That'll do nicely: Why comforting products are booming

What's the aspirational shopper to do in this age of austerity? Buy safe, unthreatening woolly jerseys, chintz teapots and crisp white sheets, says Peter York
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Indy Lifestyle Online

There she is, Blue-water's Big Spender, her of the skinny Topshop jeans and the military-style, lace-up boots (the ones all the gay boys wear), and she's in a Norfolk jacket. It's russet moleskin with ready-made elbow patches. The following week she's in a sort of sleeveless Fair Isle – no doubt brilliantly made in China by robots – a blue gent-ish shirt and cropped trousers cut like jodhpurs. What's that about?

I have to say here that on the Norfolk-jacket day I'm in a mud herringbone tweed suit with a nice pale-blue overcheck. It has been pulled from the back of the wardrobe as Right For Now (cut, of course, with Itie driving shoes and a dark denim shirt – you couldn't just wear it full-on).

It's just fashion of course – a look, not a political realignment. If I mention anyone to her as being, say, the niece of a duke, who was married to Y, who was stepfather to Z, she'll say, "Stop right now," and cover her ears. (I just like Six Degrees of Separation games whoever it is – even Rock Family Trees.) But here we are in the kit – pastiche, ironic, whatever – and it's selling.

Everything – annual reports, street-side observation, dinner-party talk – says brands selling one or other version of updated, easy, comfortable, upper-middley "English" taste in clothes or interiors are doing well. Against the odds, in a flat, nervous market, selling stuff that isn't remotely directional or leading-edge. Except that the direction could be described as a sort of Reverse Gear (the thing Tony Blair said he hadn't got).

I'm talking Boden of course, and Cath Kidston, and The White Company, and Sam Cam's mother Annabel Astor's Oka furniture and house accessories business, and Charles Tyrwhitt, and a mass of other pleasant RP-speaking operators who've corralled and consolidated this sort of taste through the online and catalogue combination they operate. Their "we know what you like because we're just like you" catalogues, and their easy, comfortable class-correct models – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – can guard the bed that you lie on. Stuff for Ben and Amanda in Suffolk, Matthew and Liz in Oxford.

The mood, the economy, the Coalition front bench, all contribute to the success of this safely edited, vaguely trad style. Even Downton Abbey – somewhere between Upstairs, Downstairs and Brideshead – endorses the notion that toffs are interesting again. Sort of. At a strictly non-deferential, take-it-or-leave-it level.

And now, of course, there's The Royal Engagement. Wills and Kate, a pleasant-looking young couple who could be poster boy and girl for all the Nice companies. They dress in an older, more formal way than their contemporaries – but not always, and it's not as extreme as a former generation of royals. Kate has got the look – the Chelsea rather than the Notting Hill look – off pat. She rarely puts a foot wrong. She understands the trade-off between pretty (and she is) and knocked-back, understated. She knows the language of boots – sporty or ladylike, rather than tarty.

Prince William looks good in uniform and Man-at-Hackett black and white tie (he has grown up wearing it constantly); less certain in his suits, which sometimes look borderline archaic; and variable in casual. But completely comfortable in the Sloane uniform of non-designer jeans and chocolate-brown suede loafers. He'll look fine in Boden.

Bling, of course, is deadly unpopular now: banker bling; footballer bling; below-stairs celebrity bling; foreigner bling; the whole early 21st-century look of studied OTT vulgarity. We've really had it with Jordan at any level. Ironic feminism – oh come on! It's not even a good small-business model. Bling feels dangerous too, it's the dodgy look of Funny Money, of those terrible new blocks on Knightsbridge Green, of people with machine-gun-carrying bodyguards. And, as for their terrible Bleak Houses – nothing but hard, shiny surfaces, stone and steel and exotic woods that look like laminates. Nothing personal in their sitting rooms except the biggest screen going (and a bigger one yet in the Media Room). All of it achingly, shinily completely Wrong For Now.

An old-line Belgravia house agent tells me he dreads the "extensively refurbished" boast in anything under £8m (that's where the major non-dom market starts – and on up to £30m), because the home market so doesn't want all that any more – an 1850 haut bourgeois interior redone in haut Dubai style. Potential buyers demand a discount to rip it out and rejig it with a restoration architect, someone who understands plasterwork and joinery.

But the persistent reality remains that a decent 18th-century house with absolutely all mod cons and more is easiest to sell on. And so (freakingly annoying as it is to serious architects) is a well-rendered period pastiche house using old materials, flints and distressed bricks. Despite all the mockery, there are little bits of developer Poundbury still going up. The Nineties boom may have educated Brits about modernism, but they still want the hard edges taken off. Especially when the going gets tough.

And as it does, the appeal of what you might call Nice retailing become clearer. And so does its remarkable growth over a decade in which no fashion writer wanted to feature their clothes.

Fashion people think that the careful Nice companies are bor-ing! beyond measure. (Nice people think fashionistas look silly and should Get A Life.) But these businesses add up to a sector now, one worth probably a couple of billion turnover in aggregate. They're not at the scale of Primark, M&S, Asda and Next, nor of our biggest shed furnishers. But they're faster-growing, relatively more profitable, and they're increasingly influential. Cath Kidston's distinctive florals helped the company sell more than £30m of the stuff last year; Boden's profits are up to £28m; turnover at The White Company reached £100m this year, and so on.

They're watched and copied by the stylists and procurement people in the big shops where they have to Cater For Everybody. The big shops will be trialling ideas they've lifted from the Nice sector in selected stores (usually ones with southern, better-off catchments). But they know they've got to dilute it because their customers – the world and his wife – don't have that pure form of upper-middley taste and aspirations, don't necessarily respond to the same cues, and, above all, include people a lot more strapped for cash.

The Nice companies have Nice customers because they've identified a niche – often literally PLUs (People Like Us) – and have communicated with it cleverly through targeted direct mail and, later, compelling websites. Then they've grown the niche, finding a wider market for affordable diffusion products – like Cath Kidston's printed oilcloth totes – ones that appeal to people who don't necessarily buy into the whole... lifestyle.

It's an endlessly difficult world, an Eighties, over-exposed one. People are fretful about lifestyle retailing because the idea that anyone's immortal soul and deepest longings can be quite so readily anticipated and consolidated with several hundred thousand other like-minded types is worrying. It makes even their most enthusiastic loyalists shy of acknowledging it. The comfortable automatic choices of an earlier, and a yet earlier, generation (the Harrods catalogue, the Army and Navy one) went unquestioned. But now the PLU thing has to be played subtly, for fear of lapsing into parody and embarrassment (like that famous, much-mocked Eighties Lichfield photograph of the Prince and Princess of Wales picnicking, which looked so much like one of his earlier Burberry shoots.)

While these brands are often life-savingly wonderful at delivering up what a certain kind of middle-class family wants – they're strong on family values – years of conditioning make modern Bobos (Bourgeois Bohemians) feel that they ought to be original and find something vintage or more exotically sourced for themselves.

Actually, design standards in the Nice companies are high and very consistent. While nothing here will win prizes – or get much coverage – these easy, comfortable clothes and furnishing do the trick, get it right. And when they hit the mark, with relatively small ranges, they hit it big and individual lines can sell lorry-loads. A hot dress, a tea-towel or a curtain fabric can cross the country in a season.

These businesses are getting to scale, but with a particular geography. Where they have shops, they're focused on Nice London villages and attractive southern locations – places with cathedrals. But in the North they're only in the very biggest cities, plus Edinburgh. No Nottingham or Stoke, Macclesfield or Burnley, where this kind of taste remains thin on the ground and the prices look high. Adventurous or Aspirational of Burnley can do it online.

You need a rising market, growing confidence and a strong show-off streak to get middle-class Brits into "directional" (the fashionland word for Big New Looks) fashion, contemporary art, and clean-sweep modernity at home. The pre-crunch boom made Brits that bit braver, but the Nice companies press all the red buttons in a recession.

They're retro in varying degrees, and clearly "English" in their reference points and catalogue semantics. They trade on shared mainstream memories – often whimsical childhood ones. Nice shopping is couple and family-oriented stuff, safe not sexy. Well-mannered in a relaxed way. Civilised.

The Nice company catalogues are marvels of marketing in their design and writing, and the casting of the models. Over the years, the Boden models – originally Johnnie Boden's friends, so clearly class-correct – have generated constant sarcastic coverage. All this anxious mockery simply meant that they'd hit a very big nerve. Like the Boris Johnson brand, Boden is personality-driven. The catalogue copy is disarmingly human and sometimes, like Boris, a bit much. The clothes look like your own default options; they're the answer, for men certainly, to all those "is there anyone who still sells a plain, properly made X (moleskin trouser? cord jacket? duffel coat?) without a silly fashion feature or giant logo" questions.

And the product names jab the message home. In the current Boden catalogue there are at least three kinds of "architect" shirts. There's a Holland Park Dress, a Notting Hill Dress and a Florentine one. Plus a Chamonix puffer, an Islington coat and a Greenwich reefer.

The White Company offers its loyalists an altogether better, whiter world. The White people have edited out any colours that aren't white, off-white, milk chocolate, grey, taupe or black. They can't be doing with Johnnie Boden's cheery Sloane jokes, his spots and stripes, his occasional "if it's me, it's U" loud colours. The White people aren't nearly so outdoorsy. They live in creamy, dreamy bedrooms with a lot of pale, cable-knit cashmere – in "throws", on the bed and over their shoulders.

Though there are a lot of attractive women drifting around White Company catalogues in their nighties and dressing gowns, it's absolutely not Victoria's Secret. They look like your lovely, imaginary, flaxen Euro-cousin, they're always properly covered up, and like all Nice shopping models, never have preposterous implants, hair extensions or a faceful of slap. The White Company helps hopeless Brits achieve the standards of Nice Europeans with that never-put-a-foot-wrong palette.

Every Boden customer will have a White moment somewhere upstairs, but hardline White loyalists (women, as there's very little for men) tend to say that the Boden looks are too recognisable by half and difficult to match up.

Cath Kidston, like Boden, is a biggish business now (valued at nearly £100m recently, when Kidston sold about two thirds of it). One that has grown fast over the decade. It was originally a little shop in a particularly Nice constituency: Clarendon Cross in Notting Hill's back lanes. Kidston is about a particular kind of printed fabric so heavy with references – mainly Fifties childhood ones with roses and shells and boats and cowboys – that it can be turned into almost anything. Dressing-gowns and tote bags (huge sellers), kid's purses and ironing-board covers. A bit of retro goes a long way. In the Kidston magazine they suggest "an impromptu party with a fun retro theme". This means vol-au-vents, cheese on sticks and Fifties paper napkins. (Safe joshing of earlier, more naive tastes is a Nice Company theme.)

If you've got girls, you'll have some Cath somewhere. A bit. And you'll probably have some Emma Bridgewater china too, with its nice big lettering, its stars and its spots. You might even have been badgered into buying an EB personalised dog bowl. There are more cheery kitchen textiles with patriotic themes here – Buy British Goods and Made in England (Bridgewater, rather admirably, has kept a Stoke pottery going for 25 years). And BRAND NEW in the Christmas catalogue are the Game Bird mugs, from designs sketched by EB's husband, Matthew Rice, on "misty afternoons in Norfolk".

You might be a bit conflicted about Rachel Riley and her expensive retro children's clothes, however. They look like things the little Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose might have worn in the early Thirties. Boden mothers might think they were going a bit far and a bit formal, but their daughters might just nag them into the velvet party-dress for their birthday. If you've soaked yourself in the Nice world, its shops and catalogues and websites, the outside world looks different – acknowledged but seriously filtered, like in a Richard Curtis film.

The credit crunch, the change of government style, the prospect of cuts and horrors to come have all pushed Nice shopping further into the mainstream. It makes sense after all – it isn't that expensive. The things often last longer and don't date like fast fashion. And it's Jingo side seems safe, inoffensive fun.

I live in Marylebone, so I've got Nice shopping on my doorstep in the hugely revived Marylebone High Street (Cath Kidston, The White Company, Emma Bridgewater, Rachel Riley, practically everything except Boden). It all reminds me of the original genius of this kind of retailing. Between them, Laura Ashley and Terence Conran – retro and Anglicised modern – changed the taste of a generation (there's a Conran Shop in the High Street too).

The Laura Ashley catalogues of the Eighties, with their brilliant aspirational room sets, their clever adaptations of 19th-century prints, and their gripping product names created the model for the Nice shopping sector. The Ashley family are out of the business now – it's owned in Malaysia – but it's no surprise that Cath Kidston spent some formative early years working there.

After a week on the Nice company trail, my Norfolk-jacketed friend is positively foaming with class hatred. Then she comes up with a completely brilliant and deeply offensively Harry & Paul-ish suggestion. She wants a "This is England 1986" retro catalogue. It would have the sink estates and the skin-headed teens with their Docs and checks and tattoos. But all photographed and written up Boden-style.

The Nice family home

David Cameron has already been seen in Boden bathers, so perhaps the window-pane wool overcoat, £156, for winter?

Sam's mum runs Oka, so it's not tricky to get hold of some cheery paisley cushions, £36

When Sarkozy's off the phone and the Osbornes have gone home, what could be nicer than watching 'Cranford' on DVD under a White Company featherweight cashmere throw? £295

The Nice wedding

Wills and Kate will charm the Welsh neighbours with tea in Cath Kidston spray flowers cups, £6

Since Boden don't do wedding dresses, Kate will have to do with a shimmering spot dress, £130, for the after-party

If Prince Charles really is paying for the wedding, they can expect a Duchy for Waitrose spread

And for their friends, there surely must be a wedding list lodged at John Lewis

How to be a Nice person

Always serve Duchy biscuits when the vicar comes to tea

Buy your teenagers a witty Cath Kidston tent for Glastonbury

Forget designer jeans, Boden's styles are far more forgiving for mummies

Charm the in-laws with an Emma Bridgewater china breakfast set

Even if the children's clothes come from H&M, you can store them on White Company silk hangers

Beware: a Barbour jacket and Le Chameau wellies might push you over into posh...