IF ANYTHING distinguishes British men from their Continental counterparts, it is their willingness to break the rules in the sartorial book. What's more, they get away with it. I have an expatriate friend living in Paris who is the envy of his French colleagues. He plays the eccentric Englishman to the hilt, wearing tweed suits and bright check shirts from Hackett mixed with flamboyant ties, braces and waistcoats by Paul Smith. French women love it, he assures me.

The Americans are equally admiring of the British skill for combining patterns and textures to achieve an individual look. Many of them believe that the typical Englishman is the spitting image of the late Duke of Windsor - born with a silver spoon in his mouth and possessing an innate understanding of what the French would call chic fatigue, a natural form of effortless elegance.

In recent years, the temptation to break the rules has become more pronounced, often teetering on the edge of bad taste. This is to be welcomed: there is no room for stuffiness in contemporary menswear.

Paul Smith, a designer who has spent most of his career breaking the rules, cheerfully acknowledges that he runs the risk of lapsing into bad taste. He appears, however, to regard such a suggestion as a compliment.

'What is bad taste? What is good taste? They are both so near. It's just lovely to shove them in a food mixer and throw them around. My aim is to get a happy balance between the two.'

Accessories, or what the Americans call 'furnishings', make all the difference. Little things mean a lot in men's dressing because the suit - the mainstay of the working wardrobe - does not offer much opportunity for making a personal statement.

In fashion terms, the trend this winter is away from striped shirts to checks. The same theme carries through to ties, where small neat geometric designs or big bold checks are among the most popular styles. Diamond-patterned argyle sweaters, once worn only by golfers, are making a comeback. Waistcoats are proving strong sellers in the run-up to Christmas, either in printed silk for a dressed-up look or in more relaxed knitted wool fabrics.

Classic British menswear is currently exerting a strong influence on men's fashion worldwide. The Italians and French are copying the English jacket shape, slightly nipped in at the waist with a hint of flare, although they remove many of the heavier linings and use softer, lighter cloths. They also like our traditional country clothing, particularly the tweed jackets and corduroy trousers in autumnal colours.

For our pictures, however, we chose all- British clothes rather than the Continental tributes. We mixed British designer names such as Smith, Richard James and Malcolm Levene with long-established British brands such as Austin Reed and Aquascutum. And yes, we broke the rules, mixing tartan, gingham and houndstooth in a manner that might raise a few eyebrows on Jermyn Street.

It is worth noting that even the more classic of British menswear retailers are responding more quickly to changes in fashion. The shirts and sweaters are broader cut, the range of colours more adventurous, and the fabrics steal lessons in softness from the Italians.

Perhaps the gap between avant-garde designers and mainstream retailers is narrowing. Richard James, once considered the wild boy of men's designer fashion, now has a shop on Savile Row. Round the corner in Cork Street, Christopher Tarling (who ran the menswear department at Browns of South Molton Street for 17 years), has also set up his own establishment, Freedman & Tarling, selling classic-with-a-twist clothes to a broad range of customers.

Meanwhile, the retailer Austin Reed has taken a bold step this winter by stocking the season's most fashionable jacket shape - the high-fastening, three-button single-breasted jacket. Early reports suggest the move has gone down a treat with Austin Reed customers, usually thought to be arch conservatives.

The point is that classic dressing need not mean boring dressing. Be prepared to take risks, particularly with accessories. Live dangerously. Live eccentrically. After all, we British have a reputation to maintain.

(Photographs omitted)