As a word, brocade has a splendidly old-fashioned ring. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, its etymology comes originally from Spain; it first appeared in English in 1563, an era of goffered frills and farthingales. No one wears those any more and yet brocade has become an increasingly important fabric in modern women’s daily wardrobes and a firm favourite this autumn for a host of luxury designers.
I discovered it almost by accident three years ago when British designer Osman Yousefzada used a rich and (appropriately) Spanish furnishing brocade – straight out of a Velázquez portrait – in glistening black, gold and red for some irresistible cigarette pants. The fabric came from a 300-year-old mill that made brocade for French kings. The trousers are so sturdy they are virtually indestructible and don’t crease in a suitcase; I wear them still and they never pass without approving comment. Next came Osman’s monochrome and silver brocade bell-shaped skirt with an African trees motif and asymmetric hem – particularly covetable because it makes a historic fabric look so modern – and then Dries Van Noten’s geometrically cut skirt in two brocades that glimmer like stained-glass windows and brilliantly have no seam between the different patterns. I have worn each piece for work and for parties; they travel with me all year and never let me down.
This versatility might surprise sceptics who associate brocade with historical styles and eveningwear. “Brocade allows for great pattern, texture and colour especially in winter collections where you want layering, rich colour combinations and fine detail,” says designer Matthew Williamson. “You can tell a story through this fabric.” Chenille embellished with antique gold thread sounds very dressy, but in the shape of Williamson’s faintly 1970s-inspired parkas (£1,795) and narrow trousers (£425) it has a relaxed, go-anywhere glamour.
“Brocade trousers have become iconic,” says Osman. “You can wear them with a cashmere sweater for work and add earrings for the evening. And while a brocade jacket may have 1970s overtones, just add jeans to make a contemporary statement.” Antonio Berardi agrees: “Brocade trousers can be dressed down with a plain white poplin shirt or maxed up to the nines.” He uses richly multicoloured brocade, both for impeccable tailoring (trouser suit, £2,160) and in panels mixed with colour-blocked fabrics for modern evening dresses (from £1,800). “It doesn’t crease easily either because of the amount of threads used to create the design.”
Buyers too are embracing brocade’s adaptability. “Its luxurious richness signals a return to maximalism, but its many modern iterations needn’t feel overdressed when worn as separates,” says Net-a-Porter’s market editor Lisa Aiken. “Lanvin’s bohemian maxidress [£4,955] does double duty as an evening piece, while Marc Jacobs’ brocade jacket [£2,180] paired with boyfriend jeans and a white T-shirt epitomises dressed-down chic.” Matchesfashion.com’s buying director Natalie Kingham cites “the super-cool, modern yet wearable aesthetic of Marques’Almeida’s raw‑edged brocade”. Styles exclusive to the retailer include a short-sleeved top (£255) and jacket (£405) in a faintly oriental-flower brocade of vivid peacock, copper and black. Kingham sees brocade’s new dominance as a move away from clean lines and a simple aesthetic, and it counterbalances autumn staples like tweed, cashmere and cord. “It’s sumptuous and deep, yet pieces like a Dolce & Gabbana shift dress [£925] or patchwork Etro jacket [£2,558] are easy to dress up or down.”
For Veronica Etro, the brand’s creative director of womenswear, it is brocade’s innate richness and warmth that is so appealing. “It represents opulence, history and quality,” she says. “For my autumn/winter collection I was inspired by antique interiors – tapestries, upholstery and ornate wallpapers – to create brocades like a memory of the past.” Etro’s mix of brocade and other textures for complex patchworks (jacket, £1,440) or statement, one-pattern pieces (trousers, £505) evoke a bohemian, 1970s- influenced mood that chimes with her house’s heritage.
Other designers are also looking backwards to go forwards, taking nostalgic notions of brocade and injecting modern inflections. For the first time in his tenure at Balenciaga, Alexander Wang revisits the architectural lines and brocade of the founder’s 1950s heyday and brings it up to date in spray-striped, sporty pyjama-style trousers ($2,525) teamed with structured bouclé or matching jackets ($3,250). Dries Van Noten’s brocades are some of the most gorgeous, always with a slight ethnic or vintage accent but styled in a contemporary way – a floral brocade top (about £470) with matching belt (about £450) paired with a sleek black open skirt over trousers, for example, or a top (£484) in red and gold brocade, based on a traditional Japanese cherry blossom pattern, worn with wide khaki trousers.
As so often in fashion, the clue is in the contrast. Michael Kors uses a textured matte brocade with a fox-fur trim to bring an opulent twist to his signature vintage uptown style (coat, £3,460), and Erdem Moralioglu’s subtle way of twisting seemingly conventional fabrics has been a major contribution to his formidable reputation. His story this season involves an enchanting protagonist fallen on hard times, a sense of loss and decay wistfully expressed in brocades used in reverse. “I was particularly interested in the wrong side, which has this beautiful rawness and texture,” he says. “I took inspiration from the V&A’s archives, where I found woven French silks from the 1700s and furniture fabrics from the 1900s in stunning jewelled colours.” Brocade dresses come in a traditional floral crepe de Chine spiked with almost garish colour accents, the fabric hand-cut, pinked and then restitched into a fragmented collage effect that, on close inspection, looks anything but antique.
Erdem’s comments show not only how inventive designers can be with brocade, but also how versatile the fabric itself is in design terms. Modern yarns create multifarious effects, while their many layers produce the dense structure that stops brocade from creasing. Hand-brushed cotton embroidered on lace creates a velvet-like brocade at Sea (coat, £550, and top, £250), while horsehair flock adds depth at Mary Katrantzou (jacket £1,890), who this season gives brocade precedence over her usual embellishments. “We developed our brocades with a silk mill in southeastern France,” she says. “For one dress [£3,500] we used jacquard as a base to keep the embossed effect, and coloured Lurex instead of the traditional gold or silver on a silk base to keep it light and modern. Then we added an embroidered overlay. For duffel coats [£3,420] we used wool brocade, flocked and overlaid with Chantilly lace.” The result is multitextural and very luxe, combining techniques that weave innovation with tradition.
The stately florals and paisleys of traditional brocade are also blown sky-high by today’s designers. Who would expect jellyfish on such a decadent fabric? Yet here they are on cropped jackets (£2,020) and miniskirts (£928) at Louis Vuitton. Consuelo Castiglioni at Marni translates her bold modern florals (top, £910, shirt, £500, and skirt, £720) as easily into brocade as print. “I love its three-dimensionality and tactility,” she says, “the way it brings out the pattern of the woven design.” Her trapezoid shapes (coat, £1,550, dress, from £910) look contemporary, if slightly 1960s. At Antonio Berardi, golden leaves on a translucent background (£4,250) are inspired, he says, “by the reflection of a tree in the glass of Frank Gehry’s new Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris”. Osman’s brocade is marbled in effect and almost abstract (coat, £1,400). “I’m a minimalist but brocade is one of my favourite forms of embellishment. It’s evocative, a bit far flung and transportative. Plus it has that little bit of shine we all need – it makes you happy.”