Prairie tales

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 October, 2011, 12:00am


One of the key trends spilling off the top designer runways in Europe and the United States recalls cosy autumnal country walks, horseback riding through fern-lined trails, hayrides and hoedowns.

In something of a nod to the leisure pursuits of the season, when temperatures drop and leaves turn golden, clothing is specifically designed to be worn outdoors. But what is happening within the trend is about much more than Ugg boots, jodhpur pants and shearling lined coats from brands that specialise in outerwear. For autumn, uptown labels and others, such as Tory Burch, Rodarte and Proenza Schouler, have veered surprisingly into Burberry and Hermes territory, turning out their versions of country-gentrified dressing in cropped tweed coats and ankle-sweeping prairie skirts.

While the aesthetic would suit Corgi walking at Balmoral, it has its roots in rural lands across the ocean. Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the design duo siblings behind hip brand Rodarte, have said that their most recent offerings were inspired by the endless flat plains of Nebraska and Kansas. 'It's our very own heritage,' says New York-based stylist Colin McDonald. 'But you don't want to look like you just stepped off the farm.'

That, indeed, is the trick to embracing this trend, as it is with many definitive and directional ones: how to adopt it, keep it relevant, yet still have it work with other aspects of your wardrobe without looking too literal.

'I would try not to overdo it and just wear one or two pieces of this style,' says blogger Sophia Aloia, of Her recommendations: a sweater with shearling detail, a pair of leather wedge booties or tall, flat boots, a plaid dress or sweater with a neutral-coloured floppy or wide-band hat.

Hong Kong based stylist Cheryl Leung advises wearing country-inspired pieces separately and choosing fabrics wisely. 'Go for wool bonded with leather coats and cashmere tweed for the most up to date feel. Think modernity, especially dressing rural and for winter in a city such as Hong Kong,' she says.

Certainly, there are many offerings from many celebrated brands that tap into the wider trend. Labels such as Ralph Lauren, Burberry and Hermes are known for perennially reinventing a chic, outdoorsy vibe in their collections. But it is when more avant-garde brands such as Rodarte or Gwen Stefani's L.A.M.B. start doing it that the fashion community sees it as a bona fide and viable direction. 'We saw this trend take over the runways for the autumn 2011 season with designers like Rodarte creating entire collections based around this trend,' says McDonald, who has styled US first lady Michelle Obama. McDonald pointed to floor-sweeping skirts, prairie jackets, blanket pants, dress shirts buttoned to the neck, eyelet details, maxi skirts, Navajo-inspired patterns and plaid fabrics as the core elements within the look. He says the ensembles should 'still look chic, not from the farm'.

Of course, like everything else, it's all in the wearing; and in tailoring the aesthetic to the urban landscape of Hong Kong. This can be done in many ways: a pristine pair of high-end designer jeans and heels can be updated with the addition of a top printed with Navajo-inspired motifs, or perhaps a liberal dose of native American turquoise jewellery. Maxi skirts for autumn and winter that tie into the trend tend to be more voluminous than in seasons past (think Ma from Little House on the Prairie). And while these might look just a tad too literal if paired with a buttoned-up blouse, they could be much more hip and relevant when worn with a great pair of city boots and a sexy, clingy T-shirt.

'Fendi have a snug oversized shearling coat; wear it with a cashmere dress, and this will be more stylish than the puffa and down jacket,' advises Leung.

She suggests investing in a pretty mohair jumper, wearing silky blouses underneath, and slim-fit corduroy trousers that almost look like soft velvet with a matching tuxedo blazer.

'Theysken's Thoery offer these options, and for casual dressing you can rely on Isabel Marant for an interesting plaid on her oversized shirts. Avoid looking like you are wearing a picnic cloth by mixing and matching blanket capes with other colours or statement graphic prints.'

Leung also recommends looking for a blanket cape from Pringle of Scotland or Monki, or a luxurious cashmere wool cape for a tailored uniform look. Go bare armed or accessorise with elbow length lambskin gloves from Lanvin.

'For the perfect modern twist and to balance that highlander chic in the city, try a shearling jacket in a slim and light tailoring, such as by Helmut Lang, or a parka with a loose jersey tee, dark ink black jeans, and understated suede platform ankle boots,' Hong Kong stylist Olivia Tsang says. 'Do not go for a full-on country look with everything shearling; you don't want to look as though you are straight off the set of Conan the Barbarian.'

McDonald recommends easing into the trend by experimenting with a simple button-up shirt in a classic shape, a floral dress or a neutral-coloured maxi skirt. For accessories, he suggests wooden bangles, feathered earrings, wedge-heeled shoes and some contemporary turquoise jewellery.

'It's very versatile,' he says. 'T-shirts and button-ups in neutrals can serve as a great background for prairie style. It can translate easily.'

Stefani, who closed New York Fashion Week in February with her L.A.M.B. autumn show, dedicated an entire category to her version of the Buffalo Girl, slotted somewhere in between London Girl and Glamour Girl, a move which indicates just how prevalent aspects of the look can be this season. The singer and designer interpreted the look by sending out shift dresses in plaid fabrics, and prints inspired by native American tribes. Rag & Bone, a Kentucky-based fashion brand that started out offering men's denim workwear and is now something of a style powerhouse, went back to its rustic roots with its tartan check fabrications and looped fringe wool cardigans. Also interesting were the asymmetrical zip-front tartan blanket skirts with fringes.

'I think we see a bit of this outside element every autumn-winter season, which is pretty much what makes it a classic,' says Aloia, agreeing that it is how designers convey the look that makes it a must-have for the season. Tory Burch, famous for her vibrant tunic tops, infused an English-countryside-meets-American-sportswear vibe into her autumn collection, bringing out chunky tweeds.

Rodarte went all-out American plains in its show, but still exhibited its trademark wit and whimsy: a silk gown comes printed with a pattern of a wheat field at its hem, and separates have dramatic geometric inserts that recall the homegrown appeal of a handmade quilt. Apron skirts, pinafore tops, ankle-grazing hemlines and mohair sweaters that look to be handmade from scratch continue the countrified - if not always gentrified - aesthetic.