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Arms and the woman

Isabel Lloyd takes the Style desk shopping to find the clothes that women want

Isabel Lloyd | September/October 2013

"Don’t you have anything with sleeves on?" On a warm evening in early summer, on the ground floor of a large department store in central London, a young woman was pleading with one of the assistants in the All Saints concession. After an abrupt improvement in the weather the place was humming with post-work workers, all on the same sudden mission to find something to wear now the sun had finally come out. At the entrance to the changing rooms, the queue of women waiting for free cubicles snaked round piles of discards, a crumpled cornucopia of dresses in garden-party pinks and acid yellows, posh-utility separates in grey chiffon and navy silk, drapey tops and drainpipe jeans. The assistants were doing their best, but their smiles were fraying. And despite their help and the choice on offer, could this poor girlnot model-skinny, not fat, just average size with average hang-ups about her bodyfind an attractive top that wouldn’t be too hot but covered the tops of her arms? Could she heck.

The style survey we ran in the March/April issue of Intelligent Life shows she isn’t alone. We asked 40 women of different ages, backgrounds, sizes and nationalities what they really felt about fashion. Where were the holes in modern clothes? Their answers were clear. They wanted more clothes that were well made and that would last, not flop after a few washes, drop their buttons or come apart at the seams. They wanted brands that didn’t constantly churn their stock and shift their styles, but that had a consistent identity they could rely on season after season. They wanted clothes that showed some regard for the well-being of the planet and for the people employed to make them. And they wanted more sleeves. Lots more sleeves. Men might think it’s the size of our bums that women are obsessed by, but what really makes us wince when we look in the mirror is that faint wobble of blancmange just south of the triceps.

Cover it up, and we breathe a whole lot easier. Yet many designers seem unable or unwilling to help. After the department-store girl wandered off muttering "I only wanted one top…", I did a sleeve-count of the racks of different brands. Among them were teen-pleasers like Topshop and Miss Selfridge, but also more grown-up labels such as Michael by Michael Kors and Ted Bakerand still a good 85% of the dresses and tops on offer had no sleeves. If you wanted a tad more coverage, you had to buy a jacket or cardigan as well. Maybe that was the idea.

Common sense says it can’t all be weeds in fashion’s garden. There must be some people making clothes the women we surveyed would approve of. So here at the Style desk we set ourselves the task of tracking down brands that meet at least some of the following criteria: they sell well-made clothes in a way that is sustainable and/or ethical, rather than swinging wildly between the points of fashion’s compass, they pick a direction and stick to it, they produce no more than two collections a year, and they design plenty of pieces which don’t need special bras, knickers or slips before you can decently leave the house in them. To keep things desirable, we also gave each brand marks out of ten for stylishness. Though in the same genus as fashion, style is a subtly different beast and hard to track down: what we looked for were clothes that were sharp, not stuffy. And that, preferably, had sleeves.

What follows here is the best of the labels and designs that we found. Most we turned up by grilling stylists, checking out the goods at press days, and nosing around in shops – we were those odd people peering at stitching and tugging at hemswhile a few came from our own wardrobe back-stories. There are few big names, though. With some, it was slavishness to fashion that ruled them out, and the bewildering speed with which they change stock: Topshop states with some pride that it ships 300 new styles to its Hong Kong flagship every week. Slower high-street brands such as Reiss, Whistles, COS or J Crew might change their stock less vigorously, bringing about 300-400 new pieces in-store over the course of a three-month season, but they failed to distinguish themselves with particularly high quality. J Crew’s famous cashmere-in-every-colour has a tendency to bobble. I’ve had the cuff buttons break on a £150 Whistles shirt on its first day out, and all I was doing was typing.

Despite our best efforts, we couldn’t find one brand that ticked every box and got a high style scoremany of the most eco-conscious brands, for instance, still sell clothes that make you look worthy rather than wonderful, and if they do get it right in style terms, they then fall down on quality or the sleeve issue. But while no one individual brand or item scored in every category, everything here scores in at least two, and some do considerably better. Who did the best? I’ll save that bit of good news for last.

Ethical/sustainable

Some brands big and small are making heroic efforts to improve an industry notorious for sweat-shoppery and environmental abuse. Beaumont Organic (7/10; beaumontorganic.com) launched in 2008 and almost immediately won best textile product at the Natural and Organic Awards. Their smallish collection of feminine, youthful separates and dresses comes in shapes just on the interesting side of classic, all made from soft but hardwearing organic cotton jersey at a small family factory in Portugal. Fewer arms than there might be, but still enough cap sleeves to stop you despairing. Goodone (9/10; goodone.co.uk) are a pair of British designers who teach sustainable fashion at St Martin’s, and their pedigree shows: the 11-piece AW13 collection is a graphic, urban exploration of the possibilities of recycled fabrics. Most covetable, and wearable, is the hip-skimming, long-sleeved organic wool mini-dress with a jersey contrast under the arms and an upcycled Peter Pan collarMondrian meets bike courier. Honest By (9/10; honestby.com) collects pieces from several brands, each chosen by the Belgian designer Bruno Pieters. He’s a graduate of the Antwerp academy and a former art director for Hugo Boss, which should tell you all you need to know about his gender-playful, architectural aesthetic. His site claims to be 100% transparent, tracing textiles back to the source and checking that working conditions are safe, while a colour-coding system lets you see at a glance whether pieces are organic, recycled, vegan, made in Europe or even what he calls "skin-friendly". Our favourite in SS13 was Pieters’ own design, a pair of "adjustable" black wool trousers. These were less Wallace & Gromit than they sound: cuffed harem pants, with a clever-but-cool waistband that you could wear high, low or on the hips. More, please.

Slow fashion

If two collections a year makes sense in a temperate climate, three or more is greedy, putting undue strain on designers as well as the planet. All the brands we’ve picked here restrict themselves to updating their stock once or twice a year. The charming small-scale jeans brand Imogene + Willie (7/10; imogeneandwillie.com) is based in Tennessee and makes all its selvedge denim pieces locally, either in its own tiny workshop or in factories nearby. The range is restricted to 13 styles of straight or skinny jeans, one pair of twill cropped pants, and a handful of useful, flattering T-shirts and shirts for dressing the jeans up or down. Loft Design By (8/10; loftdesignby.com) started in Paris, and produces only 60-odd pieces twice a year, all with a very French, relaxed-chic feel. White, dusky pink, grey or pale blue T-shirts, jeans and shorts team up with one or two blazers, a handful of shirt-dresses and sloppy-Joe sweaters. Everything works with everything else, and the quality is outstanding: one member of the Style desk owns a six-year-old ldb fine-gauge cashmere jumper that has been washed and washed, yet never lost its shape. The online-only Californian label Everlane (10/10; everlane.com) makes just a few preppy things, but makes them so well you could weep. Cotton T-shirts with three kinds of necklines, each cut with the female chest in mind; cashmere crew sweaters and grandpa cardigans in five muted, warm colours; silk shirts with one contrast button at the neck and cuff that manage to look both fluid and sharp. Everything is made with their oversight at factories in LA; they begin shipping to Britain in 2014. Can’t wait.

Clothes that last

Many brands claim their clothes are well made, but the truth is in the wearingand the wearing again. Chinti and Parker (8/10, chinti-andparker.com) have 170-odd pieces in their AW13 collection of casual jersey, wool or cashmere: Breton T-shirts, slouchy trousers, cardigans and jumpers in some neutrals and more fashionable brights, all livened up with knowing touchessingle pockets or elbow patches in contrasting colours, buttonholes rimmed with neon thread. They show a high level of control over their textiles and manufacturingeverything is labelled as either Fairtrade, organic or made in the EUand the quality is excellent. Not much use for the more serious kind of office, but a good way to build a whole low-key but distinctive wardrobe.

Me + Em (7/10; meandem.com) also use a lot of heavyweight, long-lasting jersey, but the look is less homespun; you feel they’ve kept half an eye on what Carine Roitfeld has been stepping out in. Virtually all their business is onlinewith just one shop, in Londonand they pay almost obsessive attention to the quality of material, which feeds through into its lifespan. Then there’s Toast (8/10; toast.co.uk), a brand that has spent 16 years being adored by a certain kind of west London would-be boho. They started out selling waffle-cotton pyjamas mail-order, but quickly stepped out of bed and into the living room, selling loosely cohesive collections with off-key prints and more colour than many of the other brands here. Perhaps because Toast’s founders had an earlier life selling £400 sweaters in high-fashion outlets such as Browns, the knitwear has always been first-class, but the rest of the range (much of it using organic cotton) tends to be just as well put together. And all the dresses in the AW13 collection have arms. Hallelujah.

Style over fashion

Labels with a distinctive aesthetic that they stick to season after season act as lifebelts, keeping you afloat amid the waves of perplexing trends. Margaret Howell (9/10; margarethowell.co.uk) has been at it since 1980, producing small collections of Katherine Hepburn-style mannish dressing that looks as effortless on women of 80 as on 18-year-olds. Her trick is to play with proportion to stop the look getting stale, and though prices are high, these are pieces that evolve rather than date. The clothes at Katherine Hooker (7/10; katherinehookernow.com) are timeless in a different way. Her classic fitted dresses and jackets are made to measure from a small palette of virtually unchanging shapes, which customers personalise using a seasonal choice of fabrics. The dresses are solid if unsurprisingand expensivebut the jackets and coats are outstanding, and together they do all the thinking for women with formal working lives. In a different vein is Garzón (9/10; garzon.co.uk), a new line of merino and alpaca knitwear manufactured by (mostly) Fairtrade knitting collectives in Uruguay. If this sounds off-puttingly sensible, it isn’tthey’re designed by a photographic agent who had a former life on Planet Fashion, and the results are both cool and warm: sweater dresses, crop tops and cardigans with over-sized textural details and a graphic use of two-tone colour, all so soft they feel like clotted cream.

Ready to wear

Pretty much all of the labels mentioned so far make clothes for daytime that are easy to wearno tit-tape, multiway bra or special seamless knickers required. But what about when you need something dressier? Beautiful Soul (7/10; beautiful-soul.co.uk), based in Notting Hill, uses British lace and wool, and organic, Fairtrade or vintage fabrics for its collections of luxe-ethical dresses. No open backs, no plunging necklines and a fondness for floral, oversize prints make this a good place to look for both cocktail dresses and hippyish maxis. And what are all those things hanging off their shoulders? Why, sleeveslots and lots of sleeves. La Mania (8/10; lamania.eu) is a high-end Polish label specialising in simple, geometric shapes. They started in 2010 and soon found an international presence, with the approval, apparently, of Karl Lagerfeld. Though their SS13 dress-up dresses pretty much all required a strapless braand forgive me if you disagree, but I have never found one of these that didn’t require constant and unladylike hoiking up—AW13 is more rewarding. Newer still is Tabitha Webb (9/10; tabithawebb.co.uk), whose first collection of 24 cocktail and red-carpet dresses are what you might call intelligent-starlet: body-conscious but clever. One little black number has a cut-away back, but most cover up the vital bits where your bra-straps go, and Webb is particularly adept at using insets to create a subtle illusion of shape. Our favourites are Aster, a black leather cap-sleeved dress with an asymmetric hemline, and Daffodil, a classic fit and flare in either petrol-blue, red or jade-green lace.

The sleeve thing

You should be able to find dresses and tops with sleeves at nearly all of the brands here. But these three get an extra gold star for their understanding of the whole yukky-upper-arm issue. Much of the revivification of Jaeger (7/10; jaeger.co.uk) after its years of dowdiness was due to Belinda Earl, who joined as chief executive in 2004. She showed them how to do sharp class for women over 30, and though their edge has definitely blunted since she left in 2011, Jaeger still has a good grasp of a certain very English look: half lady of the manor, half Diana Rigg in a catsuit. Even its most youthful line, Jaeger Boutique, understands the need for sleeves. The Spanish label Hoss Intropia (9/10; hossintropia.com) is completely differentdelicate prints, the odd blast of vivid colour, a keen understanding of embellishment, and never even a hint of the mannish. Although created by a former costume designer for the Spanish National Ballet, Hoss is a good bet for girls with curveslots of boat and scoop necklines, and an apparently unshakeable predilection for sleeves, whether cap, three-quarter, or full-length. The press releases for the young London-based designer Georgia Hardinge (10/10; georgiahardinge.co.uk) use scary words like "experimental" and "fashion forward", but in truth her clothes are bold without being actively frightening. Yes, there are some strongly geometrical shapes, but constructed in soft, wear-me chiffons and silks, plain or printed with figure-enhancing kaleidoscopic patternsimagine the  "Doctor Who" title sequence, but on a dress. And of the 21 looks in her AW13 collection, guess how many have sleeves? All 21. Georgia, we salute you.

Who, overall, came out top? The labels that tick the most boxesat least for their current collectionsare Katherine Hooker, Margaret Howell and Tabitha Webb. Then there’s dear old Marks & Spencer (6/10; marksandspencer.com). Until recently, you could only give them the Tries Hardest prize. Their 100-point "Plan A", launched in 2007, included aspirations to make themselves carbon-neutral, to extend sustainable sourcing and ethical trading, and to provide products "of an eco or ethical quality above the market norm". Since then they have launched a "Shwopping” initiative which raised £2.3m for Oxfam, recycled plastic waste to make polyesters for clothes and homeware, become the biggest retailer of Fairtrade cotton in Britain and been named most sustainable high street chain at the Sustainable City Awards. And yet, and yet…frankly, too many of their clothes were depressing. The cut was rarely right, the detailing often just a little bit wrong.

The good news is this. In 2012 Belinda Earl, of Jaeger fame, joined M&S as style director, and her influence is making itself felt. The AW13 lines feature no-peep shirts (so the buttons won’t gape when you lean forward), a move towards higher-quality cashmere and wool, technologies to help prevent fading and bobbling, a great range of party dresses that come with inbuilt shapewear, and the barnstormer of a gold dress shown on the opposite page, which, like 85% of its new-season compatriots, has sleeves. Indeed, so much fuss was made of the sleeve-iness of the new collection that it appeared on several national news pages. Yes, Earl has a job to do to convince women that what they want is lurking behind the doors of their local Marks & Sparks, but she’s made a fine start. That girl in the department store may be in luck.  

Most brands ship outside their own country unless otherwise stated; check websites for full details

Stockists  chintiandparker.com  couturelab.com  georgiahardinge.co.uk  imogeneandwillie.com  jaeger.co.uk  katherinehookernow.com  kurtgeiger.com  margarethowell.co.uk marksandspencer.com  millyswire.com 

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