The Brand Centre in Enfield, north London - offering 40,000 square feet of new clothes - is the first store in the world to take pity on men who go shopping with women.

Knowing that just the word 'fitting-room' is enough to strike dread into the hearts of most males, managing director Daniel Green decided a year ago to introduce a safe haven for them, furnished with exclusively male comforts. Daniel believes that if he can make them more comfortable, they will be tempted to do a little shopping for themselves.

The 'Men's Creche' - within spitting distance of the lingerie department - is a sanitised version of a colonial-style fun pub: floral wallpaper, wicker chairs, burgundy lamps and a brass ceiling fan. Those macho extras, supposedly designed to make them forget they are trapped in female territory, include a selection of male interest magazines, Sky sports videos and a complimentary can of alcohol-free lager.

'It's saying tough men can shop too,' explains Daniel, who has created the room for those men who presumably aren't tough enough to say no to a shared day out buying clothes.

'Men are genetically programmed to hate shopping. One problem is they're afraid of appearing effeminate. The ultimate torture is when their partner shouts: 'Over here dear - I'm just buying a new bra'.' According to Daniel, men on the shop floor are broken creatures who have relinquished all power. 'They just look like lost puppies.'

In the bra-free zone of the Men's Creche - decorated with black and white photos of sultry James Dean lookalikes standing next to motorbikes and one of a girl in a low-cut swimsuit splashing in the waves - they're in control again.

Creche inhabitant Trevor sits forward in his wicker armchair. 'Just answer me one question,' he says loudly and assertively, pointing his finger at me. 'Why is it that women come out looking for one thing, then look at every object in the entire building?' Only minutes before, Trevor had been leaning vacantly against a wall outside the women's changing rooms. 'Umm. Yes, it looks lovely, dear,' he muttered weakly.

Here in the creche a transformation has occurred - he's vocal and opinionated. 'Now, I know what I want to buy and if they haven't got it, I'm out of the shop - end of story.' Trevor crosses his legs and sits back defiantly.

Tony is slouched next to him, a copy of the Guardian Weekend on his knees. His eyes are glued instead to the more immediate gratification of Sky football. He was deposited here about an hour ago by his wife and sister. 'I was caught today. I really planned to play golf, but all my mates had hangovers,' he says.

'The problem is men want to watch sport all day. Women just don't - they have to shop. Take my wife - she has to touch every bit of clothing in the store.' It looks like Tony may be here for a few more hours.

The ''why-do-women-drag- their-men-shopping' debate seems to be a contentious issue in the Men's Creche, which has suddenly turned from tranquil waiting room into victim-support group, where members voice their memories of abuse. 'Even if I give an opinion, she doesn't listen,' says one man. 'I might as well not be there.' Tony nods sympathetically. 'Men and shopping are just two different animals.'

'As that fellow says, why invite us when they don't care what we think?' complains Graham, who left his wife in women's evening wear half an hour ago. 'Because we're carrying the wallets, that's why,' asserts Trevor, striking his final blow for male supremacy. Two men begin to explain that, actually, their wives do have jobs and cheque books, so their presence, surely, isn't just as a financial resource . . . The discussion is interrupted by Trevor's wife, apparently livid that her husband walked off with no explanation as to where he was going. Trevor stands up and sheepishly follows her outside.

Although some may find temporary protection in the creche, there's still the risk that they could, like Trevor, be dragged back to the front line at any moment. Yet Daniel believes that in recent weeks, those men who have sought refuge in the past are actually now starting to venture out and explore their surroundings. 'It's like a security blanket for them,' he says. 'If his partner does walk within 100 yards of women's underwear, he knows where he can go.'

Judging by the number of despondent men sloping behind their wives like passive lapdogs, it seems more likely that Daniel will have to build a bigger creche.

So, why do women subject their husbands and boyfriends to such a potentially traumatic experience? 'I value his opinion,' says Linda, trying on a Jasper Conran evening jacket. 'If I get home and he doesn't like it, then I won't wear it.'

But when it comes to personal comment men seem unable to commit themselves. 'I don't know what I should say,' shrugs Linda's boyfriend, Simon. 'He's got good taste but why can't he express it when we're in a shop?' says Louise, carrying a selection of identical-looking silk blouses. Her husband headed for the creche some minutes ago, complaining of exhaustion.

According to store manager Gill Butcher, these moments of frustration may actually strengthen a relationship. She cites a recent survey by the marriage counselling organisation Relate which highlights shared activity as the key to bonding between men and women. 'It's about spending more quality time together,' she explains. 'And that must include shopping.'

It's hard to see how the Men's Creche can increase shared experience when, in fact, it promotes exactly the opposite. As far as sharing is concerned, the men in the creche might just as well have stayed at home. 'I don't know that I agree,' says Tony, an hour later, still immobile in there and mesmerised by Sky. 'It's nice to do things together. Besides, it does you good to get out and about sometimes.'

(Photograph omitted)