The British high street has, with a few honourable exceptions (one being Whistles, which doesn’t officially class itself as high street) not covered itself in glory the past few years. Zara has been allowed to run away with most of the plaudits and profits. For picky stylish women it has been a frustrating desert.
Take Jigsaw, which in the Nineties was every discerning shopper’s first port of call – a haven of affordable Margaret Howell-like classics. It was a good decade ahead of the pack in identifying a nascent appreciation of luxury – and the little touches that denote luxury – among women who didn’t have bottomless budgets but were blessed with a keen eye for the markers that separate the special from the so-so.
Jigsaw used decent fabrics, wrapped them in tissue paper, plopped them in proper paper carrier bags, commissioned cutting-edge architects (John Pawson) to design beautiful stores on swanky shopping drags (Bond Street in London, for instance) before brands such as Jil Sander and Calvin Klein spotted them, and hired experimental photographers such as Juergen Teller before Marc Jacobs did.
But somewhere along the way Jigsaw lost confidence – in itself, and in the public’s ability to appreciate quality and flair. It ran the same tailoring fabric for 11 years running. Its cut bagged. By the mid Noughties it was more famous for giving Kate Middleton a (part-time) job than for any item of clothing.
“It had to change,” says Shailina Parti, Jigsaw’s creative director of 12 months (and sister of Vanita Parti, founder of the Blink brow bars, and Nisha Parti, the film director). Change it has – significantly. Imagine the clothes Charlotte Rampling wears in 45 Years, her latest film (a rum mixture of retired-to-the-country-so-no-one-will-see–me, ill-fitting cast-offs). Then picture Rampling’s own wardrobe of YSL tuxedos and scrumptious cashmere coats. That’s how dramatic Jigsaw’s makeover has been.
This is an intelligent strategy in which Jigsaw’s stable of familiar-to-the-point-of–contempt designs have been updated (and in many instances comprehensively reimagined) with beautifully designed, modern details in expensive-looking fabrics. There’s a dressing-gown coat in “cosmetic pink” (a DNA Jigsaw colour, says Parti) wool. It’s the sheen that makes it look expensive. As it should do. It’s the same fabric, says Parti, that you can find at Max Mara, but Jigsaw’s coat is £350.
Parti, who learnt her crafts – from pattern cutting to fabric buying – two decades ago at Jaeger, when it had five UK factories, is a stickler for all the details that often get lost in translation between catwalk and high street. She’s working with a small team composed of ex-Burberry and Paul Smith designers. They know that irresistibility begins with a detail. “It’s the details that determine whether you want something or not,” says Parti.
Anyone worth their title in fashion knows this, but not everyone is in the fortunate position to be able to act on the details mantra. “In the last decade, costs have constantly been cut, and prices hiked,” observes Parti. “But John Robinson (Jigsaw’s founder) wanted to make good on his original vision. We made a decision early on to keep prices where they were, but use the best materials and cuts we can. We’re absolutely not about selling things cheap and piling them high.”
Left: Alpaca coat, £695, cashmere roll neck, £150, Calla trousers, £350; Right: Shaved shearling jacket, £895, cashmere roll neck, £195, trousers, £350; all A-Line by Jigsaw
Those details of which Parti speaks include the side slits that make a jumper contemporary, the Tencel that makes it drape flatteringly, the camel interior of a double-faced grey wool dress, and a tuxedo trouser that has been cut slightly longer than at the back, “a subtle, easy way to make something look edgier,” notes Parti. “Jigsaw is all about classics with longevity – and these days classics are cool, because of all those little updates. We didn’t have to make that wool dress a different colour inside, but that’s what makes you fall in love with it.” Blocks have been remodelled (trouser sales are up 100 per cent, year-on-year), fabrics sourced from Italy and the tailoring is now all done in Europe.
When we met last week, Parti (not one of those stick-insect designers, which may be one reason she wanted to make the sizing, which now runs from 6-16, more democratic) was wearing a perfect contemporary work look: cropped charcoal trousers, a navy jumper and heels. She looks sharp; elegant but not forced – which may also be key character traits. Having quietly transformed Jigsaw’s key offer in under a year (“we didn’t want fanfare, we wanted people to discover it for themselves”), she’s about to launch Jigsaw A-Line, a 30-piece collection in six stores and online, of really special pieces.
Florian coat, £695, cashmere roll neck, £195, Jasmine skirt, £295, sandals, £249; all A-Line by Jigsaw
There’s a cropped, burgundy, shaved sheepskin jacket; a navy flared, hand-finished, made-in-Italy, wool skirt; chunky fisherman’s jumpers manufactured in one of Britain’s oldest knitwear factories in Corby; silk-lined jackets. Prices are around 30 per cent higher than the main line, “but we’re using the same factories as Victoria Beckham and Stella McCartney,” says Parti. One sheepskin coat costs £2,500 – that’s a big ticket in any store, let alone one on the high street.
This is a manifestation of the realities of consumer spending power. Where once retailers thought it wasn’t worth catering to women over 40, they’ve finally woken up to the realities of the fashion-conscious, stylish, and detail-savvy Diamond Generation – as The Sunday Telegraph’s Stella Magazine has dubbed them. They’re also realising that while a woman may have plenty of disposable income, she’s not in a hurry to spend £2,000 on a single chiffon shirt from a big-name designer.
Wrap coat, £350, Jigsaw
Some of the big brands’ ready-to-wear prices are almost at couture level now, leaving a chasm between top-end labels and the disposable mentality of much of the high street.
Jigsaw isn’t the only retailer to spot a demand for higher-quality, ultra-sleek pieces. Whistles’ Limited Edition range has utterly lust-worthy sheepskin coats at £1,500. All Saints have luscious suede skirts around the £200 mark. Then there’s Boden’s forthcoming Icons collection (eye-catching updated classics with contemporary cuts and indulgent fabrics); M&S’s Autograph hero pieces; Topshop Unique’s irresistible block red velvet heels (the catalyst for much sighing when they appeared on the catwalk in March); and Uniqlo’s Premium Merino wool collection. Meanwhile, Ted & Muffy’s boots come in a range of calf fittings and at their modishly industrial-looking new flagship in Covent Garden, staff wear tape measures round their necks.
Cosmo sheepskin coat, £1,500, Whistles
Think there’s nothing for you on the “contemporary” high street? Take another look.