BEFORE there were shopping malls, there were shopping centres, and before that, shopping precincts - and they were the wilderness. But fashion has changed. The shopping mall has come of age.

We have had enough of designer credos. We are exhausted with labels. In one of those reversals that fashion adores, shopping on Bond Street is no longer a high-kudos sport. Wearing chain-store fashion is.

The appeal of the mall is that you pick, mix and trawl. It is a relief to leave rigorous head-to-toe co- ordinating at the revolving door, fun to wear mass-produced clothes in an individual way.

Those too young to have shopped the Eighties away have a head start. Mall rats, as they are called, are adept at pulling their off-beat looks together from under acres of surreal glass corridors. Take Donna Bovaird, aged 17, a student from Milton Keynes. She deconstructs Miss Selfridge till it looks like Martin Margiela and gives it a PC twist with vegan boots from Lynx: 'I've got a lot of great stuff in here,' she says, hitching up a mangy sweater to show off a crumpled floral dress, 'and the best thing is that it's not expensive.'

Mark Beard, aged 16 and hanging out by the fountains at Whiteleys in Bayswater, says, 'I don't see the point in wasting money on all this designer gear. All you need to look good now is a T-shirt and a tattoo. Dreadlocks help.'

Mall rats develop an eye for finds among the tat. They are hunting animals. 'You've got to know what you want when you come in here . . . and then keep looking for it. No one's going to make it easy for you,' says Donna.

The sheer size of these malls is overwhelming. The MetroCentre in Gateshead has 360 shops, a multi-screen cinema, 28-lane bowling centre, 650-seat food court and a theme park called MetroLand. At the Lakeside mall in Essex, there are 12,000 parking spaces.

The question you ask yourself as you reach for that long black boucle turtleneck sweater (pounds 29.99) and the long green crushed velvet skirt (pounds 9.99) is why you put up with all those designer diktats for so long. Buying a stone zipped-front corduroy jacket (pounds 34.99) at Milton Keynes mall now seems more fun and somehow more modern than walking through Knightsbridge with a forest's worth of stiff, shiny shopping bags.

Malls are the best place to study the way we dress now. This is where youth's various fashion tribes come to see and be seen - ragga kids, rap dudes or goths in bashed bowler hats and black overcoats (yes, in August, indoors - malls are climate-controlled).

The mall may also be the one place in Britain where people are spending. More than 27 million people (equal to nearly half the population of the UK) are expected to visit the MetroCentre this year alone. The current multi-million-pound re-fits that Marks & Spencer, Boots and W H Smith have embarked on at Gateshead signal their belief in future earnings. The retail giants are looking forward to serious profits.

Stone zip-front corduroy jacket, pounds 34.99, from Snob stores nationwide; white cotton T-shirt, pounds 4.99, from BhS stores nationwide; brown suede boots, pounds 44.99, from River Island Clothing Co, nationwide; silver ear-rings from a selection at Ratners, Milton Keynes. Photographed inside Dixons at Milton Keynes shopping centre.

Brown oversized roll-neck jumper, pounds 29.99, from Snob, Milton Keynes and nationwide; long green crushed velvet skirt, pounds 9.99, C & A stores nationwide; brown suede ankle boots, as before.

Long black boucle turtleneck jumper, pounds 29.99, from Snob, as before; cotton socks from a selection at BhS nationwide; brown suede ankle boots as before. All clothes available from shops within the Milton Keynes Shopping Centre, Buckinghamshire.

Navy reefer jacket, pounds 39.99, from Snob, as before; black ribbed sweater, pounds 9.99, from C & A, as before; Levi's stone corduroy jeans, pounds 44.99, from River Island Clothing Co, as before; silver cross and hoop ear-rings from a selection at Ratners, Milton Keynes.


John Proctor, 18: 'I hang out here because there's nowhere else to go. The clothes are no good, but the food is OK'.

Selina Thomas, 18: 'I buy my clothes from Benetton, Bay Trading and River Island.' Seen with Dionne Rice, 14.

Erica Currie, 18, and Kelly Lathwell, 18, who both work part-time at Etam. 'We come in early to go shopping'.

Keith and Annette Hyde with Craig, 7, Peter, 5, Kirsty, 15 months. 'We buy everything for the children at the mall'.

Mr and Mrs Birkett, of Milton Keynes: 'We come on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays to watch the young people in the mall, but we shop at the market'.

(Photographs omitted)