LIfe&style Leading labels are offering women comfort in these straitened times under a canopy of oversized garb and accessories, from mannish coats to chunky knits and baggy pants.
When the going gets tough, it's essential to cut back, right? Well, not always. Leading labels are offering women comfort in these straitened times under a canopy of oversized garb and accessories, from mannish coats to chunky knits and baggy pants. Laura Campbell reports. It's time to embrace the big cover-up. "Fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening." So said Coco Chanel and she was not wrong. History shows that fashion follows the economy: hemlines rise and fall with the stock market. What we wear is also an accurate indicator of the general mood; when things are good, exhibitionism reigns supreme. When life is tough, a sense of vulnerability prevails. People want to cover up.
After several seasons of boom-time overabundance, there's now a very different sort of excess. Volume. Recessionistas are trumpeting maximalism, or what we might call over-the-top minimalism, making a statement with über-large, oversized shapes and accessories. Women are encouraged to cocoon themselves in supersized, all-encompassing clothing. This incredible bulk first made an appearance at this year's autumn/winter catwalk. Dries Van Noten and Stella McCartney offered big sloppy, swamp-me sweaters. At Louis Vuitton and Armand Basi, the models wore huge, almost magnified mannish jackets with enormously exaggerated lapels (Basi) or enlarged flap pockets (Vuitton). Exaggeration took the form of vastly accentuated shoulders at shows, from Balmain, Yves Saint Laurent, Dolce & Gabbana and Gianfranco Ferré to Roksanda Ilincic, Wunderkind and Zac Posen.Designers focused on either gaining height on the shoulders (in some cases right up to the earlobes) with yards of puffed, ruched and tiered fabric, or creating a graphic shape with fiercely structured shoulder padding - the kind of silhouettes that would not look out of place in a sci-fi movie.
Great shaggy, hairy mammoth coats overwhelmed the models at Ralph Lauren, Dolce & Gabbana, Marios Schwab, Emilio Pucci and Antonio Berardi. Looking lost in a gargantuan sea of coloured fur, it was hard to spot the person inside. Bottega Veneta's shift dresses were cut generously, while Chloé majored on Seventies-style draped capes, and Donna Karan's batwing sleeves accentuated the silhouette further. They are the kind of simple pieces that create impact with movement.
Burberry has called its latest 2010 spring/summer collection Twisted Classic. "We've literally taken the classics of Burberry, like the trench coat, the check and the colour trench, and innovated those historic elements and given them a different point of view and a modern edge," says Christopher Bailey, the company's designer. MaxMara recently launched its Atelier collection - a limited-edition line of coats. All 15 styles - think tulip skirts and dolman sleeves (full sleeves that are wide at the top and narrow at the bottom) - use a generous amount of luxurious fabric, from wet-look alpaca and cashmere to bouclé tweed. High street stores have also moved into the comfort zone. H&M and M&S offer chunky knitwear, and Gap's "coatigan", the part-jacket, part-coat staple, has returned even bigger this season.
Nothing has escaped the boosting. Even prints have been amplified, such as the jumbo houndstooth seen at Alexander McQueen, Moschino and Preen, oversized chalk-striped wool at YSL, inflated spots at Gucci, and giant checks at Escada and Nicole Farhi. Some of the designs look almost comical, bringing an injection of much-needed humour at a time when we might not all be laughing. These looks might be considered extreme by ordinary folk, but in order to put their ideas across, designers often show more exaggerated styles on the catwalk. By the time they get filtered into the shops and, more importantly, our wardrobes, the look has been diluted. Take harem pants. When they first featured at the shows, skinny trousers and leggings were all the rage. Why on earth, we wondered, would women want to don trousers that dropped in the crotch and added bulk to the hips? Yet now, baggy trousers are considered an essential part of the fashion cognoscenti's wardrobe and a great alternative to the ubiquitous pair of jeans.
But, on a practical level, how do these voluminous designs translate into everyday wearability? The good news is that women who are self-conscious about their bodies can wrap up, knowing that no one is going to scrutinise their every curve. Tiny women can feel secure inside a bulkier shape, or partner with more fitted shapes for a contrasting look. Few can argue that there's something wonderfully comforting about oversized clothing - like wearing a man's coat, shirt or sweater. It makes you feel snug and look petite - in the most feminine way.
Accessories on a large scale are like something out of Alice In Wonderland, with extra big totes (Prada, Fendi, Vuitton), partnered with giant, skyscraper heels (Givenchy, Versus, Prada) and sunglasses that have been given the Jackie O treatment and now cover eyebrows and cheekbones (Lacoste, Gucci). No paparazzi, please. Jewellery, too, is chunky and bold. Christian Lacroix, Oscar de la Renta and Marni's oversized gold chains wouldn't have looked out of place on Mr T, and Vera Wang's enormous pendants make such a statement, they can be worn with something as simple as a little black dress. Or rather, make that a not-so-little black dress. It's a wonderful excuse for everyone to wrap up and loosen up. No need to be discreet or restrained just yet.