The Designers, The Women and The Wardrobe

There's something thrilling about splashing out on a classic, wearable piece of clothing after a near decade in which fashion trophies ruled

We all have our rituals when it comes to the making of significant, bank balance-denting fashion purchases. 

There is the online shopping brigade, worshipping privately at their laptops late at night, pining for the man from UPS and consummating the relationship (with the new dress that is, not the UPS man) in the privacy of their bedroom. 

There are the impulse shoppers for whom spending is triggered by moments of celebration. These are the women who buy £400 sunglasses at the airport. 


Me, when I really want something? I visit a shop. I love the theatrics of boutique shopping: the flourish with which the ribboned bag is handed over, the conspiratorial smile you get from the doorman when you walk out swinging it.

My shopping ritual never changes but the nature of what's inside the bag has. Until recently, if I spent significant funds on a purchase then you could bet that what nestled in the tissue paper was a delicate, precious, ornamental kind of purchase. The pin-tucked lace Christian Dior dress I bought for my 40th birthday, the Edie Parker clutch when I got a pay rise, the Sophia Webster sandals I just had to have because I couldn't stop thinking about them. As exquisite as Fabergé eggs, all of them – and about as useful.

Right now, for the first time ever, my catwalk shopping list consists of pieces I could wear on the tube.

But this year, something changed. I came away from the Gucci show in Milan lusting not after the rainbow chiffon gown or the canary-coloured feathered coat, but the pancake-flat black loafers with an understated horse-bit chain. The night of the Balenciaga show, I went to sleep dreaming not of the cocktail-party-worthy Prince of Wales-check tailoring, but of the green-and-blue anoraks and red puffer jackets. 

Right now, for the first time ever, my catwalk shopping list consists of pieces I could wear on the tube. Where once I bought fashion as if for a trophy cabinet, I now buy clothes for a real-life wardrobe.

Wardrobing is not about giving up on the magic of fashion. On the contrary, fashion has fallen headlong in love with wardrobing. 

For this autumn, there are sturdy hiking boots on the catwalk at Louis Vuitton, and cosy quilted coats at Stella McCartney. These are wearable pieces, but suffused with catwalk glamour.

Wardrobing is not about giving up on the magic of fashion. On the contrary, fashion has fallen headlong in love with wardrobing.

'We've moved on from the idea of "normcore" but the ethos has had a lasting effect,' says Lisa Aiken, Retail Fashion Director at Net-a-Porter. 'The essential has been elevated into fashion's new hero pieces. Items that were previously seen only in the showrooms are now proudly being displayed on the catwalk. Take the reworked shirt; what was once an office essential is now showing up on runways from Balenciaga in masculine stripes to Ellery with exaggerated cuffs. And never before have we seen so much denim on the runway. Designers are recognising the central role it plays in women's wardrobes.'


Fashion's focus has shifted from the traditional catwalk system, headlined by autumn and spring, to a new spotlight on the pre-collections, which tend to be more wearable. This in turn has had a knock-on effect on the main collections and even haute couture.

'Designers are redefining runway collections with the inclusion of everyday pieces,' says Harvey Nichols' Buying Director, Anita Barr. In January 2014, Karl Lagerfeld sent shockwaves through Paris when he put trainers on the catwalk. Now, flat shoes are the best-selling footwear category at Matches Fashion, where Buying Director Natalie Kingham tips Gucci, Isabel Marant, Loewe, Hillier Bartley and Emilia Wickstead as the hottest names in flats this autumn. And let's not forget the huge success Saint Laurent had when Hedi Slimane introduced more commercial pieces and doubled the brand's sales in his first three years to £505m*.

There is something appealingly subversive about spending money on 'normal' clothes.

There is something appealingly subversive about spending money on 'normal' clothes. 'I find a beautiful Gucci loafer to be very satisfying,' says my friend Amie Witton-Wallace, Global Communications Director for Ivy Park. 'For me that love for ordinary but perfect pieces – the oversized boxy duffel coat but in a soft cashmere – is intrinsically British. Maybe it's years of being trussed up in school uniforms that leaves us with a desire for traditional, quality staples?'

Another friend Aimee Nisbet is a media lawyer with a wardrobe to die for. 'As someone with a strong magpie gene, I struggle not to be swayed by shiny, beautiful trophy purchases,' she says. 'Having said that, I am definitely changing how I shop. I bought a Jérôme Dreyfus navy leather rucksack that has become a daily commute essential. It's a sophisticated rucksack, if such a thing is possible: smart enough for work yet incredibly comfortable and practical.'

My eureka moment came when I bought my treasured Atea Oceanie pinstripe shirt. Finally, I understood the power of 'wardrobe' dressing and what an elevated classic can bring to a look. While wardrobing is a recent revelation to me, I have wiser and more elegant friends who have always shopped like this. 'I don't crave new clothes every month like some friends do,' says writer Carolyn Asome. 'Instead, I like to splurge on four or five carefully chosen items each season, which I will then wear to death.'

Right now, when the autumn collections are hitting shops, is the perfect time to start wardrobing. Because if the first rule of this way of dressing is to prioritise flat, smart daytime shoes over the kind you can only wear to take a taxi to a restaurant, then the second rule is to spend your budget on a great coat you will wear every day, rather than a fabulous party dress you will wear for a few hours.

'I'm afraid my wardrobe choices have always seemed a bit pedestrian compared to my friends, who go nuts over a trophy dress or character shoe,' says Creative Consultant Paula Reed. 'But these pieces stand the test of passing trends and make you the best version of yourself.' Her must-haves include classic Manolo Blahnik court shoes ('their simplicity speaks volumes') and Maison Margiela boots ('perennially cool and practical'). Asome's Crombie-style Balenciaga coat is 'classic – perhaps even a bit boring – but after several years it still gets worn to death.'


There is nothing dull about buying clothes that you know you will wear many times.

There is nothing dull about buying clothes that you know you will wear many times. 'I had a real moment when I got my hands on the perfect Saint Laurent peacoat that Hedi Slimane reissued a couple of seasons ago,' says Reed. 'Slung over a dress or jeans it makes the simplest items look cool and sharp.' Sustainable fashion activist Livia Firth suggests asking yourself before every purchase, 'Will I wear this a minimum of 30 times?' It is buying something to wear just once that seems ugly, now. Being an adult woman who wants to dress well and also cares about the impact of what she buys is, frankly, a far more elegant way to behave. Buying clothes that furnish you with a real-life closet is modern, not boring. 

Wardrobing is fashion that sprinkles that catwalk fairy dust over clothes you actually wear. 

This feature appears in the September 2016 issue of ELLE

5 Easy Pieces

The denim jacket
Channel the Balenciaga woman and wear it with tailoring now, or wait until the weather gets really cold and layer it under your puffer coat later. Topshop has brilliant patchwork options, while J.Crew is the place to go for the classic version.

Stella McCartney AW16

The oversized knit
As shown at Stella McCartney and Chloé, oversized knits are layerable, versatile and can take you from autumn through to spring. In other words: you should buy multiples. Jigsaw has some of the best on the high street, all made in Scotland.

Stella McCartney AW16

The work shirt
On the runway, Céline breathed new life into the humble button-down with a fresh interpretation. And the high street is following suit with unique takes on the traditional idea. Make Whistles your first stop.

Celine AW16

The loose trouser
As seen at Proenza Schouler, Céline and Calvin Klein, there's a reason why the relaxed tailored trouser never goes out of style. Try a seasonal update in the form of a knit lurex pair from Mango or the jumbo corduroys at H&M.

Celine AW16

The skirt
A key building block in every working girl's wardrobe, the skirt has gotten more skewed with asymmetry and architectural shapes as seen at Victoria Beckham. On the high street, Cos' structured wraparound version is among the best.

Victoria Beckham AW16
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