Fix up, look sharp: women's suiting is big business

Serena Kelsey creates both men's and women's bespoke tailoring for clients around New Zealand.
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Serena Kelsey creates both men's and women's bespoke tailoring for clients around New Zealand.

It was nearly 150 years ago that actress Sarah Bernhardt scandalised Paris by wearing a custom-made pantsuit, which she called her "boy's clothes."

Coco Chanel designed her first suit in 1914 - a fur-trimmed jacket with a matching ankle-length skirt.

But it wasn't until the 1930s that women in suits began to take off, with silver screen icons like Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn adopting 'lounge suits' as the ultimate in daring sophistication.

Edward von Dadelszen recently added women's suiting to his bespoke tailoring service.
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Edward von Dadelszen recently added women's suiting to his bespoke tailoring service.

Even then, they still weren't for everyone - according to the entry that accompanies an Elsa Schiaparelli suit from 1939 in the Museum of Modern Arts' archives, "only the most unconventional designer would offer a straightforward pantsuit, and only a fearless woman would wear it."

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Christchurch-based stylist Angela Stone says women's suits are definitely playing a bigger and more consistent role on ...
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Christchurch-based stylist Angela Stone says women's suits are definitely playing a bigger and more consistent role on the runways and in stores.

What really kicked things off though, in 1966, was Yves Saint Laurent's 'Le Smoking' tuxedo, which sent the women's suit into a stratosphere where it could be considered both wearable and the height of chic.

The 1980s was the decade of the power suit - all big shoulder pads and bold hues - but after that things went a bit quiet, with suits being relegated into a largely 'corporate only' environment rather than a fashion item.

But by all accounts, the tides are turning once again, with designers, tailors and stylists around the country and around the world picking up on women's rising desire for a damn good suit.

Tailor Serena Kelsey says women's suits in block colours, especially white, blue, and pearl gray, are currently trending.
Supplied / Serena Kelsey

Tailor Serena Kelsey says women's suits in block colours, especially white, blue, and pearl gray, are currently trending.

"A good suit can last decades if the cut is timeless and the quality of the fabric is exceptional," says Auckland-based tailor Edward von Dadelszen, who recently added a bespoke tailoring service for women to his formerly menswear-only repertoire, and says the demand is rapidly growing.

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"Investing in the perfect suit jacket with matching separates can mean endless wardrobe options, taking the stress out of getting dressed in the morning or for special occasions."

Von Dadelszen says longer line jackets in more androgynous cuts are on trend right now, "with trouser styles stolen from the boys."

Women's suiting separates in on-trend pale shades at tailor Edward von Dadelszen's Auckland studio.
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Women's suiting separates in on-trend pale shades at tailor Edward von Dadelszen's Auckland studio.

"These can look extremely elegant and fresh when tailormade for you. They can lengthen and balance the body and suit most occasions."

Christchurch-based stylist Angela Stone (who many will know from her role in last year's Real Housewives TV show) agrees that suits are back in favour.

"Suits are definitely playing a bigger and more consistent role on the runways and in stores," she says.

"I think more women are wearing suits as a way of expressing their professionalism, capability and confidence."

Stone says pantsuits "are very in right now, particularly with wide-legged trousers, which are flattering and comfortable."

"White always makes for a fashionable suit, but don't be afraid to mix things up with a pattern like the classic tweed. Mix and match is also a trending style on the runways, so think navy tapered trousers and a cream cropped jacket or similar."

Teneille Ferguson, womenswear buying manager at David Jones in Wellington, says the store has seen an increase in popularity in classic blazers and a demand for a "rock 'n' roll aesthetic" in women's suiting.

"The tuxedo jacket has definitely made a comeback. Suiting has an elevated new look this season, with separates in luxurious textures such hammered silk and velvet. A cropped leg adds glamour and femininity to a classic look or pair with sky high heels or platform sneaker for polished daytime office chic."

Ferguson says a good suit "is like a suit of armour" and that "finding a skirt or trouser suit with an impeccable fit is an investment that lasts the test of time."

According to Ferguson, it also comes down to tailoring and fabric. "Updating your silhouette seasonally with a slim leg or exaggerated shoulder keeps your look modern and versatile while retaining a timeless look."

Like von Dadelszen, bespoke tailor Serena Kelsey, who travels to her clients all over New Zealand, started out creating men's suiting, but added women's tailoring to her offering as demand grew, and says the male/female split in her client base is now "50/50".

"There's some rumblings that some of the big international tailoring houses are starting to do womenswear, and there's definitely a need for it in New Zealand," says Kelsey.

The appeal of a women's suit is "they're very adaptable, they're very comfortable and easy to wear, if they're made for you or they fit well, and obviously you've got a bit of the power appeal."

And while thankfully the days of the exaggerated shoulder pad are definitely behind us, Kelsey is finding "that shoulders are becoming a bit wider again now."

"It all depends on the marketplace doesn't it - when the markets are doing well, I always find everybody gets a bit bolder with shoulders. It was a really slim fit, but now it's going a bit broader on the shoulder, with a really nice shape at the waist."

She too says tuxedos are a rising trend. "It's becoming really popular to have a really sharp tuxedo instead of a dress.

"The blazer is going to have a resurgence too I think, they are very adaptable."

Colourwise, Kelsey says block colours - "some really stunning reds, white, a true blue and pearl grey" - are having a moment, as well as tweed and pinstripe.

 - Stuff

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