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Try it on for size

Times Staff Writer

THE first time I visited Liberty of London I was 16, and as hard as I tried, I couldn’t find a thing to buy. There wasn’t a T-shirt or a tote bag in one of the store’s famous prints, not even a pair of slippers, to show off to my friends at home. Only bolts and bolts of that paisley, floral and feather fabric.

I came back many times through the years and always the same disappointment. Then in October, I walked into the Tudor building on Regent Street and spotted it -- a silk hobo bag in a brilliant peacock plume print. I snapped it up, along with a silk scarf and an embossed leather notebook. I even considered a pair of bikini underwear.

No doubt about it, Liberty had changed. And so had London. It wasn’t the frumpy place I remembered from the 1980s, when Sloane Rangers dined on steak and kidney pie and Princess Diana struggled to stay on the best-dressed list wearing British designers.

More than any other fashion city right now, London is full of creative energy. You can feel it in the stores, restaurants, music halls and art galleries, and especially on the streets, where trends such as punk rock skulls, skinny jeans and padlocked Chloe Paddington bags were born, thanks to style icons Sienna Miller, Kate Moss, Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna, who live here.

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As The Times’ fashion critic, I come to London at least once a year for the shows, which have had their ups and downs. But in the last several seasons, designers here have captured more attention than they have in years. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has been so inspired that it’s opening a related exhibit, “AngloMania,” this week, and the May issue of Vogue magazine is dedicated to British design.

When it comes to shopping in London, the exchange rate is brutal. But it is possible to dress like a Brit “it” girl -- if you know where to go. In fact, give me 48 hours in the West End, Mayfair and Knightsbridge and I can cover the high-end, the avant-garde and the discount -- entirely in stores that are unique to the city. Even the department stores are interesting, because they still serve their original function, stocking a little bit of everything.

Sometimes, I approach shopping here like a fashion tutorial, learning all I can about the latest old British brand -- Liberty, Aquascutum, Biba and Mulberry, among others -- trying to pull a Burberry and reinvent itself for a new generation. This is also the city that produced John Galliano and Alexander McQueen, so there is always a new rebel fighting for space on the boutique racks. And then there is Topshop, a laboratory for trends and the world’s best cheap-chic store.

Shopping can be hard work in London, but it’s also civilized. Here, retail therapy comes with great food halls, Champagne bars and fashion-related museum exhibitions.

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Day 1

TO avoid jet lag, I usually take a morning flight from the East Coast, which lands me at Heathrow around 8 p.m., just as the shops are closing. Not even two litchi martinis at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel bar can take my mind off the next day’s plan of attack.

I carry a nylon tote with an umbrella (rain comes fast and hard in London) and an extra pair of shoes for when my feet give out. I like to begin at Oxford Circus, where the same evangelist is always stationed with a bullhorn at Regent and Oxford streets, trying to move the tide of mass consumerism toward Jesus. The number of people streaming out of the Tube station is dizzying, each person working “a look.” It could involve shorts worn with stockings and high boots or the gift-with-purchase handbag that came packaged with the latest British Vogue or Elle magazine. (Why don’t they do this in the U.S.?)

You have to brace yourself for Topshop. The four-story fashion emporium has its own radio station and manicure bar, regular runway shows and candy bins to dip into for a sugar high. I like to look at the accessories on the ground floor first, because it takes concentration to make sense of the tangles of Boho beaded necklaces, bangle bracelets, fishnet stockings and leggings. Downstairs, I hit the boutique that features affordable collections by high-end designers, such as Zandra Rhodes and Sophia Kokosalaki, made especially for Topshop. (This month, textile designer Celia Birtwell, muse to David Hockney and former wife of designer Ossie Clark, joins the group.) Finally, I shop the shoe department, with its racks of ballet flats, picking up pairs in pink leopard and cream lace, £30 each, or about $55.

As you walk south on Regent Street, 131-year-old Liberty of London is on the left. The roots of the store are exotic. The Tudor part of the building is constructed from the hulls of an old ship, reflecting the tastes of founder Arthur Lasenby Liberty, a traveler and collector who decorated the store with carved monkey heads and outfitted the staff in kimonos. In the 1890s, Liberty designers became key figures in the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements. Liberty’s dress fabrics were popular in the 1920s and ‘30s and again in the 1960s, when Mary Quant, Bill Blass, Yves Saint Laurent and others used them in their collections.

The store’s profile declined after that. Then, two years ago, designer Tamara Salman, who worked at Prada and Romeo Gigli in Italy, was hired to recapture some of the store’s past glory and create a signature brand. With 40,000 archival prints to pull from, she went wild, blowing up the Art Deco Ianthe print and splashing it on string bikinis and neon-pink plastic beach totes. She created a range of Ianthe-embossed leather handbags and duffels that are astoundingly modern and used the Hera peacock print on scarves, throw pillows and upholstered chairs. The new collection is not available in the U.S. yet -- upping the prestige for the travel shopper.

Just behind Liberty is Carnaby Street, which these days is less about swinging and more about surfing and skating. Skip the Vans, Roxy and Quiksilver stores, but do stop in Pret A Manger, the local sandwich chain, for an early lunch. The Mature Cheddar and Pret Pickle is a guilty pleasure -- lots of mayonnaise and cheese, very naughty, very English. I might pass through Boots too. This drugstore chain has the best travel-size shampoos and soaps.

Back on Regent Street is the Aquascutum flagship store. Founded as a tailoring business in 1851, the label became better known for raincoats favored by Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and the rest of the fox-and-hounds set. But I breeze by the raincoats and head for the new Aquascutum collection, launched during London Fashion Week in February. I peruse the floaty, Empire-waist floral dresses, safari jackets and blousy white shirts but decide the line is still not quite there. The fall collection, which lands in stores at the end of the summer, looked better on the runway.

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Backtracking to Conduit Street, I stop to pay respect to the queen, Vivienne Westwood, and to see Tom Cruise’s favorite leather jackets at Belstaff. Then it’s on to New Bond Street, where the top luxury brands are represented. I stick to the British stores -- Smythson for my favorite “Think Pink” leather-bound notebooks, Pringle of Scotland for argyle sweaters and the Mulberry flagship for a handbag.

Mulberry is home to the new logo-free status bags, which have managed to lure celebs away from French and Italian lines in the last few seasons. (Scarlett Johansson carries a Roxanne satchel throughout the Woody Allen film “Match Point.”) Mulberry was founded in 1971, and its handcrafted, natural-colored bags with whipstitched butterfly motifs, bold, buckled straps and brass postman’s locks retain an easygoing 1970s vibe. (They were originally sold at Biba, the 1960s and ‘70s hot spot known for miniskirts and black nail polish, and are available in the U.S. only in select department stores.) Designer Stuart Vevers, a veteran of Louis Vuitton, was hired last year and has added a dash of luxury to the line, using exotic skins. He’s also launched a small collection of clothing, including a cute bow-tied mackintosh and a 1970s wallpaper-print jersey dress.

It’s also worth taking a detour to Dover Street Market, the brainchild of Rei Kawakubo. The multilevel marketplace in a townhouse features the avant-garde designs of Martin Margiela, Comme des Garcons, Undercover, Buddhist Punk and Junya Watanabe -- lots of clothes that should come with instructions on how to put them on. L.A.-based vintage guru Cameron Silver even has an outpost of his Decades boutique here.

On South Molton Street, Browns is a must. I have never bought anything at the boutique, but it’s a great place to learn about new designers. Buyer Joan Burstein was one of the first to stock McQueen and Galliano, and Browns now has the new Biba collection.

Back up on the western end of Oxford Street, I duck into Selfridges, but not before looking at the windows. This department store is always doing some kind of cool promotion. (A punk theme is scheduled for summer.) Inside, the scene is almost too frantic. A Japanese tourist has grabbed two Balenciaga bags and a Chloe Paddington and is looking for a fourth bag.

Time to head upstairs to the Moet Bar, which has delicious Champagne cocktails, one created by British designer Alice Temperley. Or maybe a snack in the food halls at YO! Sushi, where rolls and sashimi travel around a conveyor belt. I make sure to hit the confectionary department for a box of violet and rose creams from British chocolatier Charbonnel et Walker.

If I’m in the mood, I cross the street to Marks & Spencer, a British institution. The underwear floor is amazing, and Marks & Spencer’s basic house-label T-shirts are softer than any I’ve bought in the U.S. Occasionally, you will find a fashion gem too, like the Oscar de la Renta-inspired jeweled cardigan sweater I bought for £50, about $92.

Going back down Oxford Street, I stop at another department store, Debenhams, and head straight for the second floor. Designers Matthew Williamson, Julien Macdonald and John Rocha create lower-priced lines exclusively for this store, and I’ve found some great pieces -- a pompom-trimmed scarf, a corduroy dirndl skirt, a pale pink safari jacket -- each for less than $100.

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It can be hard to get a cab around Oxford Street at day’s end, so I might venture into a pub until the commuters have gone home.

Day 2

THE second day begins at Harrods. I like to start with a manicure in the Urban Retreat spa upstairs, not forgetting to wander into the Roja Dove Haute Parfumerie room, which feels like a museum with its black lacquer walls and custom-made Lalique and Baccarat crystal flacons. I’ve never seen anybody buy anything here, but that’s the great thing about Harrods. Owner Mohammed Fayed has no problem with luxury for luxury’s sake.

When I’m nice and relaxed, I head to the food halls for lunch. There are more than 20 places to eat at Harrods (including an outpost of Paris patisserie Laduree). I like the Sea Grill, where the fish ‘n’ chips are sinful and the glasses of Sancerre come in small and large.

Brompton Road has all the best chain stores, including Office, where shoes are about the same price as at Nine West but much more original. Think silver glitter T-straps, gilded rose print flats and a selection of trainers (Brit-speak for sneakers) you can’t find anywhere else (silver Puma Mostros, Hawaiian-print Converse.)

Accessorize is like Claire’s Accessories but cooler, with quirky hats and scarves, beaded necklaces, even crystal-trimmed flip-flops. And Cashmere Gallery has pashmina shawls in every color of the rainbow, at discounted prices.

On the eastern end of Brompton Road, Harvey Nichols is the Barneys of Britain, with Marc Jacobs, Chloe and Lanvin galore. On the accessories floor, I recently nabbed an Alexander McQueen chiffon skull-print scarf and a Lulu Guinness clutch with a lipstick-shaped closure. The food halls here are where I buy gifts, such as aprons, coasters and tins of ginger crisps, all adorned with cheeky photographs.

I walk down the other side of Brompton, stopping at Monsoon, the clothing counterpart to the Accessorize label, and wind up the afternoon at the Victoria & Albert Museum, where there’s always an interesting fashion exhibit. The V&A;'s gift shop is my all-time favorite. The selection of art and design books is inspiring, as is the jewelry case.

After the museum, if it’s still daylight, I cross the finish line on Cheval Place, which has several top-notch resale shops. Let’s put it this way: There’s no waiting list for a Hermes Birkin bag at these places. My favorite shop is Pandora, where I slap down the plastic for one final purchase -- a blue velvet Yves Saint Laurent hobo bag with a carved silver handle that would have been $600 in its day. I pay $225 and feel as though I at least got one bargain.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Retail therapy

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, British, Virgin Atlantic, American, United and Air New Zealand offer nonstop flights to London. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $558.

TELEPHONES:

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 44 (country code) and the local number. To call the numbers in the box above from the U.S., you must add 011-44 and drop the 0 in front of the number.

WHERE TO STAY:

Brown’s Hotel, Albemarle Street; 20-7493-6020, www.brownshotel.com. This quintessentially English hotel is close to New Bond Street shopping. Doubles from $540.

Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, 66 Knightsbridge; 20-7235-2000, www.mandarinoriental.com/london. A luxury hotel with an international flair, directly across from Harvey Nichols department store. Doubles from $725.

Millennium Hotel Knightsbridge, 17 Sloane St.; 20-7235-4377, www.millenniumhotels.com. A reasonably affordable option in Knightsbridge, just down the street from the lovely Sloane Square. Doubles from $440.

WHERE TO EAT:

Moet Bar, overlooking the accessories floor at Selfridges (see map above). Champagne cocktails and snacks for $15 and up.

YO! Sushi, Selfridges Food Halls (see map above). Freshly prepared sushi, sashimi and other Japanese specialties for about $10 a dish.

Sea Grill, Harrods Food Halls (see map above). Choose something from the fish counter and have it cooked on the spot, or settle into some of London’s finest (and priciest) fish ‘n’ chips, at around $40.

Fifth Floor Cafe, Harvey Nichols (see map above). Soups, salads and simple entrees. Lunch for one is about $50.

Mandarin Bar, Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park (see contact information under “Where to stay,” above). An international bar scene with martinis and roasted peanuts to snack on. Cocktails start at about $12.

TO LEARN MORE:

Visit London, www.visitlondon.com. Also: Visit Britain, (800) 462-2748, www.visitbritain.com.

-- Booth Moore


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