Think TK Maxx is only for pants and bedding? We challenged our writer to find the best designer partywear — and she discovered Valentino dresses, Céline heels and Pucci minis at up to 97% off

Valentino lace gown. Estimated RRP £6,000. TK Maxx £191. Studded heels, £35 (estimated RRP £250), BCBG Max Azria. Earrings, £8.50, Freedom at Topshop

I never imagined that the first time I would try on a Valentino dress would be in the Charing Cross Road branch of TK Maxx. But here I am, staggering into the changing room, past a sales assistant who is tut-tutting because I’m dragging the floor-length gown (RRP £6,000; current price £191) across the grubby shop floor. I’ve dressed for “battle” in loose slacks and trainers, with a cross-body bag to leave both hands free for rummaging. It’s thirsty work, TK Maxxing. “Shop till you drop” has never felt more literal.

It has been 13 years since I last patronised the discount store. When I was 15, I was obsessed. I would visit the Colchester branch every weekend to feed my Ralph Lauren habit. A boys’ aged 9 polo shirt fitted me perfectly (with the requisite slash of midriff), and at 60% off, these were designer tops I could afford. A long time has elapsed since my pubescent purchasing, and TK Maxx has changed immeasurably. Not so much the slightly spartan, no-frills interior decor, which remains the same, but the introduction of its Gold Label.

Alberta Ferretti silk and lace skirt. Estimated RRP £1,000. TK Maxx £250. Tuxedoblazer, £180, Viktor & Rolf (estimated RRP £1,200). Satin mules, as before. Earrings, £12.50, Freedom at Topshop

Launched in 2006, and strengthening its selection as each year passes, Gold Label stocks designer bargains at an improbable discount. The subtly signed section exists in 27 of the 303 stores in the UK, including Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester, Cardiff and six of the London shops. I’m here because my editor is a TK Maxx enthusiast and believes that it’s stocked with hidden gems. So, on a misty Friday, I take a TK Maxx tour of London.

The cut-price retailer launched in the UK in 1994. Part of the American company TJX, which includes discount retailers such as Marshalls, HomeGoods and Sierra Trading Post, there are 3,300 TK Maxx stores across seven European countries. It’s a phenomenally successful business model, though you would struggle to find that out, given how cagey the press office is. In the 2015 Fortune 500 listings, TJX was ranked 103, with a revenue of £19.1bn last year.

Whereas much of TK Maxx focuses on designer-lite labels such as French Connection, Puffa and a few own-brand lines, Gold Label focuses on the cream of the designer crop. Some of the dresses are last season; some are six seasons old. A Pucci minidress, for example, is from AW13. For fashion editors, I soon realise, Gold Label is a reason in itself to pay TK Maxx a visit.

Zadig & Voltaire sequined jacket. Estimated RRP £600. TK Maxx £100. Jeans, £60 (estimated RRP £200), J Brand. Studded heels, as before. Gold clutch bag, £39, Beth J. Earrings, £160, Atelier Swarovski

My initial wariness did not last long. I found all the greats: alongside Valentino there was Missoni, Alberta Ferretti, Céline, Pucci, Marni, Victoria Beckham Denim, Giambattista Valli and Rochas, whose ballet-pink strapless gown was so beautiful, I felt like Gwyneth Paltrow accepting her best actress Oscar in 1999. There are dresses that originally cost up to £5,000, yet nothing is priced above £399. Even for TK Maxx, which promises up to 60% off, that’s some bargain. Indeed, Gold Label is such a lure that people come  to the UK specifically to shop for it. I am surrounded by rather dashing Italian couples trying on Edina Ronay quilted jackets and Zadig & Voltaire blazers, and the sales assistant confirms a lot of its customers are tourists. She also tells me that I must put everything back on the hangers, no exceptions. Rarely have I been so strictly chastened by a sales assistant. I quite like it. TK Maxx couldn’t give a hoot whether you’ve got a Valentino gown in your hand. They just want it back on the hanger, thanks.

Gold Label caters to all tastes. The Alberta Ferretti full maxiskirt, worn with a masculine blazer, is pure Julianne Moore, while the backless Pucci dress — so risqué with its sheer panels that I daren’t shoot it from the front for fear of a Basic Instinct moment — is classic LiLo. The accessories are not as strong as the clothes, although there are lots of fun clutch bags by designers I haven’t heard of and leather bags by high-street brands such as Osprey and Tula. I become obsessed, however, with the Victorinox suitcases in the High Street Kensington branch. Hard wheelie suitcases are expensive: these are £129, down from £295. Suitcases don’t date. I’m tempted. I’m having such a jolly time that I get street-cast for a TK Maxx campaign while I’m shopping. I decline, because I’m here as an investigative journalist and it feels unseemly to accept.

Pucci sequined minidress. Estimated RRP £5,000. TK Maxx £300. Satin mules, £145, Celine (estimated RRP £500)

Of course, there are pitfalls to a store like this. Everything that TK Maxx stocks is out on the shop floor. Often a dress comes in only one size, generally the sizes are smaller (for instance, I find a lot of size 8 dresses and size 4 shoes) and not everything is in good condition. Zips are broken, seams are split. But for the small price of a tailor, it’s worth it.

I didn’t see myself keeping anything from my haul, until I found myself pulling out a £180 Viktor & Rolf ringmaster/tuxedo jacket hybrid and trying it on, again and again. Somehow it never quite made it back to the store. Christmas is coming and the party season is upon us. So before it hits, may I suggest you hit TK Maxx? You might just spot me in the aisles.

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