Samuel Johnson might have said,"If you are tired of London, you are tired of life." His exact words should have been,"If you are tired of shopping in London, you are tired of shopping."I am never tired of shopping, especially in London. Its retail landscape reflects the town as a whole: sprawling, hard to pin down, alternately proper and profane, and above all tolerant—freewheeling enough to accommodate the tastes of everyone from Miss Marple to Marianne Faithfull to Kate Moss. My earliest London memories are of gazing upon Aubrey Beardsley-esque gowns at the long-vanished Biba and wondering whether buying a parasol at Fortnum & Mason would make me feel like Virginia Woolf. (The first thing I actually purchased was a wool turtleneck from Marks & Spencer, London's July weather having taken me by surprise.) I may no longer rush to the market stalls of Camden Town, but some things haven't changed. I am still besotted with British fashion, though my definition of classic has expanded to include a velvet cape from Georgina von Etzdorf and a pair of hand-painted Georgina Goodman stilettos. Here, then, some of the very best London has to offer.
ALL-STARS These designers represent London's world-class style at its eccentric, individualistic best.
Vivienne Westwood (44 Conduit St.; 44-207/439-1109) is indisputably the high priestess of English couture, and although she now distances herself from her punk roots, she still evinces an affection for renegade classics: kilts and tartan purses. Her more recent obsession with the 18th century accounts for her toile corset tops and skirts that pouf out as if underpinned by a gentle bustle.
Ghost (36 Ledbury Rd.; 44-207/229-1057), designed by Tanya Sarne, specializes in languid styles, often cut on the bias, rendered in velvet or rayon for a Stevie Nicks meets Jean Harlow look.
The staid house of Pringle (142 Sloane St.; 44-207/881-3060) has undergone a startling renovation, with its pink-and-black argyle now set to rival Burberry's beige plaid. The trademark diamond pattern shows up on everything from shrunken cardigans ($540) to a surprising take on that British staple, the mackintosh.
Allegra Hicks (28 Cadogan Place; 44-207/235-3322) is the go-to spot for the haut bourgeois with hippie leanings. A tissue-thin silk chiffon caftan in one of Hicks's signature prints—dripping teardrops, flowers with elongated stems—sells for about $550; matching pillows ($175 each), to throw on a terrazzo floor, are essential accessories.
The utterly unique, heavily embroidered velvet vests and waistcoats at Favourbrook (11 Pont St.; 44-207/259-5966) are intended for latter-day Edith Whartons: they cry out for a pair of plain black pants or a long black skirt, rendering them ready for a party in Essex or Kent.
Stella McCartney's strict vegetarian principles don't allow her to use leather or suede, but that hasn't prevented her from becoming the darling of the fashion set. Tables in her flagship boutique (30 Bruton St.; 44-207/518-3100) hold fetching Ultrasuede purses and alluring, if synthetic, sky-high stilettos.
Matthew Williamson's shop (28 Bruton St.; 44-207/629-6200), just down the way from Stella's, is a riot of color: the mood is English Arts and Crafts run rampant, with a Buddha thrown in for good measure. A floaty chiffon dress ($1,500) in a vibrant peacock print sprinkled with tiny rose sequins is made for red-carpet entrances.
The masterful Alexander McQueen (4-5 Old Bond St.; 44-207/355-0088) is not for the timid or impecunious. His dramatic black leathers and artfully shredded pale silks are perfectly at home in his boutique's Sputnik-like space-pod interior.
ACHINGLY HIP Rap lyrics blare at the Pineal Eye (49 Broadwick St.; 44-207/434-2567); there's a rack of little magazines with names like Save Me from What I Want; and the staff has better things to do than chat you up. Despite all that, the place bursts with clever duds: a gray muffler is wittily enhanced with multi-colored plastic hangtags; a ragged-sleeved Bernhard Wilhelm sweatshirt is adorned with pictures of Rollerblades and trimmed with real shoelaces (in fuchsia).
On the same block, the slick Michiko Koshino (59 Broadwick St.; 44-207/434-3686) relies on reflective material and bandages for its fashion-forward pieces: T-shirts festooned with hibiscus blossoms; floral motorcyle helmets; and tank tops featuring sinister-looking babies ($75).
Located just off Portobello Road, under a highway overpass where aspiring designers and vintage dealers set up stalls on Thursdays and Saturdays, Preen (5 Portobello Green; 44-208/968-1542) straddles the worlds of the street and the upscale runway. Recent collections have featured puffy drop-waisted velvet skirts and deconstructed patched and puckered khaki minis ($400).
On Fridays and Sundays, youthful designers sell their wares at Spitalfields Market (Commercial St. between Lamb and Brushfield Sts.; 44-207/247-8556) in fashionable East London. The clothes are accomplished, running the gamut from amusingly deconstructed tees to remastered vintage clothes.
ENGLISH ECLECTIC The Cross (141 Portland Rd.; 44-207/727-6760), right next to the popular Julie's Wine Bar in Holland Park, has made its reputation with an artful mix of cutting-edge brands. You'll find an exquisite, delicately sequined cardigan by Jane Wheeler ($700) and cashmere stocking caps in cherry or plum.
Every major European label has been carried at one time or another by Browns (23-27 S. Molton St.; 44-207/514-0000), and in many cases Browns was the first to carry it. The gang's all here, from Marni to Missoni, along with younger English labels like Megan Park and Jessica Ogden. Make sure you stop in at Browns Labels for Less (50 S. Molton St.; 44-207/514-0052), where leftover Comme des Garçons creations for as much as 90 percent off have been spotted.
HIGH-END VINTAGE My heart quickens whenever I visit Virginia (98 Portland Rd.; 44-207/727-9908), a vintage clothing shop in Holland Park. And I am not alone in my bedazzlement—John Galliano and a roster of actresses and models also rely on Virginia's practiced eye. The shop, a fantasia of silk and satin, looks like the bedroom of a princess; the lower level, with bowers of lace everywhere, is full of heavily embroidered lingerie, fragile camisoles, and gossamer tea dresses.
One hundred years of fashion fill Steinberg and Tolkien (193 King's Rd.; 44-207/376-3660), so that along with the Clara Bow-worthy frocks and broad-shouldered 1940's-style suits, you might just turn up a Mary Quant mini or rare 1970's Ossie Clark ensemble. (His recent retrospective at the Victoria & Albert was a huge smash.)
FAB FOOTWEAR The London shoe scene doesn't begin and end with Jimmy Choo. At Emma Hope (53 Sloane Square; 44-207/259-9566), kitten-heeled court pumps ($550) come in a wide range of hues and fabrics (velvet, brocade, suede); perhaps the most fetching is a muted gray-beige, the color of a Cotswold Hills cottage.
The floral Wellingtons match the ultra-feminine wallpaper at Poste Mistress (61-63 Monmouth St.; 44-207/379-4040); if those don't suit, there are also silver Birkenstocks, cleft-toed sneakers, and Pucci-print stilettos.
Don't be intimidated by the lack of signage at the Old Curiosity Shop (13-14 Portsmouth St.; 44-207/405-9891); a gentle knock will gain you entrance to the building said to have inspired Dickens's tale. Daita Kimura, a young Japanese cobbler, has taken over the low-ceilinged premises; among his creations are rough-hewn wide-toed pumps ($300) and elfish, orange-suede boots that are a brilliant mélange of 18th-century shoemaking and avant-garde style.
The sales staff at Georgina Goodman (12-14 Shepherd St.; 44-207/499-8599) in Mayfair describe their shoes as"couture semi-bespoke,"by which they mean made to measure and crafted from a single piece of buttery leather. Select from 20 different styles and a myriad of colors and decorations—my preference was for buff ballet flats ($1,000) hand-painted with uneven black stripes."Most people spend about two hours making their selections,"said a patient clerk. There's also a ready-to-wear line from about $350.
HANDBAGS Anya Hindmarch (15-17 Pont St.; 44-207/501-0177) is renowned for her photo-printed bags, which last winter featured a vintage picture of a family of skiers wearing bathing suits. The shop also offers a bespoke service: you supply the photo, they create a highly personal evening bag, tote, or even Rollaboard (from $800).
In lieu of a carpet, visitors tread on vintage pages of French Vogue preserved under clear plastic at Lulu Guinness (3 Ellis St.; 44-207/823-4828), who first made a splash with her whimsical flowerpot bag (the blossom-bedecked lid lifts off). Other favorites include a bag shaped like the Guinness shop itself and a Dial M for Murder tote that recalls a rotary phone.
If that's a bit jeune fille for your taste, the 150-year-old house of Tanner Krolle (5 Sloane St.; 44-207/823-1688) offers sophisticated but completely unstuffy purses. A pink calfskin satchel ($700) has a silver snaffle bit and a brilliant red lining; if you have to have it in, say, sky blue crocodile, a bespoke service is available.
The mood at Bracher Emden (46 Monmouth St.; 44-207/379-0202) is strictly rocker chick. The two designers play with Swarovski crystals and brightly hued snakeskins, lacing purses as if they were motorcycle jackets. The free-spirited results start at about $500.
A rare and fascinating collection of antique and vintage satchels is stacked almost to the ceiling at X.S. Baggage (Antiquarius Antiques Center, 131-141 King's Rd.; 44-207/376-8781). You'll find everything from a 1920's alligator gladstone to a massive Louis Vuitton trunk, fully restored to a glossy sheen.
SWEATERS Alas, with each passing year, that English staple the idiosyncratic hand-knit becomes harder to track down. (Remember Shy Di's fuzzy sheep pullover?) At Patricia Roberts's small shop (60 Kinnerton St.; 44-207/235-4742), near the Berkeley Hotel, everything is still handmade. Roberts gives her imagination free range and employs a universe of stitches: on my last visit I was captivated by a pale azure cardigan with white angora bubbles that looked liked clouds. Along with the sweaters (from $500), there are gloves, hats, and heart-melting accessories for babies.
For cashmere with style (no gold-buttoned twinsets, please), hip Londoners head to Brora (81 Marylebone High St.; 44-207/736-9944), which has exceptionally reasonable prices and styles that run to pale-blue ballerina wrap sweaters and periwinkle hoodies perfect for a jog around Hyde Park.
The cardigans, pullovers, and dresses (from $440) at Eskandar (134 Lots Rd.; 44-207/351-7333) look as if they've been sized for Jumbo the Elephant, but all that droopy softness, falling in elegant ripples, has a flattering effect on even the slightest woman. The shopfeels like a farmhouse with its bleached-white walls and plank floors.
HATS AND SCARVES Near Buckingham Palace, the world-famous mad hatter Philip Treacy (69 Elizabeth St.; 44-207/ 730-3992) has a small shop with blue Italian marble floors, along with an undulating golden showcase. Treacy's loyal fans include Marilyn Manson, Isabella Blow, and the royal family. A tiny chapeau ($9,100) has been crowned with bird of paradise plumes, but not to worry: according to the saleswoman,"The feathers are vintage; we try not to use the real thing now."
The luminous printed velvets at Georgina von Etzdorf (4 Ellis St.; 44-207/ 259-9715) seem to share the sensibility of the Omega group, the decorative-arts collective begun by Vanessa Bell and other Bloomsbury artists. Strikingly Modernist jewel-toned chesterfields and redingotes start at $1,275. A long, chiffon-edged, rhinestone-flecked muffler ($270) is perhaps slightly easier to wear.
LINGERIE London may never rival Paris as the capital of unmentionables, but there are two lingerie stores not to be missed. Agent Provocateur (16 Pont St.; 44-207/235-0229), owned by Vivienne Westwood's son, has rose-colored walls, a scarlet carpet, and plush red velvet curtains, giving the shop the air of a highly respectable bordello. There's a full line of irresistible silk camisoles, knickers, and high-heeled mules sporting marabou pom-poms.
Saucier still is Coco de Mer in Covent Garden (23 Monmouth St.; 44-207/ 836-8882), a sexy shop with dark brown and red walls. Don't be put off by the black leather teddy bears or the peephole in the fitting room—there is wonderfully pretty lingerie here. A peach satin bra ($100) is subtly enhanced with faux peridots; another brassiere's bold polka-dot pattern seems to have been inspired by the packaging of Wonder Bread.
MODERN JEWELRY Just off the fashionable Westbourne Grove strip, two magically talented jewelry designers have set up shop. Fiona Knapp (178A Westbourne Grove; 44-207/313-5941), who hails from New Zealand, creates lovely trinkets in a store with mysterious black walls and backlit showcases—a space that is itself reminiscent of a jewel box. Her collection mixes such gems as cerise tourmalines, pink sapphires, and tsarvorites in pieces that borrow freely from nature.
If Knapp's is a glowing cave, then Solange Azagury-Partridge's boutique (171 Westbourne Grove; 44-207/792-0197) is a deep vermilion grotto, with velvet-padded walls and a red leather floor. Azagury-Partridge was, until recently, the designer for Boucheron; her droll pieces include a necklace featuring a cluster of tiny male and female symbols and a tempting enamel-and-ruby Union Jack ring.
ANTIQUE BAUBLES You can get up at the crack of dawn and haunt the seemingly endless corridors at Portobello Road (Saturdays only), but, if time is of the essence, head straight to the Silver Fox (121 Portobello Rd.; 44-207/243-8027) and Central Galleries (125 Portobello Rd.; 44-207/243-8027), where the estate jewelry is of superb quality. Get there early; dealers pack up by 1 p.m.
If you're seduced by vintage watches (London seems to have more than its share of old timepieces), visit Ric Saunders (Unit 1, 101 Portobello Rd.), whose stock of reasonably priced wristwatches includes Rolexes from the 1920's through the 1940's, and everything is guaranteed. A circa-1915 lady's gold wristwatch with an elaborate black and white enamel face recently sold (to me) for approximately $800. (If you're contemplating a flea market watch that is not guaranteed, set it, wait an hour, and then go back to see if it's working.)
On weekdays, more than 100 dealers at Grays Antique Markets (58 Davies St.; 44-207/629-7034) and the adjacent Grays-in-the-Mews offer a spectacular array of antique jewelry. John Joseph (Booth 345-346) has an especially eclectic selection: a fat, puffy Victorian heart brooch for about $3,600; three diamond birds on a diamond-encrusted pin at around $4,200. Michele Rowan (Booth 315; 44-207/629-7234) accommodates both tourists looking to spend under $100 and deep-pocketed connoisseurs of old English jewelry. Some pieces here date back to the 17th century. Love cameos?Rowan has some of the rarest in the city.
LYNN YAEGER is a contributing editor for Travel + Leisure.
Though it's hard to resist popping into the vast Harrods, even if only for the food halls, the chic money has long since moved down the block to Harvey Nichols (109-125 Knightsbridge; 44-207/235-5000), London's answer to Barneys. Unlike Harrods, Harvey Nicks is small enough to be manageable, but it's big enough to boast a vast assortment of clothes from all over the world: Dries van Noten's avant-garde efforts from Belgium; Proenza Schouler's reinvented American classics; Edmundo Castillo's sensual lace-up stilettos.
After an incredible revitalization, Selfridges (400 Oxford St.; 44-870/837-7377) has sprung to life, full of experimental artwork and the best designers—the Marni store with its surreal curved-steel racks is a mini version of Marni on Sloane Street.
At Fortnum & Mason (181 Piccadilly; 44-207/734-8040), chandeliers and curved Art Nouveau display cases appear to have remained untouched since the Great War, and the stock is old-fashioned too: this is perhaps the last department store in town that stocks beribboned bed jackets and silk faille parasols.
If your intention is to concentrate on the shops in and around Mayfair, consider staying at the historic Connaught (Carlos Place; 44-207/499-7070; www.the-connaught.co.uk; doubles from $360), a truly grand, justly famous property from the 19th century that provides every amenity available in the 21st. • Nearer Harrods, Harvey Nichols, and the international shops on Sloane Street, the boutique Knightsbridge Hotel (10 Beaufort Gardens; 44-207/584-6300; www.firmdale.com; doubles from $330), with rooms that offer a whimsically fresh take on traditional British style, is an excellent choice. • Even if you're not staying at the Berkeley (Wilton Place; 44-207/ 235-6000; doubles from $400), you can cap a day of shopping at that hotel's Prêt-À-Portea, a somewhat silly, but utterly disarming, afternoon ritual that features everything from Missoni-striped éclairs to cupcakes À la Prada, all served on Paul Smith-designed china.
Short of that ultimate London souvenir, the bespoke three-piece suit, there are plenty of other accessories for the stylish gentleman. At the book-lined Library (268 Brompton Rd.; 44-207/589-6569), old-fashioned library cards replace conventional tags and even the receipts carry out the bibliothèque theme. The conceit may be old-guard, but the stock is strictly avant-garde, featuring Martin Margiela's deconstructed sweaters and Maharishi's embellished trousers. • At Ozwald Boateng (9 Vigo St.; 44-207/437-0620), even the smallest items reflect the designer's skill with color. Bright gold neckties with one large marbleized dot are about $120. • In Covent Garden, both Hope & Glory (30 Shorts Gardens; 44-207/240-3713) and Duffer of St. George (29 Shorts Gardens; 44-207/379-4660) are known for their twisted preppy classics—shirts with amusing details; quirky trucker hats. • Sir Paul Smith's namesake store (40-44 Floral St.; 44-207/379-7133) is famous for its updated English classics, such as cashmere sweaters in unexpected colors, and subtly flowered shirts. • A more traditional option, the long-established haberdashery Swaine Adeny Brigg (54 St. James St.; 44-207/409-7277), offers exquisite umbrellas (from $300) and pigskin gloves ($250). • While you're in the neighborhood, stop in at Bates Gentlemen's Hatters (21A Jermyn St.; 44-207/734-2722). Unchanged for a century, Bates specializes in hats, from the traditional British flat cap to a motoring cap with earflaps, called a rally cap. Tip your new fedora to Binks, a cat who strolled into the shop in 1921 and became the store's mascot. Binks, now stuffed, holds a tiny cigarette, wears a miniature top hat, and peers out at shoppers from a glass cabinet.