The other day I was reading the Ask Vanessa column in the NYTimes by the fashion critic Vanessa Friedman and a reader asked “How can I dress like a designer? It’s not that I want to fool the world into thinking I run a fashion brand, but I am always struck by the fact that they never look as though they are trying too hard but they always look elegant: cool but functional. What do they pick for themselves?”
Vanessa tried to navigate this conundrum, which is that most designers never wear what they show on the runway, they mostly stick a very minimalist palette of black. Sure, there are exceptions, Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen wear their The Row clothes, but they also fit into that category. Miuccia Prada wears skirts and heels with a coat or sweater almost exclusively and Marc Jacobs really goes for it these days when he gets dressed. But for the most part, designers have a uniform–a very clean, incredibly simple uniform that doesn’t relate to their work.
Their reasoning? “The truth is, most designers, men or women, don’t see themselves as living billboards for their own work — at least in their working lives….Both Maria Grazia Chiuri, the artistic director of Dior women’s wear, and Virginie Viard, the creative director of Chanel, took their bows in simple black suits from their brands. Black was also the color of choice of Pierpaolo Piccioli of Valentino, Haider Ackermann of Jean Paul Gaultier and Daniel Roseberry of Schiaparelli.
“Since my 20s, I’ve been in a uniform,” Mr. Roseberry said when I asked. “This Canadian tuxedo” — he gestured at what he was wearing: a faded denim shirt and faded jeans — “or black Carhartt pants and a black T-shirt. It lets me direct all my energy at my work.”
Mr. Ackermann said he was always in black and white or blue, the better to let his collections “do the talking.” Similarly, Mr. Piccioli, who wears black pants from his men’s collection with a black T-shirt when it is warm and a black sweatshirt in the winter, said that wearing the same thing pretty much every day “lets you keep some distance from your job.””
I am not convinced. Frankly, I think most of the top fashion editors and designers create a uniform because they know that is what ultimately works best. All the razzle dazzle that gets sent down the runways, while gorgeous and fun (sometimes) starts to feel like noise. Their work can feel almost disingenuous. How do you sell a lifestyle you don’t personally embrace? And…when you think of all the style icons we constantly reference–Jackie O., Lee Radzwill, Jane Birkin, Sade, Cathrine Deneuve, Audrey Hepburn, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy to name a few, it is not the frothy gowns they occasionally wore that spark our admiration, it’s their trench coats and simple turtleneck-and-jeans looks. There are women designers who practice what they preach–Elin Kling of Toteme, the Olsens, Stella McCartney, Nili Lotan and the newer Sisi Li of Nells Nelson and Maria McManus. I think that is also the reason their designs have become so appealing to so many of us–they craft uniforms for life, not occasion clothes.
This leads me to an old obsession that was reignited after seeing the new image below.
That is a black leather trench coat. It’s one of those eternal wish list wants that I never been able to justify, because it’s expensive and also because it’s a lot of leather. That said, my recent Toteme shearling coat purchase was so worth it; it makes me happy and it’s nice to have something that stands out a bit. A leather trench feels so French to me, sexy but still classic. Nili Lotan does have a perfect one that is under $3000. I need to think on it and go try it on. It would be a forever piece, but the window to wear one is short. And I’m not sure it’s where I want my money to go. I’ll let you know my decision.
Stylish ladies – plumped too much tho’ – looks so unsaturated and idly kinda cheap!
I hear you, but I do not speak for people’s dermatological choices. I was looking at the clothes!
I scored a Prada black leather trench at an old Barney’s warehouse sale. sigh… I treasure it and it’s still the gift that keeps on giving. Love your posts!
Excellent post! You’re so thoughtful.
Jean O'Korn says
I see what you like, but I think the black leather trench is a little too MATRIX! You would probably get tired of it quickly, just saying..
Love this post — everything rings so true to me. And if a leather trench could make me look as free and glam as Catherine Deneuve in that photo, well, I’m in. 🙂
Right?! Though looking as glam as Deneuve is a high bar.
Zaheva Knowles says
Hi. I really enjoy your blog but felt it was important to point out that all of the style “icons” you refer to here are white, wealthy, women, most of whom are deceased. While I agree that they all were/are very chic, isn’t it time we discover and celebrate some younger (living) and more diverse “style icons”?
PS: I love the leather trench look!
YES! You are 100% right. And most of the designers mentioned are white too. I should have definitely included Sade, and will now, but that still doesn’t speak to younger women or hardly address the lack of diversity. I’d love any feedback from anyone reading this (you included) on who they think has style today. In fact, I think this is a post for next week. Thank you!
Zaheva Knowles says
Well, this question of “who are the new, young, diverse, style icons” led to a very interesting text exchange amongst my girlfriends, and forced us to ask questions about what a style icon is and what it means to be one. Is it only someone with access to luxury labels? Is it someone who effortlessly mixes high and low? Or is it something less tangible that simply shines through in what one wears? Does it count if you have a stylist? Are there non-celebrity icons? And how does culture play a role? We didn’t find the answers, but here are a few names that came up for starters: Samira Nasr; Tracee Ellis Ross; Julia Sarr-Jamois; Angelina Jolie; Tamu Mcpherson; and June Ambrose.
I love Samira Nasr. She has amazing style. I like Tracee Ellis Ross too, but her style is more what I like to look at, whereas Samira is who I want to dress like completely.
Love Samira (and she is a lovely human too). Tracey is fun to watch because you can tell she thoroughly enjoys clothes.
It is interesting topic. Most of the women I’ve mentioned have stylists and the women you’ve mentioned are in fashion or work with stylists. Still they all have a style that comes through (which many women and men who have stylists still don’t have). Do some influencers count? There are a couple who have consistent style that I like. But then again, do there need to be rules?
I’d love to know about the influencers you like! They’re hard to find, as many are still wearing unrealistic daily wear – it’s too much of a photoshoot.
Desiree Alexander says
It can take years to find your signature uniform look, but once you have it, morning dressing becomes so simple and nice. Thanks for all the interesting articles you wrote ✍️. Greetings from Thailand!
I like Neelam Ahooja’s style. She’s edgier than me but I love the clean lines she wears.
totally agree about Neelam She’s got great style & yes, the Row is out of reach for many but you can find a similar style at lower price points & she does talk about that. Has a more modern take on style.
What a great read! Yes, I’m far interested in studying the style of those who can actually have an impact on my own style. I have never been particularly interested in red carpet dressing.
I love Neelam too!
Notice I NEVER do stories on red carpet dressing. Could care less.
yes! Love Neelam!
I think it’s sad when female designers don’t wear their own designs bar the most basic of their designs (Maria at Dior and Virginie at Chanel). After all they speak about dressing the diverse women not just young, slim or models! It’s more interesting to me that Mrs Prada wears her own designs and shows how well her clothes works for ‘older’ women who aren’t model thin.
‘Tricia Low says
Cos has beautiful leather trench coats, beautifully made and not overpriced. Navy and black I think.
That might make a lot more sense.
While I can see the pull of a black leather trench, for me it’s a garment that you will always see first — and only then the woman wearing it. I think the Stephanie Seymour photo (despite her beauty) makes my point. Although Deneuve certainly has the innate glamour to wear her coat instead of it wearing her. Love all the thoughtful comments here about style and appreciate your platform, Jennifer.
Thanks and I see your point. But sometimes, I’m ok with having a piece that gets noticed. Especially when I’m in black blazers and pants most of the time.
A style icon to me is someone I can take daily outfit inspiration from. Throw on and go kind of clothes, because picking out outfits isn’t my cup of tea. Inspiration can be taken from their outfits no matter what your clothing budget is, and most of the time you already have those clothing pieces in your closet.
Yes, agree. It’s also because like I mentioned, they have a very classic, clean style. It becomes more about the woman in the clothes than the clothes.
Dana D says
I really appreciate the input here regarding ethnic and financial diversity. Yes please to Sade (is there a more gorgeous human being?) and also Megan O’Neill (goop beauty editor). I like the idea of a black satin trench. Side by side comparison of a lot of leather (as you suggested Jennifer)
and a lighter, more season-friendly fabric.
The comment about Barneys brought back memories. I scored some lovely pieces when they closed! I still really love The Real Real–good customer service and fun to browse.
The Real Real has some good black leather trench coats right now. There’s a RL collection one that would fit you I think. I agree with you about why designers dress the way they do….100%. Love all the comments here and also concur.
Love this sentiment of dressing well everyday by tweaking an arsenal of pieces that comprise your uniform.
1. Re: Dressing for an ‘occasion’ versus every day. I’d argue that the definition of ‘occasion’ has expanded beyond vacation/ anniversary, holiday/ award show to include, for some, performing each day by assuming the mantle of influencer, which makes each public / Zoom hour a tedious occasion. This distinction between occasion —dressing to acknowledge the significance of an event— and every day —authentically dressing to feel and communicate self— is blurred. I think this is why the dissonance around the leather trench is happening. It’s so freakin cool— and to a degree impractical— that it transcends the aspirations of every day. It veers into occasion.
2. I think here of the sentiment that fashion should be fun vs. the competing, concurrent idea of tsk tsking clothes that, if not worn with a really deft interpretation, can read as crazy kooky instead of fun —or worse déclassé!— and to avoid that, maintaining a strict bandwidth of neutral colors and classic lines. Someone who interprets this whole scene exceedingly well is Amy Smilovic of Tibi.
Angela Bassett is amazingly stylish and ageless!