You've never had it so good

High street fashion is having a golden season. Buy it by the armful, says JAMES SHERWOOD

Life in the Nineties is not cheap. It seems just like yesterday when you'd get change from a fiver for 20 ciggies and a vodka tonic. Your restaurant bill didn't look like a telephone number and cab fares never reached double figures. They'll be telling me Queen Victoria's dead next. Granted, nobody expects high fashion to be cheap. But the cost of this season's VIP new pieces struck Style Police like a Steffi Graf backhand.

September's Harper's Bazaar photographed the season's "essentials" such as Calvin Klein's leather trench ($2,490), Armani's jet and crystal black- beaded shell ($13,125), Donna Karan's felt-jersey blanket wrap ($2,375) and Dolce & Gabbana's Mongolian lamb maxi ($6,920). The total for every item in Bazaar's "Fall Hits" list is $112,063. British Vogue's "Ten Key Pieces" in its September issue came in at a more modest pounds 7,641 - that's a small car to the rest of us.

Some people just don't care about clothes. Some of us, however, feel physically sick if we're not on-message with the new season. Last winter's grey gives us a migraine and mild depression. If it wasn't for the high street we'd never leave the house. You see, autumn/winter '99 is a golden season for the high street.

Have you been in the changing room queue at H&M recently? People shop like contestants on Supermarket Sweep. Frenzy is the only way to describe Top Shop on a Saturday morning. You see grown women grappling with over- made-up teenagers for the last small size glitter knit embroidered skirt. The high street is mobbed at the moment, and there are several reasons why.

This season is all over the place: Seventies college kid, disco diva, clash animal print, gothic punk and Bohemian princess. The overall feeling is trashy and clashy, which plays right into the hands of the high street designers. They can do animal print. Hell, they've been doing it ever since Bet Lynch pulled her first pint. They can do glittery party frocks blindfolded. They have even replicated delicate Boho beading for the mass market.

In a chaotic, stormy season, fashion addicts instinctively know that not all the latest designer quirks and whims will survive. So there's very little point spending top dollar on pieces you'll be ditching by next season. After all, fashion is ultimately about fun, and high street shopping for utterly seasonal, utterly disposable fashion pieces is the most fun you can have alone with the lights on.

How to wear it

The more clueless high street labels still handle high fashion like a chimpanzee playing with a Lalique vase. Use your fashion radar to root out the not-quite colours, the wrong shapes and the also-ran designers. Price isn't always the best indicator of a hit. H&M's stretch cling gilets are under pounds 15, but that doesn't mean they are tatty. It means buy two in every colour. For those of you who've shopped at Zara, it may look as if they've left a nought off the price. Just count your blessings and fill your carrier bag.

It used to be a rule not to buy natural fibres or tailoring on the high street. Tailoring won't make a comeback until next season, so not to worry. But look at the leathers in Top Shop, the ponyskin skirts in French Connection and the delicate beaded crochets in Karen Millen. The fabrics are luxe, the make excellent and the prices laughing-gas cheap. The only rule on the high street is take your time. Scour every rail and try on several sizes. High street sizing is like a politician's promise: totally unreliable.

Where to buy it

If you're a gorgeous, flirty (and thin) Dolce & Gabbana kind of girl then Top Shop is your new best friend. There are more sequins, feathers and animal skins in this season's collection than in Lily Savage's dressing room. If you died for Marni's clash colour palette this season, then Karen Millen and Jigsaw have both dared to do hot orange, turquoise and cerise.

Zara is for disciples of Jil Sander's sleek, minimal mood. The fit is hand-in-glove and the fabrics are natural with techno touches. What can one say about H&M? With new deliveries every day, this store demands a standing ovation. H&M has tried everything: a bit of beading, a dash of animal, naive knits and stretch stovepipe pants. Draw out pounds 100 and buy your winter wardrobe here in total. Finally, French Connection has taken all the difficult bits - knitwear, tailored tweed flares and bead-encrusted A-line skirts - and brought luxury to the high street for cheap.

Address book

Top Shop (tel: 0800 731 8284)

Karen Millen (tel: 01622 664032)

Jigsaw (tel: 0171 491 4484)

Zara (tel: 0171 534 9500

H&M (tel: 0171 323 2211)

French Connection (tel: 0171 399 7200)

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