Gentlemen. Wondering why your winter coat might be feeling a little snug? Or why your jacket sleeves have come up short? Is your shirt neck suddenly more tourniquet than collar? It could be you are carrying extra winter weight. But might it also be that you’ve been putting on your partner’s clothes by mistake?
Let us be clear. I’m not talking about cross-dressing here. Not about the rise of the catwalk show featuring conjoined but separate men’s and women’s collections. This is about the “shared wardrobe”, as the designer Haider Ackermann describes his gender-fluid designs for the LVMH-owned Berluti: unisex clothes, worn by men and women alike.
Wearing your partner’s sweater is nothing new — tomboy style has been around since Viola adopted a doublet in Twelfth Night. But this latest incarnation of shared style is significant because it’s becoming a commercial — and cultural — norm. Unsurprisingly, women are the chief beneficiaries of this arrangement. Men are never likely to pop on a pencil skirt. For women, the advantages of men’s tailoring are obvious: better cuts, cleaner lines and a comfort level that allows us to go about our business unimpeded by worries about holes in the hosiery or loathsome “support” lingerie. Ackermann’s collections for Berluti suggest a languor that his own-label womenswear, with its strict silhouette, rarely allows for. For SS18, he showed sporty tonal separates and relaxed tailoring that looked both confidently masculine on the boys and alluring on the women. Grace Wales Bonner’s sharp silk suits for SS18 are similarly shareable. And who hasn’t been tempted to pick up a piece from Gosha Rubchinskiy’s collection of chequered jackets, polo shirts and trenches for Burberry? The clothes debuted on the menswear catwalk at Pitti Uomo in Florence, but the desirability factor is gender-neutral.
“Unisex clothes don’t date,” says Isabel Ettedgui, widow of the retailer Joseph, who oversees the British heritage brand Connolly. “It’s not about fashion — it’s cut. Just look at Tina Chow. She always wore men’s trousers and a cardigan. And she always looked amazing.”
When Ettedgui re-launched the Connolly brand in 2016, she decided early on to build its collections around a shared concept. “I just think men’s clothes are better made,” she explains from the store, which also sells homeware, bibelots and bespoke leather car accessories from a chic retail space on Clifford Street in London. Ettedgui believes the rise of the shared wardrobe is the inevitable consequence of a demand for better quality in clothes more generally.
“Men really care about the details,” she continues. “They pay terrific attention — the double seam, the selvedges are all hugely important. There’s more rigour. I think it’s because they’ve had so few options about what they can wear, they want to know what’s under the engine. Women don’t talk about the fabrication in the same way.”
With the exception of the midi-skirts and kilts — “which, of course, the men are welcome to wear” — the majority of the Connolly ready-to-wear collection is menswear-based. “The concept is based on a man’s wardrobe. The lining, the tailoring, the form.” If a woman wants to wear it — and having worn one of their exquisite black tuxedos to a black-tie event quite recently I cannot urge you enough to do so — she simply buys a smaller size, and tightens the button. Or not.
“It sounds simple, but it’s very complicated,” says Ettedgui of creating a his‘n’hers fit. “It took a year to work out the sizing. I’ve got a bust and a bottom: and so for me to be able to wear one of these blazers is remarkable.”
A different mood but the same principle applies for the British designer Craig Green, who launched his utilitarian menswear label in 2013 and has sold it to women of all ages ever since; one of his most loyal female clients is 89.
“A lot of the work is based on ideas of uniforms and communal ways of dressing which don’t really have a strong gender-specific consideration,” he says. “I guess you could call it a form of relaxed tailoring, which allows for a general body fit to flatter and fall on lots of different builds. Many of the pieces can be tightened or fastened or adjusted on different body shapes. I think it’s exciting to be able to create things that can be accessed across genders and age groups. It feels modern.”
I like to see women in what is traditionally seen as menswear, or men’s styles
Alexandre Mattiussi founded his menswear label AMI Paris seven years ago. Formerly a designer for Dior — where he had seen a marked female enthusiasm for Hedi Slimane’s “clean, minimal designs” — he was already aware of the commercial potential for unisex design.
“I created AMI with this idea of designing clothes for my friends, and I have a lot of girlfriends,” he says. “So, although it’s a men’s line, I always pictured the pieces on both men and women. From there it just snowballed: I started to put women in my fashion show and in the collection shoots and the clients soon followed.”
Mattiussi says the popularity of the shared wardrobe isn’t hard to fathom. “From a pure product perspective, the movement towards less restrictive womenswear more generally means the men’s market is now an on-trend option for women, too. In addition, menswear has become infinitely more interesting in the last decade. And movements like gender-neutrality have paved the way for it being socially acceptable and even cool for women to wear men’s clothing.”
Interestingly, there’s also gender parity in the most popular styles. “The best-selling product for both men and women is our carrot-fit pant,” he says. “They look so cool on women it’s hard to believe they are men’s.”
Lest you think this is all a one-way street, there are signs that men are starting to rummage in the womenswear departments as well. Sofia Prantera, the creative director of the streetwear brand Aries, will launch a unisex collection of 20 pieces on Mr Porter this month, due, she says, to an increased demand for more masculine versions of her womenswear staples.
“I like to see women in what is traditionally seen as menswear, or men’s styles, anyway, and so it was never a choice to do a specific collection for men,” she says. “These clothes fit men, and men like them, so we have expanded our sizes and styles to accommodate that.”
She, too, suggests that the changing cultural landscape has allowed the shared wardrobe to flourish. “At the beginning, when Aries was first devised, it was a unisex concept, but it was hard to commercialise — the buyers weren’t ready — so we ended up making a women’s brand with unisex pieces.”
She, too, thinks times are changing. “I believe the division of gender-specific collections is becoming redundant. For me, clothes are a vehicle for an idea or culture and it’s about connecting with the people who share those ideas. Many women’s fashion environments don’t really connect with those references, or see women’s casualwear as ‘elevated’ enough; for me it’s often menswear departments where the culture is fit for Aries — and so I’m excited about this next chapter.”
Sharper, more sophisticated and more sustainable: if you consider longevity and cost-per-wear when buying clothes (and it does help when you’re about to shell out £1,490 on a herringbone Connolly overcoat), the appeal of the shared wardrobe is a no-brainer as far as I’m concerned. But as the wardrobe becomes increasingly mixed, one question still remains: who will get to wear what first? Set your alarms, people.
This article was originally published by the Financial Times.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018.