Grown-up, intriguing and oozing sex appeal… There’s a brooding new face on the catwalks, and she’s a woman of substance, writes Harriet Quick. Photograph by Patrick Demarchelier
There’s a New Woman at large in fashion: she has a penchant for flippy-hemmed skirts and belted jackets that fall off the shoulder just so. She loves leather, has a taste for lace and is not averse to feathery fur. She is deeply sensual — hence all the intense textures — often moody and frequently raunchy in that deranged, Betty Blue kind of way. You never know whether she’s just walked out on one lover or if she’s about to go and hunt another down.
Every season, designers try to pin down their “woman”, around whom they create their collections, and this autumn/winter that woman is red- blooded and full-bodied; a breed apart from the graphic, sensationalist girl who has been dominating fashion for what seems aeons. For the legions of grown-up women who might have felt alienated from this “blogger” style — all shouty colour, crazy accessories and clashing prints (exhausting!) — new-woman fashion offers maturity and gorgeousness in one go, and with it a line-up of very real clothes.
The newness in this woman is not screamingly modern and shiny. In fact, her essence is endearingly familiar: fit-and- flare coats with an echo of the Fifties; lounge pyjamas infused with Hollywood starlet glamour; outsize jackets in heritage tweeds and wools to belt over slippery silk negligees; sheath dresses and thick-heeled pumps. And always somewhere there is a touch of kink, whether in a patent-leather accessory, a cinchy Vargas pin-up-girl belt, or a yanked-down neckline. These are pieces that do the proverbial office-to-dinner thing but, with their crumply textures, moody colours and raw edges, they also look lived in and loved. This is fashion for women of substance, both financially and in terms of life experience.
Who got the measure of this new woman? Not surprisingly, very real women themselves — Miuccia Prada, Phoebe Philo at Celine and Stella McCartney. Mrs. Prada dubbed her collection “raw elegance” and explains that she felt her way into the collection by thinking about what aspects of fashion were guaranteed to ignite desire in a woman. Her conclusion was “leather, fur, lace, diamonds”.
“I like fabrics with substance; soft and light does not interest me, or anything too easy,” she says from her Milan studio, wearing a crackled ruddy-red leather coat, matching stilettos, pencil skirt tempered with a boyish blue sweater, and set alight with diamond and sapphire heirloom earrings. “The most difficult part of my work is doing something which is both new and appealing — of course, we all want to look appealing.” This alchemical designer really does walk her talk.
Prada’s catwalk (set with its screen projections of chicken-wire fences, prowling cats and alleyways) looked like the back streets of Naples in the Fifties. From the shadows emerged a ravishing creature with wet-look hair, wearing a tweed button-through shift dress pulled down at the shoulder; sequined lace zip- front dresses over big knickers and under mannish coats; raw-edged asymmetric leather skirts and love-worn granddad sweaters showing off very noticeable bosoms (bosoms are back).
Hairstylist Guido Palau, who created Prada’s glistening, rained-on, tousled locks, muses: “We were thinking about moments in old black-and-white movies, so the idea became a sort of wet Veronica Lake moment — you don’t know if she is with a lover or if she has just killed him…” In a neat fantasy-into-reality twist, Miuccia Prada — wearing a silk nylon raincoat (sleeves firmly rolled up to elbow-length) and big chunky jewels — got her own wet-look moment as torrential showers poured down at the opening of the Fondazione Prada exhibition at the Venice Biennale.
New woman, let us not forget, excites drama, and which of us doesn’t like to provoke intrigue? The promise of being remarked upon, desired, envied is, after all, one of the biggest motives for buying into any new fashion. The manifold textures and gestures of new-woman fashion are there to provoke storytelling: sleeves being rolled up, jackets that in cut seem to be “moulded” around the body, antiqued fabrics that appear ripped and shredded all add to the tension.
She also knows her comforts. Phoebe Philo clothed her new woman in super- soft flippy-hemmed skirt suits in a cream boucle knitted fabric, and coats (inspired by the surreal work of American designer Geoffrey Beene) with slits at the armholes that allow the sleeves to be worn tied round the torso. For Philo to shift attention from those big masculine trousers she does so well to these Forties-flavoured suits is a veritable tidal turn. The latest cult bag in the making will be Philo’s hot-water- bottle-cover-shaped one, a perversely brilliant design that captures another compelling aspect of the trend — the allusion to intimacy and even vulnerability. The subconscious messaging of the tied arms and cosy fabrics is hug me!
How intimate? When Sofia Coppola attended the Met Punk: Chaos to Couture gala with her friend, designer Marc Jacobs, she wore a pair of slate-grey heavy silk pyjamas from his autumn/winter collection. You couldn’t help but think: is she wearing any lingerie beneath? The figure of Coppola in her PJs was far more compelling and rebellious than the parade of clichéd “slash and pin” red-carpet gowns.
“Fur coat and no knickers!” states the amiable Jonathan Saunders at his Islington studio, summing up new woman’s sex appeal. “It’s the polar opposite of the sporty, athletic look of spring. As I’m known for graphic modernity, I really had to fight against the grain. What I felt was new were the earthy colours and strange combinations of textures. It wasn’t an overt decision to be so sexual but I love the suggestion that came through combining boiled wools with patent and vinyl,” says the designer. He teamed bra- cupped waspie belts with sheath dresses in an antique-looking satin fabric in ruby red or emerald green that looked as if it was peeling away from the stretch-tulle backing. In his research, Saunders was taken with mid-century images: notably Allen Jones’s erotic sculptures that so brilliantly pinpointed the sexual repression bubbling under this strait-laced era of tweedy ladies and bowler-hatted gents.
But over and beyond the catwalk drama, as Saunders points out, this is a season of very real clothes. “The classic shift dress, the fit-and-flare coat are both traditional wardrobe-building pieces, yet it’s the attitude, the combination of colours and textures that makes them feel strange and new.” Guillaume Henry at Carven, with his baby-blue or baby-pink outsize coats and crushed satin sheath dresses, was on a similar path. “I became immersed with the characters played by Isabelle Adjani and Beatrice Dalle in Jean-Jacques Beineix’s and Luc Besson’s movies from the Eighties — vulnerable characters with aggressive streaks.” Henry, who’s made Carven a go-to label for clothes with just that right mix of sugar and spice, collided soft pastels and teddy-bear textures with shiny leather, including preposterous heavy-tread Mary-Janes.
Compared with the self-conscious business of dressing head to toe that can take so much effort and significant wherewithal, new-woman style is also appealingly unpretentious. “Luxury as a word has become meaningless,” says Marco Zanini, creative director of Rochas, “and I don’t believe in extravagance for extravagance’s sake. Rather, I’d like to suggest new ways of wearing an item, whether a pencil or circle skirt with new proportions or a big overcoat. Ultimately I want to design ageless fashion that women feel an affection for through the fabric, the feel, the attitude,” says the designer, who has nailed those timeless feminine staples as part of the Rochas lexicon. His 38-year-old sister and creative consultant, Miki, is on hand to give those pieces — this season in soft cashmeres and French silks — the real-woman test. The look at Rochas was about putting a Fifties swirling skirt with an old cardigan you’ve already got in your wardrobe. Likewise, wearing your grandfather’s tweed hunting coat over a lingerie slip for evening; or a crumpled henley T-shirt, tucked into a high-waisted calf-length skirt — it all feels intuitive and ultimately achievable. Not even in China, following president Xi Jinping’s new clampdown on corporate gift-giving (a ritual that fuelled the sales of luxury handbags), does shiny, new and obviously very expensive feel desirable any more. A touch of classic British “Oh, this old thing.” unpretentiousness (even if the credit-card bill is sticking out of your purse) will take one far this season.
A sense of nonchalant chic is also a valuable commodity. It’s partly why 29-year-old Alexander Wang has taken his close friend, stylist Vanessa Traina (heiress daughter of author Danielle Steele) to be his right hand at Balenciaga.
“I have always admired her unprecious approach to luxury — she’s not the kind of person who pets a new purse — and the way she puts things together is so fresh,” says Wang of his collaborator, who is an ardent Balenciaga fan. His debut collection had a sense of purpose high-waisted trousers, skirts that swooped up at the front and flared out at the back, crisp white shirts, semi-fitted cocoon coats and marble- print sculpted silk shift dresses all had a subtle personality that feels right for now.
The tastes and desires of a generation of empowered, independent women like Vanessa Traina are driving this trend. Also count in there the filmmaker Liz Goldwyn (who ordered several looks from Jonathan Saunders); actresses such as Julianne Moore and Rachel Weisz; art-world figures like Shala Monroque and Olympia Scarry; and a legion of fiscally rich, time-poor businesswomen who share a love of fashion. We all want fashion that contributes to a great, fully functioning wardrobe and is also expressive of individuality without being too “screechy”.
“Women have more buying power than ever. Globally, they control some $20 trillion [£13.2 trillion] in spending. By 2014, this figure is expected to rise to $28 trillion [£18.5 trillion],” reports The Huffington Post. As illustrated by the runaway success of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, this growing class of female heavy-hitters is prepared to take risks, as well as express wishes and wants.
A fashion designer’s job is to give us what we didn’t know we wanted, and that understanding is informed by the commercial reality of what is selling in store as well as a creative push to drive fashion forward. Here’s a list for starters: a slightly oversized coat in a nougat shade with a soft, strokable texture; a flippy-hemmed skirt that gives you a fabulous wiggle; a wide leather belt to cinch around just about everything; a sheath dress with a “slept in” texture; a pair of lounge pyjamas; and lastly, a wet-look gel spray for that “just got out of the shower” hair. All agreed, the portrait of this new woman looks rather ravishing.