Pearls before millennials: how designers are turning traditional adornment into hip must-have

Forget the styles of Audrey Hepburn or Jackie Kennedy, pearls are being repurposed for a daring new generation by designers who are attaching them to everything from biker boots to headbands

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 August, 2017, 5:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 August, 2017, 5:25pm

Pearls have a reputation for being conservative, traditional and mumsy, but today’s designers have decided the time is right to stamp all over that and toughen up the pearl’s image. Their vision: for all the coolest girls to be wearing these silky smooth, wonderfully white adornments by this autumn.

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Over recent decades, a necklace of fine white cultured pearls has signified a right of passage into womanhood for generations of well-brought-up young ladies, whether they be the British “girls in pearls” featured in upper-class British magazine Country Life or demure Japanese brides wearing their first Mikimoto Akoya necklace.

But pearls have long held men and women in their thrall, whether as symbols of virginity or trophies of excess. They have become associated with iconic women from Cleopatra and Elizabeth I to Coco Chanel, Barbara Hutton and Jackie Onassis.

In a spectacular gesture of irreverence, Queen Cleopatra famously sacrificed one of her spectacularly large pearl earrings by melting it in a goblet of wine vinegar and drinking it down in front of Mark Antony, to demonstrate the might and wealth of Egypt as a political gesture to the Roman Empire.

That same sense of irreverence is seemingly spurring designers today. Designers are making the most of the smooth, lustrous appeal of pearls and its associations of purity and then mockingly fixing them to biker boots, headbands and everything in between.

Alexander McQueen, for example, combined pearls with masculine fabrics for his precision-cut tailored dresses, and bedecked his macabre skull clutches with pearls and gems.

Nicholas Kirkwood has decorated his boots and shoes with pearls since 2010. This season his high-heeled biker boot, the Annabel, has a large pearl hidden under the arch to offset a tough rubber tread sole. He also has a whole series of boot designs with pearls inlaid in the heels.

Luxury brand Gina has taken masculine black leather brogues and trimmed them with pearls; taking that masculine vibe further, Stuart Weitzman has a whole range of schoolmarmish black leather loafers with pearls on the toes. Carvela (part of the Kurt Geiger brand), meanwhile, has taken the ironic twist that bit further by trimming the black Birkenstock – the ultimate normcore sandal – with black velvet and large luminous pearls.

On the sporty side, Raf Simons has decorated trainers and scuba shoes with pearls and jewels at Dior, while brands like Aquazzura and Tory Burch have embroidered pearls on olive velvet trainers and espadrilles in their pre-autumn collections.

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Pearls have long been used to jazz up evening shoes and clutch bags: Roger Vivier and Jimmy Choo are classic examples, but in recent seasons it is more about irony than luxury; styles are quirkier, notably those at Prada and Miu Miu.

Alessandro Michele’s arrival at Gucci in 2015 heralded a trend for “granny chic” that included refashioning the image of pearls. On the catwalk he styled them primly as necklaces and trims on shoes, but there is always a subversive, irreverent vibe to the way the look is put together.

Historically, the iconoclastic Franco Moschino made a mockery of pearls by parodying famous looks, notably trimming Chanel’s tweed two-piece with pearls in the late 1980s. So what is happening now is nothing new, but designers are clearly rethinking how to use the adornment – such as gobstopper-sized pearls on boots and bags, or as exaggerated tassels on tribal-like earrings, both seen at Andrew Gn.

At Chanel, pearls feature not on showy velvet headbands but grey-knitted ones, making them look everyday. Pearl brooches, meanwhile, are pinned to the wrist of knitted arm-warmers or on bouclé tweed bags.

In terms of updating Chanel’s signature look, Karl Lagerfeld is clearly trying his best to find fresh ways of wearing pearls. In previous seasons he used pearls the size of ping-pong balls as earrings and cuffs; this season he’s using them to embellish silver driving gloves.

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The brand has history in this regard – Coco Chanel was the first fashion designer to treat pearls with such flippancy. She was raised during the belle epoque period in France in the late 1890s, when pearls represented a world that she could only witness enviously from afar. The experience drove her to create parodies of the great pearl necklaces favoured by fashionable society.

Even more avant-garde for the 1930s was that Chanel launched the trend for mixing fake and real pearls and gems. Later, her lover, the Duke of Westminster, presented her with yards of real pearls as presents, but such riches did not stop her playing with the faux variety.

“My jewellery represents first and foremost an idea,” Coco Chanel once said.

Her costume jewels were easily the most controversial of her innovations, and she made sure to feature them many times throughout her career.

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It is a legacy of her success with this concept that we have become less concerned with what is fake and what is real; whether the pearls on a tractor-tread boot are any less acceptable than a string of Mikimoto’s finest. Or to flip that around, just look at Lady Gaga – seen as the ultimate non-conformist, but who adores her classic Mikimoto necklace.