Sunday, 25 July 2010


What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago, the demise of haute couture had been widely predicted.

After all, how could it possibly survive the worst financial crisis in living memory? The very definition of a niche market, the couture customer base has been actively dwindling for years.

But fast forward to 2010, and the future of haute couture, for now, seems secure. It is secure because designers have realised that at couture’s heart is not exclusivity, but creativity. Often criticised for being ‘over-the-top’, couture has in recent years swung from wild excess to measured temperance, and it leaves us asking just one question: what comes next?

Couture this year has been determined to go bigger and better, and if the Chanel show was anything to go by, Karl Lagerfeld intended to lead by example. The models at Chanel walked in the shadow of an enormous golden lion, meant to pay homage to Coco Chanel’s star sign, Leo. Standing at 45-feet high, the lion oversaw a collection that was full of boxy jackets and the trademark tweed paired with beaded and heavily embellished eveningwear. Watched eagerly by Gossip Girl stars Blake Lively and Leighton Meester (on a break from shooting in Paris), this collection was a medley of maroon and navy shades – a touch moodier than the Chanel Couture of previous years, but worn with a swagger, it will have young Hollywood clamouring to work their pouts in the latest Chanel two-piece suit.

Not one to shy away from a challenge, John Galliano’s theme for Dior Couture was florals. It’s a perennial choice for fashion, but done the Dior way it became something extraordinary.

Flanked by enormous 3-D tropical flowers, the models emerged wearing a series of dazzling gowns that mixed colour with wild abandon: violet & pink, indigo & lime, orange & black. The collection grew from iridescent tulip skirts to a succession of gigantic gowns that looked like undiscovered exotic blooms.

Fronted by models Jessica Stam, Karlie Kloss and Frida Gustavsson, the Dior collection took on one of the oldest fashion favourites and made it look daring, vibrant and new. Galliano’s supremely confident flower-show put creativity front row and centre. It’s easy to forget in tough times, but fashion, even when done by the best, still needs that light-bulb moment. This was pure fashion eureka.

It may not be suitable for a trip to the supermarket, but these heart-stopping, jaw-dropping collections sent out a message loud and clear to anyone who doubts that couture can last, in just two words: beat that.



Sunday, 9 May 2010


Britain’s toughest election battle in a generation turned into the ‘war of the wardrobes’ this week with fashion pundits reviewing who made looking vote-able look easy. But while the election has had a less than decisive outcome, who trounced who in the fashion stakes is even tougher to analyse.

Following on the heels of Michelle Obama and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, the pressure has been well and truly on for Britain’s first ladies-in-waiting, Samantha Cameron, Sarah Brown and Miriam Clegg. While their husbands did fashion shorthand with party-appropriate neckties, the prospective first ladies have learnt the hard way that when it comes to wooing the female electorate, fashion and policy go hand in hand.

Once seen as frivolous, the overwhelming (and continuing) success of Michelle Obama’s style onslaught has forced a rethink on how leaders’ wives are presented to the public. It’s no longer a case of choosing between being a fashion plate and a respected lawyer / mother / captain of industry. If clothes make the man, this election made the wives the stars: they rapidly became the main event as scrutiny of their wardrobes reached fever pitch.

Whether it was Sarah Brown in a skirt from Banana Republic, or Miriam Clegg in Zara wedges, all three women stuck to mid-range high street labels like Jigsaw and Cos, plus pieces from Whistles, Topshop and Uniqlo. It was a deliberate attempt at sartorial strategy, aiming for budget-friendly pieces that would not only appeal to voters, but also have that all-important copycat factor.

Samantha Cameron specialised in colour, wearing every shade from violet to coral, working in brands like Malene Birger and Citizens of Humanity to dress a growing pregnancy bump.
Sarah Brown, initially the slow-starter, got her groove on with jackets from and pieces from Boden and perennial British favourite, Marks and Spencer. But where she excelled was in her bold use of accessories, with jewellery from Lola Rose and Tatty Devine.

Miriam Clegg has been difficult to pin down when it comes to fashion favourites. With her day job as Head of International Trade Practice at law firm DLA Piper, Miriam could have forgiven for not having the inclination to get styled up. However, when Nick Clegg’s performance in the televised debates sent the party’s prospects into overdrive, Miriam’s style also had to step up its game.

Also a fan of Jigsaw and Zara, Miriam has been an active champion of eco-fashion, choosing dresses and knitwear by British firm From Somewhere. Other Miriam hits include Fairtrade leggings, and a handbag from Eco Age, made from recycled ring-pulls.

Miriam certainly gets the prize for most innovative wardrobe, and it would definitely make her popular in Brighton - the first borough to elect a Green Party MP - but who got the deciding vote?

This was a style of campaign that had never been seen before in this country. It wasn’t just policy that mattered, it was PR. While the emphasis on image may not have been to everyone’s taste, it has brought the wives to the forefront, not as window dressing, but as allies who can, and it is argued, did make a difference in the polls. But as to whether it was Sarah, Samantha or Miriam with the casting fashion vote, like the election itself, it’s just too close to call.


Tuesday, 27 April 2010


Decades apart but still the epitome of style: Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw, and Audrey Hepburn

When Yves Saint Laurent was interviewed about his views on fashion, he ended up creating one of the most famous fashion sound bites of the century. ‘Fashion fades, but style is eternal’ are words to dress by, but what does style actually mean? Is it simply ‘good taste’, and if so, who sets the standard? Is style about taste at all or something more personal?

Think of modern style and one name immediately springs to mind: Audrey Hepburn. It is a cliché to say it, but true, that she is a byword for elegance. Audrey reflects what we understand today as ‘style’. The trench coat, cigarette pants, ballet flats and even the LBD have come to define our vision of the contemporary woman’s capsule wardrobe.

But Audrey was not born sporting cigarette pants and a winsome smile. That classic look was born out of collaboration between Audrey and Hubert de Givenchy. Audrey’s budding film career coincided with the peak of the 1950’s glamourpuss age. The ‘Sweater Girl’ reigned supreme. Movie idols such as Jayne Mansfield and Lana Turner were pouring themselves into figure-hugging pencil skirts and scandalously tight scoop-neck sweaters. The Fifties were undeniably curve-friendly, but to someone with Audrey’s spare frame, filling out a sweater posed its own challenges.

Hepburn needed to cement her image, and separate herself from her illustrious namesake, Katharine. Givenchy knew his client was no sizzling Sweater Girl. These women, and Marilyn Monroe was the last of them, made allure into an art form. Audrey needed another aesthetic altogether: something clean, simple and fresh. Their response was to rebel. The look they created ran absolutely counter to everything that was pushing Hollywood’s buttons. Taking the 50’s Parisian art scene as their starting point, Givenchy created an image for Hepburn that became impossible to erase.

Audrey’s solution to the sweater girl problem was to not compete at all. Creating a sartorial blueprint, and taking inspiration from what was not in fashion, Audrey and Givenchy made something of substance and style.

What started as a rebel’s costume went full circle to represent the universal template for women who want to look stylish and refined. But is adopting someone else’s look the same as having style yourself?

Style is remarkably easy to pinpoint in others: but harder to recognise in ourselves. Why is that? We know, with astonishing clarity, who has it and who could do better. On the street, in the office and at the Oscars, style is a beacon shone bright: hard to overlook, and impossible to ignore.
Everyone likes to think they possess a degree of style, but no-one can define it with any real sense of certainty. If Audrey Hepburn began her style career as a rebel, where does that leave us?

If style is about what’s not in fashion, does it follow that style is about mavericks and rule-breakers? Style may be ‘eternal’, but without fashion’s influence, there is no style. If fashion is about being on the inside, then surely style celebrates those who operate outside the dress codes? Rebellion has always been part of fashion, but what about style? There is certainly a case to be made for it.

Vivienne Westwood introduced punk to the world of high fashion and neither have been the same since. The first designer to see the potential of democratising fashion, Westwood built her signature on technical virtuosity and blue-sky thinking. The phrase may conjure up pure horror in the office, but in real life, it is absolutely fundamental. Style can be about setting the pace and finding your own voice. It sounds easy enough, but in practice, it’s another story. We might have to bring in the professionals.

Stylist Patricia Field’s work on ‘Sex and the City’ and ‘Ugly Betty’, has set the bar for fashion styling. She has taken the idea of building a character through their wardrobe to incredible heights. Carrie without the Manolos? Unthinkable. If you want to see how style is built from nothing, it is worth looking at how Patricia does it.

Think of Ugly Betty. Patricia routinely uses high fashion pieces (particularly from Marni and Marc Jacobs) to create Betty’s eclectic mismatched look. Individually, a blouse or a skirt can be runway-recognisable, but collectively, they are muddled together to make a character’s life story.

Betty’s way of teaming modern shapes with colourful prints rings absolutely true for her character: the girl who works in Manhattan still adores the spice and vibrancy of Mexico. By taking mainstream fashion pieces and mixing them in ways that shouldn’t work, Field has created visual shorthand for who Betty is. Her style is proudly and defiantly clashing, but if you look more closely, it has moments of rare beauty.

So style is not being a taste-maker, or a cultural tour de force. Who needs the pressure? Personal style is a smoother evolution. It may originate from other places, but what emerges and endures comes from you.

Style is what happens when fashion gets personal. It is about making those connections through memories and associations to create something unique. This sometimes goes hand-in-hand with fashion, sometimes it doesn’t. But that doesn’t matter – style doesn’t take sides.

Style is hard to define precisely because it is the journey of a lifetime, building a sartorial diary of who you are, who you were, and most of all, who you aspire to be.


Tuesday, 16 March 2010


See by Chloe – Grasshopper leather bag (available at
Well, Spring’s nearly round the corner and a girl’s fancy turns to handbags. Well, she does if she’s me.

Finding a new bag for the upcoming season is as exciting a fashion enterprise as finding that one good day-dress that looks good with everything you own. Making that choice this season isn’t that easy either: there’s a myriad of styles to choose from, depending on which side of the style fence you choose to sit.

Do you go for denim (preferably faded) handy for referencing the 80’s; tan leather and fringed for the Prairie Girl look, and then there’s global – which is fashion speak for any bag that’s as wildly patterned and decorated as humanly possible? It’s a big wide fashion world out there at the moment, and if one trend doesn’t get your motor running, another will. There’s no chance of getting bored when your style references range from Daisy Duke to Pocahontas.

But for the moment – chalk it up to another birthday just gone – I’m in the mood for something cool, mellow and timeless. Not the bad kind of timeless where you end up in a department store surrounded by dozens of black bags that just make your heart sink, but the good kind. Fashion’s getting awfully clever at this: brands like Chloe have been doing modern classics for the past 5 years, with the Marcie creating the most buzz right now. Just take a look at the Chloe ad with Raquel Zimmermann and Marcie snuggling up like they were made for each other and the relationship between a woman and her bag becomes abundantly clear. This should be a process of elimination, not desperation.

Be picky: finding your own classic isn’t easy but the good news is doing it on a budget works too. The high-street is also catching up, with stores like Warehouse, Russell & Bromley and All Saints doing great stuff, (keep an eye out for Warehouse’s take on the Mulberry Alexa satchel: stylish in its own right, but in terms of cost, just a fraction of the Mulberry original).

Top tip: If you want to go timeless, try to source a bag in an unusual colour. Brights are another key trend for this summer and a classic shape in a punchy yellow or cerise keeps things unexpected, and unexpected is good. You want a bag that declares its genius in one fell swoop. So there you have it – colour and classic – done.


Sunday, 14 March 2010


The home of couture, this February, Paris played host to the costliest collections in the world. Where a dress can routinely leave you £50,000 out of pocket, the question about where to place couture in a society still reeling from the effects of recession was put on hold. If anyone had business jitters, they kept them well hidden.

Many designers went to their ‘go-to’ moves, whilst others tried something different. Elie Saab showcased gowns that were good to go for the Oscars, and Gaultier took fashion editors on a sartorial voyage of South America. Valentino worked with shades of neon, in addition to producing its standard-wear Valentino favourites for its loyal clientele.

Chanel’s obsession this year was the colour silver, which was threaded throughout the entire collection, pepping up delicate dresses and ice-cream coloured tweed suits.
But the spotlight of the season fell on Dior. John Galliano, never afraid to display his flair for the dramatic, went with an equestrian-themed collection, with plenty of riding crops and lace veils. The dressage theme then made way for a series of stunning gowns decorated with bows and draping detail.

Dior’s stable of model talent included Chanel Iman, Karlie Kloss, Kasia Struss and Lindsay Ellingson. Always prepared to get involved in the runway action himself, Galliano even appeared in full riding costume, got down on bended knee and kissed Karlie Kloss’ hand to rapturous applause. That grand gesture alone ensured that Dior was the show of the season.

Coinciding with recent headlines that Britain is officially emerging from the longest recession in living memory, this array of heaven-sent fashion has shown that the industry is finally getting its mojo back. Recovery is about confidence as much as the balance sheet and 2010 has got off to a supremely confident start. Where couture leads, ready-to-wear follows and this year couture is very firmly back in the saddle.