This season suits have all the power.
Perfect Suits For Every AgeThe suit is back in fashion for women. In the midst of layoffs,
unemployment and uncertainty about the future, this may seem
like strange timing. But the return of this work staple is actually a
surprisingly straightforward response by fashion designers to the
financial crisis. Work, after all, is the new luxury.
"There were two messages on fall's runways, one that was aggressive
and downtown and one that was very polished and refined,"explains Ken Downing, senior vice president and fashion director of Neiman Marcus. Both, notably, emphasized jackets and careful tailoring.
In Pictures: Perfect Suits For Every Age
The ubiquitous skirt suits and pant suits on fall's runways reflect a "back to basics" mood, a marked departure from the flirty dresses that have dominated retailers' floors for the last several years. Designers and retailers are betting that this fashion shift will bring women back to the dressing room and shopping again. The hope is that women are far more likely to spend money on tailored suits that will bolster their appearance at work--or at job interviews--than they will for the trendy items of recent years, such as pricey handbags or skinny jeans.
"I work in a very casual office and can wear jeans to work, but I absolutely don't do that now," says Paget Pizitz, who does development and fund-raising for the Council on Economic Education in Birmingham, Ala. "I want to put the best face on at work that I can. The recession has been a wake-up call, because a lot of people have gotten lazy [with their dress]." Pizitz recently bought a light pink suit from Trina Turk and a tailored pantsuit from Banana Republic.
Pizitz isn't the only one returning to more professional fashions. Retailer Ann Taylor reported a 24.5% drop in sales in the fourth quarter of 2008 compared with the previous year but saw a hopeful sign in suit sales. In the company's fourth-quarter conference call with investors, CEO Katherine Krill said, "I didn't think anybody really needed a new suit, but we are seeing the suit business at Ann Taylor take an uptick, which I think is very encouraging." She added that the trend is a sign that "people need interview suits."
Net-a-Porter.com, which gained prominence by making avant-garde runway looks available to online shoppers, launched a "work wear" boutique on the site in early April with an eye toward cashing in on the rising interest in career outfits. Divided into three categories (corporate, creative and professional), the site lets women shop for designer suits while keeping longer hours at their desks.
The shift to suits is likely to intensify as fall collections--and less expensive versions--hit stores in the coming months.
Designers like Balmain and Marc Jacobs showed jackets with broad padded shoulders reminiscent of 1980s working-girl chic. They're banking on younger women favoring them for their retro appeal. At the other end of the spectrum, Oscar de la Renta showed a more feminine eggplant silk wool pantsuit paired with a belted blouse.
Not surprisingly, designers who made their mark with power suits in the past have decided to update the staple this season. Giorgio Armani's fresh version is a sharp one-button jacket with defined shoulders paired with a tulip skirt. Meanwhile, Donna Karan played with her recession-friendly "seven easy pieces" idea. A jacket, draped top, lean skirt, tapered trousers, trench coat, bodysuit and white button down are all you need to complete the uniform, and all the pieces can be mixed and matched to create dozens of looks for the office and after work. At Jil Sander, designer Raf Simons is offering minimalist suits in camel and black, which are reminiscent of Sander's pantsuits from the 1980s. "This is Jil's heritage," Simons says. "I like it and it's always there, but sometimes we don't show it."
Designer Narciso Rodriguez, weighing the impact of the economy on shoppers, says, "There is more perceived value in a well-made suit or coat that you can wear several times a week for several seasons. As a designer, I always want to create the perfect piece that might be cherished and worn again and again." Rodriguez showed many tailored pieces in his fall collection, including a khaki pantsuit with a boxy jacket and tight legging-like pants.
Albert Kriemler who designs for Akris, a brand that has long catered to executive women, was particularly keen on pleasing his core customer group this season. "It's not the time for drama," says Kriemler. "When we want to reach out to our customer today, we have to inspire her to invest in something which adds to her wardrobe."
A standout in the collection was a perfectly tailored deep Bordeaux-colored pantsuit with leather detailing--the kind of outfit that would seamlessly fit into the wardrobe of a top CEO who needs to move from boardroom to dinner party. "For Wall Street, in political surroundings or anywhere else, a woman's clothes need be sincerely comfortable, modern and chic," says Kriemler. "The highest compliment a woman can get is that she looks interesting and smart, timeless in a way, and not at all trendy."
Even up-and-coming brands are going the tailored route this season, including Ohne Titel and Brian Reyes. "There are so many strong women in the corporate world, and they need a suit," says Reyes. "We used faux fur, interesting prints and special fabrics to give the suiting more interest."
Flora Gill, one of the two designers behind the young upstart Ohne Titel label, says, "Suiting inherently gives the wearer a feeling of power and presence."
While it remains to be seen how shoppers will respond to fall's tailored looks, at least fashion is back to business and is offering women what they may need most--as well as something they haven't had much of in recent years. "Women have never left suits, but there is a newness to them this season," says Neiman Marcus' Downing. "Even in challenged times the fashion customer wants what's new."
In Pictures: Perfect Suits For Every Age
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