Thursday, June 28, 2007

>Earlier this year a spat broke out between Milanese designers and American fashion critics.

Good old days: styles are changing so much but timeless elegance can live on

The latter accused some designers of being out of touch and others of tackiness and vulgarity.

Cathy Horyn, the acerbic and much-respected fashion editor of the New York Times threw insults at Giorgio Armani's trousers declaring that they, "looked as limp and clingy as gym pants." While her colleague, Guy Trebay, took a pop at Dolce & Gabbana's trashy aesthetic.

There is much to admire in Milanese fashion but the critics had a point. Metal corsets belts, glitzy gold, animal prints and a ton of spangly crystals are what Dolce & Gabbana have in store for us next autumn. And they are not the only ones to blame.

We have had seasons of baby-dolls and micro-minis, girly frills or trashy Paris Hilton style glitz. Whatever happened to simple elegance?

The V&A's forthcoming retrospective - the Golden Age of Couture - which will be bursting with pieces from Dior, Balenciaga and Balmain, is a timely reminder of how women were once dressed. They looked refined, feminine and utterly chic.

While there are contemporary labels who do address the gap for grown-up, chic clothes - Alber Elbaz, Bottega Veneta, Prada and Jil Sander to name a few - this summer's dominant trends certainly don't reflect this.

But there's change ahead. Marc Jacobs, so often a forerunner of seismic shifts in fashion, has created a new direction for next autumn largely based on the ultra-elegant French chic of the mid-Seventies.

His show included immaculately tailored cashmere coats, some of which were loosely belted, worn over straight-leg trousers which sat neatly on the waist. There were simple blouses, lady-like hats and bags all in an eminently wearable palette of camel, inky navy, dark chocolate with an occasional jolt of mustard, orange or bright blue.

What grown-up woman wouldn't want to wear his belted berry red tunic worn and neat black trousers with deep red lips and a chic clutch bag? Despite its Seventies flavour, this look owes much to an American sportswear heritage which Jacobs, Michael Kors and Ralph Lauren all regularly draw upon.

It's understated, stylish and most importantly it's utterly democratic - simple shapes in an easy palette which would fail to scare even the most conservative dresser.

While Jacobs' collection won't hit shops until next month there are already some signs of change this summer with more body-conscious silhouettes which celebrate classic hourglass figures and the return of grown-up tailoring.

"Our customers are real women and no fools," says Yasmin Sewell, Buying Director at Browns in London.

"It's exciting that more and more designers seem to be raising their game and responding to them, designing pieces for an older more, savvy woman who does not want to be seen in the same baby-doll smock as the fourteen year olds on the bus in their high street version."

Bridget Cosgrave, Womenswear Buyer at Matches agrees: "The whole smock, trapeze dress trend hasn't been well-received by our customers although it's been great for the teen market who have relished it. But this summer there are already touches of a new more sophisticated direction from Stella McCartney who has done beautiful boyfriend jackets which we sold out of in a day and a half."

"That Marc Jacobs show really made you sit up and think but we've seen this new direction in other collections too. In Alexander McQueen's pre-collection there were fabulous trousers that had darts so they really fit around the bottom."

The most important message is to keep it simple.

Focus on separates such as boxy jackets which are plentiful on the high street and neat tailored skirts (that sit just above or on the knee). Ignore all those smocks and little dresses in the sales and look instead for more body-conscious dresses - the linen cap-sleeved dress at Hobbs is a brilliant example of a flattering shape that women of varying ages and sizes would look good in.

Classic, timeless tailoring - especially which relies on great cut and fabric is worth spending money especially if you want really well-fitting, flattering trousers.

"Raf Simmons at Jil Sander is really blazing the path for this, says Yasmin Sewell. "It's really a fashion brand, much like Bottega Veneta but these are the kind of brands that if you buy into now you wear forever."

A model in a dress

Shopping in the sales is a bit like Glastonbury - without the mud. It can be fun, but you must have stamina and you have to be prepared.

Survival of the fittest: follow these sale rules and you won't be left empty handed

This is no easy-going, window-shopping browse; it demands meticulous planning, a list of clear-cut objectives - and an escape plan. First, though, you must decide your sales philosophy and work out what sort of shopper you are.

The Cool Customer

You are as reliable as clockwork, and your wardrobe is as pared down as a peeled cucumber - all space is reserved for classics.

Invest in... a ribbed cashmere cardigan, J62.50 (50 per cent off), at Belinda Robertson (020 7838 9170); classic black trousers, J104 (30 per cent off), at Joseph (020 7616 8441); a trenchcoat, J484 (40 per cent off), at Burberry London (07000 785 676); a fabulous Little Black Dress, such as Ralph Lauren's long, ruffled chiffon version, J869 (reduced by 50 per cent), at Harrods (020 7730 1234).

The Fashionista

You're a fad-hungry follower of fashion, and you can't wait for prices to drop.

You'll drool over... Maxmara's long silver shimmer gown, J382 (30 per cent off; 020 7499 7902); Matthew Williamson's disco-sequinned shift, J475 (down by 50 per cent; 020 7629 6200); Miu Miu's satin party dress, J300 (40 per cent off; 020 7409 0900).

The Heat-Seeking Missile

Your target is designer labels, so set your fashion sat-nav for... Collette Dinnigan, Betty Jackson and Paul & Joe, all reduced by 50 per cent, at Fenwick, W1 (020 7629 9161); Balenciaga, John Galliano and Lanvin, among others, with reductions from 40 per cent, at Harrods, SW1 (as above); Chloe and Alexander McQueen, with 40 per cent off, at Harvey Nichols (020 7235 5000); and Stella McCartney, Givenchy, Balmain, Fendi, from 40 per cent off, at Selfridges (0800 123 400).

Prepare to do battle

Go through your wardrobe and decide what you really need. What are the missing links? Something in red? A pair of flared, black trousers? Some brown suede boots? When fighting your way through the crowds, you need to be as focused as possible, so:

- Set yourself a budget - this includes cash and plastic. We're only halfway through the year, and you still have holidays and Christmas to pay for!

- Wear flat shoes, but take a pair of heels for checking length in the fitting room.

- Take the item for which you are hoping to find the perfect partner with you.

- If you find something you love, it fits, and you can afford it, buy in bulk.

- Hunt as a lone wolf. Friends will distract and frustrate you; she'll want the Manolos, you'd rather wallow in Lanvin.

- Travel light, and wear clothes that are easy to remove. Leave accessories at home; they may get lost, and you don't want to waste valuable bargain-hunting time taking them on and off.

- Look ahead. If you don't need anything for right now, buy pieces without sell-by dates, or items that hit on autumn's trends