Timeless classics

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 October, 2010, 12:00am

Joseph Altuzarra is young, attractive, gifted and a visionary - all qualities that fashion critics covet. His Fall/Winter 2010 collection was the toast of New York, lauded for its sexy silhouettes and embrace of luxe fabrics, such as fur and leather.

But look a little closer and the collection seems inspired by what Tom Ford did for Gucci several years ago - similar lines, virtually identical palette.

In his Spring/Summer 2011 offering, Marc Jacobs sent out models in big-bowed taffeta dresses in summer fruit colours, oversized sunglasses and wide-brimmed hats. Leaf through the Yves Saint Laurent archives from the 1970s, and those were some of the late designer's most iconic looks. Narcisco Rodriguez, who made a name for himself years ago with the wedding dress for the late Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, created similar dresses for his most recent collection.

Designers - even the most avant-garde and cutting-edge - often publicly state that their recent collections are a homage to a designer of old, an inspiration to a certain aesthetic.

And in these economically unsound times, there is comfort in returning to the styles that never really went out of fashion: the tweed jacket, the camel coat, the little black dress and wide-legged pantsuit. In an age where nobody wants to buy something in June that's going to be dated by October, the fashion industry is rallying around the idea of timelessness, embracing a notion that once seemed archaic and contrary to the essentially cyclical nature of the business.

'This is a real season for classics,' says Bronwyn Cosgrave, London-based fashion historian and the author of three books on fashion and design. 'It's great, because these designers are producing wearable clothes. There's a lot of navy, which is a very classic colour, and a whole infusion of red in fashion - Givenchy red has really taken hold this year,' says Cosgrave, referring to the noted Parisian couture house that almost trademarked that colour decades ago.

The concept of timelessness in fashion is one that many enduring style legacies are predicated on, almost viscerally. Labels such as Yves Saint Laurent and Chanel don't have to try to be timeless - they just are. Something from Hermes is going to look as stylish in 20 years as it does today.

'A lot of legacy brands don't reinvent the wheel every season,' says Cameron Silver, owner of upscale Los Angeles vintage stores Decades and its consignment sister store, Decadestwo. 'Instead, these brands manipulate their DNA season after season.'

Chanel is one of the most prominent brands to embody that tendency. For decades, its four-pocket tweed jacket has been a signature. Chanel's creative chief, Karl Lagerfeld, might have toyed with the silhouette, shifted colours and textures around, added fringe and zippers, but that four-pocket tweed jacket remains. Similarly, the fluid wide-legged pants from Yves Saint Laurent, from the 1970s, are going to continue to look apropos on the most current of catwalks. And more contemporary brands, such as Loro Piana, bring out pieces that are part of what Silver calls 'a heritage-based trend' season after season. Designers such as Azzedine Alaia have changed little over 30 years.

'For some of these brands, their quality has been reviewed by the customer,' Silver says. 'The more sophisticated customer isn't that interested in participating in that trendy aspect, which is a very pre-recession moment. Having that 'it' anything all went south. Maybe there are 'it' shoes now, but is there anything more modern than a camel-haired pea coat? There's nothing trendy about it; it's just an essential wardrobe piece updated to look fresh.'

For those striving to establish or maintain some semblance of timelessness in their wardrobes, going back might be the key to going forward.

'One of the breakout pieces of a decade often reoccurs 20, 30, 50 years later,' says Los Angeles stylist Brenna Egan, who recently founded the vintage website chicandyoushallfind.com. 'This is why so many designers source vintage goods for their collections.'

Egan counsels clients to pick pieces that they could either leave behind for a daughter, or that they wish their mother had held onto for them. Among her top picks: a Courreges dress from the 1960s, a Saint Laurent Safari collection blazer, a Tom Ford for Gucci velvet suit, or Palm Beach-esque rhinestone encrusted Manolo Blahniks. If the moment has passed and the opportunity to acquire these things has faded, no matter, there is always that reinvention of the wheel.

'Timeless to me means memorable, and captures a moment in sartorial history,' Egan says. 'Clothing is sentimental and holds the memory of when worn. So statement pieces should be what you invest in and, perhaps, even collect.'

Silver has been a proponent of this way of thinking for years. Instead of hitting up that of-the-moment piece that will look outdated by next season, he advises his fashionista followers to go for grace every time.

'There is a challenge in doing something basic without making it boring,' he says. 'After so many years of really ornate clothing, it might not be as exciting for the customer. But they are realising that they don't have a classic pair of trousers or a pea coat, that some of those essentials aren't there.' His picks are something from Halston, which he says is 'always perennial, always desirable, always referenced on current runways', an Yves Saint Laurent blouse from the late seventies, a strand of Chanel pearls, a Bottega Veneta woven bag, cargo pants, a little black dress, a skirt suit and a pantsuit.

'A chic woman can take something timeless and give it her own spin. It doesn't have to be basic or boring,' he says.

Still, with so many designers borrowing from the past, insiders such as Cosgrave are lamenting the potential lack of innovation.

'It's all very wearable, but we still need an infusion of spontaneity,' she says. 'Fashion is about being classically wearable and utterly beautiful and frivolous at the same time. We shouldn't lose that just because we're in an economic downturn.'