Tilda Swinton has long provided a template for a crisp, avant-garde elegance, but her star turn in Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash earlier this summer was a masterclass in the elevated basic. In the lead role as Marianne Lane, a resting rock star recovering from throat surgery, Swinton delivered a mostly mute performance that only heightened the brilliance of her wardrobe – a collection of perfect pieces that had been assembled by costume designer Giulia Piersanti in collaboration with Raf Simons during the final leg of his tenure at Christian Dior.
Against the dusty, arid landscape of Pantelleria, Swinton’s seemingly effortless separates illustrated how the simplest staples can make the biggest impact; in one scene she wears a bracelet-sleeved black top with a seductive scoop back and a parchment white dirndl skirt, cinched at the waist with a handspan black leather belt. Shirtdresses in plain cotton are enhanced with twists and knots or retro necklines inspired by the enduring style of 1950s film stars; the simple khaki day dress is given modern verve with elasticated sides and deep wide-cuffed short sleeves. Never has a wardrobe of basics looked so extraordinarily beautiful.
The elevated basic is something designers are honing in on, wardrobe staples that marry the versatility of hardworking pieces with construction and details that make them utterly covetable. Valentino has stepped into this zone with Rockstud Untitled, a collection of everyday items with special nuances borrowed from the brand’s phenomenally successful Rockstud accessories. The unisex collection includes a double-breasted trench (£1,995) in cotton gabardine and a double-breasted wool pea coat (£1,680) with, respectively, a belt and collar edged with golden studs. There are crisp white poplin shirts (£880), simple grey cotton T-shirts (£475), a camel cashmere sweater (£1,040), and a cotton studded jacket (£1,585), all traced with studs on the collar, cuffs and/or seams. Each Rockstud Untitled design is identified with a unique number (also labelled on the canvas satchel that accompanies each garment), adding to the preciousness of the piece.
It’s a theme that pervades: J Crew’s Collection line is packed with upscale staples, from fur-collared parkas (£450) to elegant blazers (£495) in mismatched tweeds, while the cultish Vetements was founded on the principle of creating everyday pieces (parkas, sweatshirts, hoodies and jeans) and elevating them with clever design tweaks (sculptural voluminous shoulders, asymmetric seams). Typical are a wool dogtooth belted coat (price on request) with exaggerated collar and cropped sleeves, an oversized taupe cotton trench (£2,000) and a red checked flannel shirt (£720) with exaggerated shoulders.
Elevating classics is something at which maximalist Alessandro Michele excels, of course. His reinvention of the Gucci mule loafer in lavish fabrics from brocade to colourful suede or with fur linings (£555) has been a runaway hit this year (fur-phobes might be interested to learn that Selfridges has a gold version, £650, with shearling lining), while other subtle flourishes include the addition of floral embroidery and a printed lining to an otherwise simple red wool cape (£1,990). Producing the perfect classic with a sophisticated twist is something that chimes with outerwear too. At Selfridges this autumn the classic biker jacket comes in mock croc (£4,180) by Azzedine Alaïa or sleek ponyskin (£3,300) courtesy of Rick Owens, and Net-a-Porter has Miu Miu oversized denim jackets (£1,425) with velvet panels and crochet collars and a quilted cotton Chloé jacket (£2,515) with shearling piping.
This idea of a wardrobe of extraordinary basics has fuelled the stellar rise of Alex Eagle’s stores in London and Berlin. “I wanted to create a place to buy cohesive building blocks for women’s wardrobes – timeless investment pieces that make our lives easier,” says Eagle. “Our focus is always on fabric, fit and longevity rather than trends.” Her obsession with basics goes way back. “My mother and I still fight over a Piero Demonzi navy blazer of hers from the 1970s,” she admits, citing the perfect fit that provided the starting point for her Private blazer label. “Women want to buy things that don’t obviously date, pieces that will work hard for them every day and become a part of their uniform. Jil Sander knits can be expensive but they last forever. Likewise, each season new pieces by Rosetta Getty [£1,250] add layers to an existing wardrobe.” Eagle’s trophies for autumn include a black crepe satin opera top (£1,186) in 100 per cent silk with bell sleeves and a velvet belt by Hillier Bartley, and exquisitely rich but streamlined pieces from The Row, surely the apogee of the elevated staple; Eagle lists its floor-sweeping silk trench (€4,170) and a full-length circle skirt (£2,144) in pale gold among her favourites.
The rise of these superior core pieces has coincided with a proliferation of brands that focus on just one thing: Mansur Gavriel’s understated bags (sleek but sumptuous totes in tan or black leather, £475), upscale sneakers (from €329) in butter-soft leather from Common Projects or exquisitely made blazers from the trio of fashion editors behind Italian label Blazé Milano. “When brands focus on one item it’s easy for customers to identify with them,” explains Laura Larbalestier, buying director at Browns. “They really stand out while making wardrobe staples feel new and interesting. Blazé Milano, for example, produces limited runs of blazers [£940] that bestow them with a bespoke feeling, while clever details such as internal pockets allow women to do away with a handbag.”
“We are all on the lookout for clothes that we can wear day in, day out but which have a difference and make us feel special,” agrees Natalie Kingham, buying director at Matchesfashion.com. “Classic pieces like knits, coats, jeans and flat shoes that are offered in unique fabrications or with unusual details are consistent hits.” Her picks include the aforementioned Gucci mule loafer, and Hillier Bartley’s brocade tracksuit (top, £995, bottoms, £695) and double-breasted ivory blazer (£1,995) with fringed lapels and hem.
There are, of course, some brands that have long specialised in acutely indulgent but utterly wearable pieces. For Bamford’s head of womenswear, Karen Leck, it is second nature. “How something feels is really key to what we do. When women try our things on they sort of do this hug.” Her huggable pieces this autumn include micro-checked shirts (£450) with hand-smocked cuffs, handmade buttonholes and pearl buttons, a hand-smocked Indian cotton dress (£650) in softest taupe, and a sumptuous charcoal herringbone handknit (£850) with contrasting sleeves. These clothes are the antithesis of fleeting, fly-by-night trends.
“We live in an extremely fast-paced world where everything is instantaneous,” says Sonia Bronstein, who launched her label Les Glorieuses in 2014 to satisfy the demand for luxe mix-and-match staples. “What I have seen in my customers and what I want myself is a brand with a consistent identity, one you can really rely on. We want to invest in strong, timeless pieces for our wardrobes and then add really strong fashion pieces to wear with them from time to time.” This autumn Bronstein has added flourishes to some key pieces; her classic square-cut top (£565) comes in black dentelle de Calais lace edged with grosgrain ribbon, while a sleeveless chambray blouse (from £315) is given a twist with a pleated collar and ruffled cap sleeves. “It is about refining details,” says Bronstein. “If we talk about sophisticated basics it’s not because they’re complicated. It’s because the details, the fabric, the cut are all perfect. Together they combine to glorify simplicity.”