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Cheap chic to couture

September 30, 2007|Booth Moore

TOPSHOP, the cheap chic epicenter, has some new competition: Primark, the cheaper chic mega-store that's taking the town by storm. A subsidiary of Associated British Foods, Primark has opened 170 stores in the United Kingdom, Ireland and Spain over the past few years, but the crown jewel is the Oxford Street store that opened in April.

At 70,000 square feet, the place is Wal-Mart big. And if you thought Topshop was the seventh circle of hell, you haven't seen anything until you've been here, where there's an entire staff employed to pick up discarded shoes and shirts, and shoppers are practically stripping naked in the aisles to try things on.

The company is a member of something called the Ethical Trading Initiative, and maybe that soothed concerns about the provenance of $12 empire-waist tops and $16 peasant dresses. In the jacket section, everyone was fighting for an inch of space in front of the mirror, snatching up pieces such as a $40 metallic silver linen princess coat. Upstairs, the scrum was over jewelry, housewares and men's goods.

Then I saw the shoes: $8 ballet flats in a rainbow of colors and boots for $24. I gave in and bought a weathered gray, mid-calf style with lacing in back.

"I want everything!" I overheard a pair of American teenagers cooing. But the place was packed with all ages.

The other big shopping news here is COS, or Collection of Style, a new offshoot of the H&M chain that has opened its first branch on Regent Street. The clothes are neutral basics -- cotton tunics, dresses, blazers and khakis -- in contemporary cuts, so the jackets are boxy and the trousers skinny. My favorite piece was a Marni-like navy blue sack dress for about $200. The d├ęcor is so minimalist it would be a snooze if not for the cheeky customer service messages. When you walk in the front door, a sign reads: "Stop! If you're male, you may want to turn left."

On the cultural radar, the Victoria & Albert Museum's new fashion exhibit "The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947-57" is fantastic. Beginning with Dior's New Look, the show features dozens of spectacular ensembles by French couturiers such as Balenciaga, Chanel and Balmain, and their English counterparts such as master tailor Hardy Amies. The exhibit, which is on until Jan. 6, explains the production of couture in depth, with lots of archival footage of designers at work and models strutting their stuff.

And as always, the V&A makes the most of the museum shopping experience too. Besides books, vintage baubles and a CD of music inspired by the time period, several garments from the exhibit have been reinterpreted and are for sale, such as an embroidered powder pink circle skirt inspired by a 1955 gown by Worth. It's about $280 -- much cheaper than the original, but nothing compared with Primark.

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