Your new look? It's in the post

As mail-order shopping grows ever more popular, Tamsin Blanchard examines the catalogue catwalk. Photographs: Jon Mortimer

Watch television in America for five minutes and you might be tempted to slump into the nearest sofa, remote control in one hand, telephone and credit card in the other. You can shop, shop, shop to your heart's content without having to exercise anything more than your telephone finger.

To some, this might sound like shopping heaven. But there is something of a quality control problem with home shopping channels, including our own QVC on Sky channel 23. There is a limit to the number of faux diamond earrings a woman can buy, however cheap they are.

For more discerning home shoppers, there are alternatives, and the Internet revolution has not yet happened as far as they are concerned. How many people do you know who have bought their winter wardrobes via the superhighway? A recent Marketing Intelligence Electronic Shopping report from Mintel has found that buying goods via your personal computer is a relative non- starter.

If you feel that technology is taking over even the fun of good old-fashioned shopping, don't worry. Virtual reality shopping malls are not about to suck you through their shiny hi-tech doors. Placing your orders via e- mail does not cut down on cost or delivery times and, as the report points out, general Internet sales account for less than 1 per cent of all retail sales.

Heave a sigh of relief, then. Your favourite mail-order catalogue is not about to turn into yet another computer nightmare. The Internet shopping revolution is not about to happen overnight. It's official. The good old-fashioned, low-tech mail-order catalogues are still the best form of happy home shopping.

But these days, we are no longer talking huge door-stopper tomes full of bargain-basement tracksuits, gabardine macs and lacy knicker-and-bra sets. There is new breed of catalogue, which is a refined and specialist animal.

Some are fantastically useful, like Bras Direct, which gives you the freedom to try your brand-name bra in the privacy of your home. Others, like the minimal little pamphlet from the French label APC, offer the sort of throughly modern, perfect taste clothes that glossy magazine fashion editors drool over. This is the ultimate in Euro shopping, with prices in French francs, enabling you not only to shop from the comfort of your own home, but to feel as though you have crossed the Channel as well. But beware the exchange rate, and payment is by credit card only.

Next Directory was one of the first, more up-market specialist catalogues, which launched eight years ago. In the year to January 1996, the mail- order business had a turnover of pounds 159m, compared with the retail outlets' turnover of pounds 534m. There are more than half a million active accounts with Next Directory, which features the Vogue waif-shock model Trish Goff, as well as Yasmin Le Bon. The Directory also publishes the Next Basics catalogue, with an edited-down range of essential items. And then there is Kingshill, the designer clothing catalogue that features such illustrious names as Nicole Farhi, John Smedley, and Jasper Conran.

There is almost as much choice available in mail-order shopping as there is on the high street. But as you flick through the new season's catalogues, don't be fooled into believing that you too could look like Cecilia Chancellor, the pounds 27 angora-mix sweater-clad cover girl on Racing Green's autumn 96 catalogue, or Helena Christensen in a pounds 29.99 nylon "satin" bomber jacket in Look Again's Preview catalogue.

The best thing about home shopping is that you can always send the jacket back when your dreams are shattered as you tear away the wrapping and try it on, only to discover that Helena is possibly the only woman who could get away with wearing it.

MAIN PHOTOGRAPH: Beige military shirt, pounds 29, ref SH290 by Racing Green; black trousers, pounds 44.99 from Next Directory, M19765G18; belt with gold G buckle, pounds 90, by Gucci, 33 Old Bond Street, London, W1, and 18, Sloane St, London SW1.

ABOVE RIGHT: Black belted maxi dress, pounds 49, ref. CM47284 page155 from Freemans; silver chain with silver fang pendant, pounds 145, by Jacqueline Rabun, from Harrods, Knightsbridge, London, SW1 and Shelia Miller, unit 26, Princes Square, Glasgow, for further stockists call 0171 221 9820.

BELOW RIGHT: Striped shirt, pounds 75, by A.P.C, available from 124 Draycott Avenue, London SW3; A-line brown tweed skirt, pounds 29.50, ref CG70684, page 159, from Freemans; brown leather double-breasted jacket, pounds 270, ref M19970G18 (page 71) from Next Directory.

HOW TO OBTAIN YOUR CATALOGUE:

APC: call Paris 00 331 44 39 87 83 (English spoken)

FREEMANS : call 0345 900100

LA REDOUTE: call 0500 777777

NEXT DIRECTORY: call 0345 100500.

RACING GREEN: call 0345 331 117, Winter catalogue available from September 29th.

MORE CLOTHES BY MAIL

Jackpot and Cottonfield by Carli Gry: casual weekend leisurewear for men and women. Tel: 0181 877 9631

Forme: fashionable clothes for pregnant women. Tel: 0171 820 3456

Bras Direct: Labels include Gossard, Cacharel and Warners. Tel. 0990 343638

Boden: Classic well-made clothes for all the family. Prices slightly above high street. Tel. 0181 453 1535

Kingshill: The first designer catalogue with labels including Nicole Farhi, Paul Costello, Jean Muir and Amanda Wakeley. The cost is pounds 11. Tel. 01494 890555

Workshop: Womens shirts in every size, shape and colour.

Tel. 0171 738 2525

Muji: Clean, simple, modern Japanese company, famous for their excellent storage ideas and easy to wear clothes.

Tel. 0171 494 1197

Cashmere by Design: Classic all cashmere clothes, the best twin sets and the ultimate in understated glamour. Tel. 0171 240 3652

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