It’s the season of the suit – and it’s time to wear it your way, says Sarah Macken …
This season, 13 different designers began their show with the same look: a black suit and a white shirt. No, it wasn’t a series of faux pas, or a glitch in the fashion Matrix. Rather, the shows were in unison about one thing: the suit is back. And it’s not the soft and fuzzy version of tailoring that’s abounded for the last few seasons; the trend now is masculine, it means business and it’s super-luxurious; “This is traditional suiting that takes cues from men’s tailoring – polished, precision cuts paired with black tie accessories. The looks had an extremely androgynous feel, promoting the idea of gender neutrality,” says Libby Page, market director at Net-a- Porter.
Indeed, as different interpretations of tailoring sauntered down the runway, it was clear that if the autumn winter fashion shows were a magical mystery tour – a swirl of references – the destination was Savile Row. At The Row, traditional trouser suits were draped so elegantly on models they had a couture-like appeal. Alexander McQueen was all about structure – and a wardrobe of mannish suiting fit for Miranda Hobbes, circa season one of Sex and the City. Proenza Schouler upgraded corporate blazers with feminine cinched belts. At Saint Laurent, Anthony Vaccarello delved into the archives of the house of Yves Saint Laurent, reworking traditional menswear fabrics, like pinstripes and checks, into an opulent nod to 1980s excess. Valentino accessorised suits with leather gloves. Meanwhile, Victoria Beckham treated the oversized blazer as an out-out dress, best worn with platforms and fishnet tights.
Ruby Slevin, Irish founder of Banshee of Savile Row (www.bansheeofsavilerow. com), the first bespoke women’s tailoring house on Savile Row to show at London Fashion Week, was ahead of the curve. “Female clients often come to me with pictures of men’s tailoring as their inspiration – they love the ease and the wearability of these clothes. It’s that timeless, effortless look of Diane Keaton in Annie Hall,” she says. It’s practical, too. “A woman wants to be able to wear a suit on repeat, the same way a man does. It offers a capsule wardrobe that makes getting dressed easy,” she says.
In 2023, women don’t want to dress like a caricature of a man – we expect the lines between masculine and feminine clothing to blur in a far more sophisticated way…
Fashion’s track record with suiting is a bit analogue. In the past, designers mimicked a man’s wardrobe to the point of being OTT, with pantomime fits and razor-sharp shoulders, or inverted it into something ultra-sexy, often designed for the male gaze. “Ralph Lauren would send a woman down the runway in a classic men’s suit and she’d have a tie with a big Windsor knot – it was costume-y. Or the model would only wear a suit if it was with towering stilettos,” says New York-based THE GLOSS fashion stylist Luis Rodriguez. This rings true. In 2023, women don’t want to dress like a caricature of a man – we expect the lines between masculine and feminine clothing to blur in a far more sophisticated way – and we demand comfort too. Rodriguez summarises: “We’re just not dressing in that uptight way anymore.” Given the pandemic all but put the final nail in the coffin of the suit, it’s unsurprising that the trend has had to adapt in order to survive. It begs the question, if a woman desires the ease – and the undeniable dash – of a man’s three-piece suit, why shouldn’t she be able to wear it with a twist that makes it her own?
This is where brands are stepping up, creating capable looks that are a cocktail of masculine and feminine, formal and wearable, with the crisp appeal of a dry martini. “Women play with mannish Savile Row forms using bolder silhouettes such as exaggerated lapels, flared trousers or streamlined cigarette trousers. It’s a unique look that helps them feel their best,” explains Slevin. These suits have to work overtime, look sharp for a meeting, cool for after-work, drinks, and have the flexibility to be worn as separates at the weekend, too. Gone are the stuffy accessories, instead you’ll find no-frills finishing touches that make life that bit easier – comfortable footwear, bags that actually fit things. Page notes Jonathan Anderson’s XXL shoppers in canvas and leather at Loewe, The Row’s cavernous Margaux tote and the intrecciato shoulder bags at Bottega Veneta which were pumped to larger proportions, in keeping with the season’s practical feel.
Who wears the suit in a modern way? To my mind, a good suit falls under the three Ps: power, professionalism and party. See the recent courtroom look from Kate Moss (who testified at Johnny Depp’s defamation trial in immaculate YSL suiting), or Angela Scanlon’s cream three-piece suit by The Deck London (www.thedecklondon.com) worn for a dinner with Cartier in Paris. Each made-to-measure jacket from The Deck comes with a monogrammed initial embroidered on the cuff, which sits next to a spade from a deck of cards – pure decadence.
While Savile Row refinement may not fit everyone’s budget, if you’re buying off the peg, mid-range labels like Me + Em, Raey (find it at Matches Fashion), The Frankie Shop and Totême are reliable go-tos for suiting. On the high street, keep your eyes peeled for gems from limited edition collections at COS and Massimo Dutti. For some women in the corporate world, the Savile Row look is a welcome relief from the anodyne colour-blocked pantsuits (see Hillary Clinton) enforced in the last few decades. Black, or dark colours shouldn’t feel novel in the corporate world. But, funnily enough, they can be. Often women at C-suite level are encouraged into colour as a point of difference from their male counterparts, when giving a talk or being photographed, for example. One stylist recently explained how she sourced red tailoring for an executive client because she knows, in the blur of men in two-piece suits, the photographer will likely place her client at the centre of a group shot.
Others stay true to the classics. When Paula Reid, a partner at A&L Goodbody, speaks at events she eschews prints or colourful pieces (too distracting) in favour of her style signifier: a little black jacket. She invests in blazers from Hugo Boss, Whistles and Vince. They are streamlined, unfussy and take into account practicalities, such as a pocket for a microphone. “I like colour but it has to be informed by the context,” Reid explains. A woman shouldn’t have to dress a certain way purely to distinguish herself among a group of men. “After all the impact is in what you’re saying, not what you’re wearing. And if I wear a trusty black jacket, I know I’m going to perform better. On a podium, I think comfort. How confident a piece makes you feel trumps everything else,” she says.
Perhaps this new way of dressing is a path to a more authentic middle ground –not just in clothes, but in leadership style. It’s not the boxy shoulders of Sigourney Weaver’s acerbic Katharine Parker in Working Girl, but it’s not the performative softness of Gwyneth Paltrow in pastels posting selfies at a corporate retreat, either. As Page notes, the trend isn’t about gender equality, rather gender neutrality. We’re not saying that women can rest on their laurels because they suddenly have parity. (In fact, in 2023, the number of female CEOs in Fortune 500 companies has dipped, according to executive recruitment firm Heidrick & Struggles.) However, women don’t have to cos-play as men in the boardroom to fight their corner, nor do they have to flaunt their otherness as a USP. After years of extremes, perhaps the pendulum has settled in a more realistic place. It’s not about soft power; it’s about standing into your own power. As Reid says, “If women aren’t feeling pressurised to conform to a perceived expectation (of femininity) then that can only be a good thing.”
So, what should you buy? The magic of this look lies in the details. And there are a few styling tricks that will ensure you look modern. Choose a blazer with a slightly oversized fit: a conspicuous shoulder is very now, the exaggeration of the shape depends on how confident you feel and your body type. Generally, the rule of thumb for oversized tailoring is that if there is volume on top, go slimmer on the bottom and vice versa. Why not wear your jacket sleeves long: they should stretch towards, but not cover, your hand. It’s a relaxed look that embraces the comfort of shrugging on a piece of menswear. “Rolling up the sleeves of an oversized men’s shirt in a carefree way, above the elbow, and adding some great bracelets, plays with the gender fluidity of the look. It’s not uptight, neat or precious,” says Luis Rodriguez. Vintage men’s suiting goes directly to the source, as well as being mindful of consumption. Rental company Happy Days (www.happy-days.ie) currently lists a pure wool men’s pinstripe suit by Magee 1866 to rent, starting from €80. Don’t be afraid to size up in trousers. You can wear them low-slung and slouchy, or if that’s altogether too louche, Rodriguez advises belting them in a “paper-bag” waist (you’ll need a great leather belt for this: try a vintage one).
If you’re serious about the trend, then get serious with your tailor. You’ll need them to take up your trousers if you want to wear them with the shoe of the season, the loafer. The length should puddle nicely around your shoe, even in flats. Speaking of heels, steer clear of stilettos (too obvious, not contemporary); if you do crave some height, dress up the look with a kitten style or a low, block-heel Mary Jane. If these oversized shapes sounds a bit cloistered, remember: a polished double-breasted blazer with jetted pockets, that follows the curve of a woman’s waist, is ultra-flattering – hell, it’s subversively sexy. Embrace the nuance (and the fact that you don’t have to wear Spanx).
As for glamour? Lazy dressers will enjoy how easily the look translates from day to night. Once the suit is nailed the rest is, happily, low maintenance. A few additions will add a flutter of femininity. “It’s that attitude of, ‘If I have to change, then I’m not going out’,” Rodriguez says. “Go with big, dramatic rhinestone statement earrings, throw on a great lipstick and that’s it, you’re ready to go,” Rodriguez says. Equally, the playfulness of a Chanel pin or brooch on a satin lapel is perfection. The array of wearable suiting shown for autumn winter might just be fashion’s best move for some time. It’s relaxed, it’s polished, it’s elegant. Above all, it’s feelgood. It’s as multifaceted as every woman I know. The bottom line is that women can dress like men – we just don’t want to. Consider it corporate dressing, à la carte. Just hold the belt and braces.