YOU remember British clothes. They're the ones with a reputation for being either unwearably avant-garde or unspeakably frumpy and either way, shoddily made.

In fact, neither accusation is entirely fair any more. At the high-fashion end of the market, the recession has concentrated British design minds wonderfully to the point where designers such as Jasper Conran, Margaret Howell, Rifat Ozbek and Nicole Farhi (of the last two, he's Turkish, she's French but both are based in the UK) are producing their strongest collections in years, with plenty of wearable but beautiful clothes in which the emphasis has shifted away from the tricksy towards design that evolves logically and intelligently.

Meanwhile, on the high street, reliable British companies such as Jaeger, Burberrys, Austin Reed and Alexon have been masterminding shrewd campaigns designed to slough off their fusty images and attract younger, more fashion-conscious consumers.

You could say that now is their time. The drift away from impulse-buying means that from being perceived as dependable but slightly dull, staple British classics have become extremely fashionable internationally (our make-up artist and photographer both said they'd wear the clothes on this page and fashion endorsements don't come much more hothouse than that).

Even experimental designers such as Vivienne Westwood and Isaac Mizrahi are investigating le style anglais and incongruous as it might seem, entire rails of equestrian, governessy and rural looks are doing the business on Rodeo Drive, Fifth Avenue and the Faubourg St Honore. Yet it has taken a New York genius in the shape of Ralph Lauren to show companies here just how broad the appeal of quintessentially classic British clothing can be.

The trick, for retailers and designers, is to recognise that classics - despite conventional wisdom which suggests they are not subject to the vagaries of fashion - do change. The width of a lapel, the length of hem, the cut of a sleeve will all eventually conspire to make a coat look obsolete, no matter how timeless it seemed when you bought it. A 'dateless' blazer from the mid-Eighties would probably look laughably broad in the shoulders now. That 'classic' business suit from just two years ago has a skirt that now seems far too short.

Having taken this lesson on board - not before time, some might say - Jaeger, Alexon, Burberrys and Austin Reed have all recruited youngish design and marketing teams who are skilled at absorbing trends from the catwalks, style magazines and movies and processing them into stylish clothes that look and feel relevant to a wide customer base. Even their advertisements seem different, punchier, much more tempting. Because while there is undoubtedly money in classics (so much so that next year Paul Smith will launch a range of women's clothes, based on the sleek principles of his classic menswear lines), British companies have learned that in the face of ferocious competition from the likes of the Italian giant MaxMara or German companies such as Laurel, you have to chase it.

Julia Bowe, marketing manager at Austin Reed, says: 'The most successful businesses today are very specific about their image. We've tended to let that side of things slip at Austin Reed but in the past year we've made a concerted effort to show customers who don't know us that although we are primarily about classic clothes, we are fresh and interested in fashion. You could say we've loosened up.' This sentiment is echoed in other established businesses. Jaeger is taking the hard sell so seriously that, unusually for a British company, it now uses supermodels such as Tatjana Patitz and Elaine Irwin in brochures and posters.

But what counts is the clothes, and they have changed perceptibly (although since nowadays no one can afford to frighten off existing customers, all four companies have been careful to maintain their more traditional designs). At Alexon you'll notice that among their ubiquitous skirt suits there are matching trousers and waistcoats for women who feel sufficiently confident to make a masculine fashion statement. At Burberrys, the traditional beige trench that it introduced 80 years ago with serving officers in mind now comes in half a dozen or more permutations, adapted each season to reflect fashion trends. Last year the Burberrys taffeta swing trench made its debut. This winter, again reflecting runway trends, the Burberrys woman's trench has emerged in a longer and leaner silhouette and, in addition to its beige gaberdine, now comes in a fashionably mannish-looking grey flannel.

Over at Jaeger, a tradition of high-quality tailoring and excellent fabrics has been deployed on crisp-looking military jackets, jodhpurs, beautifully made long, slim button-through skirts, leather jeans (who'd have thought Jaeger would be so racy?) and a spot-on double-breasted navy jacket that feels like cashmere and buttons high up the chest in a nod to Seventies-style tailoring. All of these are items that wouldn't look out of place on a Paris runway.

Significantly, market research at Jaeger has shown that the sort of fashion-conscious ranges they have introduced to attract younger, more daring women are also appreciated by their older customers, a finding which makes nonsense of conventional thinking that pigeon-holes the average British customer as deeply conservative and responsible for much of the dross that ends up on the high street. Fiona Harrison, who was appointed chief executive of Jaeger 13 months ago, says: 'What's changed is that older customers wish to be more fashionable and younger customers want to look well dressed and classic. Fashion is no longer the great divide. Age, and to an extent even price, is no longer the great issue either. What counts is attitude and that's what we're trying to capture.'

All of these companies are careful to produce clothes that appeal to the customer who keeps an eye on her bank-balance as well as the catwalk. For, apart from anything else, with no exorbitant fashion shows or out-of-control designer egos to support and with long-established manufacturing sources (many of them in the UK) along with well made, no-nonsense designs, what Jaeger, Burberrys et al offer today's demanding customers is value for money. Moreover, if you're shopping for classics, it makes sense to buy from companies that have spent a lifetime specialising in them.

There is another reason for checking them out. In the wake of last week's depressing news about the difficulties of buying a wholly British-made car (Robin Reliants being the not entirely enticing exception) it looks increasingly as though investing in British fashion could be one of the last options we have for helping industry in this country out of its problems.

How nice, finally, to have an altruistic reason for buying clothes.

(Photographs omitted)

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