Fixing my knitting: the cowl strikes back

My first attempt at knitting a cowl went horribly wrong.  It was a lumpen monster unworthy of the alpaca that had supplied it.  I felt bad about this and bound to make amends. 

Now I have fixed it but what gave me particular satisfaction was finding a way to make its oddities part of the design concept. I had failed to follow (even a simple) pattern and had been forced to correct an inadvertent expansion to 104 stitches in width. I decreased too steeply and ended up with some gently undulating rows. Some of these remained in the section I salvaged but I found that they provided a frill that hides the seam, making the cowl reversible and adding texture (and extra warmth). Unorthodox perhaps but its mine and I rather like it.

The greatest relief to me is that it works as a garment – it hugs my neck and is beautifully warm and soft. It has gone from zero to hero and I appreciate it even more for that reason.

Best of all, it leaves me with a reclaimed ball of angora wool and the scope for another, matching project.  A pair of wrist-warmers perhaps?

Packing the case


Packing a bag for a trip somewhere is a job I absolutely adore but I know many people for whom it is a chore they would much rather avoid.  How to stay elegant but on the right side of the excess baggage limit is always a tricky one.  As with most things, a little advance preparation will pay dividends.

Advance preparation (a day ahead or early as you like)

Start with research and a plan.  How many days and what activities will be on the agenda?  Check the weather forecast and it is also worth checking out style blog sites in that location for inspiration.

Make a list by category: daywear; evening wear; sports gear; underwear; accessories; essentials (chargers, wash kit, passport etc).    Separate things that need to go in handluggage or accessible places (e.g. passport).  I find it best to keep the list on my phone as I’ll keep coming back to it to change my mind periodically.

At the point of packing

When you ready to fill the case, go to your wardrobe and extract everything you think you might need and lay it out, organising it into potential outfit combinations.  Look for the most versatile items, weed out those that don’t work so well and substitute them if necessary.

Re-assess the amount you have compared to length of trip – how many repeat wears could each item sustain?  Again, discard those that deliver least value on this front unless they have a clear function – e.g. knowing you need a formal evening dress for a specific occasion.

When you are reasonably clear on what you will take, then turn to the underwear.  Ensure that you take any specific items that your outfits will require (e.g. strapless bras, flesh-coloured items, slips, trainer socks).

Finally consider your accessories.  How many pairs of shoes do you need?  Take the minimum necessary to reduce weight and bulk in the bag.  Do you need more than one handbag?  Pairs of sunglasses? Large cotton scarves are great versatile items – they can protect skin from the sun, work as a turban or sarong poolside, add warmth on cooler days or evenings, even run through the belt loops of your trousers as a sash.  Take one or two in colours to complement your other chosen items.

Hats can be tricky.   I usually take two on a summer holiday: a panama that I wear en route each way and a large-brimmed sunhat that folds flat in my case.  Some smaller hats can pack inside a suitcase, if carefully cushioned and stuffed with underwear but if you are travelling with couture millinery or other special-occasion head gear, do consider carrying it as hand luggage in a proper hatbox.  If you have spent a lot of money on your hat you really don’t want to risk crushing it in a suitcase.

Filling the bag

Place the heaviest the one to useitems in first – shoes, jeans, etc and fill space between them with crushable items (underwear, sports gear).  If you are carrying delicate items like hats consider how and where it is best to position them.  Then lay out your remaining items flat, one on top of another.  If you want to be really professional add a layer of tissue paper between each one.  If there is anything really precious or anything that might pull other fabrics (beads, sequins etc) then place these items inside dry cleaner’s bags for protection. Next you want to get the pile into the right shape to fit your bag.  If it’s a large suitcase, they might go in flat or with some gentle folding or rolling at the edges. If you are using a hold-all, then roll the whole thing into a sausage shape around a central item that is crushable (a bag of underwear, swimsuits, socks, sports gear etc).  Keep the roll as loose as possible consistent with fitting into the bag.

Pack separately the items you’ll need en route.  As well as the obvious things (tickets, passport, money etc) consider useful items such as sunglasses, tissues, reading matter, pen and paper, painkillers, scarf, umbrella etc.

Finally a word about jewellery.  Jewellery is an enormously useful accessory when travelling.  It is small (well tasteful, anyway), light and highly versatile.  Decide what you need as you are choosing your outfits and decide how you will use jewellery to switch them between formal and informal modes.   Always protect your jewellery by placing each item in its own wrapping.  If it doesn’t have its own drawstring bag, a handkerchief will do just as well.  Then pack it in a jewellery roll or travel box.  Always carry jewellery in hand luggage – even if it isn’t worth a fortune, it usually carries sentimental value that can be far greater.


20150713_194654When it comes to traveling, make sure your clothes are travel and airport-friendly.  This means comfortable, slip-on shoes that are not too tight (feet swell in an aircraft); avoid metal belt-buckles if possible; dress in layers for comfort as temperatures rise and fall en route; add a scarf – always useful for warmth or sun protection; wear a jacket with large pockets so that you can stow passport and tickets easily and remove the whole thing to go through security.  In my view, you can’t really go wrong in a pair of smart jeans, a light jersey like a mariniere, cotton scarf, loafers and a blazer, peacoat or other military-style jacket.  Once you’ve topped that off with some chic hand luggage and sunglasses you are good to go – anywhere.

Wardrobe spring cleaning


Recently a good friend introduced me to Hubbub, a new social enterprise that finds fun ways of helping people avoid waste and live more sustainably.  They have organised clothes swapping events around London and are planning a fashion festival later in the year (watch this space for more on that).  It is a great initiative because we could all be more discerning when it comes to impulse purchases that just take up precious wardrobe space.  Wouldn’t we all love to have the perfectly-edited wardrobe with everything visible and easy to navigate?

Even if we can never attain perfection, there are practical steps one can take for a closet spring clean if inspired to do a bit of recycling or just feeling the joys of spring.  Here are a few of mine that I’ve gathered from friends and experience over the years and that have served me (and my local charity shops) well.

  1. Get the timing right. You should be in motivated, if not even ruthless, mood. Some of the items you come across may inspire feelings of nostalgia and you will need to be objective about them – unless they really have strong emotional resonance, if they are not working for you any more, they should go. You also need to ensure you have set aside enough time. Depending on the scale of the task, you may need anything from 30 minutes for a quick seasonal refresh to a day (or more) for extensive collections or desperate cases. For longer jobs you should divide the work into manageable chunks to avoid becoming overwhelmed and consider getting a friend to help.
  2. Prepare yourself. Gather what you need in advance: a vacuum cleaner, duster, moth repellent, lavender oil/bags, step ladder, black bin bags.
  3. Gear up for decision-making. Prepare your essential criteria in advance, for example: Does it still fit? Does it suit me? When was the last time I wore it? Is it still in good condition? Would I still buy it today? How do I feel when I wear it?
  4. Take everything out of the wardrobe. EVERYTHING.
  5. Clean inside. Dust all surfaces, hoover the floor, spray moth repellent (do follow the safety guidance on the can). Take a moment of pride in how clean and fresh it now looks (this is more important than it sounds).
  6. Set your categories. Establish 3 distinct floor areas: one for clothes you might wish to sell on; a second for clothes you are going to give away to charity; and a third for clothes that need maintenance (cleaning, hemming etc.). Some people also find it helpful to have a fourth area for clothes they are not sure about.  It can help to have a cool-off period but if you doubt your ability to be decisive I don’t recommend this.
  7. Start sorting.  Try to keep up as fast a pace as you can.  It can be tempting to start browsing or to get nostalgic about old things. Resist and keep things brisk and business-like; in cases of doubt keep coming back to your criteria. If you have a friend with you they can help keep you on track (or at least bring you tea).
  8. Maintain resolution. 20150418_170332This is where your cleaning pride comes in. If you start to feel your resolve ebbing away, keep looking at the empty space in the wardrobe.  Think how much an uncluttered and clean environment will improve both the hanging environment for your clothes and your own daily decision-making.
  9. Impose order. As you go, place all the keepers straight back into the wardrobe.  It can be a good idea to group them in ways that will help you combine items more easily.  Some people group by season, some by colour, some by items that they frequently wear in combination.  You can use these groupings to weed out items that just don’t go with anything else, multiples of the same item (black trousers, anyone?), and to spot new combinations to try.
  10. Audit your hangers. 20150809_154625Maximise your hanging space by removing anything that can be stored folded – jeans, t-shirts, jerseys. Check that hangers are the right size for the item and not too small (droopy shoulders) or too wide (poking out the sleeve). Use the right types of hangers for each item. Very light silk dresses or shirts may hang better on padded hangers. Jackets and suits will be better on wooden or rubber moulded hangers (Muji and Ocado both make good quality wooden ones).

When you are done, quickly bag up the clothes you are getting rid of to avoid the temptation to re-consider.  Ha20150517_154556ving said that, I do usually keep the bags for a day or so just in case of any second thoughts, inspired by the ideas for new combinations the clear-out might have generated.  Then get them back into re-circulation and get out to enjoy some well-deserved spring sunshine in a newly-discovered sartorial combination.

Is this the perfect business travel wardrobe?


Imagine the best of late-60s Couture minimalism re-fashioned as contemporary Ready-to-Wear using the best wool crepe and a flash of Liberty print lining.  Imagine that this might just form the ultimate capsule wardrobe – the few highly edited pieces that could help you get through a week of business travel with hand luggage only.  Imagine that you could actually acquire this perfect blend of couture design, modern manufacturing and the perfectly-edited suite of items.

If any of this sounds like the answer to your prayers, then you have William Blanks-Blaney to thank.  The founder of WilliamVintage and globe-scouring haute couture hunter spotted a gap in the market and worked with Liberty’s designers to create a limited edition capsule wardrobe.

One evening at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum, William himself explained how it all came about and what inspired the pieces themselves.  The most eye-catching of all is a full-length, sleeveless tunic, split to the thigh and modelled on a Maggy Rouff original from 1967.  It is without doubt an “impact” item, whether worn with the perfectly-cut trousers from the collection or, more daringly, on its own (in the spirit of Penelope Tree at Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball).


The hottest item in the collection is the cape (now sadly out of stock), with a small stand-up collar and a dashing Liberty lining.  There remain a few of the silk blouses in the hot pink Kaleidoscope print.  Most versatile of all, perhaps are the knee-length coats and tunics – smoothly streamlined, loose enough to be comfortable day into evening and capable of being worn layered or alone.  These are all the simple, stylish classics that should be in every business-woman’s travel bag.

Consistent with their quality and limited run, they’re not cheap but despite that, sales since the launch in October have been extremely strong – you can snap up the remaining treasures on Liberty’s website here.  Even if you can’t find your size left or stretch your budget, the collection itself stands as a superb template for a perfect business travel wardrobe.

Blanks-Blaney is an extremely engaging speaker, even down to characterising himself as a “Frock ambulance chaser” for his activities in rescuing extremely distressed couture pieces from re-modelled destruction.  He illustrates with a story about a visit to a Palm Beach shop.  As he was about to walk away empty-handed they produced a bundle of fabric destined to be cut up for cushion covers.  It turned out to be a ruby velvet cape, a Dior original from the AW 1954 H-line collection.  Severely degraded from years lying folded in a drawer, he bought and lovingly restored it

He founded WilliamVintage in 2009 because he loved vintage fashion and felt there was a gap in the market for an edited, wearable selection of vintage couture classics.  He has forged a business by accumulating an enviable range of beautiful clothing based on close observation and understanding of his clientele. He says that the thing that excites him most about his work is seeing a woman transformed by her outfit – her confident regard, the set of her shoulders, her erect posture all signaling a woman who knows she looks tremendous. Thank you WilliamVintage for reminding us what fashion is really all about.

Aix-en-Provence: The Fashion tour (Part 2)


In Part 1 of this post, I suggested an itinerary for a fashion fan’s morning stroll around the fleamarket, depot-ventes and vintage boutiques of Aix-en-Provence, leading up to a stop to re-fuel at the Bistrot des Philosophes.  So now here’s the afternoon plan, with some serious boutique shopping, starting Big….

  1.  P1000217From Forum des Cardeurs, walk back across the Place de l’Hotel de Ville and down rue Foch to rue de la Glaciere where you will find La Grande Boutique.  This offers three floors of wonderful fashion, with french brands well-represented with Isabel Marant, Jérôme Dreyfuss and Vanessa Bruno as well as Joseph, Rag & Bone and Raquel Allegra.
  2. Need a hat to go with it? Around the corner in rue Aude, you’ll find Berenice Chapellerie with a broad range of headgear on offer from a bowler to a bandana. I found love there with a beautiful Borsalino fedora, something that is already inspiring me to freshen up my style for autumn.
  3. P1000210Follow rue Aude down through Place St-Honore into rue Fabrot to discover Gago.  This is another very inspiring boutique, this time specialising in more conceptual fashion – Commes des Garcons, Sofie D’hoore, Jaquemus, Rick Owens and Alaia as well as a great selection of Celine handbags.  I found their window display a pure shot of fashion genius.
  4. From here, cross the Cours Mirabeau and head east to rue Marechal Joffre for a final depot-vente stop at Chinez Chic, a tiny shop but with a broad selection of clothes, shoes and accessories from Chanel jackets to Parisienne favourite, Robert Clergerie shoes.
  5. Need to sit for a while and contemplate?  For the anglophone or anglophile, find time to browse in Book in Bar, a gem of an English language bookshop at 4, rue Joseph Cabassol, a short stroll west from rue Marechal Joffre, across the rue d’Italie.  As well as a wonderful selection of books, there is also a cafe where you can enjoy the very English delight of tea and scones.
  6. 20150904_103358If you have completed this fashion marathon, then you need a serious drink.  Across the road, at the Centre Caumont, you will find an exquisitely restored mansion, now housing an art gallery and terraced cafe in pure Les Liasions Dangereuses style.  Before 7pm you can absorb the gorgeous interior and art; after 7pm the cafe opens as the ultimate rococo cocktail bar, Lounge Caumont: enjoy un verre as if you were the Marquise de Merteuil.  You’ve deserved it.

If, after all that, you still lack a reason to visit Provence, then I recommend a visit to Vicki Archer’s beautiful and inspiring blog.  I shall be relying on it to keep me topped up with Provence spirit while I winter in rainy London.

Aix-en-Provence: The Fashion tour (Part 1)


Provence is known for herbs, wine, wonderful food and scenery and of course beautiful weather.  A recent blissful stay at Pavilion de la Torse (the ultimate in Bed & Breakfast, picture above) in Aix-en-Provence has convinced me that there is also much there to delight the heart of the fashion fan.  So here, over the course of two posts, is the fashion fan’s one day walking tour of Aix-en-Provence, tried and tested.

  1. Start with the famous market: market days are Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, 9am until lunchtime.  I found Thursday to be the best day with a good selection of stalls but less crowded than on a Saturday.  The fleamarket is in the Place de Verdun and includes stalls selling antique textiles, costume and ethnic jewellery, hats and local arts and crafts.  My best bargains have been textiles – wonderful antique petticoats and blouses (just the thing for this autumn’s romantic look) made of high quality, soft cotton.  Best of all, you can guarantee you won’t see anyone else wearing it.
  2. From Place de Verdun turn onto rue Matigny and stop at Les Macarons de Caroline for a sugar boost.  The macarons are wonderful and there are some interesting flavours including herb mixtures and fresh fruit combinations – the melon flavour is gorgeously light and fresh.
  3. P1000213Powers boosted, continue on to Place des Trois Ormeaux to visit a serious depot-vente, Vint’age Boutique.  The stock here is haute: beautiful Chanel jackets, Hermes scarves and bags, Dior jewellery.  A beautiful gem of a shop with a tempting selection, carefully presented and also blessed with friendly and highly attentive service.
  4. From here, take rue Matheron and stop at Magasin General Plus to shop for gifts for friends and family and for beautifully designed homewares.  There is everything the modern gent might desire, from a natty scarf to a cycling guide to Europe (and the bike to go 20150910_112120with it), plus everything the well-equipped kitchen might need.  Good inspiration for gift-giving.
  5. Next, we return to fashion and some pure vintage around the corner at Blow Up, 26 rue Boulegon.  It is a tiny shop, stocking an interesting selection of mostly 70s and 80s clothes, though I did see some 60s Courreges when I was there.  It also has a good selection of costume jewellery and racks of vinyl LPs for the total vintage vibe.  I happened upon a red pleated skirt, highly reminiscent of Gucci’s AW collection and a great bargain at 20 Euro.
  6. P1000215From here, head back along the road towards the centre of town, picking up rue Paul Bert and then turning off into rue Griffon to visit C’T’Ici, another depot-vente.  When I was there I noted a beautiful black leather Prada coat and some great leopard print shoes.  In the next street, at 1 rue Gibelin, you’ll find Emmaus, an absolute treasure trove of vintage home furnishings and a very worthy charity.  Emmaus is a French charity dedicated to helping the homeless.  They run a network of shops and will also undertake house clearance.  Their shop in Aix was full of early to mid-twentieth 20150911_104333century designs including an amazing Soviet Russian wall clock, a Darth Vader doll still in its original packaging, and a beautiful set of cabbage leaves crockery – too many lovely things and too little room in my suitcase.

By this time, you will be ready for lunch and perfectly placed to stroll past the Place de l’Hotel de Ville into the Forum des Cardeurs for a delicious al-fresco lunch and some serious people-watching, at Bistrot des Philosophes.  The perfect place to re-fuel before an afternoon’s serious boutique shopping, culture and cocktails.  To be continued in Part 2.

The elusive leopard print jacket


Every year, at this time of year, I return to the search for the perfect (and perfectly elusive) leopard print jacket. Why do I never quite manage to find what I’m looking for?  Too slow to recognise it? Too choosy?  Certainly I have strong ideas about what I like and don’t like: I’m definitely avoiding anything in PVC or too vintage-looking and then the price vs quality balance is tricky too.

The other problem is that I remain haunted by the ones that got away over the years. There was a “Jackie O” style leather-trimmed, vintage one on a stall at Greenwich market. There was a chubby, Isabel Marant version in a Provence boutique. There was last year’s gorgeous Miu Miu 60s style one that was just too expensive to justify.

So what do I want? I’m looking for an abbreviated, 60s beatnik style, not too deep and shaggy or all-enveloping.   I have to consider that at my height, just shy of 1.7m, I have to keep prints and volume in perspective.  I once came across a wonderful Alexander McQueen leopard print cape but just didn’t have the height to carry it off (or at that point, the cash either).  Which reminds me of another one of those items that “got away”: an incredible McQueen python suit whose price, even reduced in the sale, frightened me too much to buy it.  It was quintessential McQueen – part Matrix, part Gothic, with a strong dose of film noir – I pine for it to this day.

So I started searching.  Prada and Celine have both produced fairly shaggy versions – too much volume there for me.  Net-a-Porter yielded a Malene Birger dressing-gown style coat as a mid-market option (£395).  Matches had something similar from Maxmara for £1,118 as well as an even pricier version in their sale from Saint Laurent.  A google search yielded a perplexing range, more bad and ugly than good.

Then a revelation via twitter: Topshop is asking us all to nominate our favourites from their back catalogue to be re-issued.  So I’m hoping that the #BRINGTHATBACK campaign will deliver the perfect leopard print, as judged by the collective wisdom of Topshop’s customers.  If you have experienced a perfect Topshop leopard print, I beg you to vote to re-issue it so that, perhaps, I can finally end my search.

Advanced hat-wearing


Some clothing can be worn passively. You put it on, stop thinking about what you are wearing and get on with other things. Other items of clothing demand a bit more though.

R20150614_155604ecently I’ve had something of a hat obsession and I put this down to time spent poring over Ariel de Ravenel and Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni’s wonderful book, Lou Lou de la Falaise. Lou Lou really wore hats – she didn’t just put them on her head, she actively wore them and my favourite images from the book are of her doing this.


Whether it is delivering the full-beam attitude that befits a magnificent flamenco hat, a gesture to draw attention to a perky boater, or careful angling of a felt brim, in every case she breathes life into the hat, embodying it with her force of personality.

Lou Lou was a style virtuoso, perfectly combining all kinds of accessories to original and always beautifully-judged effect. I am determined to learn the skill of active hat-wearing and as a first step, I’ll be returning to CA4LA, but this time with feeling.


20150605_125838Recently I decided I needed a new hat.  I wear beanies through the winter, baseball caps, a panama and a floppy-brimmed beach hat regularly. They are easy hats to wear: they are practical, everyday hats.  Now I wanted something that made a bit more of a style statement.

I looked for advice from Dior himself. In Dior and I, he writes:

‘The particular shape and size [of hat] to balance the “line” of the dress has to be decided…It would be out of the question to show a collection without hats. However ravishing the dresses, the mannequins would still have a naked air. This is not an exaggeration; there are circumstances when one may overlook the feeling given a face by a hat, but never in presenting a new line where a hat is essential in achieving its proportions.’

I went hat-hunting and discovered a marvellously inspiring boutique. In an unpromising location, steps from East London’s concrete-clad Old Street roundabout, CA4LA is a treasure trove for a hat-wearer. The brand is well-known at home in Japan but not so well-known elsewhere. I was surprised by the range of their stock. I’d been expecting to see hats with a Japanese style aesthetic – floppy straw hats, bows, bucket hats, visors. What I had not expected was their extensive range of more traditional styles in a wide choice of colours – fedoras, bowlers, flat caps, trilbys – and the kinds of show-hats you could wear for a day at Royal Ascot.  They work with a range of designers and suppliers and seem to hold an impressive inventory of stock.

As I tried the hats on, I tried to analyse what worked or didn’t and why. This is not something you can rush and it was also clear that my chinos and casual jacket were not helping matters. I knew what I liked but frustratingly what looked great on a wooden stand did not look so great on my head, no matter how I angled it.

I left, loving some of the hats I’d seen but frustrated that I could not make them ‘suit’ me. It took me another week or so to work out what was going wrong.

To be continued.

Where to spend; where to save?

20150517_154905As we approach sales season, its a good time to plan ahead and decide where its really worth spending more on quality items.  There are a few guidelines that have served me well over the years, so well in fact that I realise that there are some items in my wardrobe I’ve had for over 20 years now.   So what is it really worth spending a bit more on?

  • Classic items and quality basics that combine easily with other things (Q: how many outfit combinations can you imagine the item alongside?)20150517_154556
  • Items that will lift everything else, from a classic handbag or a beautiful scarf to a great pair of jeans
  • Items distinguished by their design and quality – Sacai and Comme Des Garcons deliver designs that often become classics because they are so individual
  • Things that you expect to cherish for years – we have all experienced that coup de coeur of seeing the item that you just know was made for you…
  • Things that hold or gain value – very few do in the fashion world so beware anything described as an “investment”, but there are two notable exceptions: Hermes handbags and Chanel jewellery (costume as well as real) as well as some other more specific collectables.

20150517_150238Examples?  Generally spending more on these will be worth it: handbags and shoes; eye-glasses; a suit (quality and fit really show); a leather jacket (but vintage is a good option too); your haircut.

Items where you can afford to go low end: peacoat (to take whatever the weather throws at it); basic chelsea boots/brogues for rainwear; travel tote; sunglasses (fashions change fast); white shirts/t-shirts; tights & socks (with the possible exception of cashmere socks – a wonderful luxury); marinieres (lots of wear and wash).

Finally, a note on the exceptional: what to do if you need an amazing evening dress or a hat for the races? Fix your budget before you shop, decide how many wears and years you want to get out of it and be strict with yourself. The more trend-driven and eye-catching the item, the more it may restrict how much use you can make of it. If you absolutely fall for something and want to blow your budget, sleep on it before acting….you may regret being too impulsive and these kinds of purchases always carry the danger that you will fall hopelessly in love with an exceptional piece and go berserk.

Finally, William Morris’s benchmark remains hard to beat: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” – If it ticks both of those boxes, lifts your heart and fits your budget, have no hesitation in making it yours.