London’s Shopping Secrets

Along with Paris and New York, London boasts the best shopping in the civilised world.  Our main shopping meccas of Bond Street in London’s West End and Sloane Street in Knightsbridge have every designer boutique you’ve ever heard of – and some you haven’t.

But there is another shopper’s London, a secret London, that only a handful of women who live in the city know about. These woman know the places to find designers you won’t see in the shops.  They know about the sales the public simply don’t know about, and you’ll find them snapping up sales bargains in the regular stores weeks before the sales are even announced.  So where do these women get their information, and how can you be as clued up as they are?

The secret to this hidden side of London lies in networking. Women who enjoy fashion tend to gravitate towards each other and they share their knowledge with the friends they trust.

Take the Hermes sale for instance. Hermes who make the legendary Birkin bag sported by Victoria Beckham, is so exclusive, they do not put their goods on sale with all the other shops.  Instead they hold a sale once a year in a building tucked away a little alleyway, Molton Lane, right behind Bond Street.  So how do you get into this sale when its not even announced in the Hermes shop? One way is to buy something in an Hermes store. You don’t have to blow a fortune on the latest must- have handbag.  You can invest in something small like a tie for the man in your life or an exclusive piece of bone china with the distinctive Hermes design on it.  Then all you have to do is to ask to be put on the mailing list and next time the store is holding their sale, you (as a loyal shopper) will get one of the prized invitations. Occasionally, Hermes will take a small ad in the London Evening paper and announce the sale a day or so beforehand, but even the most dedicated shopper needs a bit of warning before she sets off.

So is the effort of putting yourself on Hermes list worth it?  As someone who goes there once a year, I can tell you it most definitely is. Their fabulously expensive clothes are under half the price and look the business. Though be sure to get there early on the first morning, as there are only one or two sizes of each style.

Other legendary sales in London are Donna Karen, Wardrobe, Ralph Lauren and Celine.

These top designer boutiques have their latest collections on sale weeks before the official sale is announced.  This is so that their favoured customers have first pick of the bargains. However, by law they cannot refuse the sale price to anyone who comes into the store and asks.  Last Christmas I had the run of the Donna Karen boutique in Harvey Nicholls, where everything was half price.  Nobody knew the sale was supposed to be on, as there was no announcement and the sales tickets still showed the full price. As a result, the department was deserted…except for me. Imagine spending an entire afternoon trawling through Donna’s fabulous collection, with two or three sales assistants at your beck and call, knowing that everything was at an affordable price, and nobody else was there to snatch it out of your hands!!

Seasoned shoppers know the best time to hunt for bargains is late November and early June.  If there has been an unseasonably warm winter or a cold rainy summer, then you can try your luck earlier than that. Another trick is to cultivate the sales assistants at your favourite store.  A few weeks before the sale goes public, you ask your new friend, the sales girl, to tell you the date of the preview, then a day or so before, you let her have your credit card details plus the details of the item you are after.  Chances are the assistant will put the item away for you, then the minute the sale preview starts, the item is yours.

However better than bagging a bargain in a sale, is to lay hands on a designer that nobody else knows about. There are a handful of private sales on in London that only the cognescenti know about. Ironically all these sales have websites, but there are hundreds of different designer sales on-line and unless you know which name you are looking for you will get nowhere.

One of the better ones is run by Louise Fennell, wife of Theo Fennell, the celebrity jewellery designer, and a novelist when she has the time between sales.  Louise offers an eclectic mix of designer items you will not find on the high street, and the women who frequent this sale are Chelsea socialites, looking for extravagant party dresses and yummy mummies who form the bulk of Louise’s friends. The way to get included in this sale is to know Louise and get on her mailing list. However,now you know her name, you can google her sale before coming to London, and if you’re lucky, Louise’s sale date will co-incide with your visit.  She has several sales a year so the chances of catching one are reasonably good.

Another private sale, The British Designers Sale, makes an appearance in Chelsea Town Hall in London’s Kings Road, regularly once a month. Here you will find original samples from top English designers like Vivienne Westwood, as well as international names like Prada, Armani, Missoni and Jimmy Choo. These are the clothes the designers found too difficult to manufacture, or even just too complicated to make for the mass market. Some of the things you will find here are quirky, some are frankly unwearable, but there are also hidden gems at a fraction of the price you will find – even at the sales.  Last winter, when everyone was lusting after a fur gilet costing anything up to £1000, I found a beauty from top British designer, Edina Ronay, at this sale for a mere £70.  The sale lasts for three or four days, often with a men’s sale following it.  My husband found a beautiful pair of Gucci shoes at the Men’s designer sale for around £60, two years ago, which he still wears.

However the trick with this sale is to get in on the preview, which is held during the evening before the main sale.  The preview is by invitation only, but people have been known to talk their way in by saying they are meeting a friend or know the owner, Debbie Hodges.  Debbie, a petite blonde dynamo is a former fashion PR, who came up with the idea for the sale at the end of the 80s when designer labels were at a premium.  Her sale which went on only twice a year, started in a tiny office in Soho, but word of mouth from bargain hungry fashionistas made it grow over the years to the size it is now. If you take in only one of the British Designer sales, the best deals are to be found in her end of summer bargain basement sale.  Here there are items for as little as £10, and she even has furs on offer.

If you are not looking for a designer bargain, but want something beautiful and expensive that nobody else has, there are one or two fashion consultants in London who work only with private clients.  I was taken into a salon owned by a French fashion maven who specialised in glamorous evening dresses.  Her dresses were one-offs from all the major Italian and French fashion houses.  All top designers make a few models to be used on   fashion shoots for Vogue and the glossy European fashion magazines — the kind of gowns you would find at the Cannes Film Festival or Embassy balls.

I had nothing important enough coming up to justify such an extravagance, however a friend of mine who was going to a high end wedding decided she would treat herself.  After a spending an entire afternoon trying on some of the most exquisite gowns she had ever seen, she finally forked out over £3000 for a stunning Versace number.  A week after she got it home and was planning her accessories, she got a call from the French fashion maven who sold it to her.  She wanted to know if she could borrow the dress back to use in a fashion shoot for Italian Vogue.  Having just shelled out three grand, my friend was justifiably indignant and refused on the grounds that the dress could get damaged or marked by one of the models or an over enthusiastic photographer.  There followed a rather bad tempered exchange between the buyer and the seller, with the seller expressing her disappointment.  Needless to say, my friend never bought another dress from the salon, but she certainly had an experience no other shopper could boast of….and she was the envy of her friends at the wedding.

Another indulgent private source is a collection sold by an Italian fashionista, Donatella Signorini, who dresses fellow countrywoman, Nancy Del Olio.  Her clients are a cross section of high earning women, pampered wives and women in the public eye. This woman, Donna to her friends, has a new collection every season of the kind of clothes you would expect to find on the backs of very chic Romans and Milanese.  Donna has been seeing her clientele in her elegant apartment in Kensington for the past twenty years and her secret is that you will not find her designer clothes anywhere else in London.  Everything in this collection is from Italian designers who mostly sell in their home country.  As you would expect, the clothes in her collection are made of the finest materials – leather hand-tooled in Italy, silk jersey in colours you would never find anywhere but Italy, fabrics with stretch in them for the perfect fit.

Naturally, Donna’s clients are frequently asked where they get their sensational wardrobes, but her clientele keep their mouths firmly shut. They don’t want their girlfriends to turn up wearing her dresses at the parties they go to. However Donna does have a website these days, so now you know her name, you can find her, make an appointment (she sees customers on a one to one basis) and discover her fabulous collection for yourself.

As for the fashion maven with the exclusive evening dresses, her identity will have to remain a secret.  She only deals with an exclusive circle of women who can pay her prices and keep their mouths shut. So there is only one thing left for the girl who has everything, but wants a bit more;   hire a private detective to root out her whereabouts. Or take a trip to Bond Street accompanied by a personal shopper. Happy hunting.