When the shopping has to stop

HOW MANY pairs of black trousers does a girl need? Until a few weeks ago, I'd have said - as would nearly every woman - as many as she can cram in her wardrobe. And certainly plenty more than she can really afford.

That was before. Before I took myself to the sales and wandered aimlessly among rack after rack of wool, and wool with Lycra, and polyester with Elastane. Bootleg, straight-leg, hipsters, jeans. With pockets, without stirrups. Any which way, any price. And then came the Damascene conversion: who the hell needs this stuff anyway? The curious thing about this particular moment was that it seems to have been shared by just about half the population. Desire, endlessly stimulated, continually stoked by another skirt, a different jacket, a sensuous velvet little number, is dying all around us.

The economists tell us that we are teetering on the brink of recession; that shoppers have forsaken Marks & Sparks, Laura Ashley, the Body Shop and all those other familiar high street names, fearful of the future. Retailers banking on the public indulging in a spending spree at the January sales after staying at home in the run-up to Christmas have been sorely disappointed.

That's just half the story, as any browse in those shops will tell you. True, we are more cautious now: those dreadful days at the end of the Eighties when we were all mortgaged to the hilt and got caught up in the mire of negative equity and credit-card debt taught us a lesson few will forget. Then there's the rampaging 'flu bug, and the weather hasn't helped: who wants to squelch through Oxford Street in the driving rain?

But something else is happening in those shops that were once so beguiling with their clever lighting, seductive designs, and mirrors carefully placed to reflect a dozen images of the new you. It's as if we have tired of the game; we have grown used to the tricks of the retail trade, which pumps up the changing-room heating in the winter to delude you into buying the little spring numbers. The familiar names that once promised a little pick-me-up by way of a softly draped white shirt now breed only contempt. We've grown up to realise that retail therapy was not about need at all; it was all about want, want, want. Our palate is jaded, our appetite is sated and it's time to quit the shopping mall. Evidence that the canny customer is not so much fretting about the impending recession but is fed up with conspicuous consumption is to be found in people's spending patterns. Disillusionment with the instant fix of fashion is not matched by a general souring of mood when it comes to spending. People are still buying foreign holidays, for example. People might have had enough of Nike trainers, but they still want to speed across the oceans, if only for two weeks each summer. Holidays, after all, are a time to unwind and escape from the treadmill of modern life. And nothing is more draining, more demeaning than the treadmill of spend, spend, spend.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the picture is very different. Americans are still spending all that they earn, and much more besides. While we save nearly 10 per cent of our pay, in the United States they spend as fast as they can borrow. For the Financial Times, the only response to this is: praise be. The paper saluted Americans recently as the consumers of last resort, who were doing their bit to maintain global prosperity.

Prosperity, maybe, but to the individual shop-till-you-drop retail addict, chasing the dragon of consumption does not do a jot of lasting good. Having money clearly makes life easier. Lottery winners, for instance, show an initial change in their well-being. But after a short time, they are as glum or as happy as they were before their numbers came up.

Trying to be happier - particularly through spending money - is as futile as trying to change your life by wearing stacked heels or losing a stone. You are merely responding to someone else's perception of you. The fashion designer, the magazine, the television show says you must be trendier, thinner and taller. For far too long we have accepted the biggest trick in the book - that living in a society with endless choice, be it in black trousers or television channels, is about enjoying freedom. But choice has now taken over our lives to such an extent that it has become a tyranny.

Few of us would wish for a world where there was no choice; where we could only dream of a bottle of perfume, rather than enjoy spending a day at the shops, picking one, then preferring another. But, as the empty stores proclaim this winter, here in Britain some of us have had enough of it. Endless choice, the gluttony of consumerism, only served to make us slaves to having it all.

So, sorry Nicole Farhi, Sir Bernard Ashley and St Michael. Quite a few of us won't be back this spring. The sartorial dreams you peddle remind me of the emperor's new clothes. They were a con. Instead, real liberty is the end of desire and the search for simplicity.