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Having worked as a magazine journalist and also run fashion social media accounts for super-retailer Marks & Spencer, I know a thing or two about how to get stylish clothes on a shoestring. But what’s really worth spending money on? And where can you make the savviest savings? The truth is: it’s down to a mixture of being in the know about the best deals and discount codes out there; understanding where on the high street to find the gems; and knowing how to make low-price clothes look more expensive than they really are. I’ve put together this guide on how to look expensive on a budget, to help you get started…

Prices aren’t always equal

Think you’re paying the same price to buy something in a store as online? Think again. An August 2020 story by The Sunday Times found that some high street retailers, such as WH Smith, Boots, Waterstones, Sports Direct and H&M are charging almost double the price for products in their physical shops as on their websites. So, if you’re in a shop, always double check the online price before you buy and remember that some retailers like H&M will price match at the till if you can show them the equivalent item at a lower price on their own website or app.

Beg, borrow (but maybe don’t steal)

Can’t afford designer accessories? Worried that your It Bag may soon become an Out Bag? Or don’t fancy splurging on a big-event frock you’ll only ever wear once? Take a tip from Carrie Symonds, who famously rented her wedding dress from MyWardobe HQ Link opens in a new window and take advantage of the huge explosion in the clothes rental market. Here are a few suggestions if you’re new to the rental game. MyWardrobe HQ is the most well established, but check out the app By Rotation Link opens in a new window, a peer-to-peer rental operation that allows you to borrow clothes from bona fide influencers (didn’t you always wonder what they did with all those clothes?!); Catwalk Club Link opens in a new window has an edit of super-relevant designer bags and clutches for big nights out; Endless Wardrobe Link opens in a new window takes stock direct from brands so allows you to try before you buy; Selfridges launched Selfridges Rental Link opens in a new window last year - which has the latest and hottest runway clothes and accessories from the biggest brands ready to borrow for as little as £30; vintage and sustainability fans will love A Virtual Vintage Market Link opens in a new window; while the dangerously addictive Girl Meets Dress Link opens in a new window celebrates the frock in all its glory, with a £99-a-month ‘Infinite Membership’ subscription offering you three dresses at any time on limitless rotation. And lastly, HURR Link opens in a new window is the latest dress rental service I've used, they have a pop-up in Selfridges so you can try everything on before you rent!

Grab designer style for less

High-street collaborations with designers are a great way to buy into the style of a designer you love. Hot collabs have included Regina Pyo for & Other Stories, Ghost x M&S and Paul + Joe for Uniqlo. H&M Link opens in a new window are the masters of this – their upcoming collaboration with the iconic Iris Apfel Link opens in a new window, who recently celebrated her 100th birthday, will be on everyone's summer wardrobe wish list with vibrant colours and bold prints galore; while the Next/Label Mix Link opens in a new window web page is always worth checking out – they have a constant stream of new upcoming designers featured at high-street prices, such as big-event-worthy dresses by Samantha Cameron’s Cefinn label.

Be a discount diva

Often if you’re shopping a site for the first time, you can get a discount by signing up to marketing emails - savvy shoppers often have a separate email address set up for these, so they don’t have to wade through them all. There are lots of fashion discount codes floating around the internet and Google is your friend for these; there’s a reliable collection of money-off deals at Martin Lewis’s Money Saving Expert Link opens in a new window site. Sometimes you can get a coupon by taking surveys; and many small fashion businesses are so hungry for content, they will offer you a voucher if you post on Instagram and tag them in (I recently used my social media skills to do this and won a voucher from small bag brand Mila & Eve Link opens in a new window, see below. Creating a great social media shot is a formula anyone can master: keep it clean, bright and well lit, and focus on making the product – rather than you - look fabulous!).

Rachel with a black leather Mila & Eve bag.
This picture of my Mila & Eve purchase bagged me a £50 voucher

Clever ways to jump the queue

Sometimes the most hyped designer collaborations sell out lightning-fast – but there are sneaky tricks to get your hands on them before anyone else. If you know a collection is scheduled to drop at, say, 9am on a certain date, there’s an excellent chance it will actually have dropped live overnight the night before, as that’s when most retailer sites update. You can’t navigate to those pages by going to the home page and clicking, but you can often find them by typing the retailer’s name and the designer’s name into Google – a sneaky way to jump the queue.

If you do miss out, don’t panic – online shoppers often buy a couple of sizes and return the one that doesn’t fit, so you’ll often find trickles of availability coming back to the site a few days later. Set a daily reminder to keep checking for a couple of weeks afterwards. This is especially true of dresses, which typically have the highest returns rate of all clothes, as they are the most complex to get to fit properly.

Ace the sales

It’s well worth signing up to loyalty schemes (such as H&M’s Members Club and M&S’s Sparks) for retailers you love – they often offer priority access to sales, which means you can make the most of the markdowns before others do. I like to keep a ‘Note’ on my phone with saved web links of clothes I like throughout a season, but which are above my price limit; then I can easily click straight onto those links during sale season to see if that item is now within budget, rather than having to wade through pages of markdowns.

Accessorise all areas

Using bags, belts and jewellery smartly can make a huge difference to a simple, plain outfit. The high street is great for bright bags, pom-pommed clutches and cheap jewellery you can layer and stack. And if you are going to invest in something more punchy in terms of price, Vickie Keeble Link opens in a new window, a stylist and fashion consultant, recommends splashing out on one great accessory. “If you’re going high street with your clothes, go designer with your accessories, it instantly lifts even a simple T-shirt and jeans,” she says. “That’s why you’ll see the classic double G buckle Gucci belt Link opens in a new window cropping up on influencers’ Instagram feeds over and over. A cracking clutch, a wish-list watch or spectacular shoes can really elevate a high-street dress – rent them if you can’t afford to buy them.”

Rachel Sullivan wearing a classic colour combo - red and camel
Brightly coloured high-street accessories will add an edge to even a very simple look
Rachel Sullivan colour matching clothes to accessories

Be particular about print

“Print can be precarious,” says Keeble. “First of all, if you shop prints on the high street, you’ll often run into someone else at an event conspicuously wearing the same one.” (Anyone else remember Zara’s polka dot dress, which became so ubiquitous it had its own Instagram account Link opens in a new window? Avoid that by shopping around the edges of big stores, rather than in the middle and ‘first bite’ (entry) areas, where the highest volume lines are merchandised. “But the bigger danger is that high street prints can look, to put it frankly, a bit cheap and nasty. Look for muted geometric prints, or bright, confident florals in classic colour combinations. Pastels are often to be avoided – trust your instinct.”

Rachel Sullivan head to toe in print
Bright and confident florals are always a win

Tinker, tailor

Another stylists’ trick that can hugely luxe up your look is to get cheap clothes tailored so they fit you not just quite well, but incredibly well – that’s why there’s a seamstress on all good fashion shoots. “Dresses, in particular, are really hard to get to fit perfectly,” says Keeble. “Make it your business to befriend a local tailor.” How to find a good one? Try local Facebook Link opens in a new window groups, put a question out on Nextdoor Link opens in a new window, ask at your local dry cleaner – or just try good old-fashioned word of mouth.

Make good decisions around denim

High-street denim is now punching way above its price tag when it comes to innovations, design and sustainability, with low prices due to the scale of the buy: I really believe you no longer need to buy expensive jeans. I’m probably biased, but Marks & Spencer Link opens in a new window is the market leader for a good reason – its jeans start at just £19.50 and are all made from organic cotton; New Look Link opens in a new window, H&M Link opens in a new window and Zara Link opens in a new window also have an authoritative range.

Rachel wearing light denim jeans with pastel colours
Good quality blue jeans with pastels is the perfect Summer vibe

Grab a ‘Grammer

Instagram is an amazing place to find fashion inspiration. Find a few influencers whose fashion style you like (and whose price tag seems to be aligned to yours!), follow them and closely watch how they style items you’re thinking of buying – think of it as a free styling service. Pay attention to how they layer jewellery, and which pieces they style clothes with again and again – those will be worth the investment.

Look luxe by layering

The way you put clothes together can make a big difference to how polished they look. “Layering different textures can help create a luxurious look,” says Keeble. “So, for example, teaming a satin-look fabric with a knit, or leather-look with silk. The outfit will end up looking much more than the sum of its parts.”

Rachel wears a white turtle neck top underneath a navy and white polka dot dress, and white trainers.
Layering different textures is a clever way to raise your sartorial game
Rachel wears a black zip-through jumper, black dress and black strappy heels.

Listen to the editors

There’s an overwhelming amount of fashion content out there. If you bookmark one editorial site, I’m a fan of WhoWhatWear Link opens in a new window, which regularly runs stories on how to get the latest trends for less such as ‘I've Analysed Everything, And These 30 High-Street Buys Look the Most Expensive’. It’s an affiliate site, which means they take a small cut for any clothes you click through and buy – it also means the clothes they highlight are almost always available (or they wouldn’t make any money). Win win. I also highly recommend their Facebook group So, Should I Buy This? Link opens in a new window – a kind of awesome Shazam-style hive mind for tracking down clothes you’ve spotted and fallen in love with. Bingo.

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