How versatility became the newest luxury style trend
In 2023 luxury finds itself having to work harder than ever before. The notion that high net worth consumers spend indiscriminately has never been the whole picture.
True, the queues of millennials waiting outside some of the world's super-brand flagships in Moonie-like acts of worship for whatever overhyped novelty has just dropped makes one wonder... but the reality is that even at the most exalted level of the market, plenty of lavish spenders approach their big-ticket purchases thoughtfully, researching both the brand and the product before they buy. Being a cognoscente gets you respect from the sales advisors, who, while not exactly kings in this whole transaction, are the people who make things happen.
For anyone, but particularly for those who don't have to save before they buy, the chase is part of the thrill, and the hurdles they have to leap to get whatever item they have in their sights are often as important as the product itself. The brands know this.
That's why rarity has become part of the ritual. Supply and demand are tightly controlled - it's sometimes easier, although more expensive, to buy certain totemic objects, such as the Hermès Kelly or the Rolex Oyster, from a specialist dealer working with pre-owned merchandise than it is to buy a new one in store. That may seem counterintuitive - why would a brand want the sale to go to a third party? But if resale values are high, then the price in store rises too.
Scarcity, quality and provenance are the cornerstones of selection for aficionados. But increasingly, so is versatility. Even if you have a townhouse in Mayfair, a chalet in Verbier and a beachside villa in The Bahamas, you still have finite space - at least in your luggage. Who wants to schlep trunks around these days? Certainly not the wife of a certain Formula 1 driver who found herself having to attend 15 functions in a fortnight and didn't want to send her wardrobe out on a container ship. 'She called me up to see if I had any ideas,' says Elizabeth Stott, a 36-year-old British designer. Stott, as it happened, had plenty of them.
Her fashion label - E Stott - was born out of that conversation, so for that, if for nothing else, thank you, Formula 1. E Stott answers two pertinent questions that have been asked by customers (and ignored by designers) for years, namely, 'Why doesn't this dress have sleeves?' and, 'How many wears can I get out of this?'
'I always wanted to do clothes that were versatile, but without making a whole song and dance about it,' says Stott, who previously designed for Brooks Brothers, Emilia Wickstead, Roksanda and Aquascutum. 'So I worked on a flattering, flowy, fit-and-flare sleeveless dress in a single colour that can be worn anywhere, and then set about making sleeves that come separately.' The result was two different outfits in the space of one easy-to-pack dress.
It may sound gimmicky, but in practice it's anything but. The sleeves, which are neither painfully narrow nor annoyingly wide, are attached to a small collar that fastens at the back of the neck and sits flush. Once on, they appear to be part of the dress. Buy one dress and two sets of sleeves - one pair in a contrasting colour, one pair matching - add an E Stott cummerbund-sash with or without a bow, and the permutations multiply. There are metallic capelets too and, as she progresses, there will be more colours and more variations. Crucially, all of these are designed to work with each dress from every season.
Stott's Formula 1 friend liked the concept so much she encouraged Stott to set up in business for herself. Her first collection, just launched, has been snapped up by Matches Fashion.
There are eight dress styles currently, all designed to skim the body in a modern but flattering way. 'They drape. They're feminine and they accentuate the waist without being overtly bodycon,' says Stott, who wanted something that she'd feel comfortable wearing herself. Sizes run from a petite six to a roomy 18, and there's half a centimetre of extra fabric built into every seam, 'so if at any point you go up a size, it's not a problem,' explains Stott with commendable pragmatism.
She always wanted to produce a collection that would help customers rather than complicate their lives. 'The last thing I want to do is add to the sense we all have of owning too much stuff,' she explains. 'That said, I'm another designer with another label - and there is so much excess around, especially of fabric.' For this reason E Stott uses end-of-line materials. If all this is starting to sound prosaic rather than luxurious, know that plenty of uber-luxe brands are now delving deep into their archives for classic bolts of fabric that featured in previous collections. Prada has been making a cult feature of this for years.
The quality of E Stott is what elevates it. Even better, everything is produced in London and sampled in the label's picturesque late-19th-century studio in Queen's Park, which comes complete with an iron-filigree wood-burning stove.
She's clearly on to something. Georgina Dent, the mastermind behind cult label Marfa Stance, makes buildable quilted coats to which you can add a collar and a liner, and bags that constantly sell out on Matches and Net-a-Porter. Jennifer Chamandi's award-winning elegant shoes feature a signature Mary Jane strap that slots through the heel, but can be removed to make a plain court style.
Métier's sleek Private Eye travel bag has zip-in pouches that can be carried on their own as an evening clutch; Suzannah London has dresses with detachable capes for two distinct looks and moods. Some of Etro's swimsuits can be worn multiple ways. And increasingly labels from Gucci to Hermès and Loro Piana are producing stylish, transformable pieces.
In this they're taking the lead from high jewellery, where tiaras that transform into brooches, pendants that become earrings, and necklaces that metamorphose into bracelets are familiar. Jessica McCormack's delectable hoops can be worn with or without their diamond charms.
Meanwhile, Khaite's on-and-off-the-shoulder knits, a favourite of the Duchess of Sussex, have been wildly popular - it's a high fashion, culty label acknowledging that temperatures fluctuate depending on a flick of the switch, and no one wants to break a sweat to look good. Needless to say, Khaite is designed by a woman, Catherine Holstein, a sophisticated New Yorker who earned her chops at Vera Wang and The Elder Statesman - two other brands that know about adaptability.
That's not to say men can't play this game too. Jonathan Anderson's Bracelet Pouch for Loewe is bag-meets-bangle. How practical this turns out to be remains a moot point, but it's certainly striking and opens up a world of possibilities. Just the way luxury should.