Merc, Rolex, champers, truffles - you've never had it so cheap

Loadsamoney would be livid. Kathy Marks on the status symbols Britons are buying for a snip
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The Independent Online
Exclusivity has never been so accessible. For those born without a silver spoon in their mouths, the trappings of affluence and good breeding can now be acquired at a price within the reach of most ordinary mortals.

Designer clothes, gourmet foods and prestige cars are no longer the sole preserve of the well-heeled. Upwardly mobile consumers whose incomes once failed to match their aspirations can buy a slice, albeit a small one, of the high life.

A bottle of champagne can be had for under a tenner. A fortnight in the Caribbean costs only pounds 500. And for less than pounds 10,000, you can have a 1970s Rolls-Royce parked in the drive.

Market forces, as ever, are the main impetus behind the popularisation of goods and services that used to be emblems of elitism, and the inexorable ascent of sterling in recent months has made imported luxuries more affordable than ever.

Lovers of French food and wines in particular are benefiting from the strength of the pound. The increased spending power of importers is enabling middle-class hostesses to serve up delicacies such as truffles and foie gras at summer garden parties.

At Selfridges food hall in London, prices have been cut on the Fauchon range of upmarket French products, such as walnut oil and pears in liqueur. Cheeses, too, are on special offer. At supermarkets across the country, foods once regarded as exotic - mangoes, kiwis and Shitake mushrooms for instance - have become almost as ubiquitous as apples and oranges.

Lobster, the delight of diners, is at bargain prices too. Last week a special offer lobster and chips dinner for pounds 8.50 was a complete sell-out at Zilli Fish, a new restaurant in London's West End, while other restaurateurs have been offering the crustacean in fixed price meals.

A strong pound and recession on the Continent - which traditionally takes most of the British catch - has caused a slump in prices which many restaurants have been quick to capitalise on.

Champagne, meanwhile, is no longer confined to wedding receptions and Wimbledon hospitality tents. Sainsbury recently reduced its own label Blanc de Noir from pounds 11.99 to pounds 9.99, as well as cutting Chablis wine to pounds 5.95 a bottle and Sancerre to pounds 6.95.

Prices of the fizzy nectar were tumbling even without the help of favourable exchange rates, as a result of a price war between the major supermarket chains. Tesco discounted its champagnes by 10 per cent earlier this summer, and Co-op cut the price of a bottle of Moet to just pounds 14.99. French champagne makers, anxious to protect the special cachet of their product, are infuriated by this turn of events. Champagne, they say, is being peddled like "cheap washing-up liquid".

This is the same complaint heard from the big perfume houses, which claim that discounting cheapens their carefully nurtured image. The result is that just about anyone can now afford to drench themselves in fine fragrances. A 50ml bottle of Dolce and Gabbana eau de toilette costs just pounds 26.95 at Tesco, compared to pounds 37 in department stores.

The rise of sterling has not led to cheaper price tags on imported designer fashions and accessories. This is not just because prices are set six months in advance. As a Selfridges spokeswoman explained: "Luxury premium brands are sold at a premium rate in order to preserve their aspirational qualities. People are paying to be part of a lifestyle concept, and it is the brand image that dictates the price."

Notwithstanding such ephemeral arguments, it has never been easier to flaunt a designer label. The proliferation of "diffusion" ranges - secondary, cheaper lines of famous designers - has brought labels within the price range of many consumers.

An array of once potent status symbols is now affordable for people with ordinary incomes. Fancy a Rolex? A new Air-King model will set you back pounds 1,400, but second-hand can be picked up for pounds 275 - and who's to know the difference? A gold bracelet? Cheaper than ever after gold prices plunged to their lowest level in 12 years last month. A second home in France? More feasible than ever, thanks to the strong pound.

Time was when a Mercedes or BMW badge reflected wealth and social class. But now, bothfirms have designed cars - the Mercedes A class and BMW Compact - that cost around pounds 13,000, similar to the price of a new Golf or Fiesta. Mercedes is working on a two-seater that could cost as little as pounds 10,000, and even Jaguar plans to launch a "people's car" that will retail at under pounds 20,000.

Exotic travel, too, has lost its glamorous image. With a growing demand for long-haul holidays, charter flights are now available to destinations as varied as the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Costa Rica, Mexico, Jamaica and Goa.

"The average millionaire," wrote George Orwell in Down and Out in Paris and London, "is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit." Now, almost anyone can afford the new suit, and all the other icons of affluence.

Additional reporting by Louise Jury