Who called the taste police?

All is minimal, all is tasteful, all is bleached beech and pan- fried kangaroo. Whatever happened to individual style? asks Eleanor Bailey

"I went to Canteloupe in Shoreditch," says Lucy Quinn, 31, a publicist. "It is this vast space of fashionable, Smithfield-chic people standing on the inevitable wooden floors in this huge minimalist bar. At the table next to me sat eight incredibly skinny women, all in Prada black, all with long blonde hair, with identikit eyebrows and that short, unflattering fringe. They were obviously models but they looked so lacking in personality, I just stared. The bar was lacking in personality, too. I thought, God if that's all you have to do to be trendy, it must be so easy to make money."

Fashionable eating, floors, bathrooms, even dressing is all the same. Each time you think you've discovered that trendy, new, wooden-floored hang-out, it turns out to be a chain of trendy new hang-outs, with identikit branches in every town from Brighton to Glasgow. Everything is smooth, minimal, chic. We all know about it. We all ape it. You would no more choose carpets for your hall floor than you would go to a restaurant, look at the basket of olive bread and say, "Haven't you got any Hovis?"

Designer Evlynn Smith of Precious McBain, of the trendy pom-pom stools fame says, "There has been a horrible standardisation of shops and restaurants and style. The floor that they call 'bleached beech' - I can hardly get the words out of my mouth. Chrome pillars, lots of glass. It's the Conrany look. Conran's been good in that he's kicked people up the arse and made them think about style, but people then stagnate. They don't have any of their own ideas."

Once the chief suspect as the great homogeniser of British taste, Conran is beginning to look more like a symptom than a cause. For even Conran is becoming a chain, with the opening of Orrery in Marylebone last week and, come the spring, the arrival of Coq D'Argent and Sartoria.

The culprits are many, but the brave new bleached-beech world is no better exemplified than by the growing chain of All Bar Ones - currently Bass's best performer. In All Bar One there's naked wood everywhere you look, with a scattering of kooky old station clocks etc. Variations on the theme are Cafe Rouge and Pitcher & Piano, The Dome, Cafe Flo and Pierre Victoire. Like McDonald's, it doesn't matter where in the world you are, they are reassuringly identical. The food always comes with ciabatta, the burgers are always laced with coriander. There is always goat's cheese on the menu. As documentary maker and former designer Nora Meyer says, "Everything is either pan-friend or oven-roasted or brushed with olive oil. I mean, where else do you fry something?"

Whereas we British used to be kind of quirky in our lack of taste, with our isolated insistence on carpets and curlicued wallpaper, now, having noticed that other countries have a thing called style, we panic and desperately cling to safe style options, such as bleached beech, in fear of the alternatives. With more and more written about style, we have become more conversant, more style conscious and come to expect more. But since we have all become more sophisticated to the same extent, has it really left us any better off?

Martin Cunning, producer at trendy music and culture TV company At It productions and a self-confessed ageing punk, says, "We live in a world where Habitat has filtered down to the suburbs. It's all nice but it's all so clean. Even granny has the latest trainers and as soon as taste is democratised it has no value. That is the reason for kitsch."

The continual search for novelty renders novelty itself old hat. "Every image refers back to so much - it is a karaoke culture," says Cunning. "Oasis are trying to paper trace over the Beatles in 1966, but they are not the new Beatles, they are the new Ruttles. If you see photos of stars like Rod Stewart from the Seventies they look much more real and unmanufactured than now, when every shot is taken with the aid of the stylist."

Even the old shock tactics have been subsumed into the stylish magazine culture and become anodyne. Damien Hirst has made death a coffee-table issue with the publication of a gorgeously glossy book which combines pictures of corpses that met their end in various different grisly ways,all gleaming in beautiful white spaces. Richard James, the Savile Row tailor, had models jumping off buildings. Advertising for Jigsaw appeared to be using dead people. Jigsaw! whose sole style statement seems to be endless variations on the beige shift dress.

There used to be the uncool, the wannabes and the (very few) cool. Now high-street fashion is chasing designers so hard that they are forced to bring out difficult-to-copy styles. "The minimalist clothing by the Jil Sanders of this world has suffered from its own success," says Scarlett Brady, of fashionable magazine Scene. "It's been quite easy for bigger commercial manufacturers to flood the high street with cheaper versions of those simple, pared down shapes. That is why designers are now creating hand-crafted one-offs, like delicately embroidered bodices, or hi-tech fabrics which are prohibitively expensive to reproduce in huge quantities. Suddenly, the fashion scene is all about self-expression and eclectic dressing," says Brady. And yes, eclectic dressing is available from Top Shop.

Good novelties are bought by so many people that they cease to be novelties and because of their quirkiness they don't lie unobtrusively on your body, in your house or on your restaurant plate. They scream "I'm trying to be different!" and you are exposed. So, maybe that is why so many people cling to the unobtrusive safe cool of Habitat, where, although it's immediately obvious to everyone that whatever it is came from Habitat, at least you haven't made too much effort to arrive at your sameness.

Good taste - the easy way

The taste police have issued the following list of approved lifestyle choices.

Interiors: bleached beech; wood painted in Mediterranean green and blue; wood, stone or seagrass floors; anything from Habitat, where you believe that you are making interiors choices but, in fact, it all matches.

Food: anything from Pret a Manger; roasted vegetables; focaccia; Pacific Rim (glorified Chinese) or "modern" Italian (small portions and no bread sticks).

Music: modern but sanitised. Only one step away from the designer rock of Phil Collins, such as M People, Kula Shaka, Ocean Colour Scene.

Clothes: that style classic "pared down basics". Anything tasteful in black, particularly Prada; clothes you just can't go wrong with even on a fat day, such as Nicole Farhi and Jil Sander; Jigsaw.

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