The reinvention of the knit dress

Whether light or laidback or sleek and sensual, the new soignée knitted dress is the perfect way to ease into spring, says Clare Coulson

From left: Oscar de la Renta silk-raffia crochet dress, £4,120. Gabriela Hearst wool dress, £1,305 at Matchesfashion.com
From left: Oscar de la Renta silk-raffia crochet dress, £4,120. Gabriela Hearst wool dress, £1,305 at Matchesfashion.com

When Angela Missoni unveiled her spring 2019 collection in Milan, there was a futuristic feeling in the air. Michael Nyman provided a live soundtrack of haunting piano music for a show set against the undulating silver MiCo building – a structure that resembles a vast metallic handkerchief that has fluttered down from space. Models traversed the concourse, wearing shimmering layers of the house’s signature knits in ethereal white and soft pastels – some topped with fishnet mesh (dress, £2,240, cardigan, £9,640), others paired with vests, knitted flares or billowing cardigans. 

Yet strip away all the layers that featured in this 65th anniversary collection, and beneath them were the timeless dresses that the brand has been knitting and splicing together since the 1950s. For Missoni, playing with her family’s knits in a dress format is second nature: “I am always trying to think about how certain looks need to transform – how a minidress can be worn as a tunic or how you can wear the proportions in another way.” And there’s no greater testament to her vision than the women of all generations who wear her dresses every day.

From left: Chloé cotton-knit dress, £1,520. Temperley viscose dress, £695
From left: Chloé cotton-knit dress, £1,520. Temperley viscose dress, £695

But in a marked change this year, Missoni was not alone in putting the knitted dress front and centre for spring/summer. Light-and-easy pieces are popping up in all kinds of collections and being conceived in countless ways: from sleek and sensual to relaxed and carefree, the knit has been reinvented with new techniques, innovative cuts and a new attitude.

For many, the appeal will be all about their languorous feel, and a handful of designers took a laid-back route with slouchy, light knits that are perfect for spring days. At Sonia Rykiel, creative director Julie de Libran tapped into the house’s Gallic heritage with an ankle-length sweater dress (£1,080) in navy and white stripes, as well as a shoulder-baring version (£985) with an elegant crossover front. Sander Lak opted for a similarly fluid aesthetic at Sies Marjan, where fine-cotton knit dresses (price on request) skim the body more closely or can be layered with contrasting stripe knits. Alice Temperley used her favourite art deco‑style prints to add punch to her knitted column dress (£695) with an elegant asymmetric shoulder, while Roland Mouret’s long-sleeve, bold stripe dress (£995) puts a ruffle of interest at the hem.

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At Missoni’s show, standouts were the linen stripe knits (£840) in soft, earthy pastels worn layered over knitted jeans (£1,210) and with long, loose cotton-knit cardigans (from £1,230); and other styles adorned with swirling “painted” faces, including a linen/mohair knit dress (£1,490) with a striking Inca intarsia.

The joy of these pieces, whatever you choose to pair them with, is the ease they bring. “A dress is always the simplest to style: add shoes and a bag and you’re done,” says Ida Petersson, women’s buying director at Browns. “But these dresses also have a relaxed fit so they don’t restrict movement, and you can layer them up so they are perfect as a transitional piece.” 

From left: Missoni linen jacquard dress, £2,240, and mesh and bead cardigan, £9,640. Victoria Beckham cotton-mix dress, £1,450
From left: Missoni linen jacquard dress, £2,240, and mesh and bead cardigan, £9,640. Victoria Beckham cotton-mix dress, £1,450

For Petersson, some of the more directional spring styles nod to the 1990s, when a long slip dress layered over a T-shirt was the default day-to-night garb. It’s a look that has been reimagined by Simon Porte Jacquemus. The French designer’s sensual designs, including a white fringed knitted slip dress (£765), were inspired by the soignée women who spend their summers hopping from beach to yacht along the Riviera, and his sinuously cut knit dresses, which also come in inky blues and terracotta and feature seductive slits, were styled over bikinis

Sarah Burton has also deployed revealing slashes at Alexander McQueen with an edgy ivory long-sleeve knit dress (£3,740): its seams are adorned with hook-and-eye fastenings that allow the wearer to reveal or conceal as they wish. Other designers have tapped into the ’90s too, albeit with more coolly restrained shapes. Gabriela Hearst’s collection includes a graphic navy and white off-the-shoulder column (£1,305), as well as a navy-blue cashmere T-shirt dress (£995) that can also be worn on the reverse in grey. 

From left: Alexander McQueen silk dress, £3,740. Naeem Khan knit dress, $1,995
From left: Alexander McQueen silk dress, £3,740. Naeem Khan knit dress, $1,995

Meanwhile, Victoria Beckham’s 10th-anniversary collection, which is all about minimal lines and architectural layers, includes light knit dresses that tick the boxes of her all-woman mantra. There are form-fitting designs such as a sporty long-sleeve, ankle-length cotton-mix dress (£1,190) with contrast stitching across the midriff, and she has reinterpreted the ’90s slip dress with a grey textural, draped cotton-mix knit (£1,450) and a cream ribbed midi-dress (£975) that was worn layered over a vibrant mesh vest and sleek matte-satin trousers (£725).

That particular ’90s styling trick of wearing a dress over trousers, which makes it feel more pragmatic for daytime while lending a dash of cool, has certainly started to reignite this spring. Rosetta Getty revived the look with a burgundy ribbed-wool dress (£1,278) that she layered over peach viscose trousers (£885). And at Jil Sander, Luke and Lucie Meier put textural tunics (£970) in a cream cotton knit with gold stitching over matching skirts (£692) and layered geometric knitted tunics (£745) over streamlined dresses (£1,007).

From left: Sies Marjan cotton dress (under top), price on request. Cushnie cotton-mix knit dress, $1,195
From left: Sies Marjan cotton dress (under top), price on request. Cushnie cotton-mix knit dress, $1,195

Intriguing textures are also key, with a return to hand-knits, crochet and macramé – a homespun spirit that plays to the season’s nostalgic escapism. Liane Wiggins, head of womenswear buying at Matchesfashion.com, believes the current focus on handcrafted materials, whether it’s crochet-style Proenza Schouler knits (£2,150) or the exquisite super-fine knitted-lace dresses (£3,270) in Alexander McQueen’s pre-spring collection, brings essential narrative to the collections. “Our customers are interested in the provenance behind the designers they buy – everything from the craftsmanship through to the unusual nature of the materials,” says Wiggins.  

Traditional knitting techniques have brought textural interest to dresses with clean silhouettes. In Wes Gordon’s exuberant debut collection for Carolina Herrera there’s a white macramé patchwork dress (£2,140) – shown on the catwalk with a chain belt. Cushnie’s white midi-length cotton-mix dress ($1,195) with a shimmering fringe has a similarly lustrous surface that feels right for night, while Naeem Khan uses a graphic tie-dye to bring dynamism to his knitted column dress ($1,995).

From left: Sonia Rykiel cotton-mix knit dress, £985. Roland Mouret viscose-mix pointelle stitch dress, £995
From left: Sonia Rykiel cotton-mix knit dress, £985. Roland Mouret viscose-mix pointelle stitch dress, £995

Softening up the aesthetic at Oscar de la Renta has been central to Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia’s agenda since they took over at the house in 2016, and their spring collection includes an outstanding intarsia crochet gown (£4,120) in silk raffia that would make an arresting, elegant look for the evening or any of spring’s dressier daytime occasions.

These softer, cosy textures, even when deployed in grand dresses, play to the laid-back mood of the moment but also hint at the spirit of a bohemian past. “There’s a nod to the late 1960s and early ’70s in a lot of these designs,” says Petersson. “It’s a romanticised throwback to the summer of ’69 and carefree living.” One of her favourites is Chloé’s long white crochet dress (£4,760) that she says is calling out for an Ibiza summer. 

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It’s this combination of ease with directional style that Natacha Ramsay-Levi has nailed since she became creative director at Chloé in 2017. This spring, she has drawn on a Summer of Love aesthetic but brought it up to date: “It was an idea about reinventing life, with its focus on sensuality, community and the environment,” the designer says. She’s created some of the most covetable versions of the ribbed-knit dress in rich colours and sexy silhouettes, topping a terracotta sleeveless cotton piece (£1,520) with New Age trinkets – twisted silk rope belts, piles of extravagant crystal jewels, collar necklaces and armbands – that spoke of far-flung escapes. These may be knits but they feel utterly sensual. Some standout dresses are multitasker, too. Ramsay-Levi included long button-front cardigans that can be worn done-up as a dress as well as open. At Paco Rabanne, widely heralded as one of the best spring/summer shows – capturing this same wanderlust but deftly packaging it into a covetable wearable look – creative director Julien Dossena also tapped into late ’60s bohemia: his sleeveless knit vests (£500), paired with satin maxi-skirts (£315), can also be buttoned up and worn as full-length dresses. 

These versatile pieces not only offer something blissfully easy to incorporate into everyday but are perfect packing pieces too – and in a season of escapist yearnings, that’s something we can all get on board with.

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