Carola Long: A winning formula: flattering, chic and cheap

The designs at Zara appeal to women of all ages, tend to be flattering, and are also smart enough to be worn in the office

There are numerous high street stores offering affordable takes on catwalk looks, so what makes Zara stand out from the crowd? The key to the Spanish giant's appeal is that its clothes and accessories are sufficiently fashionable and well-made to impress people who know the season's key trends inside out, and that includes even fashion industry insiders.

Last Milan Fashion Week, faced with the the bi-annual pressure to look au courant while attending the shows alongside the likes of the impossibly cool, Balenciaga-clad staff of French Vogue, we made our regular between-shows dash to Zara to supplement our wardrobes with some cheap chic.

Whether it's a floor-grazing maxiskirt or some killer heels, Zara always delivers. Mixed in with designer pieces, Zara can pass for much more expensive than it really is, and that "high-low" mix is popular with all but the loftiest of fashion editors.

Much of the chain's skill is in which trends and catwalk looks it chooses to pay homage to. It tends to bypass anything particularly outré in favour of grown-up looking, wearable clothes. Last autumn/winter it hit all the right notes by picking up on the pared-down tailoring seen at Chloe, Celine and Stella McCartney. Also in the mix were lashings of leopard-print, to add sex appeal, and red, the sleeper hit of the season.

The prices are reasonable at about £50 for a dress and £100 for a winter coat, but the clothes are not so cheap that they will not survive more than a few wears. The stock within the store also changes fast enough to keep pace with consumers' insatiable appetites for new trends, and the brand has a rapid turnaround from factory to shop floor.

Another reason for Zara's popularity is that the chain's designs appeal to women of all ages. It recognises that older age groups are often just as interested in fashion, but usually less inclined to wear overly revealing or novelty-driven clothes, and Zara's designs tend to be flattering. Many of the clothes are also smart enough to be worn to the office.

The brand recently launched a transactional website, the design of which reflects the tone of the stores – light, functional and minimal. Inside the shops, there's no superfluous branding or tacky in-store promotions to distract from the main event, which is, of course, the joy of fashion.