spend or splurge? why £300 has become fashion’s price-tag sweet spot
One good item that fits your body shape and lifestyle is worth more than several cheap versions
Anna Murphy, 11 January 2017
Ironically, women who work in the fashion industry, including journalists, tend to be the worst people to ask for practical advice about clothes. Why? Because either they think nothing of dropping £700-plus on a pair of Céline trousers or they think something about it but go ahead and buy them anyway. (That “something” usually goes as follows: “Yes, those trews cost a lot but they will be worth it.” It’s reasoning that may resonate with some but will enrage others.)
Yet this is far removed from the reality of every other woman I know. Even my more affluent non-fashion friends — be they civil servant or property developer, writer or QC — would never spend that kind of money on a pair of trousers. Some could afford to, but they just wouldn’t. Most would balk at that sum even for a so-called investment purchase such as a bag.
Luckily, increasing numbers of fashion retailers are cottoning on to what kind of price represents a big purchase for most of us. The fashion search engine Lyst, which aggregates more than 12,000 online fashion retailers, has 20 per cent more items priced between £300 and £350 than it did last year. The majority of coat and bag searches on the website have a maximum price set of £350.
The personal stylist Annabel Hodin, who overhauls the wardrobes of women who tend to have well above the average household income, talks about what she calls “the guilty £500”. This is the price tag, she tells me, which is often “too much of a squeeze” for her clients.
Hodin herself has high-end fashion flowing in her preternaturally chic veins and indeed has a pair of Céline trousers in her wardrobe to prove it. (“I felt sick when I paid for them, but they are better than every other pair I own and transform every outfit.”) She understands the good sense in buying what she calls “core pieces” at about £300 to £400 and notes sternly that one should pay nothing more than Zara or Cos prices for more trend-led items.
Which brings me to another email correspondence of mine this week, with a glamorous friend in her sixties — the property developer — who, at odds with her normal comparative abstemiousness, bought a £650 little black dress. It was fabulous, she could afford it and it would be the star turn at a party, but she couldn’t get her head around how much it cost: the even more guilty £650. She sent me a picture of her wearing it. Should she keep it?
Suffice to say, it’s going back to the shop: we both agreed that its on-trend statement sleeves would make it date in no time and her relief when we reached this conclusion was palpable. (Another reason why most fashion professionals are the last people to offer practical advice: statement sleeves and all the other whirligig trends are their sartorial bread and butter. They never say no whereas most of us should, most of the time.)
Hodin’s top three go-to brands for clients are Theory (“such a good cut”), Joseph (“it has a trouser shape that works for everyone”) and LK Bennett (“it looks carefully at what the catwalk designers are doing then interprets it to work for the rest of us”). All offer higher-priced pieces, of course, but there is plenty around the three-something mark. I have my eye on Theory’s grey, wide-leg tweed Asamaris trousers (£305, selfridges.com), Joseph’s sailor-stripe cashmere sweater (£345, joseph-fashion.com) and LK Bennett’s budget-edging red and gold silk Elowen dress (£425, lkbennett.com).
She has another trio of labels up her non-statement sleeves for clients with more specific needs: “If a woman wants casual clothes I rate Massimo Dutti. If she is in a corporate world I always look at Reiss, and if she is creative there are great things in that price range at Tara Jarmon.” She tells me she also keeps an eye on Jigsaw and DKNY.
Interestingly, Hodin argues that it is usually unrealistic to expect any purchase to last beyond three years. “That is how long the cycle of trends lasts and things can start to look slightly wrong after that.” Certainly in my experience even the most investment-y brand of jacket or bag can — annoyingly — begin to look slightly “off” after a while. Another reason not to spend too much.
Hodin also argues in favour of shopping in store rather than online. “Otherwise how do you know what the quality or the fit is? Online shopping is terribly dangerous.” And, relatedly, that we should be prioritising fit over every other consideration and focusing on spending more on the items most relevant to our lives. “If you work in an office you want a really good jacket because that is what gets seen above your desk. That is what will make you look both sexy and powerful.” Well, quite.
Let’s be clear: £300-something is a lot of money. And once you factor in shoes, bag and two or three other pieces you are easily looking at £1,500 for an outfit. But Hodin argues that if you shop with a plan, buying only things designed to fit with what you already have and that work with your body shape and your lifestyle, you will — over time — end up spending less than if you take a more scattergun approach to buying more that’s cheaper. I am inclined to think she is right. And if that means shopping more like those darned Parisiennes, well, much as it pains me, so be it.
10 ways to style modern workwear: tailoring, checks and the statement top
Here’s how to update your office look for autumn
Carolyn Asome, 27 August 2017
1 Get into tailoring
If you’ve lamented the lack of office-appropriate clothing on the catwalks in recent seasons, you will be spoilt for choice this autumn. Tailoring, specifically of the double-breasted variety, was out in force, notably at Céline, Stella McCartney, Calvin Klein — heck, most places. It has lost its workaday slant by being fabulously cut; these jackets were often teamed with sharp, pressed trousers with turn-ups, which recalled a rakish, Katharine Hepburn-style elegance. Strong, slightly oversized shoulders à la Balenciaga are an option for the fashion-forward, but, really, the beauty of this trend is that there is something for everyone and at every price.
2 Alternatively, mimic the effect of tailoring
During many years of looking at what stylish, high-flying women wear to the office, I’ve observed that their staples are mostly classic pieces with subtle tweaks: interesting necklines, contrasting cuffs. An easy way to do this is to find slim-fitting separates with interesting fabrics, prints and colours, which create the outline of a suit but are softer. For example, a belted velvet jacket is a chic substitute. The US Vogue editor, Anna Wintour, does this particularly well, choosing pencil skirts and knitwear that always look boardroom-ready.
3 Don’t forget the power of the statement top
Dressing from the waist up (with a trophy top or simple shift dress with an exquisite neckline) is where it’s at, according to Polly McMaster, founder of the Fold, the go-to for high-flyers who want to retain some individuality. “Increasingly we’ve seen women swapping suit jackets for tailored tops, so for AW17 we created statement tops with unique cuts and intricate details, particularly around the neckline. It’s an effortless way to dress up a look, and is especially effective for a meeting or interview where your top half is on show.”
4 Where to bare
You can offset revealing more skin by wearing a longer skirt. Lower your hemline (a good few inches below the knee is the most au courant length) and you’ll be surprised by how much more office-appropriate bare arms seem. A bracelet-cut jacket sleeve is another simple way to look less buttoned-up without revealing inappropriate cleavage.
5 Check out checks
Macro or micro checks are another trend that lend themselves neatly to office culture, as they will make you stand out without resorting to a riot of colour or dizzying, distracting digital prints. Myriad checks, from monochrome Prince of Wales style to tartan, add visual interest, colour, pattern and a touch of retro to suiting or knitwear, while offering the chance to indulge in beautiful heritage tweed fabrics. They look most fresh when worn head to toe in a trouser suit, as seen at Alexander Wang and Tibi AW17.
6 Don’t forget about knitwear
Knits don’t need to be bulky or only worn on weekends. They can be a less fusty alternative to blouses or shirts, and look and feel softer, especially cotton, modal and cashmere, which are surprisingly lightweight, ensuring you are covered up without sweltering in stiff fabrics. “Think sensual but businesslike,” says the personal stylist Annabel Hodin, who reckons luxey soft knits by Joseph or John Smedley tucked into high-waisted trousers or V-neck sweaters under double-breasted jackets look more modern than traditional blouses, yet are equally as pulled together and streamlined for the office.
7 Go with the low — or fly high
If you want to feel elevated but be able to walk further than the photocopier, then go with low heels. High on a fashion editor’s wish list are those by Tabitha Simmons, Jimmy Choo and Gucci. Rather than round-toe styles, opt for pointed toes — they somehow make you look taller and your legs slimmer. If you are still wedded to heels, Sandra Choi, creative director at Jimmy Choo, believes that the stiletto and the chunky heel can coexist. “We have redesigned and reproportioned the stiletto in the Romy shoe. The slender heel with the wider base gives the illusion of height, with the added bonuses of stability and comfort.” Choo’s Letty and Tiff also look smart, and their straps and fastening details add a visual interest to a work outfit.
8 Experiment with colour
Aside from the obvious navy, camel and grey, you should experiment with burgundy, olive, bottle green, chocolate and teal, which are not so out-there that you’ll scare the horses, but are a way of adding interest to your outfit and lightening your complexion. A powdery 1940s blue also loomed large on the AW17 catwalks — check out Lemaire. And Lisa Aiken, retail fashion director at Net-a-porter, says it’s all about scarlet fever, red as “a vibrant accent worn with sleek tailoring and denim”. In fact, she bought nearly 100 styles of red shoes for the website to prove it.
9 Try the waist whittler
The catwalks were filled with cinched-at-the-waist sci-fi heroines (Balenciaga) and architectural silhouettes with a whiff of Miss Moneypenny (Jacquemus). A belt will add a feminine touch to a mannish check trouser suit and will render oversized tailoring more wearable, while giving a seemingly conservative top note to your office outfit. For the easiest, most foolproof way of doing snappy and pulled-together, look no further.
10 Finally, be the best version of yourself
This is easier said than done, but sometimes it pays to have a uniform. “It will help you to stand out from the crowd because you will always be recognisably ‘you’,” says Alice Olins, co-founder of the Step-Up Club, a modern female careers network. The Cefinn founder Samantha Cameron, who knows how to ace a formal occasion, says: “Feeling all wrong in what you are wearing can ruin an important meeting. Don’t take risks on a big day, confidence means wearing something appropriate that you know suits you; ideally something with a bit of attitude, but tried and tested.”
efficiency chic: it’s the new power dressing
How to look like you mean business
Anna Murphy, 3 August 2016
Theresa May was spotted in that Vivienne Westwood trouser suit of hers again the other day. You know the one: grey, with the peculiar ruched collar. “Mmmm,” observed a friend. “Do you think she has reached the limits of her wardrobe? And does that mean that people are finally going to stop being interested in her clothes?”
Yes to the first question, pretty much. The next day she worked an Amanda Wakeley coat she had worn before, yet in a new colour, so it was the same but different. May is recycling — either literally or with a tweak here or there — because she is chiefly about things other than clothes. What she wears needs to remind us that she is too busy, too serious, to spend too much time on her attire. Yet she also needs to demonstrate that she is the kind of person to get things right, and that includes her sartorial choices. For her, showcasing a wardrobe that is small yet perfectly formed is politic, literally.
It is efficiency chic, more than anything else, that the modern working woman should set out to master, or rather, mistress. (Even our language hasn’t fully caught up with a world in which we may soon — please! — have a female president of the United States as well as a female UK prime minister.)
“It’s not about a uniform,” says the personal stylist Annabel Hodin, who works with high-powered women in a wide range of professional spheres. “It’s about a blueprint that makes your life easier.”
To learn how to use your clothes to spotlight your talents rather than distract from them or cloak them is one of the best investments in your future you can make. (Another thing May has shown us is just how quickly, if you play — and dress — your cards right, that future can become the present.)
So here’s how to do it.
1. Keep it simple . . .
When it comes to efficiency chic, less is definitely more. Minimal line-breaks — courtesy of a dress, longline jacket or jumpsuit — will smooth out your figure. Goat, Reiss and Me+ Em all do simplicity well. (I love Goat’s black Calypso jumpsuit, £680, goatfashion.com.)
Simple means streamlining the numbers too. Cull what isn’t working in your wardrobe; only add things that do. If in doubt, take it back. The less crammed the rails you face each morning, the more time you have to plot global domination.
2. . . . and comfortable
“Don’t underestimate how important it is to feel — and look — comfortable,” says Hodin. Anything too tight will attract the wrong kind of attention. So will your inability to walk in that skirt or pair of shoes.
3. Think — and shop — in outfits
We put time and effort into pulling off the head-to-toe look for special occasions, shopping for an outfit designed as a whole for that wedding or cocktail party, co-ordinating colour and shape. Why not take the same approach when it comes to the office? Hodin recommends investing in an entire outfit from one brand, as they are designed to be worn together. Ever envied the working man his simple suit? Find your own alternative. “You don’t need to be in a suit, but you do need to be in an outfit,” says Hodin.
The coat is the ultimate ready-made look, of course. As the designer Michael Kors told me recently: “Something ugly can be made better. Just put a fabulous coat on top.” Buy yours from Zara, Harris Wharf London, Marni or, of course, Michael Kors, budget permitting.
4. Keep it in proportion
If you should learn one thing, it’s what works for your body shape. Which is where hiring a professional like Hodin is hard to beat. “You need to learn how best to split your body,” she says. “If you are short, for example, you need to elongate, which means you want a waist, rather than a boxy style, and you want flesh at the neck, wrist, ankle — three-quarter-length sleeves and cropped trousers.”
At the end of the day, it’s all about the three Fs: fit, fit and fit.
5. Know your fabrics . . .
Avoid fabrics that crease. Apply the scrunch test if you aren’t sure. Shiny fabrics can be tricky if you have not the body shape that gets booked for the Victoria’s Secret show, while stretch fabrics are everybody’s friend, particularly when it comes to trousers.
Learn how to recognise good quality in a fabric, especially if your budget dictates that you shop at the cheaper end of the high street. The right pieces for you — and your professional ambitions — are there: you may have to work harder to find them.
6. . . . and your brands
Many brands specialise in a particular size or shape.
7. Embrace professional body-con
You don’t need me to tell you that flashing your cleavage or thighs isn’t going to help you play the long game in the workplace. Or at least I hope you don’t. And we have already established that tight is no good. However, at least one item of clothing in every ensemble should be fitted — a nipped-in jacket, say, or a slimline skirt — to help you look with it and (just as important) feminine.
Many of us have the tendency to want to mask areas we are unhappy with. That can be a disastrous approach. Wide hips, for example, are better disguised by a straight-leg or capri trouser, not a wide leg. “Follow the line of the body,” says Hodin. “Few people can afford to ignore it.”
A flash of office-appropriate flesh, such as the ankles, courtesy of the new season’s ubiquitous cropped trousers, or — if your triceps can take the strain, the upper arms — will also provide a feminising touch.
8. Beware fashion
Trends are not necessarily your friend. If you don’t look good in trousers — cropped or otherwise — don’t wear them. If you are not sure about whether a new cut or colour works for you, try it on, take a picture, then go away and think about it. Trends are a way to refresh your look, not revolutionise it, and should be used sparingly as an accent.
9. Accessorise with intent
The idea of buying the best bag and shoes you can afford is a cliché for a reason. There is no better way to look like you mean business than to carry some great arm candy or step out in beautiful footwear. I would be wary of being too look-at-me about either, though. “I don’t think you look as senior with novelty-colour shoes,” says Jennifer Emery, of the city law firm CMS Cameron McKenna, whom Annabel consults for.
10. . . . and a role model
If there is a woman whom you think has nailed a workplace look that is right for you, rip her off; sorry, take inspiration from her.
11. Colour me powerful
Head-to-toe black risks making you look like an undertaker — not very future forward — yet a less funereal approach to monochrome flatters everyone. “It’s like a picture frame pulling you together,” says Hodin.
12. Shop like a 1950s man
Remember how your dad used to buy three of the same thing? Follow his lead. (Though not in those geography-teacher trousers he was bulk-buying.) If you find something that works for you, buy it in different colours, like May did with that Amanda Wakeley coat. But press pause before you do so. Wear the prototype first, several times. Is it as good as you think it is?
13. Shop in store, not online
Check the fit, the proportion, the fabric, the way you move in it, the way it makes you feel. What kind of woman are you in this outfit? If it makes you come over all glass-ceiling-buster, get ye to the till sharpish. Another tip from Hodin is look what’s on the mannequins: “The window dressers will usually use the best available looks.”
look fabulous over 40: the fashionista’s guide
There are lots of things to do with getting older about which it is reasonable to feel annoyed. But I don’t believe that getting dressed should be one of them.
Anna Murphy, 27 April 2017
Remember how you wasted time in your teens and twenties on the wrong friends, the wrong partners? It’s the same with clothes. Now we are old enough and wise enough to dump the trends that don’t work for us, like the frenemies they always were. Plus we have got our eye in as to what does work. These days I can spot at 20 paces a pair of trousers that will flatter me.
We aren’t expected to dress like teenagers, or, conversely, like oldies. But we can take the best lessons from what were once the uniforms of both. Put a man or woman of any age in a well-tailored trouser suit and a pair of Converse and they’ll look great.
We don’t have to dress our age any more, just ourselves. But if you aren’t confident about who that sartorial self might be, here’s my guide to finding it.
The great liberation about getting dressed when you are over 40 is that it is about only one thing — you. The endgame is to look your best, which doesn’t necessarily mean fashionable, or cool — although both of those might do nicely — but that definitely does mean finding the form of sartorial airbrushing that works for you. For your sense of style, your body, your colouring, your life. It pays to have some rules of thumb. Here are mine.
1 Embrace the one-hit wonder
The cleverest (for which read simplest) way to find your stylistic mojo is to find your thing, your one thing, that will singlehandedly lift every outfit. Everything else can be pared back and plain. Just that one flourish — as long as it’s suitably fabulous — will render you suitably fabulous too.
Note: you can stick to a single line of attack — make it always, say, about the jacket— jacket, bag, shoe, lipstick.
2 Know your neutral(s) . . .
Of course, all that glorious grandstanding delivered by a one-hit wonder is predicated on it having the right background — plain Jane separates that fit and flatter. Does black or navy work better for you? (Navy often looks less harsh, especially next to older skin.) Or perhaps khaki, a new perma-trend in the making that looked cool and classy on the spring/summer catwalks.
3 . . . and your body
Similarly, find a skirt shape that works for you, a trouser shape — if possible an overall silhouette. Stick to it. You need to emphasise the neatest part of your physique. For most of us at this stage in the game it’s about working with your inner orchard — your appleness or your pearness. If you aren’t sure how to walk the line — or rather your lines — call in the services of a professional shopper, such as Annabel Hodin (annabelhodin.com).
4 Remember the power of pale
Lots of women fade to grey, or, more likely, black as they age. Sure, mastering your neutrals is key. But the pale hues — blues, pinks and straight-down-the-line white — can do wonders for your complexion and endow a youthful feel. A shirt, a jacket, trousers, even a dress. You’ll definitely look and feel up for a night out, although I can’t guarantee that you will end up being carded.
5 Add teen spirit
You can channel 95 per cent boring, but if that other 5 per cent isn’t — be it in the form of mad sunglasses or crazy lippy — you won’t look it. It’s what grown-up members of the fashion pack do. Join them.
everything you need to know about buying the perfect trousers
Spend, spend, spend, know your shape and make friends with a tailor — the fashion director’s rules for smart shopping
Anna Murphy, 26 July 2017
I chop and change a lot when it comes to what I wear. It’s my job to do so. If I can’t get excited about clothes — about what’s new and its gamechanger potential — then who can? However, my default, my fallback, my uniform, is a fabulous pair of trousers. The evidence? The navy and black trouser section of my wardrobe is — how shall I put it? — expansive.
Why? Because trousers are flexible: you can reinvent a neutrally hued pair endlessly depending what you wear them with, which saves money and time.
What’s more, the right trousers look easy, flattering, youthful. While it may seem simple to find a skirt that works, in practice it can prove trickier. A skirt-centred ensemble can look frumpy and fussy.
The problem, of course, is tracking down the best pair for you. Unless you have a boyish figure, the hunt can be far from straightforward. Alas, it is not just Wallace and Gromit who have found themselves ending up with The Wrong Trousers.
This is why when I talk to many non-fashion women — especially curvier ones — they tell me they have given up on the genre entirely.
But you trouser-deniers out there are making a mistake. So here is my definitive guide:
If you’ve got the money, spend the money
First off, the bad news for those on a tight budget. You really do get what you pay for. As Avril Mair, the fashion director of Harper’s Bazaar, puts it: “Throwing money at the problem is the only way to go: the cut and drape is everything.” Mair’s top pick? “The Row makes the best trousers money can buy. They sit low on the waist and have some super-luxe fabric blends. The price point is ridiculous, but quality costs and lasts. I hang on to mine for ever.” (From £490, net-a-porter.com.)
For Rebecca Lowthorpe, the fashion director of Grazia, it’s all about Céline. “I am 5ft 11in and the high street simply doesn’t cut things long enough, so trousers are my designer investment. Céline is eye-wateringly expensive, but the cuts don’t date, the fabric doesn’t pill, the quality is formidable. I buy one pair a year, and I am still wearing its trousers from ten years ago.” (From £490, celine.com.)
My guilty secrets — until now — are Racil (from £365, matchesfashion.com) and Osman. Osman pants are made from stretch fabric with a bit higher rise in the back [more on this later] so they curve around your shape. The bigger sizes consistently sell out.” (The black or white cropped Yasmin style is £375; matchesfashion.com.)
Back in the real world . . .
My go-to high-street label is ME+EM, which is headed by Clare Hornby. “I am totally fixated on making women look taller and slimmer. Unusually, we fit on three body types for each size to ensure the trouser suits each shape. And we ensure that all our trousers are easy to shorten.”
Personal shoppers have peerless pavement-pounding expertise when it comes to what works for women of all shapes and sizes. Annabel Hodin (annabelhodin.com) rates LK Bennett, Whistles and Reiss on the high street at the moment, and Joseph, Theory, Piazza Sempione in the mid-range.
Think of your trousers as part of an outfit, because that is — to state the obvious — what they are. “You need to make your wider bit look narrower,” says Hodin, whether you are petite or curvy. “If you try to circumvent a part of your body you don’t like, you make it look worse. You need to control it.” That’s why she’s a fan of emphasising the waist and recommends a top or jacket that crops on or above the hip for almost all of us. “Covering your hips with a shirt or jacket doesn’t work.” If you insist on wearing a baggy, unwaisted top, it’s strictly slim-cut trousers only on the bottom half.
A side stripe detail can elongate your legs. Don’t underestimate other trompe-l’oeil tricks.
The power of the crop
The world is full of crop-trouser naysayers. However, they tend to be women who haven’t actually tried them. Whatever one thinks of the rest of one’s legs, it’s the ankles that are their slimmest point. And, despite misconceptions to the contrary, the cropped trouser works well whether you are tall or short. Just avoid a clumpy flat shoe if you are petite.
The 20-minute test
When embarking on solo forays Hodin’s personal shopping clients have a strict series of instructions to follow. First, they have to scrunch up the fabric to see if it creases. Then they have to wear their putative purchase for 20 minutes and spend that time walking around, sitting down and doing star jumps (OK, I made that last bit up). “Have the trousers developed camel toe or gone saggy at the bum or waist,” asks Hodin. “Does the leg length stay the same as it initially appeared?” With attention to detail like this she should obviously be working on the Brexit negotiations. Is it wrong of me to be happy that she is taking charge of our trews-buying instead?
Rare is the woman who doesn’t benefit from a bit of a stretch and — praise be to the god(dess) of trousers — there have been huge advances with fabrics that look tailored, yet feel anything but.
Make friends with a tailor
This may sound obvious, but it took me years to work out. Buy for your biggest bits and have the rest tailored to fit. As Kenya Hunt, the fashion features director of Elle, puts it: “I have always had a little bit of thigh and a smidge of booty.” (A smidge of booty. I am going to start use that one.) “So I always get left with a gap of fabric at the waist.” Snap. Most of us are between two sizes. Don’t make the mistake of buying the smaller one. Buy large and get the waist altered. It will cost you £20 and will make your trousers look twice as expensive. If you are skinny you may need to get what Hodin calls “the wings” taken in from the outside hip, and/or tweak the inner thigh or crotch area. “You don’t want to look droopy or waif-like,” she says.
Look along the front row of any fashion show and at least 90 per cent of my cohort will be wearing trousers. That’s right: despite the renaissance of the floral dress, despite asymmetric hems and ruffle skirts, most fashion women wear strides most of the time, you just need the right cut for you.