By Bee Beardsworth
I believe that there is something to be said for British culture and the act of shopping.
A good place to start would be the Great British High Street. Around the time of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, self-sufficient serf communities morphed under the pressure of newly minted capitalism as the establishment of the free market took hold. Markets started to crop up with farmers selling their produce on stalls, as opposed to families and communities growing it themselves. Urbanization and technological innovation occurred in tandem with increasing global exploration (and colonisation) and suddenly there were a lot more products for people to buy and sell. In an incredibly simplified and somewhat reductionist way, I’m trying to explain how people started quite literally setting up shops.
The high street is something that seems to be quintessentially British. In the 1800s a trip to the high street was a daily activity, with trips to the fishmonger, butcher, dairyman and baker amongst others (keep in mind that the first domestic refrigerators and freezers were only available in the 20th century). Owing to the architectural and geological development of the average British town around establishments like a post office, market, church and pub, we can imagine how the high street was the communal meeting point and thoroughfare of the society, especially during its peak in the Victorian era.
"In the 1800s a trip to the high street was a daily activity, with trips to the fishmonger, butcher, dairyman and baker amongst others"
Something about the high street maintained its allure. I have fond childhood memories traipsing through the isles of early 2000s high street staple shops; I would covet books in Waterstones, try out all the makeup testers in Boots, wish for a tummy button piercing in Accessorize and steal sweets in Woolworths. I can also recognise my nostalgia for this era. Moving to another country on the cusp of my teenage years, I developed a strong association of these shops with “home” - an anomaly that developed my lifelong fascination with the integration of the capitalist impulse not only with the physical space but with the internal emotional one. It seems rather dystopian that a 12-year-old child would find Boots’ isles of luridly lit cosmetics comforting. However, I was and remain the exponent of an era of Argos catalogues, HMV headphones and pick ‘n mix.
As with any good thing, it couldn’t last forever. The last ten to fifteen years have signalled a huge change in the consumer landscape, owing to a number of factors including the increasing pace of life, the ominous integration of conglomerates into every pore of the retail landscape and the rise of internet shopping. But I don’t want to paint the so-called “Death of the High Street” as some forlorn tragedy - the last decade has also been a time of ever-increasing awareness about exploitative working conditions, poor labour laws, and the detrimental effects of cheap clothing and constant consumerism on the planet. I may have nostalgia for an era of reckless buying and feel a tinge of sadness about the closing of TopShop on Oxford Street (iykyk) but I can’t pretend any of these brands were really serving our best interests.
"the last decade has also been a time of ever-increasing awareness about exploitative working conditions, poor labour laws, and the detrimental effects of cheap clothing and constant consumerism on the planet."
So, we return to the question of how we can have a fulfilling shopping experience in the present day - because the fact of the matter is that no matter how much Marx I read (I mean read in the loose sense of understanding the theory… Has anyone actually ever read Das Kapital?) or how many TikToks I like about the promethean impulse of late capitalism (my answer for anything I do) I will always love shopping. I will always love the soothing meditation of selecting items from a hanger with no thought for price, the peaceful self-reflection of the changing room trial, the saccharine thrill of swiping my card and carrying out a bag with something brand new in it. I will savor this amphetaminic high by carefully displaying my new item at the forefront of my clothing rail, label still in, attempting to preserve the “newness” for as long as possible. Finally, I will carefully cut out the price tag when the right occasion arises to slip on said garment. I am late capitalism.
But I cannot lie and tell you that I don’t feel responsible for my part in the bigger picture. According to a BBC article from 2020, the fashion industry is responsible for 8-10% of global admissions and 20% of wastewater. One of the biggest issues is people buying cheap clothes that have very little wear and are thrown away to sit in a landfill; these clothes tend to be from larger inexpensive shops that manufacture a constant stream of new clothing to imitate the trend cycles dictated by traditional designer brands. Another large issue is clothes that aren’t bought and get sent to a landfill.
I would like to propose an alternative: A way of buying well-made clothes for a reasonable price in a manner that helps the environment, whilst still satiating your desire to have an invigorating, fulfilling shopping experience. I present to you Bicester Village.
Bicester Village is a shopping destination located in Oxfordshire, around an hour's drive from London or a 50 minute train from Marylebone. Bicester encapsulates the luxury feel of any exclusive boutique or high end department store with labels ranging from the likes of Gucci, Bottega Veneta and Vivienne Westwood to more practical lifestyle brands like Sweaty Betty, Calvin Klein and Ugg. See the full range here. The real catch is that everything (and I mean EVERYTHING) is discounted. You can get amazing finds, sometimes the last items available, for a fraction of the standard retail price. This may sound like some sort of con, but I am the first to sing its praises. Some of my most cherished purchases include my red nylon Prada bag, Agent Provocateur sets, Wolford tights, and the most deliciously soft Acne jumper.
The element of chance adds to the whole experience. On my last trip to Bicester, I spotted a pair of Saint Laurent cowboy themed stilettos (love a cowboy theme) that I instantly fell in love with. I tried them, debated whether they were worth the price tag (around £300 if I remember correctly), and when I spoke to the store clerk, they turned out to not only be the only pair left but also discounted to around £100. To say I was happy was an understatement.
I’m sure you’re also questioning my environmentally-friendly pitch. Well, it’s a debate but I think it’s one worth having. Every year, tonnes of unsold products end up being burnt or placed in landfills. However, there is the catch 22 that if you are buying a constant stream of goods, you are also accelerating the demand for products. I think that Bicester provides a happy medium - you can buy products that are marked down as they weren’t purchased in the first place, but you aren’t fueling the demand for them. Logical? By buying from higher prices brands, it’s also assumed that the product will be of better quality, often a more classic style and cut, and therefore longer lasting. This isn’t an infallible idea, but I would say that a pair of Levis jeans is better quality and longer lasting then Boohoo or Zara. It’s just about trying to shop for style instead of trend.
In keeping with the “village” title, Bicester pays homage to the high street with a store-lined avenue indipersed with a range of cafés and restaurants. There’s standards like Pret and Itsu, and more gastronomic fare like the farmshop café (insanely good pastries and brunch), pasta haven La Tua Pasta, and my personal favourite Shanghai inspired Shan Shui (strongly recommend the wasabi prawns and dumplings).
As we fast approach Christmas and the season of gifting, I think a trip to Bicester for a hot chocolate, a spot of shopping for yourself and a smattering of stocking fillers for your nearest and dearest might be a lovely festive day out. A stop at the enchanting Tokyo: Art and Photography exhibition at the Ashmoleon Museum or Harry Potter filming locations in nearby Oxford probably wouldn’t go amiss either. Welcome to a world with no shopper's remorse.