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After assuring women that they don’t have to wear a suit to succeed at work, the fashion industry now is promoting suits — and not just for the office.
Some women might shudder at a revival of the pinstriped power suit from the ’80s and ’90s, with haunting hallmarks such as double-breasted jackets with linebacker shoulders, long starched shirt collars, big hair and commuter sneakers.
Today’s suits are more versatile and come in slimmer styles as well as relaxed, slouchy looks. They work with pants or skirts, long or short jackets or oversized jackets with skinny pants and miniskirts. Most importantly for retailers and clothing companies, they don’t resemble suits from decades ago, so women who want to look stylish will have to buy new clothes.
“A suit in the back of your closet is there for a reason. Donate it and get a fresh one,” says Solange Khavkine, a stylist in New York. “It’s easy to think that what you have is a ‘classic,’ but most likely the lapel, rise of the pant, and flare of the pant and jacket cut have gone out of style.”
Actress Evan Rachel Wood, singer Pink and other celebrities have taken to wearing pantsuits on the red carpet rather than dresses.
Women’s suits for spring and fall 2017 showed up on runways at Altuzarra, Balenciaga, Calvin Klein, the Row and others. During New York Fashion Week, which ends Wednesday, suits and blazers appeared in a number of spring 2018 collections, including Tom Ford, Calvin Klein, Christian Siriano, Victoria Beckham and Tracy Reese.
The power-dressing trend also is trickling down to more commercial brands. Theory, an office-wardrobe staple for many women, recently emailed customers with the question: “What’s Your Strong Suit?” Theory’s offerings include a “Power” jacket made of crepe and a double-breasted jacket made with stretch wool paired with matching, pleated, high-waisted pants. The double-breasted jacket costs $585 and the pants $455.
Typically, designers plan collections months in advance, at times unveiling themes that echo current events. Suits for women returned to the spotlight amid Hillary Clinton’s presidential run as well as the women’s marches around the world that followed Donald Trump’s inauguration in January.
Retailers are long in need of a trend that women of various body types and budgets will embrace. The recent ’70s trend, for example, was one a fair number of women were happy to skip. Stores are counting on suits of different styles and silhouettes to have broad appeal. Women who don’t want to commit to a full-suit look can just wear the jacket with a non-suit pants, even jeans.
At Saks Fifth Avenue “we believe in it so much we put it on our It list as the top trend for women to try,” says Roopal Patel, the senior vice president and fashion director. Last month, Saks started a social-media campaign about power dressing, including a video of Ms. Patel talking up the trend. “The rules no longer apply,” she says in an interview while wearing a pink suit from Gabriela Hearst’s Spring 2017 collection with a white T-shirt. “You don’t have to wear a traditional button-down white shirt. You can wear a great suit with a T-shirt or you wear it with a sequin underpinning if you want to have a more rock-glam look.”
Natalie Kingham, the buying director at luxury retailer Matchesfashion.com, is helping customers navigate the trend. She assembled presentations that address how “to figure out your trouser shape and your jacket shape, whether you need it longer to cover your bottom, whether you need it shorter and nipped in, whether you need the trouser to be wide or skinny and if you’re going to wear it in the day versus the evening,” she said. Trouser options such as wide leg, kick flare and split hem, from labels including Ellery, Altuzarra and Haider Ackermann “stop the suit from being old-fashioned looking or possibly frumpy,” Ms. Kingham says. As for skirt suits, a miniskirt with a slouchy boot, as seen on the runway of French label Isabel Marant, “all of a sudden gives the suit a fresh new modern edge,” she says.
The industry is pushing women to wear suits at a time when men are moving away from them. Ms. Hearst, whose high-end suits are a signature item, is snapping up fabrics traditionally reserved for men’s tailoring. “Oh, you don’t want to use it?” she says. “We’ll take it.”
“I’ve always liked suits, obviously,” the Uruguay-born designer said in an interview earlier this year, while wearing a suit from her line. That’s due in part to her years at a school in England. “I wore a uniform from age 5 to 17 so I’ve always been very comfortable in blazers,” she says. “I guess that was something in my DNA to communicate.” She also likes the strong statement a suit makes, as well as its elegance, sexiness and comfort.
Coco Chanel introduced her classic suit with a collarless jacket in 1923. Inspired by menswear, it came with a knee-length skirt rather than trousers, which were frowned upon for women at the time. The suits found followings among the ladies-who-lunch set as well as women building careers in male-dominated industries.
In 1966, Yves Saint Laurent broke ground when he proposed that women wear trousers with suits, such as his “Le Smoking” tuxedo-style outfit. Pants were still considered shocking, said Patricia Mears, deputy director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Ms. Mears recalled that Rep. Charlotte T. Reid caused a stir in 1969, when she showed up in Congress wearing a pantsuit, the first time a woman had worn pants there. In an article, the Washington Post quoted Ms. Reid saying “many male colleagues ran to the floor to gawk.”
In the late 1970s and into the ’80s, Giorgio Armani offered an alternative to the boxy, broad-shouldered, mannish women’s suits that were popular then. Throughout the ’90s Donna Karan and others offered new takes on power dressing for career women. But by the millennium, corporate dress codes were easing and women had other options besides suits.
Ken Downing, the fashion director at Neiman Marcus, which is promoting power dressing as one of its top five trends for fall, said suits will look fresh to “an entire generation of young girls” who didn’t witness the 1980s women’s power-suit moment.
In addition, suits haven’t been popular for a while so “customers are looking for something that’s not in their closet,” Mr. Downing said.
Ranya Marjieh, a graduate student in New York, is among those customers trying out the trend, with their first pantsuits. Ms. Marjieh, who recently acquired a pink pantsuit, wrote in an email that she “will be working it both socially and professionally!” She added, “A pink pant suit not only is a power statement, it shows that women can be bold and assertive without losing the luster of their divine femininity!”
Designers and retailers say today’s suits go beyond the workplace, to cocktails, dinner or events where women before might have worn a dress. Beginners should stick to suits in a neutral color. Ms. Khavkine, the stylist, recommends black, navy or a slimming pinstripe and advises, “no pattern for your first suit.” Feel free to swap out the traditional dress shirt with something less formal. “There are lots of choices: a well-fitting T, classic shirt, Nehru collar, turtleneck, chunky or otherwise,” she said. The right suit can work for day and evening. Ms. Khavkine suggests pairing it with a lace blouse or T-shirt, a strapless top in satin or a “fun and youthful” crop top. A final pointer from Ms. Khavkine: “Swap out your day shoe with an evening shoe.”