Finally fashion designers are taking inspiration from the clothes we wear to the office. Result? A better working wardrobe for all of us
While the front row assembled for the autumn/winter collections this February in silver leather leggings (Daphne Guinness), printed catsuits (MIA) and luxe nurse’s scrubs (Anna Della Russo), the catwalk looked positively sedate. Workwear, usually far too sensible for high fashion, was in focus. Not since Armani and Donna Karan advocated power suiting in the 80s, and Melanie Griffith brokered deals in Working Girl, has what we wear to work got the designer treatment.
Overlooked previously in favour of club kids or eccentric inventors, the working woman becomes a fashion muse this season, with her environment – the office – suddenly stylish. Richard Nicoll dedicated his collection to the professional woman, with knee-length skirts, all-day heels and shirting, and brands including Jonathan Saunders, Christopher Kane and Balenciaga showed their collections in office towers. While Balenciaga’s filmy slipdresses may raise a few eyebrows in a real office, the broad strokes of Nicolas Ghesquière’s collection for the brand – knee skirts, smart trousers, nipped-in jackets – were very much SFW. Backstage in March, the designer said he was inspired by an imaginary “Balenciaga Inc”, with “different women dressing for different business areas”.
It’s not Ghesquière, of course, who can be credited with making workwear cool. That was Phoebe Philo. The creative director of Céline since 2009, her first collection for the brand “changed the way we look at fashion”, says Penny Martin, editor-in-chief at women’s fashion magazine the Gentlewoman. In Philo’s hands, fashion was about individual items – smart trousers, great shirts, sensible shifts – rather than trends. “It’s about wardrobe-led clothes,” says Martin, who featured Philo on the cover of the Gentlewoman’s first issue.
Other names on this trajectory? Stella McCartney, Chloé’s Clare Waight Keller, Sam Cam favourite Emilia Wickstead and Jane Shepherdson at Whistles. While the catwalk pushes a mood of the season, the larger, more commercial collections presented to buyers after the show contain the pieces that cross over to real life. “I got really excited buying Stella’s pre-collection because there was everything for a woman’s wardrobe,” says Natalie Kingham, international buyer at Matches, “clothes for a whole week.” Although prohibitively expensive for many, the influence of these brands is seen across the high street and, in turn, in offices.
According to a 2011 report by the Office of National Statistics, we work the third-longest hours in Europe. The average UK worker clocks in 42.7 hours – or around 38% of our waking week – and probably spends more time with colleagues than friends. Designers now realise that workwear is a relatively untapped market. “Fashion has been focused on eveningwear but daywear is becoming increasingly important,” says Nicoll. His take on workwear has a definite fashion slant and includes colour-blocking and leather.
But could you actually wear it to the average office? Although Nicoll’s collection is considered, there’s a sense that designers – who can, one assumes, wear a pirate outfit to work if they like – do no share your boss’s idea of what’s work-appropriate. Rebecca Netherton, a senior marketing executive, has a leather pencil skirt “but I wouldn’t wear it to the office – it would be too much of a talking point,” she says. “I don’t want to look like an office drone but clothes can’t be the first thing someone thinks about when they meet me.”
Aimee Nisbet, who is head of legal at Hearst, and is often the only woman in meetings, believes gender issues come into play. “If you’re working with men in suits, it would look weird to come to meeting in a vest and sandals,” she says. “I need to look tailored but I want to keep the sense that I am a woman too.” Her workwear shopping list includes a pair of monogrammed trousers from Stella McCartney and a coat from Christopher Kane. “It’s great to see workwear on the catwalk,” she says. “I spend money on clothes I wear at work and this gives me a little more fashionability.”
Clothes express personality – no matter how much you want to downplay them. But they also reflect our lifestyles – from breakfast with the kids to a client meeting and drinks after work. “There’s no separation between my week and weekend wardrobe,” says Esme Wren, an executive producer at Sky News. “I like to keep things fluid.” This is an attitude that’s growing, says Treena Lombardo, the fashion director of shopbop.com, which has a workwear boutique on the site. “Women want pieces that suit more than one area,” she says, pointing to blazers – particularly bestseller Rebecca Minkoff’s draped “Becky” – as a good example. “You can wear it over anything – it makes a dress businesslike, and doubles as outerwear.”
Hard-working clothes for hard-working women – that’s what we want now.