CHIC TO BE A CHEAPSKATE; Loving Labels Is So Last Season. Today's Style Queens Are More Likely to Be Found in Primark Than Prada

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Byline: SARAH MOWER

ALLOW me a small boast. Last autumn, on these pages, I believe I was one of the first to notice the beginning of a national trend that, six months later, is rocking the high street, department stores and designer boutiques to their very foundations. I call it "cheapskating". It involves careering around shops and plunging into areas of supermarkets you'd never thought possible, only to surface, 20 minutes later, five brilliant fashion purchases up, [pounds sterling]22 down, and tingling with adrenaline.

That was my score last week at Primark in King Street, Hammersmith, an emporium to which my 11-year-old daughter alerted me. (And me, a former Prada addict!) I've learned since that you need Primark skills: get there when it opens, when everything is freshly stocked. Within an hour, the place is packed. By four o'clock, it's buzzing with cool girls from St Paul's, Latimer and every other school in the borough. By closing time, it's ransacked.

You need your chav radar up, too. There are plenty of baby-pink velour sweatsuits, but they're easily overlooked once you've locked onto the things Primark is excellent at: printed skirts, shoes, underwear and, recently, Marc Jacobs lookie-likey jackets and a cute bag at a mad [pounds sterling]2.

Part of the secret is that someone behind the scenes has a great eye for fashion and a knack for choosing spot-on colour that throws places like Gap and M&S into the shade. I shop there not because of the rock-bottom prices, but because often I actively prefer the stuff to what other stores, including my once-beloved Selfridges, are putting out. (Did the whole store last week; couldn't find a thing I liked.) And I'm not the only one. A TNS FashionTrak survey reported last week that well-off customers bought 4.8 million more bargains last season, while fashion and department stores saw an eight per cent fall.

However, the phenomenon of cheapskating has only been able to take off because, while prices have been plummeting at the likes of Primark, Tesco, New Look and TK Maxx, the design content has zoomed upward.

So cheapskating now has its own thrills and skills.

Practice, though, makes you start thinking further about the real meaning of value. Sure, it gave me a kick to see Kate Moss wearing the identical pair of black H&M drainpipe jeans by Karl Lagerfeld ([pounds sterling]29.99) that I scored last summer. I wear mine all the time, but the catch is that other KL stuff I bought in the same sweep is still in a bag somewhere. Not quite right.

Couldn't be bothered to take back. Moral: it's as easy to throw money away on cheap mistakes as it is on designer gear.

There's another "value" question that no intelligent, person can avoid: how are these prices achieved? It only takes a flicker of conscience to conjure up images of children going blind sewing sequins onto glittery tops. Is the money we're saving being paid for by poverty-stricken workers in places we've scarcely heard of ?

The trouble is none of the discount traders and supermarkets is doing much to reassure customers their practices are clean and above board. It makes me uneasy. Which is why I was so delighted to spot what I hope is the beginning of the next wave on the horizon.

It's an ultra-cool, very cheap LA label called American Apparel whose guarantee, Sweatshop Free, is emblazoned on the walls of its Carnaby Street shop.

That squares the moral circle in a trailblazing way, I think. …