Meet the New Traditionalists, the perfect counterpoint to the beech and steel brigade, which celebrate - and trade on - Britishness without either the funkiness of Cool Britannia or the stuffiness of Jermyn Street - more Ledbury market town than Metrocentre mall, more Martha Stewart than Marks & Spencer. What unites this disparate gang is an emphasis on personal taste and quality and a studied distaste for the indiscriminate mass market.
Where Laura Ashley and Yardley got themselves labelled as gift places for grannies by affluent baby-boomers, the new names on the block may be selling tradition, but it is carefully selected for modern taste.
Take Crabtree & Evelyn, a company that has survived several decades and is renowned for classics such as its jojoba soap and pine bath essence. "We've stepped up several gears in the last couple of years and are now bringing out products that will make people sit up," explains Catie Briscoe. "Our watchwords are innovation, relevance and lifestyle, and our image is that of a sanctuary. If we weren't so innovative, we'd be suffering more, because consumers are far more knowledgeable than they used to be, and know what they want."
The recent Crabtree & Evelyn Aromathology collection, all sourced from small producers that use organic or wild-gathered plants, includes a Headache Aide that is perfect for the stressed-out Nineties person who struggles between work and shiatsu sessions. Last year, the company also launched Gardeners, a range of skincare products specifically devised to address the boom in gardening. And already Gardeners Hand Therapy (pounds 8.95) has knocked jojoba soap from its pedestal of 25 years as a best-seller.
Savouring the success of innovation, the company is launching a new Cooks range next March. "It's about taking a very simple idea and making it different," adds Briscoe. "There's a clear trend towards kitchenware and cooking. But cooking has changed: it's no longer about a woman putting a meal on the table three times a day. It's therapeutic; a hobby."
Hence the special soap for dishwasher hands (pounds 6.95); aromas to create the smell of home cooking around ready-made meals (pounds 3.95); and, for the millennium neurotic, a fruit and vegetable wash to remove surface pesticides (pounds 5.50), passed by the US food regulatory body, the FDA.
Crabtree & Evelyn grew on the high street to its current 700 outlets but, in contrast, the neat House mail-order catalogue started life within a British art gallery, the Hambledon Gallery, now evolved into a 3,000sqft "destination shop".
"It's hard to make an art gallery financially viable in Dorset, so two- and-a-half years ago we set up the mail-order operation. We've had a fantastic year, touch lots of wood," says Victoria Suffield, House's director. "We called it House because all the photographs are shot in the house - a scruffy, lived-in one, with mucky basins and rusty taps."
Fresh farm apples are pictured jostling in large wire baskets (pounds 31); plain white china dinner plates (pounds 10.95) are personalised with curious place-cards and menu-holders (pounds 9.95 for four); and the best-selling Moroccan tea glasses (pounds 14.95 for six) are filled withdainty flowers. There's also a selection of sisal baskets to store logs (from pounds 3.95), lights, vases, sheets, toys... "It's all about personal selection, but I don't want to be too dictatorial. They're quite simple items, and you don't have to buy into the whole House thing. I want people to buy beautiful pieces from us, then put them with their own things," says Victoria Suffield.
Duntisbourne is based around similar values, but steps further into British traditionalism. Based in Cheshire, and started in October this year by two people who previously supplied scarves to high-street retailers, it has a quintessential Britishness represented by an ideal - a farm in the Cotswolds that is pictured, to set the scene, at the beginning of the small but beautifully produced catalogue. Duntisbourne has also launched a gallery on the Internet, which aims to sell one-off pieces to an international market.
"Duntisbourne products are all hand-made in Britain. We want to offer future heirlooms," says its co-founder, Venetia Hendry. "We're not trying to be twee country: everything we select will fit in the modern home - but it won't be chrome. Its thinking is opposite to that of the high street, which is awash with cheap imports at low prices." Pieces include antique oak mirrors (pounds 74.95), hand-forged steel-pipe fire-blowers (pounds 18.95), sycamore hand-turned bowls (pounds 69.95), and cobalt-blue glass bowls (pounds 149.95). Best-sellers so far are the wrought-iron candle sticks (pounds 43 for two including candles), hand-painted farmyard china (from pounds 34.95), and a hand-painted salmon bowl (pounds 84.95).
A similar venture, set up just over a year ago, is Country Living magazine's By Post. Developed from the Country Living fair, this was initially set up to sell seasonal Christmas gifts, but this year it has expanded into selling lifestyle items, and is toying with the idea of becoming biannual rather than just seasonal (at the moment it runs only from October to February).
As with the other New Traditionalists, By Post prides itself on selling goods that are in some way exclusive. "Our customers don't mind spending money, as long as what they are buying is different," says Helen Riley, product developer for the company.
Best-sellers include the pashmina shawl (pounds 124.95) which arrives in an elegant silk envelope; leather washbags (pounds 19.95) and various Christmas decorations (from pounds 12.95).
However, while consumers are not flashing their money about, perhaps, as maintained in a report for American Express last week, this is as much to do with increasing canniness as with a lack of confidence in the economy.
For more information contact: Crabtree & Evelyn on 0171-603 1611, or www.crabtree-evelyn.com; House on 01258 830209; Duntisbourne on 0161-980 5880 or www. duntisbourne.com;
By Post on 01536 720144Reuse content