The Style Police: Find it on the mean streets

If your bank account doesn't stretch to this season's luxury fabrics, never fear: the high-street retailers are on the case. And it doesn't matter if your cashmere isn't really 'shmere', no one will know the difference, promises James Sherwood
AS MARY QUANT once said, "Having money is rather like being a blonde. It is more fun but not vital." If this season's fashion means anything to you, money seems absolutely vital. Every season, we look for the message behind the clothes. The message is luxury. It says three- ply cashmere, alpaca, finest merino wool and, for those of us without an account at Coutts & Co, major credit-card fraud.

In a week of Diana conspiracy theories - "The nation yawns" - Style Police would like to sow the seeds of a new fashion conspiracy. We all know the British high street rocks, it can "interpret" catwalk messages and have near-perfect facsimiles of key silhouettes on its rails before the major design houses have even delivered their first shipment of new season stock. It has even offered the old baksheesh to designers Hussein Chalayan, Ben de Lisi, Pearce Fionda, Betty Jackson, Clements Ribeiro and Sherald Lamden to design capsule collections for M&S, Dotty P's and Top Shop.

Why else would the designers pick on luxury as a buzzword for Autumn/Winter 98 but put two fingers up to the high street? The high street's lethal weapon is fashion for nada. So the design houses produce the classic cashmere twin-set in finest cashmere and subliminally say, "Copy that for pounds 12.99."

Now here's the dish. The great British high street knows the teenage market couldn't care less whether a jumper is produced from cashmere or petroleum by-products as long as the finished article feels fabulous. Nobody's suggesting synthetics can compare to a bit of "shmere". But money talks. pounds 22.99 compared to pounds 150 for a woolly sweater sounds good in any language.

So prepare yourself for the Style Police guide to doing the season high street-style. First stop is French Connection, and you've got to give it up for these guys. The most important piece to freshen up your wardrobe is the knife-pleated skirt; the kind you'd imagine a Fifties bobby-soxer wearing with a cardie round the shoulders and a ponytail. It has grown up, sits bang on the knee or slightly below, and French Connection have a killer knife-pleat skirt in charcoal grey for pounds 80. You'll find this skirt's shape all over the high street. FC's version is fabulous because they haven't skimped on the fabric. There is plenty of flow in those pleats. Style Police absolutely insists you find the Wallis black knife- pleated skirt for pounds 70. It whirls like a dervish and looks like Marc Jacobs.

You've already got a wardrobe full of pencil skirts so maybe the maxi is more important. Style Police had them covered a couple of weeks ago but did find the classic black, ankle-length skirt with a back split that stops well short of the knicker line from Austin Reed for pounds 119. The other absolute beauty is a Ben de Lisi for Debenhams, navy, viscose-wrap maxi for pounds 80. There's also an asymmetric tunic top to match for pounds 60 and bear in mind the combined price wouldn't buy you a button at Donna Karen mainline.

With the lean, languid shapes for this season you're going to need a charcoal grey overcoat that stops in symmetry with either the knife-pleat skirt or the maxi. For on-the-knee you need to forget label snobbery and get yourself down to Benetton for their charcoal single-breasted at pounds 99.

For an overcoat that hugs you like a six-foot lover, it has to be Jil Sander's alpaca for pounds 3,500. Only kidding. French Connection do the best salt-and-pepper tweed maxi overcoat for pounds 190. Your pinstripe slouch pants are at M&S, your knitted tanks are at Warehouse, and there's only one high-street store for flatties and that's Ravel (from pounds 45). Any questions?