March 27 2010
When Claire Page is made redundant from her job as marketing manager of a City institution, her sister-in-law, Talya Darling, employs her as PR director of her upscale fashion boutique, Bouclé. Claire’s wardrobe has until now epitomised the professional woman’s Safe Zone (pencil skirt, crisp Thomas Pink shirt); but clearly, it’s time to raise her fashion game.
Her rigorously chic new boss – a regular on the “best dressed” lists – stresses to Claire the importance of “looking the part”. Bouclé employees “must be utterly au courant with what the season’s all about”. Since Claire has focused most of the past few years on equity derivative models rather than the catwalk variety, she hires a personal shopper to make over her wardrobe. The in-store consultant declares “this season is all about nude” and proceeds to upholster Claire head to toe in hues that make her look like nothing so much as a sufferer of acute norovirus. This sartorial approximation of ancient bathroom grout is also, Claire imagines, high maintenance. But too polite to argue, she leaves with a selection of Italian cashmere and tailoring boasting more gradations of nude than a Bobbi Brown make-up counter. When she later calculates that her future dry-cleaning bills might necessitate remortgaging her Fulham flat, she sneaks back to return every last item. Back to the drawing board.
A flip through some fashion magazines leaves her head spinning. One posits that “tracksuit bottoms are now a serious proposition in the workplace”. Others reveal the looks she should be “rocking” this season include “gladiator chic” and “fierce disco”. Unable to decode either into plain English, let alone a serviceable work outfit, Claire logs onto a fashion website where she discovers that key trends for summer 2010 include yellow, underwear as outerwear (“will-o’-the-wisp chiffons are everywhere”) and “genie pants”. Claire is mystified as to the nature of these last, but reads that Stella McCartney – an encouragingly familiar name – has done them. When further surfing turns up a pair in limoncello-coloured chiffon, ticking off three trends at once, Claire yelps with triumph: fashion jackpot at last.
So one can imagine her consternation upon reporting for her first day at work, only to find everyone resolutely in monochrome – and not a tracksuit bottom in sight. As she trails Talya around the shows her confusion is compounded. Her sister-in-law, noticing her furrowed brow upon exposure to Prada’s towering, crystal-hung Lucite clogs, Viktor & Rolf’s seemingly sliced in half eau-de-nil gowns, and other “directional” runway jetsam, simply smiles enigmatically.
But a window for proving her fashionista mettle opens when a meeting is scheduled with the designer Esme McCarthy, who is, according to Bouclé chatter, “having a moment”. A few minutes on Style.com reveal that the look McCarthy is “channelling” this season is “Boadicea in distress” – leather gladiator tunics and skirts made from hessian that have been buried in the ground for “authentic signs of agitation”. Shoes with heels like giant thorns and lethal metal spikes complete the picture.
The prospect of enacting a one-woman warrior-queen costume drama from burlap neckline to leather hem is too much for Claire, but she gamely dons a pair of the thorn shoes. She is still pondering the ergonomics (and hazards) of three-inch projectiles as footwear when Esme turns up in a tailored pencil skirt, crisp cotton shirt and slender heels – a look almost identical to Claire’s old City uniform. A polite enquiry reveals that the outfit is from McCarthy’s less-publicised (and much more wearable) pre-season collection, E for Esme. As Talya helpfully explains later, “Esme wouldn’t be seen dead in anything so obvious as a catwalk look.”
As she winces and wobbles her way across Mayfair back to Bouclé, Claire ponders the moral of her foray into fashion: in this monde, for “directional” one should simply read “unwearable”.