Shopping: What the best-dressed walls are wearing this season

When is magnolia not magnolia? When it's a heritage white. From clothes retailers to the National Trust, designer paint ranges are all the rage.

NO LONGER satisfied with its monopoly on brightly coloured sweaters, Benetton has turned its attention to interiors, and has filled the shelves at B&Q with pots of brightly coloured household paint. There are currently 18 suitably vibrant shades to choose from, all of which scream through their distinctive see-through pots (designed with the customer's convenience in mind - no more messing around prising the lid off the wrong pot by mistake), and there are three special-effect finishes: Metallic, Denim and Rag & Roll.

Benetton's assault on the interiors market is, according to its PR office, simply a reaction to market forces. "Benetton is famous for bringing colour into people's lives through its clothes and accessories, and the company is responding to a huge surge of interest in home decoration and DIY." They also point out that the company's official name is United Colors of Benetton, and that paint is an obvious extension of that brand image.

The glossy paint brochure (featuring the usual weird close-ups of pubescent teenagers), contains little stuck-in squares of card on to which paint samples have been applied. The 18 "colours" look good, but the metallic finish is more snail-trail than metal sheen; the Jeans range just looks uneven, hardly the texture of denim; and the Rag & Roll is as mottled as you might expect - rag rolling went out in the late Eighties and should not be encouraged to come back.

According to B&Q, Benetton's paint sales so far have been good. The company is not the first fashion label to enter the paint arena. Next and Marks & Spencer both sell paint as well as clothes - the difference, however, is that they also sell bedlinen, furniture and wallpaper and their decision to sell paint as well seems quite logical. Similarly, Ralph Lauren has extended his interiors collection to include paint. But, unlike Next and M&S, Ralph Lauren peddles paints in the same way he sells his clothes and perfume: it's all about aspirations and lifestyle.

The Ralph Lauren paint catalogue is subtitled Lifestyles, and it contains five collections: Thoroughbred, Safari, Country, Santa Fe and Sport. The words that accompany the charts are as purple as Duke's Vineyard, a deep maroon from the Thoroughbred collection, and are occasionally oddly specific. Sport, we are told, is a range of colours that "create bold definition for a ski lodge or a beach house". So, no good for the spare room then.

I'm sure the paints are lovely, and his fabled white collection (32 different shades), is regarded with something approaching reverence among style- conscious Americans, particularly the dazzling Design Studio White. But in my opinion the best thing about them is the unashamedly all-American tin emblazoned with a customised version of the Stars and Stripes.

It is easy to laugh at Ralph Lauren's pompously and improbably named paints, safe in the knowledge that we'd never be so foolish as to part with cash in exchange for so obvious a marketing ploy: buy Ralph's paint and invitations to watch polo will follow. But the fact is, we have already been seduced by a far subtler piece of lifestyle marketing: "heritage".

Farrow & Ball's range of paints for the National Trust, which come in smart tins bearing the Trust's familiar oak leaf, triggered the trend. Readers of glossy interiors magazines will, no doubt, have noticed the regularity with which the company crops up in the decorating details that accompany house features.

The growing popularity of these paints among stylish DIYers is based on the notion of authenticity: originally aimed at the restoration trade rather than the domestic market. The National Trust's collection was created in the Eighties when the Trust decided to put its name to the traditional paints Farrow & Ball had been supplying for all its refurbishment works.

The classy, subdued tones that make up the company's own Archive Collection and National Trust range, are based on original colours made according to traditional formulations, and come with intriguing and often eccentric names: Mouse's Back, Lamp Room Grey, Dead Salmon, and Bone, to name just a few. People either love them or loathe them; they eulogise about their Lime White or Octagon Yellow, or complain how dull and drab the colours are. The chic but pricey (pounds 6) colour chart comprises 95 samples hand-painted on card in soft chalk emulsion, with brief histories of the colours.

Farrow & Ball is not the only company to be enjoying success with traditional colours. Dulux, following its lead, launched a rival collection three years ago. Called simply the Heritage Collection, it consists of 160 or so colours organised into three palettes: Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian, & Art Deco.

As with Farrow & Ball, Dulux created its collection from original recipes and archive colours. Because it spans several centuries, there is a greater tonal variety within the range, and it is the brighter, Victorian section of Dulux's colour chart that has proved really popular. This year has seen soaring interest in all yellows and Picture Gallery Red (a strong, gingery red), although Dulux Heritage White remains the best-seller.

You could be forgiven for thinking that magnolia had acquired a new lease of life as a fashionable colour for the discerning, rather than being merely a popular choice for the unimaginative. There are currently a number of "whites" available under the heritage and lifestyle banners, such as New White (Farrow & Ball), Dune White (Ralph Lauren) and Heritage White (Dulux), which look very much like magnolia and are selling well. But if you have just painted your sitting-room in one of the above colours, don't panic. You haven't been labouring under a misapprehension; none of these is the true magnolia, which in fact has a British Standard number.

Yet almost all paint manufacturers, whether they have been using traditional, lifestyle or heritage marketing strategies, have reported an increased interest in colour (which should please Benetton) and yellow is strongly tipped to become the next magnolia.

United Colors of Benetton paints pounds 11.95 for 2.5 litres, available from B&Q; call 0181-466 4166 for details of your nearest branch. Farrow & Ball estate emulsion, pounds 16.99 for 2.5 litres, free delivery in mainland Britain; call 01202 876141 for nearest stockist and mail order; also available at Homebase. Ralph Lauren paint can be ordered through the Bond Street store; call 0171-491 4467. Dulux paints pounds 13.99 for 2.5 litres; call 01753 550 555.

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