Autumn dresses with cool, understated glamour

Autumn’s structurally fluid dresses have an almost monastic purity that elegantly nods to the architectural lines of Balenciaga. Clare Coulson reports

Givenchy silk crepe de Chine tunic dress, €990
Givenchy silk crepe de Chine tunic dress, €990

This summer the V&A announced that Cristóbal Balenciaga is the inspiration behind the design of its new outpost, V&A East, which is set to be an integral part of an ambitious £1.1bn cultural hub in Stratford’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Scheduled to open in 2023, the building, with its dramatic angles and stark modernity, has been designed by architects O’Donnell + Tuomey, who took inspiration from an X-ray image of a 1950s Balenciaga silk gown displayed in last year’s wildly successful retrospective of the designer’s work at the South Kensington museum.

The Spanish-born couturier, who died in 1972, was considered by many of his contemporaries to be without equal. Christian Dior once called him “the master of us all”, while Hubert de Givenchy considered his former mentor to be a genius. His architectural lines, bold silhouettes and almost monastic purity permeate fashion this season with a plethora of serene – and often flowing – dresses with a fuss-free aesthetic by designers who, like Balenciaga, tend to stay in the wings rather than bask in the spotlight.

From left: Palmer Harding cotton Solar dress, £430. Ports 1961 wool and viscose-satin dress, £995. Giorgio Armani wool/silk cloak dress, £1,550
From left: Palmer Harding cotton Solar dress, £430. Ports 1961 wool and viscose-satin dress, £995. Giorgio Armani wool/silk cloak dress, £1,550

The Row’s intensely private twin designers, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, have carved out a niche in this area with beguiling clothes that are structurally minimal yet rich in fabrication and subdued in colour and mood. These are clothes that convey a quiet confidence and understated glamour, and this autumn their collection is exceptional. Luxurious cocooning knits, including an ankle-length, ivory cashmere dress (£3,750) layered over a long-sleeve top in ivory silk (£1,175), look fresh and modern yet softly cosseting. But it’s their ability to make extremely simple pieces look so sublimely chic that’s most impressive – a black structured viscose dress (£4,650) paired with a natural silk-gazar blouse (£2,675) are typical of their richly sumptuous shapes.

For Natalie Kingham, buying director at Matchesfashion.com, this kind of stealth glamour is distinctly different from ’90s minimalism, which tended towards a slight froideur. These looks may be reduced and pure, but they are tactile and indulgent too. “As a look it’s more elegant – it’s softer and looser,” says Kingham. “Labels like The Row can make me gasp at the simplest pieces. These are very, very luxurious clothes, from the fabrics to the way they are made. And just like minimal interiors, the whole thing has to be done incredibly well to really work.”

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Kingham’s other go-to brands to achieve this look are London duo Palmer Harding, with their flowing cowl-necked dresses (£430) in navy and ecru pinstriped cotton, and Paris-based Lemaire, where Christophe Lemaire and Sarah-Linh Tran combine austere tailoring with beautifully folded and draped dresses. This season their high-necked khaki silk blouse (£615) is layered with a matching silk dress (£412) and a deep-olive-green draped skirt (£664), beautifully illustrating how these dresses can be cleverly styled to create a more form-fitting silhouette. This is perhaps what sets these brands apart. As Christophe Lemaire puts it: “If you see someone really elegant, you will notice that there is a kind of uniformity, a kind of stability. I think stylish people know themselves, they know what suits them and what makes them feel confident.”

If followers of these pure lines have a poster girl, then it is surely Phoebe Philo, who in her time at Celine reinvigorated minimalism with resolutely cool but often witty collections. Philo may be out of the picture until she lands at another luxury house, but there are plenty of up-and-coming names to fill the void. Natasa Cagalj, who worked alongside Alber Elbaz at Lanvin and then Stella McCartney before her appointment as creative director of Canadian luxury fashion brand Ports 1961, combines rich textures with clean lines. Her collection includes a khaki and black merino-wool dress (£1,000) layered with a matching jumper (£560), double-faced wool-jersey trousers (£990) and a clean-cut icy-blue wool and satin tunic dress (£995) with cape sleeves.

From left: Chalayan polyester dress, £400. Jacquemus cotton shirtdress, £525. Salvatore Ferragamo wool‑twill shirtdress, £2,860
From left: Chalayan polyester dress, £400. Jacquemus cotton shirtdress, £525. Salvatore Ferragamo wool‑twill shirtdress, £2,860

At Jil Sander, husband and wife duo Lucie and Luke Meier take a similarly serene approach in their latest outing for the house (which, of course, was founded on the idea of perfectly reduced but luxuriously practical staples). This purity of line is clearly demonstrated in a flowing ivory midi dress (£6,650) with a corset belt (£340), available from their autumn collection. At Ferragamo, Paul Andrew’s cool, calm debut includes an elegant, pared-down, long shirtdress (£2,860) in caramel wool twill, while Giorgio Armani – who has always taken a less is more approach – has a plush wool/silk cloak dress (£1,550).

Simon Porte Jacquemus’s label has similarly clean but more sensual silhouettes inspired by the exotic spirit of a north African souk, including a billowing lemon silk djellaba-style dress (£820) that signals a seductive elegance, as well as a button-front, long shirtdress (£525) in a polka-dot cotton, or a more fluid draped midi (£715) in a soft blush silk jersey. And at Chalayan there are elegantly draped, ageless dresses, including a subtly layered rich‑tobacco silky dress (£400).

Bamford virgin-wool Baronet dress, £650
Bamford virgin-wool Baronet dress, £650

This highly textural, sensual approach has always been at the heart of Bamford’s deeply luxurious clothing. This season there are virgin-wool dresses, including the Baronet (£650) in pheasant red and raven black, which can be lightly gathered at the waist. For merchandise director Karen Leck these easy pieces have more relevance than ever. “We are all time poor now, so I think there’s a natural edit going on – we want great, strong simple pieces that can be dressed up or down. And in this era of conscious luxury we are questioning how much stuff we have and simplifying our wardrobes. It’s quite a statement. It’s pared-down, but it’s also bold in its use of interesting fabric textures.”

If we needed any more convincing of the power of the new purist approach, a persuasive case was made in May with Meghan Markle’s sublimely austere, gently flared wedding gown by Givenchy’s Clare Waight Keller. At the French house there are similarly chic pieces, including an elegant, sleeveless white silk crepe de Chine tunic (€990) with fringed scarf, layered with black wool trousers (€990), or a crepe asymmetrical dress (€2,990) with a wave pattern.

From left: Givenchy crepe dress, €2,990. Valentino silk dress, £4,500. The Row viscose-cupro dress, £4,650
From left: Givenchy crepe dress, €2,990. Valentino silk dress, £4,500. The Row viscose-cupro dress, £4,650

Even maximalists may be tempted to opt for something starkly pure at Valentino. Since Pierpaolo Piccioli’s first outing as a solo designer in 2016, he has peppered his beautifully crafted, lavishly decorated collections with monastic gowns, and this season, fluid silk scallop-edged tunics come in pink (£4,500) or black and white (from £2,300). 

Whatever your stylistic leanings, it’s hard to argue with Cristóbal Balenciaga. Unlike his contemporaries, Coco Chanel and Christian Dior, the Spaniard was not known for his catchy one-liners, but when he was quoted there was an assured finality to his advice. “Elegance is elimination,” he once said, and this autumn it’s wise to take the great couturier’s advice.

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