Women's Fashion

Change of a dress

Imaginative designs that can be worn in a multitude of ways offer the ultimate in investment dressing. Avril Groom reports on the current trend for transformables.

November 12 2011
Avril Groom

Decisions, decisions... These will be your daily companions if you have Osman’s zip-quartered, leather dress in your wardrobe this autumn. Simple though it looks, it offers no fewer than six ways to wear it. Confusing? Maybe. Yet think of the advantages, principally being able to manage a three-day working trip on an overnight bag. Add a shirt, a cashmere sweater, dressy shoes and you’re good to go. If you have a smidgen more space, pop in Dorothee Schumacher’s dress that not only changes colour, but also goes from business to ballroom, via cocktails.

Fashion has transformed itself this autumn, with items that do exactly what they say on the tin now looking rather lacking in ambition. Today it’s the hidden layers – literally, in some cases – that count. The examples above are extreme in scope but there are many simpler items that give great change for your money, from reversibles entailing far from conventional fabrics, through zip-off elements, to soft, almost freeform pieces that beg the wearer to experiment. There are small details too, such as the quirky, geometric, detachable ruffle that adorns a plain white shirt in Jil Sander’s final collection for Uniqlo (£29.90). Even accessories play the game, from the new luxury, tailored Ugg Collection boots that morph from an above-the-knee cavalier style to ankle-huggers (£859), or smart boots and sandals at Jaeger (from £199) and Kurt Geiger (from £200) that have racy, detachable ankle cuffs, to Tiffany & Co’s beautiful reversible tote bags (from £305) that go from daytime soft suede to evening metallic.

Transformable clothes have a long and honourable history, and their complexities work best in times, as now, when fashion’s overall bias is towards minimalism. In the 1920s, Madeleine Vionnet based all her shapes on the geometry of squares, circles or triangles, and often gave the wearer the choice of how to drape and fasten them. In the 1930s, German photographer and designer Ré Soupault created transformable dresses, and Schumacher’s design is a reworking for modern lifestyles of her idea. In the 1990s, Martin Margiela, one of the originators of deconstruction, turned skirts into frocks or made socks into sleeves, with the owner choosing to wear them in their own way or as originally intended.

The most extreme transformers have bridged the gap between fashion and art, none more so than Hussein Chalayan, whose famous coffee-table skirt of 2000 became a metaphor for conceptual fashion and which he followed with equally ingenious pieces, such as a 2007 dress with electronically raised louvres. If there is an art element in transformable clothes today it is that, with the freedom to choose how an item is worn, the owner herself becomes a piece of performance art – the ultimate expression of fashion individuality. British designer Maria Grachvogel finds her clients love the possibilities of her cleverly cut, easy silk crêpe pieces, including one top that can be twisted and tucked in many ways and has become a signature classic (£370). “Women today don’t want to be dictated to, even by a designer they trust,” she says. “Style has moved into a new realm, focusing on the woman, and designers have had to become more flexible. Women want an extra dimension from their clothes – it’s not just cut and fit that’s important, but what they can do with them, wearing them in a way that reflects their personality.”

More than that, says Grachvogel, there is a creative aspect, as the designer becomes complicit with the customer, giving her the wherewithal to discover a new look. Grachvogel had worked out seven ways to wear her twist top, “but even so, one client showed me a new way, and I love that”. And Milia M, a young Lebanese designer whose complex, twist-it-yourself jersey and simply-tailored silk pieces (from £350) are gaining plaudits, agrees. “Multifunctional pieces give an outfit more than one life and help the client reinvent it,” she says. “By breaking the boundaries of where the waist or bustline should be, a piece can be worn upside down or back to front, giving the wearer the feeling of having created the item herself freshly each time.”

For Osman Yousefzada it is a matter both of creative distinction (he wouldn’t go so far as to cite art) and practicality. His six-way leather dress (£1,690) is a triumph of ingenuity yet a concept so simple you wonder why no one else does it. It is, seemingly, a graceful yet edgy shift dress with a characteristically geometric A-line skirt, falling to the new calf-length. The border-creating zip above the knee could be a decorative feature but is, in fact, fully functional, releasing to leave a short, sharp, somehow sleeker cocktail dress. The bodice is also neatly zipped at the waist; this allows the skirt to be separated (worn long or short), while the remaining bodice develops a personality of its own. On one hand it’s a slightly tough-looking, fencing-style top with a back zip, which would look great with anything from a pencil skirt to jeans; on the other, reversed, it’s a square-cut, open waistcoat – the only option not available is to fasten it in front, as the precision-cut shaped darting would distort.

The soft leather Yousefzada uses does not have the stretch of the jersey in which he has made transformable clothes before. He started doing them after he “found clients were turning jersey dresses back to front for a different look” – that complicity with the customer again. “They have always been very successful but the leather dress takes it a stage further, literally a portable wardrobe in one garment. It took a while to perfect – the important thing is an immaculate cut, and transformability is an add-on. It’s a blend of form and function.” The zips are a key decorative feature of the season’s faintly tough, sometimes armoured style, in this case exploited for functionality too.

Yousefzada is not alone. Zips have long been a feature of the McQueen oeuvre and this season creative director Sarah Burton makes particularly free use of them in the McQ collection. Here an individual, customised approach has a typical hint of McQueen subversion – the tails of a slightly punkish, tailored jacket zip off at the waist to leave a short, spencer-style jacket (£485), while a gracefully fluted black dress with three zips on each side of the skirt unfolds to reveal a far more dramatic, almost panniered shape (£325). At Givenchy, artistic director Riccardo Tisci’s hard-edged, goth-influenced style lends itself to zips as features – sharp black jackets have sleeves that unzip to become even sharper gilets or sleeveless jackets (price on request). Meanwhile, Nicole Farhi’s clever multi-zipped dresses (from £590) are shape shifters – unzip different areas for varied drape or nip.

At Maison Martin Margiela, the design team play a game of conceal or reveal: a simple dress (£1,173), for example, has a panel that unzips to show a contrasting textured layer and a softer shape. In concept, this fits the house heritage, as, in a way, do pieces by Vionnet’s recent incumbent Rodolfo Paglialunga (he is to be succeeded by Barbara and Lucia Croce). His big, circular sweater collars that double as hoods (£1,062), or the softly geometric dresses (from £1,556) that take on a different character with a contrasting belt (£177) are, he says, “simple yet full of detail. They are ‘more dresses in a dress’, transforming to accomplish the desires of the wearer.”

In place of house heritage, Schumacher looked more widely at fashion history and found herself inspired. “Ré Soupault – a strong-minded woman who rebelled against rigid structures – created a transformation dress in 1930, to meet a woman’s changing requirements. It seemed such a contemporary concept that I wanted to reinvent it for today’s working, travelling woman, with the same combination of freedom of choice, strength and fragility – one dress that transforms from a tough business shift to a nonchalant cocktail dress and a glamorous gown reflects our changing needs and temperament, and it’s fun.” At €2,200 (to order), in silk satin, georgette and chiffon, it is a whole wardrobe, with add-ons; its simplest form is a long-sleeved dress in nude satin with a slim black skirt, its waist outlined in hot pink, cunningly concealing a zip. Undo and reverse the skirt, now in nude with scalloped ruffles, unzip the sleeves and add further ruffles to the yoke seam, and you have a relaxed cocktail dress. That same yoke seam can also be used to suspend floor-length, chiffon panels – add crystal-embroidered shoulder extensions and it becomes a modern ballgown. The idea has inspired Schumacher in other transformers, including a reversible swing jacket in leather, sheepskin and Tibetan lamb (£1,410), and an asymmetrically cut tweed box jacket (£608) that can be worn either way up.

Other designers are also using fabrics to transform: Nicole Farhi has a cocoon-like, olive-green, soft mohair coat (£650) that reverses to a much harder-edged techno cotton, while Hockley offers coats that reverse from techno, weatherproof reflective fabric to rabbit fur and lambswool (£1,875), or textured, waxed cotton to mink (£2,810), giving a radically different look. “Women have always had reversible fur-lined raincoats but I wanted to give this useful style a younger, more relevant look,” says creative director Izzet Ers. “It can be utility casual or properly luxe, for day or evening, wet weather or cold – it makes fur a versatile, everyday item rather than for special occasions. Even people who can afford fur want the best use from their investment.”

Ers is one of the few designers to mention what, in my search for reasons for the current trend for transformables, has become the elephant in the room – the economy. Milia M regards her pieces as “timeless, long-term investments”. But beyond this, no one really wants to discuss “value”. They have spotted another, related reason – growing disenchantment with disposable fashion.

“I think the convergence of the economic crisis with an awareness of the downsides of fast fashion has resulted in a questioning clientele for whom flexible, personality-led dressing makes sense,” says Grachvogel. She is echoed by Finnish designer Sveta Planman, whose ethical and sustainable Jolier range offers reversible wrap dresses (£185) and more complex pieces that shift shape – short or long sleeves or hemline; slim or fuller skirt – using strategic buttons (from £148). Her business, already a Finnish hit, is now targeting Britain. “I believe in long-lasting, flexible clothes as an answer to my worries about over-consumption and fast disposal,” she says. “A garment’s functionality has scarcely changed in a century, yet we are all used to fast-changing, multifunctional electronic devices. The modern consumer wants personalised, adjustable, eco-conscious products – and fashion must move with that.”