Cheap and chic: A guide to the Christmas sales

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The Christmas sales are close at hand, but don't brave the crowds without doing your homework first. Harriet Walker reports

There's something about the winter sales that acts like catnip on certain grown men and women. Having fallen asleep in front of the telly on Christmas Day, they wake up feverishly the next morning in a sleeping bag at 5am outside their local branch of Next, desperate to secure a bargain.

This is no way to shop the sales. It takes a cool-headed, calm and collected attitude that doesn't seem to tally with the sort of mind that rationalises bedding down on a pavement. If you do your sales shopping properly, the only camping you'll be doing is the sort that comes naturally with that Dolce & Gabbana leopard-print dress you've had your eye on all season.

Get in the mood

With sales shopping, you get back what you put in – make the effort and you'll bag the best bargains. "Some people relish a long day spent trawling through the sale rails," Amanda Slader, head of fashion advice at John Lewis, says. "Some don't. Either way, you have to be in the mood – not tired or stressed or hung over."

Go with someone else

Perhaps you take an "every man for himself" attitude to shopping; perhaps you can't bear the thought of trying to fish your mother or best friend out of a bargain basket covered in fluff. Either way, you'll need a companion to help you to avoid the siren call of last season's tat, so make sure you have a friend present to lash you to the mast and refuse your pleas to be allowed to try it all on.

Think classic

"Ask yourself why this piece hasn't sold," Amanda Slader says. "When there are rails and rails of one garment, you wonder why the nation has rejected it so vigorously. And it's usually to do with cut or pattern." Cashmere jumpers, basic T-shirts, jeans, posh undies and tights are all sensible buys. "Well-tailored coats and slim-cut black trousers are always worth buying when the price is slashed," personal stylist Eliisa Makin adds.

Avoid lunchtime

"I'll just pop in at lunch and have a look," you think, whirring efficiently. But the shops are so full of other workers and the rails so picked over and chaotic that they resemble a child's dressing-up box. Cue cold sweats and a retreat to the new-season, full-price – and crucially, empty – section of the shop. "Get up early," Amanda Slader says, "get in, get out, get home. Or go for a vodka and tonic."

Accessorise

"If you crave bold, statement pieces, avoid high-fashion 'hero' items which will date quickly," Eliisa Makin warns. "Opt for eye-catching accessories that appeal to your individuality – creative designer shoes, bags and jewellery are far more versatile in the long run." So if there's a particularly wacky trend you're desperate to be part of, do it with a cheap bag, rather than a bank-breaking floor-length gown.

Look ahead

To predict the future, you have to understand the past, as they say. Fashion's not so dissimilar – before you hit the sales, think through the autumn trends and have a rifle through the mags to discover the key looks for spring. Set aside anything too obviously seasonal, such as sheepskin or shearling, and focus on more abstract styles which can work all year round. "The trend for minimalist pieces with modern quirks is set to continue throughout the year," Eliisa Makin says, "as is a neutral palette mixed with pastels and strong pops of colour."

Make sure it fits

Returns policies differ hugely, so make sure you know what you're buying into; many shops will not refund sale items, so it's worth trying things on before you pay for them. And regardless of new year's resolutions, don't just buy something because you like it and you'd like to fit into it. "Never buy anything in the wrong size," Eliisa Makin says. "The intention to diet into it or have it adjusted usually remains just that."

John Lewis sales-shopping tutorials run from 27 December to 16 January; for more information, call020 3073 0564

Bag a bargain

Browns: starts 24 December, up to 50 per cent off;
Coggles: starts 24 December, 25 per cent off;
Feathers: starts 18 December, 30 to 50 per cent off, all shoes 40 per cent off;
Harvey Nichols: starts 26 December, up to 50 per cent off;
Liberty: starts 26 December, up to 50 per cent off;
Matches: starts 20 December, 50 per cent off, going up to 70 per cent off;
Mulberry: starts 25 December (web preview 24 December), 30 to 50 per cent off;
My-wardrobe.com: starts 20 December, 30 to 40 per cent off;
Paul Smith: starts 27 December, 30 per cent off;
Start Boutique: starts 26 December, 30 per cent off;
Vivienne Westwood: starts 27 December, 30 per cent off;
Whistles, starts 23 December, 40 per cent off.

What the experts are waiting for...

Kay Barron, fashion news editor, Grazia

I've had my eye on Alexander Wang's felt boots, since his show in February. They're too high and too expensive to justify on my budget, but if anyone knocks them down 80 per cent...

Alex Fury, fashion director, SHOWstudio.com

Come January, I'll be snapping up one of the foam-backed sweaters from Maison Martin Margiela; a Proenza Schouler baseball jacket-cum-bolero; and any acceptably man-size bag from Céline.

Harriet Quick, fashion features editor, Vogue

I will be looking at buying a wonderful coat, as there were so many great ones in the collections this year – particularly at Jil Sander, Chloé and Gucci. I also always check out the Marc Jacobs sale on Mount Street, where sales go to 70 per cent and there's always something to love.

Rebecca Osei-Baidoo, womenswear buyer, Browns

I'm waiting for a Christopher Kane embroidered T-shirt. It's a good sales bargain because it's the instantly recognisable flower print from the show and a good way to go from cool daywear into evening.

Brix Smith-Start, owner, Start boutique

I always look for classic Yves Saint Laurent shoes in black suede – if I can find those on sale. My advice when sales-shopping is to look for really good-quality things that will last and last. It's a real bargain if you can find things that you can rework, break apart and re-accessorise many times over.

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