The Long View

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After years on the sidelines, the trouser suit – worn with masculine panache or a feminine flourish – is coming into its own again. And it means business, says Sarah Harris.

Description: The long view

Such is Prada’s Directive that waiting for the first look to appear at a show is a lot like waiting for the Messiah. Will Mrs Prada take up gaucho equestrian? Put a spin on cyberpunk? Adopt pinstripes? As her audience contemplated all of the above at her A/W ’12 show, out it came, in wide, purposeful strides: a trouser suit. Black wool comprising an elongated jacket and cropped, crease-front, narrow trousers – lapels and exaggerated turn-ups glistening with multifaceted Plexiglass gems the size of cigarette packets. More trouser suits followed before the show closed with her final two-piece, belted and rendered in a wacky geometric print.

Two short weeks later, it was trouser suits again at Miu Miu. They came in roomy mannish cuts, and in jewel color of emerald, sapphire, ruby and citrine, or in rich art nouveau-style damask. With a Seventies sheen and trouser lengths falling just short of the ankles, they looked like the sort of suits you might find at the back of your father’s wardrobe – if your father was a fan of the Four Tops or Kid Creole and the Coconuts. There were 27 in total.

And there were more elsewhere: at Ralph Lauren (who debuted three-piece trouser suits in smart hunting checks, complete with ties and folded pocket squares), Salvatore Ferragamo (with gold military buttons), Oscar de la Renta (in peacock blue and fur collared) and Haider Ackermann (who cleverly teamed a sharp-shouldered jacket with a pair of high-waisted trousers – ones that really do make legs look longer). The message was clear: dresses are out, trouser suits are in. Midway through show season, fashion goers with suitcases of frocks were feeling somewhat limited.

In case you missed it, fashion has been contentedly drifting through a haze of femininity for the past 10 years: the hero blouse, the day dress and skirts. So many skirts, we’ve been charting their silhouettes and hemline movements for what seems like Aeons and were ready for a respite. Trousers (proper tailored styles that an older generation might call “slacks”) started gaining momentum, and wardrobe space, so it was only a matter of time before trouser suits would raise again. And rise they have, with styles ranging from dandyish to sleek to boyish – the point is, it’s a suit.

Description: the trouser suit is back

the trouser suit is back

Designers have been tapping into our need for clothes to make sense again, and nothing makes more sense than a trouser suit, where the top half comes with the bottom half in one neat package. Even come nightfall. Cue Roberto Cavalli, who debuted a series of deliciously sexy, animal-print styles. “My collections always touch on femininity and a certain type of confidence,” says the designer. “I like to empower women and I’ve always designed for someone strong, but I feel, in these times, a woman has to reflect her strength, and these suits – a razor-sharp jacket with raised warrior-eaque shoulders combined with the softness of flared trousers – introduce a new age of modern femininity.”

Other options for evening popped up at Gucci (Frida Giannini seduced us with sumptuous midnight-colored velvets), Yves Saint Laurent (crisply tailored satin woven with calla lilies), Balmain (slouchy and embellished with a web of tiny seed pearls) and Pucci. Yes, Peter Dundas served up a thrilling lame tux in softest fold, should his faithful tribe of glamorous young things wish to slip out of his gowns and into something more substantial. “I always like to add an element of masculinity to my collections; it’s incredibly sexy when a woman wears men’s clothes,” says Dundas, who’d had tailoring in mind ever since he worked on a capsule collection of menswear last year – that, coupled with Helmut Newton’s famous image of Vibeke Knudsen in YSL’s Le Smoking which he just couldn’t shake.

Others were dreamt up at Louis Vuitton. Riffing on the Sixties with rounded collars and ultra-long sleeves that almost stretched to fingertips, the most decorative had the texture of a cracked toffee apple, glazed in kaleidoscopic shards of glass. “The patterns were very bold and cartoony, almost ugly,” begins Marc Jacobs. “There were blanker wools and brocades that I think were a bit questionable in terms of their color and pattern.” (Jacobs’s so-wrong-that-it-works formula is often at the axis of his designs.)

Description: Fall fashion trends 2010: trouser suits

Fall fashion trends 2010: trouser suits

Jacobs was also thinking about what it means to be “fully dressed” again. The last time we arrived at trouser suits in a big way was 1996, the year Gwyneth Paltrow attended the Video Music Awards in a red velvet number by Tom Ford-era Gucci and everyone thought it looked like a terrific idea. It was. “I remember feeling like a very uptight grand dame when I tried to wear a dress in the late Nineties, when the perfect Joseph flared-leg trousers and Manolos were like a uniform,” chimes in Ruth Runberg, buying director at Browns.

Autumn’s trouser suits aren’t simply a replay of Helmut Lang’s minimalism or, for that matter, Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking. This time around the net is cast wider to encompass color, imaginative print, texture and embellishment; there’s room for personality and fun. Or not, if you prefer a more formal approach. Some are straight-up masculine, others are softened with feminine flourishes – a sweet kick flare, a nipped-in waist, a pussy-bow blouse – the parameters have broadened.

Beyond the catwalk, the flavor for suits is there on the high street, too. Women are now cottoning on to J Crew’s bestselling Ludlow suits for men and snapping them up in smaller sizes for themselves. At Banana Republic it’s all about herringbone suits with boyish, tapered trousers (which, if you’re blessed with sparrow ankles, conveniently work as well with heels as they do with flats). And Joseph’s expert tailoring continues. “We have an incredibly loyal following for our suiting, partly due to the fact that we don’t design them thinking of one occasion,” says Louise Trotter, the label’s creative director.

For modern-day pin-ups, fashion stylist Anastasia Barbieri is rarely out of a trouser of her wardrobe. “I’ve been wearing tuxedos since I was a teenage!’ she reveals. A navy-blue vintage tux by Pierre Cardin and a double-breasted wool suit by John Galliano were among her first purchases, and favorites now include several by Dries Van Noten and Martin Margiela. Barbieri with her mussed-up dark locks and Mcditerrancan skin, has a knack of making the most formal suits appear effortless, exotic even; she always looks like the most interesting person in the room, and the trouser suit has a lot to do with it. “From an early age, I was inspired by the Beatles and women like Lauren Hutton and Bianca Jagger,” she adds.

Description: fashion stylist Anastasia Barbieri

fashion stylist Anastasia Barbieri

Meanwhile, Caroline Issa, eternally chic fashion director at Tank magazine and heroine of street-style snappers the world over, wears a trouser suit with the same authority, even though it has taken years to hone. “My first job was as a management consultant, and I’m sorry to say that I had some really terrible suits; standard black and grey styles that wouldn’t put me out of the box to my new clients and colleagues. But, all the while, I was saving up for a Jil Sander suit, a label I’d coveted since buying the perfume in the Nineties. Her vision of womanhood and ‘power’ was what I wanted to subscribe to at the time, and it was worth every penny. Every time I wore it for reviews or important client meetings, I always felt powerful; that much taller, that much chicer.” This season, she’s eyeing up those by Prada and Paul Smith, so long as they come with trouser pockets: “I love that feeling of tucking the jacket behind pocketed hands and showing off a belt.”

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