotted for spring/summer at Louis Vuitton, then everywhere from Alexander McQueen and Marc Jacobs (again) to Anna Sui and Michael Kors this season. It's not the easiest of looks but it is one of the most screamingly fashionable. This means, of course, that come next season no one concerned with keeping their finger on fashion's ever-quickening pulse will want to be seen dead in it. Under such circumstances there are not many of us who would be prepared to fork out many hundreds and even thousands for the designer prototype. The high street version, however, costs a mere pounds 25. At that price, you wouldn't even be too upset if your cat made a bed out of it. And can you blame him?





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