TONIGHT'S DRESS CODE: FANCY
More than four decades ago, there existed – in book/animated TV series world, at least – a mild- mannered, loveable character called Mr Benn. This besuited, bowler-hatted gentlemen commuter didn't, at first glance, look like the kind of guy easily given to flights of fancy. But when Mr Benn left his house every morning, he wasn't heading for a faceless office; he was off to the fancy dress shop nearby, where the exotic, fez-wearing shopkeeper would invite him to try on a particular outfit.
One quick change later, Mr Benn would leave the shop through a magic door and take us with him as he embarked on a voyage into an alternative universe based on the costume chosen for him.
Today, not only does wandering around Cotham Hill – with its thriving independent shops, cafés and restaurants, leafy avenues and shabby chic student zones – remind me of Mr Benn's lovely, lively neighbourhood, but the shop at the heart of the matter takes me right back to those childhood TV days faster than you can say "all change!".
Fancy dress and vintage clothing haven Naff Clothing has been based on Cotham Hill for more than 20 years. "Lots of people liken Naff to the shop in Mr Benn," says Aimee Bishop, who has owned the shop since 2006. "You come in for a browse, but never quite know who or what you're going to be when you leave!"
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But Naff doesn't only appeal to those in search of a temporary reinvention. Lovingly restored vintage items are available for hire or to buy, while an enticing selection of jewellery, handbags, scarves and general accessorising paraphernalia (including wigs, make-up and fabulous false eyelashes) complete the makeover options on offer – and, due to the nature of the vintage and hire market, the selection changes on an almost daily basis. "Shopping at Naff is a different experience every time you visit," says Aimee. "Alongside the traditional fancy dress range, the vintage clothing adds an extra, unique dimension. You can hire or buy our vintage outfits and know that no one else at the party will be wearing the same thing." Indeed, if you tell a Bristolian that you're in search of a party outfit, you're pretty much guaranteed to be sent off to Naff.
"Being right in the heart of the university surroundings we offer a 10 per cent student discount, but our most regular customers live in and around the surrounding area and enjoy shopping here as an alternative to the run-of-the-mill high street shops," Aimee explains.
"One of the best aspects of running Naff has been forging so many strong friendships with customers; I'm always pleased to see a friendly face dropping in for a chat." As a result, Aimee is keen to sing the praises of the Cotham Hill area in general, and the vibe that she describes as a "very supportive community".
She's also deservedly proud of the regular Cotham Hill street party which she's helped to organise for the past couple of years to the benefit of traders, customers and local residents. But how has Naff coped during the current harsh economic climate?
"I've definitely been aware of the shift in consumer spending since the recession," says Aimee. "But I believe that what's really helped Naff to ride the storm has been our ability to offer strong, friendly customer service – a quality that should never be underestimated.
"Being a small business we can respond quickly to customer requests, and I believe that this aspect too has given us the edge in recent years. As a result, customers become very loyal and supportive – a valuable and appreciated asset when the climate is tough." And no matter how tough times are, people will always find a reason to party; when the dressing-up invite hits your inbox, Naff is ready and waiting to assist in your transformation.
At the end of each of his adventures, Mr Benn returns to his normal life, taking with him a small souvenir of his magical trip. After my most recent visit to Naff, I returned home with a pair of feathery falsies guaranteed to turn me into Lily Savage in a flash. Who will you be when you leave? Your very own Benn-style reinvention awaits you.
Naff Clothing 13 Cotham Hill Bristol BS6 6LD. 0117 973 7458 / www.naffclothing.co.uk