In the deafening information overload of each season of fashion shows there is usually one – sometimes two – throwaway soundbites that sum up the fashion industry’s collective consciousness. A succinct status update cuts through the barrage of moods, looks, moments, themes with refreshing light-bulb-flash clarity. This autumn/winter it has come, as it so often does, from Vogue editor-in‑chief Anna Wintour. “Trends is a dirty word,” she surmised, as the month-long whirl of collections came to a close. “It’s all about individuality now.”
Of course, the potent power of the individual has been bubbling up for seasons; there’s the quixotic force of the Instagirls – those social media-savvy stars with legions of devoted followers – and there’s the much-buzzed-about arrival of Net-a-Porter’s Net Set, where tribes are led not by brands, but by the women whose looks we routinely devour piece by piece. But this recalibration of influence is also apparent, in a far more subtle way, in the rise of highly personal brands: labels that have been deftly built around the finely honed, idiosyncratic style of the women who create them.
This summer, when Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen collected their third CFDA award – aka fashion Oscar – for their womenswear line The Row, this shift was brought sharply into focus. What began nine years ago as a capsule collection of the ultimate pieces they wanted in their wardrobes – the perfect T-shirt, the must-have leather leggings, the game-changing knit – has grown into a formidable (if sublimely understated) force. “We saw a gap in the market,” says Ashley Olsen of their modus operandi. “We knew there wasn’t another brand offering basics in a luxurious and contemporary way. If you are wearing a Chanel jacket and you need an anonymous piece that will show just how special that jacket is, I hope that is what The Row gives you.”
Except The Row has actually become so much more than the understudy. This autumn’s collection (price on request) is standout; there are rich outer layers such as a deliciously stark, chocolate leather car coat and a caramel crocodile obi jacket and chic knitwear, artfully oversized with the exaggerated proportions that are an Olsen signature. There are fluid cream trousers, invariably worn with soft leather mules, and stunning monastic evening dresses. Pure, practical and perfect. On the night the twins collected their award they were their own best ad campaign, wearing elegant layers of soignée black silk with simple pumps.
Their flagship label is commercially successful, highly covetable and, perhaps most satisfyingly for the former child stars, very influential. It’s thoroughly classic yet with an indefinable cool. A fact not lost on Hermès CEO Axel Dumas who recently hired The Row’s former womenswear design director Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski as designer-in-residence at Hermès.
Its appeal may be broad but The Row is firmly based on the twins’ own personal style which has been catnip to the paparazzi ever since they moved to New York in the early 2000s. But they have converted that predilection for capacious wraps and textural monochrome layers into something women of all ages want to buy into. “Every time we leave the showroom we are in love with the collection and want everything,” says Natalie Kingham, head of womenswear at Matchesfashion.com. “They know exactly what women need in their wardrobes. Customers always come back for more and more; they realise that investing in it is well worth it – it’s not going to date, it’s going to really work hard and the more you buy, the more you’ll layer it season to season. It’s very difficult to achieve that, but they do it so well and make it look so easy.”
The fact that the Olsen twins, who at 5ft 2in (Ashley) and 5ft 1in (Mary-Kate), can carry off their collections with such élan adds to the allure. “They are very petite and it shows that no matter how tall you are, or whatever shape you are, these clothes can suit so many different bodies,” adds Kingham.
Anonymity is something the Olsens routinely refer to – unsurprisingly given their lifelong celebrity status – but it’s also key to the success of their clothes, which are, in many ways, the ultimate classic pieces.
A similar ethos lies behind Sonia Bronstein’s demi-couture label Les Glorieuses, which was launched last year, starting out with seven different tops in beautiful fabrics, including black silk-chiffon, brocade and crepe, and all made to order in London. “Really I was dreaming about the perfect clothes to go with everything,” explains the Paris-born and now London-based designer. “I don’t like being overdressed but I like a certain elegance. These are timeless pieces; it is not about fashion or seasons, it is more about the longevity of building up a wardrobe.”
Bronstein, who trained in design before a career in fashion PR for brands including Issey Miyake, couldn’t find the beautifully made classic pieces she wanted to wear so she designed them herself, and this autumn she is expanding the line to include pencil skirts (£260) and crepe capes (£780). “There are no bows, no zips, no buttons. It’s the greatest simplicity. But to do great simplicity, the perfect cut and fabric are crucial.”
To accessorise she has used her passion for chic gold chains to create Les Précieuses – a collection of simple costume jewellery (from £90) produced by the Parisian atelier that makes Chanel’s costume jewels. “I like the idea of handmade and that people have to wait a couple of weeks – sometimes less – for things. And all these little ladies working backstage to create them. But I’m not sure I’d want to get into the vicious circle of fashion.”
Even if they ultimately become part of the catwalk circuit, the women behind these highly personal brands rarely define their labels as pret-à-porter – and what they create reflects the triumph of style over fashion. Of course, capitalising on your own style is nothing new – Coco Chanel was doing it a century ago, building an empire on her predilection for gamine tweed suits, pragmatic yet elegant knitwear and little black dresses. Across the Atlantic, Claire McCardell was carving a fashion house in a similar way, creating designs from her own passion for sporty, practical yet incredibly chic clothes. And since then numerous women have built brands in their image: Donna Karan, Miuccia Prada, Roksanda Ilincic to name a few.
LA-based Rosetta Getty launched her eponymous label 18 months ago to create a wardrobe of “collectable pieces” that are easy, versatile and elegant. “They balance seasonality in fabrics and colours with a seasonless approach to dressing,” says Getty of her timeless collections that focus on workable separates. “Each collection includes closet staples such as tailored trousers [from £480], a button-down shirt [from £430] and a greatcoat [from £1,000]. These are pieces that can be easily paired with anything.”
Like Bronstein, Getty is obsessive about the fabric selections for her nascent brand. “I gravitate towards luxurious and unexpected materials. The clothing is very minimal in design, so the choice of fabric is important,” explains the former model. “The collection is designed as a wardrobe, and I give great consideration to how different fabrics will work together; not only within a season but also with past collections.” For autumn/winter, Getty has used a rich filigree, developed in Switzerland, of emerald, copper and gold Lurex-threaded flowers embroidered onto an organza base in dramatic palazzo pants (£3,970) that can be paired with a stretch ottoman banded T-shirt (£320). Precious pieces are offset with solid classics – a sumptuous wool/cashmere cocoon coat (£2,060), a cotton-voile piqué tuxedo shirt (£710) or pleat-front wool-crepe trousers (£960).
It helps that women like Getty are, to a greater or lesser extent, visible; whether in New York, LA or London they are a vivid endorsement of the clothes they create at events, parties and among their contemporaries. Kim Hersov was a fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar, photographed routinely on the London party scene for her modern, slightly bohemian style, so it made perfect sense to produce a label that reflected it. Now editor-at-large at Porter, Hersov’s own brand, Talitha, channels her American heritage (she grew up in San Francisco, and the city’s hippie heritage is infused into the clothes she designs) along with a luxurious European polish. What began as a resort-focused collection has quickly transferred to the city, where Hersov’s richly embroidered capes and jackets feel equally at home.
This autumn there are lustrous embroidered silk kimono jackets with long fringing (£1,750, worn by Hersov), a standout blue and black cape with swirling Indian embroidery (£1,380) and a fringed suede poncho with subtle embroidered trim (£1,288). There are more holiday-centred pieces too, including empire-line seersucker kaftan dresses with tassel ties and artisanal embroideries (£585). Hersov’s aim is not to create a total wardrobe – or not for now at least – but to provide accent pieces: a fabulous night-time cover-up, or a silk top to pair with skinny jeans and heels.
“When we first launched on Net-a-Porter in 2014, no one knew who we were,” she recalls, “but we sold out. I think it’s because it’s authentic, it’s real, it’s things you really do want to wear.” But for Hersov, the capes and cover-ups are entirely distinct from mainstream trends: “Of course, you nod to what’s going on as trends capture contemporary culture and we need to move with the times, but we want to be independent from that – we are not trend-driven. Personally I feel like a fashion victim if I’m too absorbed in a trend. I feel a bit silly.”
And that, perhaps, is the story of these niche brands that cater not to fashion whims but to the real needs of women with busy lives who want high-functioning wardrobes to match. “I dress in a sort of uniform of trousers and button-down shirts. It works as a great base to be styled with other more conceptual pieces. And I find myself wearing everything from my collection,” enthuses Getty. “Women today need an incredible capsule of clothes that can be styled with ease – they need clothing that fits seamlessly into their lives.” But practical doesn’t ever have to feel workaday. When Bronstein started her label, she named it Les Glorieuses after women from the 1940s and 1970s who combined functional dress with a refined, individualistic sense of style: “Elegance was at a peak for both men and women but there was a desire for modernity too. In a way they wore the simplest clothes yet they looked extraordinary.” And surely that’s what every woman wants.