Is this a shop or a party?

Townhouse shopping, courtesy of Ralph Lauren

Recently I gained a glimpse into the life of the elite shopper.   One of Net-a-Porter’s Extremely Important Persons (EIPs) invited me to join her at one of NAP’s private viewings in a suite in a luxurious London hotel.  For a shopper more accustomed to rummaging for my goods in car boot sales or vintage fairs, this was a new experience but not a totally unknown quantity.  Recently, the Financial Times’ How to Spend It magazine featured Les Suites in Paris that works on a similar principle, offering high end fashion in what feels more like a beautiful home than a shop and offering a limited and highly curated selection of goods to a clientele that feels more like a social clique than a census category. It enables the seller to get closer to the customer (especially an online one) but is it satisfying to the customer?  The answer, as ever, depends on what you are looking for.

Entering the hotel from the London rain we were escorted to the suite, wading through carpets waist-deep, breathing air heady with scented candles and bowls of roses.   On arrival we were greeted like guests to a party –  coats taken, ensconced on sofas and coffee brought as my EIP’s personal shopper talked and then walked us through the treasures on offer.

First, fine jewellery: exclusive, unusual pieces that may never see the light of the website, reserved for clients by private appointment.  I was interested to note that some of the most sought-after pieces by females were the watches – many of them large and masculine in look. 

Then there were the racks of clothes.  Not an excessive amount – perhaps six or seven rails of 10 pieces each with a broad range of labels represented to offer a range to satisfy all tastes and styles, from lavishly embellished Gucci and Balmain, to minimalist knitwear from Khaite or The Row and even the conceptual with a truly extraordinary trenchcoat by Junya Watanabe for Comme des Garcons (of which more later). There were no basics, no ‘athleisure’, no simple white shirts.  This was not a practical, capsule wardrobe, these pieces were stars in their own right and displayed for their individual tactile and visual appeal.

Each piece was present as a single item which meant that trying on was fruitless unless it happened to be your size.  This I found highly frustrating.  When I’ve attended shopping parties in vintage boutiques the whole enjoyment is that it is the ultimate dressing up box: a playpen for the fashion follower.  The selling opportunity works as people bond over trying the clothes and styling each other, customers helping to sell the stock.  By comparison, this felt oddly sanitised and staid. 

That said, I’ve always been an emotional and romantic shopper – the pieces that catch my eye echo stories, hollywood glamour, half-forgotten dreams that tap directly into a vein of desire.  This is not how everyone shops.  My EIP was in her element.  As a confirmed internet shopper, this was an enhancement of her experience, the perfect complement to the online browse.

This form of selling will appeal to a certain kind of shopper, especially those already acquainted with the range of labels on offer and those short of time who may need professional help in finding clothes for specific need.  If you are a browser and a rummager like me, delighting in the hunt for the rare and unusual, it is less satisfying – the work has been done, the prizes presented, the answers are at the bottom of the page.

Was I tempted?   The Junya Watanabe trench caught my eye on the rack and, though it was too big, was still something I could try on.  It was a genius piece of design, the back a swirl of sunray pleats (welcome irony in a trenchcoat) and it was reversible with a zingy lime green interior.  It was a ‘forever’ piece and an item of pure joy to pull out on the dreariest of days.

Would I go again?  Undoubtedly.

The stories our clothes tell

Rita Hayworth smouldering in The Lady from Shanghai wearing Jean Louis

Recently I read that Patou now sells clothes with a QR code for the customer to scan to discover the story behind the item. I am clearly not the only person who enjoys a tale with my threads. Commercially this has to be a good move. On a practical level, it can help to satisfy our concern to live sustainably by assuring us about how our clothes were made and who made them. But the urge to tell stories about our clothes runs deeper than that to questions of not only how but why.

As a long-term vintage shopper, I have become accustomed to conducting my own research into the stories of clothes I buy. The last dress I bought was a consigned Miu Miu piece that I traced to the A/W 2011 collection. Vogue called this collection ‘a modern vintage collection that transported us back to World War II era Paris’ and ‘one of the most elegant Miu Miu collections.’

The collection was featured in UK Vogue in a sublimely beautiful shoot, styled by Lucinda Chambers, modelled by Kate Moss and photographed by Mario Testino. I clearly remember seeing these images when they first came out and being deeply affected by the elegance of the clothes.

This recent acquisition prompted a 1940s film binge: Now Voyager, Laura and then The Lady from Shanghai in which I found Rita Hayworth wearing an ensemble that was strikingly similar to some of the catwalk images from that Miu Miu collection (see top image). Was this the source of the inspiration? The costume designer for the film was Jean Louis who worked with Hayworth on Gilda and on Pal Joey.

So my recently acquired dress seemed to have come to me from 1940s Hollywood, via Milan. Having been captivated by the Miu Miu collection on sight, back in 2011 I had finally found my dream item nine years later and it is one of those pieces you instinctively recognise as being ‘you’. Discovering the context of its original presentation within a Miu Miu collection and a possible source of the inspiration for that collection, only go to make a lovely dress even more special to me.

There are powerful commercial reasons to tap into this vein but there’s something else here too. The more special we feel our purchases are, the more we will value them, cherish them and use them. The more we all do this, the less need we will have to discard badly judged and unloved items. Many items in my wardrobe are decades old and I fully expect this dress to measure its lifetime with me in a similar frame. Rita Hayworth knew a good thing when she saw it and who am I to argue?

Dressed for the Occasion

Normcore has a lot to answer for.  For at least a decade, this relaxed, dressed-down style has had us in its grip.  Its combination of preppy, peppy vigour with the essential comfort factor has made it almost irresistible.  What could be easier in the morning than to combine a pair of chinos with grey marl and gold sneakers?

Easy, for sure but when you walk out of your house and find that everyone else in the street had the same idea, then perhaps its a signal to change tack.

My wake-up call came recently and it came in the shape of a Vilshenko cape.  This garment is the opposite of ‘normcore’ in its purest form.  Where chinos and sweatshirt telegraph simplicity and practicality, an embroidered cape signals gratuitous joy in every stitch.  It won’t protect you from a snowstorm.  You can’t wear it to cook or do anything practical really.  It doesn’t have pockets.  

What it does have is instant impact.  Whenever I wear it I am suddenly conscious of eyes on me – even more so when I pair it with a Maison Michel fedora.  It never fails to attract comment and the very best kind of comment: those that remark on personal style rather than an overt enquiry about where something came from.

Clothes like this promote a different bearing.  Bette Davis and Joan Crawford knew the power of a pair of sharp shoulders to draw up the posture and streamline the silhouette.  They showed us the transformational power of a hat – even a simple beret: witness Bette in full Orry Kelly splendour, peeling off her gloves on arrival at Cascades in Now Voyager.  It is an unforgettable sight.

So goodbye normcore.  It was comfortable while it lasted and my feet are certainly grateful but now I need something more inspirational.  Let’s hope it doesn’t snow this year.

The Most Beautiful Umbrellas in the World

It can take M Heurtault more than 300 hours to make one of his umbrellas or parasols, depending on the style and detailing, which could include antique lace, ostrich feathers, embroidery, jade or horn.

These umbrellas bear no resemblance to those that you might pick up in a convenience store during an unexpected shower. These are hand-crafted accessories, carefully calibrated to bathe the holder in a flattering glow and to sit beautifully balanced in the grip whether sheathed or open.

The silk twill is sourced from the same suppliers as the top fashion labels and treated to be fully waterproof and the whole umbrella is intended to be a life-long artefact not a disposable commodity. The mechanism is firm and sturdy in the hand: these umbrellas are built to stand wind and rain as well as to look stunning.

M Heurtault has been awarded France’s highest honour of artisanship: the Master of Arts, his workshop a Grand Atelier and you have probably seen his work in films and TV.

He sells his beautiful constructions at Galerie Fayet, a jewel of a shop in the picturesque Passage Jouffroy, only a few steps but a world away from the neon of the Boulevard Montmartre. Here in the shop, you enter a world in which a walking cane can hide an epee or a stiletto, or perhaps hold a minature picnic kit.

I found a wonderful umbrella here. It was a simple monochrome striped silk twill, sleek and light as a quill but with a steel frame strong as an exoskeleton. It was an accessory straight out of Cecil Beaton’s conjuring of Ascot races for My Fair Lady.

Now, equipped with my brolly and a rather natty Maison Michel black fedora, I’m ready for whatever weather the English autumn throws at me.

http://www.galerie-fayet.com
http://www.parasolerieheurtault.com

Snap up some Louboutins and Dress for Success

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Fancy a pair of Louboutins?  Or a Lanvin vest dripping with flapper-style beading?  Or perhaps a butter-soft Chloe perfecto in lush olive suede is more your thing?  Then you need to know about Dress for Success and their pop-up shop in Covent Garden’s Neal Street.  It opened today and will be there dispensing gems like these to lucky clients until Saturday 19 August.  Miss it at your peril.
Even better, you can feel good about every purchase you make because Dress for Success is a charity doing wonderful work.  If you’re reading this blog then I don’t need to tell you about the power of clothes to make a person feel confident, strong and ready for challenges ahead.  But clothes can also be a source of anxiety.  We’ve all known the problem of having nothing to wear, despite a wardrobe bulging at the seams and rails buckling under the strain of too many hangers.  But for some women, the problem of having nothing to wear is real, especially when it comes to facing the crucial test of a job interview. Dress for Success has their backs because it not only clothes them but preps them for the interview, boosts their confidence and – once they’ve been offered the job – provides them with a capsule working wardrobe.
So if you’re in London drop into the shop and snap up some Louboutins.  Or even better, donate some clothing or volunteer your help.  As a volunteer for them myself I can’t remember a time when I had so much fun, met so many wonderful people and laughed so much. So beware: you may get much more out of this experience than those fabulous Louboutins.
#DFSlondon
35-37 Neal Street, Covent Garden, London; 11-7pm until Saturday 19 August.

The Cocooning Power of a Good Coat

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Rhapsody in Red, illustration by Gordon Conway (1894-1956) for Britannia and Eve magazine, December 1929, from the Fashion and Textile Museum London’s current Jazz Age exhibition

What does a good coat do for you? The coat in the Gordon Conway 1929 illustration above ticks most of the boxes: the wool fabric delivers warmth, weatherproofing and comfort; the lavish collar looks glamourous and wonderfully cocooning; the colour gives an instant shot of pzzazz to cheer up the dreariest winter day; and the silhouette is svelte and elegant. For an expensive purchase like a coat it is essential to know what suits your shape and your needs – long and voluminous can be great on the tall but overwhelming on the petite; the camel coat is a classic but there are thousands of colour variations that will flatter (or not) different skin tones; luxury fabrics can be delicious to wear but may not withstand the worst winter conditions. Choose wisely and you’ll have a friend for life: in my own case it’s an ancient single-breasted Burberry heavy tweed overcoat, so old even the tweed is wearing thin, but it still keeps me warm and dry and still attracts compliments. I won’t ditch it until it actually falls into shreds.

The development of the overcoat has been strongly influenced by military uniforms, so its no conincidence that around this time of fashion-at-the-frontyear the fashion magazines will be running their annual features showing military-style greatcoats against dramatic landscapes. We can all conjure the image of Napoleon on campaign in Russia, or more recent images from Grace Coddington’s stunning work for Vogue setting rugged tweeds against highland heathers. Masculine styles worn with a feminine touch are a perennial classic and most of the masculine styles referenced by designers today have evolved from nineteenth and early twentieth century military and sports tailoring. Most famously of all, Burberry and Aquascutum developed trenchcoats to protect soldiers fighting in the trenches in the First World War. The style evolved from the nineteenth century military greatcoat but with additional, practical details – shoulder straps to hold epaulettes and D-rings to attach maps.

 

Country sports also played their part, giving us the shooting jacket, a multi-pocketed, belted tweed; the redingote – a long fitted coat deriving from “riding coat”; the frock coat – a waisted and flared-skirted coat, deriving from the frock coat with tails used in dressage or without tails as used in show jumping and hunting; and the polo coat is a double-breasted over coat with a half belt at the back, popularised in Jazz Age America and since then by classic labels like Ralph Lauren. There were also variations on the basic styles: the Ulster coat has a short cape over the shoulders for extra rain protection (think Sherlock Holmes); the Chesterfield is a Victorian double breasted style that has become a modern classic of city-wear.

Thejazz-age-opera-coats twentieth century has seen much greater diversity of design in women’s coats. As fashion design emerged as an industry in its own right, coat design became more trend-led, designed to complement the entire outfit. So in the 1920s coats became low-waisted and bat-winged to sit comfortably over low-waisted dresses with fringing or draping.

In the 1930s Jean Patou introduced a more womanly, curvaceous line closer to the body. It is a silhouette that is already emerging in the 1929 Gordon Conway illustration at the top of this post and is highly reminiscent of the look adopted by Hollywood screen sirens.

 

wartime-utility-coatsThe 1940s brought rationing and Utility. In response to shortages, the government commissioned fashion designers to produce clothing designs for mass production that used fabric with maximum efficiency. People were encouraged to re-use and re-purpose existing clothing and so female coats became more fitted to the body, shorter and in some cases closely referencing masculine styles – especially when an absent husband’s wardrobe was available to be raided.

Was this where the fashion pendulum started to swing, as each succeeding trend reacts violently against its predecessor? Christian Dior’s 1947 ‘New Look’ turned the tables on 40s austerity with circle skirts and a tiny-waisted profile that brought back some longed-for glamour. So as the 1940s became the 1950s, coats had to accommodate this return to volume with swing styles, flaring out from a narrow shoulder.


It was only a matter of time before fashion reacted again and the 1960s brought minimalist, space-age designs. Balenciaga, star couturier of the 1950s led the way with rounded, cocoon-style coats and Paris picked up the baton as Paco Rabanne, Courreges and Yves Saint Laurent delivered neat coats in the high-waisted princess line. Think YSL’s iconic designs for Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour, Givenchy’s beautiful orange coat for Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Oleg Cassini’s neat ivory coloured coat for Jackie Kennedy to wear at her husband’s Presidential inauguration. These coats were the perfect complement to the pared down miniskirts and slim trousers of the decade.

The 1970s brought a certain nostalgia to coat design, from YSL’s 40s-style fox fur chubbies from the notorious 1971 collection to full length capes and great coats to balance bell-bottoms or maxi dresses that emerged in the middle of the decade. Perhaps in reaction to the ‘soft-focus’ style of the 70s, the 1980s came in with a harder edge and a sharp shoulder as designers like Thierry Mugler and Claude Montana worked on an inverted triangle profile

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Where do you go to escape the constant cycle of trend reversal? The 1990s brought us deconstruction and the rise of the avant garde Belgian designers* and the Japanese designers, Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garcons. In Martin Marigela’s hands the classic camel coat was subverted, the collar attached inside out. The result is a piece that looks as if it should be familiar but unsettles the eye (see above).

Today? Globalisation has brought an “anything goes” attitude. So draw from the best of the past, work out what suits you but beware of adopting any look too literally. Find your style and personalise it, have fun and experiment.

 

*NOTE: The ‘Antwerp Six’ were Walter van Beirendonck; Anne Demeulemeester; Dries van Noten; Dirk van Saene; Dirk Bikkembergs; and Marina Yee. Though not strictly speaking one of the Antwerp Six, Martin Margiela had graduated from the same fashion school but, rather than show under his own name in London as the Six did, he instead moved to Paris to work for Jean Paul Gaultier.

Is there enough velvet in your life?

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Kim Basinger smoulders in the film LA Confidential

Velvet – isn’t it just the height of glamour? Always chic but especially on-trend this winter, with Prada’s luxe midnight velvet hiking boots, Gucci’s gorgeous teal velvet bag and Demna Gvasalia’s strapless gowns for Balenciaga.

Why do we love it so? Its extreme softness and delicacy has made it a luxury down the centuries. Elizabeth I actually made it illegal for any subject below the rank of knight to wear velvet, so concerned was she about devaluing its currency as a mark of nobility.

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Collection of the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, Paris

She need not have worried: velvet has maintained it luxury edge down the centuries. When Charles Worth, the man widely credited with creating the first haute couture fashion house, opened his design salon in 1858, he quickly became known for lavish fabrics and embellishment. This richly beaded velvet jacket from Worth even draws clear inspiration from tudor style with its structure and puffed sleeves.

Velvet seems to have originated in Baghdad in the 9th century.  It reached Europe in the middle ages through Venice, the main thoroughfare for the spice route between Asia and Europe.  The city has maintained a close association with velvet through the ages, culminating in Mario Fortuny’s exquisite devore and printed velvet cloaks, coats and tunics, produced in the city in the early twentieth century, and recently celebrated by A S Byatt’s excellent book, Peacock and Vine. Fortuny was an inventor and an artist – fashion was only one of his talents which also extended to lighting and theatre set design. To this day, no one has managed to discover the process he invented (and patented in 1909) to create his signature creased and crushed silk “Delphos” dresses. Lucky ladies 20161001_154021buying the dresses received them rolled and wound in boxes.

Velvet can be made from cotton and linen – typically heavier textiles – as well as in lighter silk or silk/rayon mixes. The fabric lends itself to a range of textural effects, from devore, in which the velvet is burnt with acid to create a pattern, to crushed velvet (see left). It can also be woven in combinations of colours to make it appear iridescent.

Since the start of the twentieth century velvet has featured strongly in every decade’s fashion. In the Jazz Age of the 1920s flappers wore lustrous embroidered velvet opera coats, referenced by John Galliano in his 1998 haute couture collection for Christian Dior (below).

Art deco of the 1930s brought a more minimalist feel in which colour and design were pared back to bring out the beauty of luxury fabrics themselves, as seen below in a panne black velvet necktie trimmed with ermine.

The 1940s and 50s saw the return of colour and pattern, especially in hats as velvet was used for percher hats and half-hats. The shimmer of the fabric highlights and flatters skin tone (see above).

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Balenciaga green velvet opera coat from the collection of the Fashion and Textile Museum, London

The greatest couturiers of those decades, Christian Dior and Cristobal Balenciaga, also used velvet frequently in their collections. Dior’s H-line collection (Autumn-Winter 1954-55) was inspired by tudor court dress, while Balenciaga manipulated green velvet into a pattern mimicking astrakhan fur for this opera coat.

The 1960s saw the rise of perhaps one of the greatest designers to use velvet in his collections: Yves Saint Laurent. Who can forget his black velvet flamenco hat from the iconic portrait of Lou Lou de la Falaise by Steven Meisel? Black velvet was a staple ingredient of his evening dresses and featured strongly in some of his most famous collections – as bodices in the “Russian” collection of 1976 and as knickerbockers in the “Chinese” collection of the following year.

And what better lesson for us all in how to wear it than to study Lou Lou above? Velvet needs attitude for sure but it also needs a little disrespect. Pair it with jeans for Parisienne glamour, with leather for a rock chick edge, vamp it up with black jet to reference Victoriana, or go classical with contrasting white satin.  No wardrobe is complete without it.

This post first appeared as a guest blog for The Gathering Goddess

 

 

A Capeline never fails to flatter

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A classic image of the wide-brimmed capeline is Bette Davis in Now Voyager and Bette and her genius costumer designer Orry Kelly, knew their stuff.  I’ve yet to meet the person that isn’t flattered by a wide brim.  Especially when the brim is wired – it means you can play with it, shape and angle it for maximum flattering effects.  Dipping it down over one eye, a la Bette, is a good way to go, as is getting the brim to run parallel with your jaw line, helping accentuate it.  The capeline is a marvel of engineering – practical, ergonomic and beautiful.

#LHW London Hat Week 6-12 October 2016

http://www.londonhatweek.com/

 

The pillbox hat – glamourous minimalism

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A black velvet pillbox hat is a classic example of 1960s minimalism.  This one reminded me of the fabulous little pillbox that Audrey Hepburn wears in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, especially with the addition of some white spot veiling to recall the more flamboyant white feather on the front of Miss Hepburn’s hat.

The film clearly shows the transition from 1950s studied glamour to 1960s spontaneity.  The clean lines of Hepburn’s Givenchy wardrobe and hats have the simplicity of combinations she has come up with on the spot.  They look youthful and fresh compared with the high glamour of Patricia Neal’s Pauline Trigere ensembles that have the feel of an entire top-to-toe ‘look’ crafted by the designer.  Over a decade after the original ‘New Look’ of Christian Dior in 1947, it was time for a fashion re-set and the pillbox was then, and is still, the perfect minimalist touch.  Add a few feathers or a veil and create some drama.

Are you going to London Hat Week?

#LHW London Hat Week 6-12 October 2016

http://www.londonhatweek.com/

The cloche hat: Jazz Age modernism

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Nothing so epitomises the Jazz Age like a cloche hat.  First appearing around 1914 in designs by French milliners Lucy Hamar and Caroline Reboux, it was a reaction against the wildly extravagant picture hats of the Belle Epoque, groaning under the weight of their embellishment.  It summed up the modern, practical spirit of a world of female emancipation, motoring and minimalism.  The cloche looked fresh and youthful and crucially, helped to keep newly bobbed hair smooth and sleek, as it still does perfectly today.

#LHW London Hat Week 6-12 October 2016

http://www.londonhatweek.com/

And check out Jazz Age Style at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum at their Autumn blockbuster exhibition – http://www.ftmlondon.org/