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Why I’ll Always Be Sold On “Utility Chic”

In the early noughties, I religiously watched a TV show called She’s Gotta Have It. Each week, presenter Jayne Middlemiss tasked three women with shopping the latest fashion trend, each with a different budget: £50, £200 and £500. Although I’m pretty sure I watched every single episode of all four seasons, the only show I still remember vividly was the one that tackled “utility chic”.

These days, in the permanently “switched on” and “tuned in” media culture of ours, the lexicon of fashion is commonplace, but this was the first time I had heard the phrase “utility chic”, and it immediately caught my imagination. In fashion terms, it was the perfect example of how opposites attract, how the useful and serviceable can marry seamlessly with the merely ornamental. These five short syllables summed up exactly how I wanted to dress and precisely what clothes should offer – form and function. Like most women, I want to move and live in the clothes I wear, but I want to look good while doing it. The very best fashion embraces this desire. Like Katharine Hepburn said, “When a man says he likes a woman in a skirt, I tell him to try one.”

In Ireland, when the sun finally deigns to show its longed-for face, women tend to sideline practicality completely in favour of prettiness. It’s understandable given that we spend most of the year in utilitarian wear. But it’s a little ironic given that there is far less sitting around in summer and much more “doing”, which requires clothes that offer more than just aesthetics. But that semi-sheer maxi dress you bought last season may never get another airing if you don’t pull it out of the back of your wardrobe on the first day the sun smiles down on us, while those embellished flats you’ve only worn once on holiday desperately need several more outings if you’re ever to justify the spend. Never mind that you’re heading up Killiney Hill rather than sipping prosecco in your best friend’s pergola. Looking stylish is always about dressing both for the weather and the occasion. Not one or the other.

Stella McCartney’s SS17 Paris show ended with her models hopping, skipping and jumping around the runway in an infectious demonstration that those clothes were made for moving in. She reprised the mechanic in her AW17 show. McCartney doesn’t just talk the talk – her models walk the walk; or rather they dance it. McCartney described her SS collection as “a celebration of the experience of life”. The word experience is key here. McCartney’s clothes are made for an experiential life, not a stationary one. This is not red carpet couture made for posing in, statue-like. These are clothes designed to live life in, and have fun in. For AW, her signature tailoring offers women a flattering, waist-defining silhouette, but within an oversized silhouette so there’s no hint of restriction or discomfort. A conscious coupling of beauty and utility.

Stella McCartney AW17

Stella McCartney AW17

It’s fair to say McCartney’s clothes have always been defined by a certain urban sensibility as well as a directly personal understanding of what it is women need from their day-to-day wardrobes (the designer balances her fashion empire with a hands-on approach to her role as mum of four children). Similarly, Italian heritage brand Bottega Veneta has risen from near bankruptcy to global stalwart over the past decade by focusing on clothes that function and perform. I read recently that one of creative director Tomas Maier’s pet hates is un-walkable skirts. Mine too. He detests clothes that don’t work. Don’t we all?

Like McCartney, Maier has put his money where his mouth is, including models of varying ages – most notably, actress Lauren Hutton – on his SS17 runway to show that his clothes work for all women, not just willowy youngsters. The collection revolved around sensible shirtdresses, classic trench coats and useful knits, but these were elevated to icon status by way of luxe materials and hand-crafted detailing. Similarly for autumn, silk dresses in dusty tones stole the show. They provided beautiful silhouettes that the model could move freely within. These are “lifetime” pieces designed to offer every woman a sartorial solution that is timeless, ageless and seasonless. If that’s not utility chic, I don’t know what is. 

Bottega Veneta AW17

As women move, we run, we travel, we experience, and designers must provide the wardrobe in which to do it. Christian Louboutin is often quoted as saying, “I would hate for someone to look at my shoes and say, ‘Oh my God! That looks so comfortable!…”. A quippish remark, yes, but clever? No. If only Hepburn were alive to have a word with him.

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