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.