Affordable fashion has recently suffered from unprecedented bad press. The Primarks of this world, in particular, have been accused of pioneering the type of cheap-as-chips fashion that has become commonplace and therefore nothing short of boring – not to mention ethically questionable. Whipping up an unnecessary amount of hype around store openings and offering items heavily influenced by catwalk prototypes, at prices that are as scandalously low as the originals are exorbitant, they have changed the British high street beyond recognition.
The good news, however, is that this situation looks set to change: the budget-retail landscape is growing up. True, there may still be stores out there hanging on to the bell-sleeves of their gypsy tops as if their very existence depended upon them, but, for the most part, the look is now less fussy and even, well, refined. Thank Cos, the brand owned by Swedish company Hennes & Mauritz, for this sea-change, which will only be enhanced by the opening later this week of the UK's very own Banana Republic, also on London's Regent Street. The mood, then, is sophisticated and serious rather than whimsical and teen-focused. As these other stylish shops show, classic, well-designed clothing doesn't have to cost a small fortune. And there isn't a frump in sight.
Reiss is the place to shop for all those looking for something for a special occasion. Or just nip in on a whim and instantly fall in love with a simple jersey top with chiffon covered buttons, say. It's true that the prices are high compared with those of the competition but both the design and the quality of the end product is worth any extra cash. This season find tailored jackets and prim pleated skirts and the range of accessories to go with them has recently expanded too. (top, £75, skirt, £89, 020-7473 9630)
Whistles started life back in 1976 as a small boutique in London's Marylebone selling the work of bright young designers including, most famously, the then little-known Helmut Lang. It has since evolved into a fashion label in its own right, with 30 stand-alone stores and 38 concessions throughout the UK. Renowned for producing a quirky collection, with extra attention paid to the finer details, the store is filled with gems like this navy jumper with a modern striped bow (£85, 0870 770 4301). Now, with the former Topshop brand director Jane Shepherdson in control, anticipation has already set in for the arrival of the autumn collection in a few months.
It's not as well known as its sister company Jigsaw, but Kew has come a long way since its launch 5 years ago. It has becoming increasingly popular online and produces three seasonal mail-order catalogue's a year. This season's relaxed mood and understated colour palette of navy, grey and shades of brown with a flash of red will doubtless be well received by the brand's loyal customers and interested newcomers alike. These wide-leg trousers are the most chic in town (vest, £18, trousers, £62, 020-8487 2001, www.kew-online.com).
America has long been in the thrall of the Gap-owned Banana Republic, and the company's first European flagship is opening in London. As well as carrying the entire men's wear, women's wear and accessories collections over three floors, the store will showcase the new Monogram line – billed as a collection of "wardrobe builders and statement makers" – read: the best of Banana Republic but in limited, and therefore more desirable, editions. So what should the savvy consumer snap up first? The smart choice would be this sleeveless trench dress (£95, 020-7758 3550), a classic with a fashionable twist if ever there was one.
Spanish brands such as Zara and Mango are a favourite among shoppers on the British high street, but it is Massimo Dutti that is currently enjoying the limelight. The store is smart in appearance and offers all the basics that anyone could possibly need in surprisingly high-quality fabrics. This trench coat with a funnel neck would be a particularly wise investment. Massimo Dutti is also the place to visit for all those interested in the season's trends, but who'd rather not have them shoved down their throats. (£140, 020-7851 1280)
The simple silhouette offered by COS is a firm favourite of the fashion follower. Shift dresses and cropped boxy jackets like this grey one (£79, 020-7297 0040) all feature the signature loose cut which is really most becoming. Fingers crossed there will be more stores opening up soon.