It is before dawn on a frozen Sunday in upstate New York, where I have come to pack up two bedrooms. A handyman is arriving to build a small closet in one, and then both rooms will receive a fresh coat of paint. I’m sticking with the same colors — light green, a ballroom blue — that I chose 15 years ago, when the house was built. This decision to leave well enough alone, instead of hustling over to the paint store and driving myself nuts with choices, not to mention wasting my energy, seems more than sensible: It sums up everything I feel about style and comfort. Or should I say the revenge of comfort over style.
Folded over the back of a chair in my room, under a mohair throw, is an old suede kilt I had meant to begin wearing again. For me, the kilt nourishes a sense of freedom from fashion. It’s a classic, it’s sentimental and it’s one of the few garments I own that has truly improved with age. I hope I am wearing it at 90, tramping along in boots and a dog-haired sweater, the picture of civilized indifference.
Although I like going to fashion shows, and appreciate the dedication of seamstresses and designers alike, I am not the right audience for most of what I see. But, then, how many women are? Who has the will — never mind the time and the money — to wear high fashion, at least as it has been conceived over the past decade, as something extreme, or “special,” in retail jargon? By now, I suspect, most people know that the purpose of runway shows is entertainment, and to create a feeling of desire. They understand that the main interest of high-fashion companies is economic rather than aesthetic. It’s to sell products and capture new markets, much as Coca-Cola and Apple do.
Notions like taste and practical chic are way too complex to sell today, when much of the world’s population is consumed with either acquisition or basic survival. For that reason it’s tough to talk about comfort and a moral economy of style without sounding grim or like one is trying to promote a car with three wheels (hey, but it drives!). On the other hand, this idea is not so far from something Coco Chanel offered when she arrived in New York, in March 1931. Asked by a reporter to define the fashionable woman, Chanel said, “She dresses well but not remarkably. . . . She disobeys fashion.” Then, perhaps thinking of her rival Elsa Schiaparelli, Chanel added, “But she is not eccentric. I hate eccentricity.” So she was extolling understatement and ease, yes, but also suggesting these choices reflected virtues like self-control and seriousness.
Lately I’ve noticed many more women, all of them in the zone of careers and complicated family routines, all of them with an eye for fashion, gravitating toward an almost boyish uniform of slim-cut trousers, pullovers and flat shoes. Or a leather jacket with bland layers underneath. They’re hardly wearing makeup, so their complexions look fresh. (We all know that too much makeup ages everyone.) At the last round of shows in Paris, I noted that even my French sisters had begun to ditch their adored stilettos for low heels. That was quite a concession for them, I thought. Something must be up, because those women don’t do anything on a whim.
Of course, in the 1990s, Helmut Lang and Jil Sander led a revolution with plain tailoring, neutral colors and natural hair and makeup. Lang’s style, in particular, proved popular with editors and buyers, many of whom had witnessed the sex gags of Jean Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler in the ’80s, and were sickened or just bored by them. More than a decade earlier, Halston, Stephen Burrows and Calvin Klein had created a template of modern informality, with clean sportswear and lightly constructed dresses for a generation that wanted to go braless. Indeed, these styles reflected not only broad social change, but also the loosening of designers’ grip on women’s bodies. Yet, by the early ’90s, with the exception of Marc Jacobs’s grunge collection for Perry Ellis, along with Zoran and Joan Vass, New York was largely obsessed with the retro trappings of nouvelle society glamour, down to fur-trimmed pencil skirts and gloves. No wonder women sought the anonymity of Lang and Sander.
What’s changed since then? From my perspective, having written enthusiastically about the conceptual, art-inspired fashion of the past 20 years — whether by Martin Margiela, Miuccia Prada or Raf Simons — I can say we’ve become increasingly weary of this approach. As the roles of women kept evolving during the ’80s and ’90s, it was easy, maybe necessary, to attach meaning to clothes. They were powerful, daring, etc. But, let’s face it, much of the language around clothes today sounds forced. I was touched when, at the January men’s shows in Milan, Prada talked about her rather straightforward tailoring, which included a few women’s looks as well, saying, “I wanted to make it real. And I like that now.”
So do most women, though this wish doesn’t strike them as a novelty. All the same, the desire to be comfortable is profound, shaping attitudes and markets. Witness the explosion of so-called lifestyle brands like Vince, which last year became a publicly traded company, an indication that the audience is hardly baby boomers looking for less complicated stuff. For the most part, with the exception of Stella McCartney, who makes a point of including stylishly executed casual looks like this spring’s tapered track pants and tops, high fashion ignores this consumer.
But things are changing. I perked up when I saw that Alber Elbaz based Lanvin’s prefall collection around chic sweatpants, mixing them with wool cocoon coats and low-heeled pumps. I had the sense that he was keen to tackle the matter of comfort without sacrificing luxury, and he succeeded. Probably no one defines the modern sense of comfort with more authority than Phoebe Philo of Céline. Not long ago, she stunned loyalists with a loosey-goosey collection of long, frayed dresses, soft pajama-like pants and sandals lined with fur. Well, guess what? Other designers are still knocking off that collection. Although Philo has steered Céline somewhat away from that specific style, as you would expect of a designer eager to stay ahead of her competitors, she remains committed to its essence. For me, that collection captured something rare in today’s world of anxious, self-created stars — and that is a woman of indeterminate age who knows what she likes and has shrugged off what she no longer has any use for, and maybe never did. If that sounds rather limited, that’s the point. I’ll stick with the same paint colors and my lovely old kilt, because, it turns out, there’s a surprising amount of harmony in unremarkable choices.