It was sometime around 2008, just before the first credit crunch began to bite, that the UK high street began to seriously rock. Chains like River Island, Warehouse, Oasis, H&M with their guest collections, and Debenhams with their "Designers For..." collections, all began to up their game in response, some would argue, to the challenge of Primark. The high street was transformed from "meh" to must-go.
The Irish-owned budget chain, which crept quietly on to the high street to become a seemingly overnight phenomenon, pulled off the genius trick of catching trends and churning out copies - sometimes astonishingly good and sometimes truly horrid - that left breathless even those who had honed the rip-off concept. The UK's love affair with Primark has definitely cooled, but its legacy - a high street that produces brilliant, directional pieces that are often indistinguishable from a designer original - remains.
This is especially true of Spanish chain Zara, which can be relied on to work the season's strongest trends in good fabrics and great colours at good prices. For spring, that includes their hallmark pared-down, deliciously grown-up pieces like tuxedo jackets with contrast collars, cocoon skirts in bright hues worn with clashing, slash-neck tops, silky slouch tops in vertical colour blocks and understated linen coats.
Home-grown chain Oasis - founded by Bennett brothers Michael and Maurice, now owned by Aurora Fashions - has an especially covetable collection for spring 2012, featuring the season's favourite pastels and sorbet colours, plain or blended in exclusive prints designed by an in-house fabric designer. There are lace pencil skirts, sweetly retro sundresses, brilliantly wearable shift dresses, some with peplums, textured linen cocoon skirts, sheer mid-calf midi skirts and ankle-skimming pastel jeans.
Sister brand Warehouse also offers directional and wearable pieces for spring, like scarf-print tops, mixed print shift dresses and shirts, flower-print trousers, lace pencil skirts with toning cotton knit jumpers, and little dresses with Prada-esque appliqué lace.
Reiss is another high street brand punching well above its price tag for spring 2012. They, too, have an in-house print designer who has created sweet, original florals and abstracts which have been crafted into infinitely wearable little tops, midi and cocoon skirts, placement print shirts, shapely, bracelet sleeve shifts and collarless shirt dresses. Alongside prints, are lace pencil skirts, dip-dyed maxi skirts, ankle-skimming trousers and an infinite number of beautifully tailored blazers and tuxedo jackets.
Debenhams "Designers For..." and "Editions" collections are very strong for spring. Naturally, print features strongly, with J by Jasper Conran's fluid, silky pencil skirt in lime, navy and white, Rocha - John Rocha's placement print shift - and a purple-and-lime print frock from Betty Jackson Black, all brilliantly wearable. A Preen Edition floral and polka dot print used for ankle-skimming trousers, contrast-trim shirt, and a scoop-neck shift, looks seriously pricey and on-trend, while a belted, colour-block crepe dress in red and purple is a stand-out piece from Roksanda Ilincic's Roksanda Edition collection.
River Island, now headed by Ben Lewis, son of late Isrotel boss David, is dazzlingly on-trend for spring. Unlike most of the high street, which is wooing a slightly older demographic for its greater spending power, River Island's collections are frankly aimed at under 30s. This policy puts designer lookalike pieces like mixed-print, '70s trouser-suits, disco-inspired gold-trimmed bra-top-and-skirt ensembles, and sports luxe pieces, within the range of junior style hunters on lower budgets. If you are outside the demographic, River Island is still brilliant for sleek tops, great knits, and stunning shoes and bags.
Which brings us to M&S. Now almost two years into the tenure of Marc Bolland, little has changed in its fashion offering, some of which still resembles C&A's Clockhouse in its dying days. But then not much will change until someone in their glossy Paddington Basin HQ realises that the former fashion queen of Asda, with questionable taste and a take-it-or-leave-it policy of producing key styles in a single colour, may not be the style saviour for M&S. For spring, amid a sea of nasty colours and fabrics, are a few gems worth truffling out, including placement print shifts and pencil skirts, print dresses and a sweet, cat-print blouse.