There are stores, and there are stores, of course. But many of them, in the face of growing high street competition, have had to rethink their image - often quite drastically. Spacious, contemporary interiors provide the backdrop to the must-have, big name brands and hot designer labels - blue-rinse Mrs Slocombe they ain't. And compared to the frenetic throb of the fashion chain shop, they can be cool, quiet and peaceful.
So, at the risk of disturbing the calm of one of my favourite London stores by introducing it to an, as yet, uninitiated public, I can submit another good reason to go store-shopping. House of Fraser, with branches all over the country including its flagship store Dickins & Jones in Regent Street, has just unveiled its new own-label collection, with the Euro-trendy monicker, Linea.
Now, sharp and eagle-eyed fashion watchers will know that this is not the first time that House of Fraser has launched an in store-range (and they're certainly not the only department store group to do their own thing). And they still have a classics line called The Collection. But it is the first time they've done it so purposefully. Linea has its own design team of experienced specialists, who've worked with the stores' buying teams to put together a comprehensive wardrobe - one for women and one for men.
Each has its own dedicated area in the stores, with special carpeting (a cool sage green), unfussy modern rails and frosted glass to mark it out from other brands. And the clothes themselves are desirable. Not knock- your-socks-off, school of Versace glitz (although there are some glam things coming up for Christmas), but the sort of clothes that your average 25- to 45-year-old career person would probably be happy to wear for work, the pub/restaurant after work and at the weekend.
The designers are in tune with the important autumn trends and while sensibly steering clear of the excessive possibilities (no Union Flag vests, ponchos or feather-trimmed cardigans I'm afraid) they have made pretty bold with the colour palette and embraced enthusiastically the whole masculine/feminine tailoring thing. I found myself drawn to a chocolate pinstriped ultra-long line jacket with slim pants (or perhaps the long skirt) and then was torn between an orange, lime or purple stretchy top. Perhaps all three?
Prices are pitched a tad above high street, but well below designer level (tailored jackets, for instance, are between pounds 90 and pounds 140). And aside from the seasonally shifting shades, particularly for tops and accessories, the key pieces, like suits, are of the non-scary, less-likely-to-date- in-a-month variety. The quality is there for those who care about nice fabrics and insist that hemlines should be even and stripes match up.
"These are clothes that wont upstage the wearer," says House of Fraser's marketing spokesperson Meg Gilmore. But to make sure that regular customers don't get bored, they're wisely refreshing the stock every month or so with new colours, styles and fabrics. In the months leading up to Christmas there will be a particularly lush, crush velvet trouser suit in royal purple, as well as a Chinese-style gold and black brocade dress. To follow on from the lighter crepe tunic tops and pants and fine wool suits (some with shift dresses as an option) there will also be nubbly tweeds and cuddly chenille knits.
While the emphasis for women is on more formal clothes, customer research has led House of Fraser to centre the men's collection on casualwear, including a great choice of well-priced leather jackets. The smaller line of tailoring, though, stands up well against other brand competition with darkly urban, four-button suits (costing around pounds 160) and lots of loud shirts and even louder ties. If you're in Dickins & Jones, head for the basement, boysn