Grace Howard

Copywriter and occasional freelance journalist, specialising in the fashion sector.

Cheap Thrills: The High Street Buys I Just Can't Quit

Cheap Thrills: The High Street Buys I Just Can't Quit

Let’s throw it back to a family holiday in Spain. Everyone else is drinking tinto de verano and playing cards on the patio, while I am alone indoors, grappling with my phone. I say ‘grappling’ because it is 2011, I am 17, I still have a pay-as-you-go phone – one with buttons and a VGA camera – and I can only connect to the internet via something called ‘GPRS’. Data roaming charges mean that I need to top my phone up in £5 increments every 10 minutes. I’ve told my parents that I’m embroiled in a very important SMS conversation with my boyfriend, so they’ve finally left me alone. The truth is decidedly more pathetic: said boyfriend has cheated on me multiple times while on his own holiday (at least that’s what a mutual friend told me, but I can’t confirm or deny it because he’s ignoring my text messages), so I’m actually just very single and gawping at the Zara website, trying to buy a leather jacket that has just come back in stock online, as I sweat profusely in 35-degree heat. Welcome to my world.

From the ages of 14 to 18, most of my weekends were spent washing up for the minimum wage so I could buy all of the high street clothes that I liked. Before going to Spain and buying the leather jacket, I’d spent ages saving up my paltry wages in order to afford it. At school I would buy bread rolls for lunch, squirrelling away any money I’d saved so, a few weeks later, I could treat myself in the local shopping centre (sorry, Mum) or online, logging into the school computers during free periods. I remember my first lunch-money-funded high street buy, circa 2009: a rose-print lantern skirt from Topshop.

I can map the trajectory of my adolescence not only by the moments that made it, but also by the cheap, much-toiled-for clothes that coloured it. I’ve fond memories of the painterly print Topshop skirt that I wore to my first gig – it was poorly constructed and a couple of sizes too small, but it was also so me that I was happy to occasionally sew up the burst side seams. There are other pieces that deserve a mention: the semi-sheer Zara blouse that I paired with denim cut-offs to channel Alexa Chung; the navy, nautical-themed Urban Outfitters dress that I wore on a date with a guy I fancied so much that I couldn’t talk to him; the low-back ASOS bodycon number that was best accessorised with fake ID and heavy make-up; the huge Topshop cossack hat that I tragically left on the train after drinking too much glogg at a Christmas market; the chunky H&M flatforms that were so impractical that they actually broke my ankle; the Primark floral tea dress that I fancied myself as Kate Nash in. I could go on.

Over the last few years, I’ve become a smarter shopper and tried to distance myself from the high street because I’ve written a lot (and read even more) about the often-harsh reality of cheap clothes. I understand, then, that fast fashion is a false economy; as well as being associated with the underpayment and gross exploitation of overseas workers, the clothes are often poorly made in cheap fabrics. Indeed, many of my high street buys have faded within a few washes, or fallen apart because of their poor composition. Karma, perhaps? But others have stayed strong. Despite it being covered in now-passé gold studs, I still wear the Zara leather jacket. And the painterly print Topshop skirt? I’m strangely sentimental about it, so I’m still caught up in that cycle of sewing up the seams and wearing it out in public. I actually wore it to a wedding last year and was complimented on it. Not bad for something that cost me £20 about ten years ago.

So, while I’d like to say my taste for cheap thrills has soured as I’ve matured, it’s still a bit of a grey area. For every sensible purchase I make, I inevitably succumb to the allure of my ASOS wishlist after a few glasses of wine. Earlier this year, I indulged in a Shrimps coat, my first ever luxury purchase. After years of lusting after one, it felt like a small victory to have it in my hands – but, like many of us, I prefer getting more for my money. While tapping out my card details, I wistfully thought that, for the same amount of money, I could buy about 10 fabulous tops.

I recently found myself running around Zara in a state of panic, having found a single £7 silver ankle boot (or ‘essential disco boot,’ as I dubbed it) in the sale, with its partner nowhere in sight. If I wasn’t about to miss my tram home, I would have stayed in the store until I found it, harassed a few sales associates, and possibly started to accuse other shoppers of being sly and hiding the offending boot (please tell me I’m not alone in my psychotic shopping quirks?). There was also an occasion wherein I forced my long-suffering grandmother to visit all of the Zara stores in southern Spain to track down a pair of leopard-print ponyskin ankle boots that had seemingly sold out everywhere else. What can I say? I’m just looking out for a good bargain.

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