This is an age when women build small empires and reach C-suitelevel jobs wearing uniforms as varied as bodycon dresses, leather trousers, the classic off-duty combo of jeans and a tee, and (yes!) yoga leggings. At the time of writing this article, the women making headlines in business couldn’t look more different from the prototypical careerist in the 1989 film Working Girl. Uber’s new chief brand officer Bozoma Saint John, a lover of bright, flamboyant dresses, and Into The Gloss founder Emily Weiss, a sweater-and-jeans loyalist, both come to mind. So it’s ironic that workwear has come full circle back to the suit when most office dress codes have moved away from it. After percolating throughout the spring/summer and pre-collections, power dressing in the traditional, tailored and heritageprinted sense hit a tipping point for autumn, blanketing the runways from Stella McCartney and Céline to Off-White and Gabriela Hearst just as it was on the verge of extinction in real life.
For Giorgio Armani, the man famous for being an early architect of the idea with both his eponymous and Emporio Armani lines, the new wave of workwear is a case of going back to the future. He started cutting suits for women in 1975, a year after showing his first men’s collection. ‘That was after my sister and some women friends wanted to wear what I had designed for men. They wanted simple, soft jackets, in which they would be able to move freely and naturally,’ he explains from Milan. His feminine, elegant take on suiting was revolutionary in a decade in which women were climbing the career ladder in record numbers, most of them dressed like men, in boxy shapes and shoulder pads. ‘I was able to experience first-hand how much fashion influences customs and perceptions. It’s the primary means of outwardly representing oneself and a powerful tool, the value of which should never be underestimated, in any context,’ he says. His trademarks: jackets and trousers in easy, elongated silhouettes and a chic, neutral colour palette that implies wealth became a currency in the workplace. To own an Armani suit was to have arrived.
‘I realised that my work responded to an existing need for professional attire that would give women a sense of dignity and an attitude that would let them satisfy the demands of professional life without having to give up on being women. I tried to render that into a strong image. And from there the phenomenon of the power suit was born.’
The idea exploded in the Eighties, with Armani, Anne Klein, Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren all taking the rigidity out of the suit and replacing it with a sense of femininity and sensuality. ‘It was precisely the construction and stiffness of certain suiting that relegated women to the role of “dolls”. With my styles, I wanted to offer suiting that would communicate authority, while remaining comfortable and fluid,’ he says.
Four decades later, Armani has maintained his commitment to the task, throughout the many phases and faces of tailored workwear — the Jil Sander minimalism of the Nineties, the clean tailoring of Phoebe Philo-era Céline, and the revaped suiting from a range of designers in stores now. Though his definition of power dressing has changed with the landscape, as have the women who wear his clothes.
The concept has changed radically since the Seventies when the author John T. Molloy wrote The Woman’s Dress for Success Book, instructing the female work force to consider the male gaze because ‘it is a stark reality that men dominate the power structure’, before advising ‘to never wear a shirt and tie’ or ‘pinstriped or chalk-striped suit’. No doubt Molloy would have cringed at the reimaginings of those very things on the women’s runways. Perhaps the designers had all seen the results of the 2016 study published in the Social Psychological and Personality Science Journal linking clothing to strategic thinking, negotiation skills and feelings of power, revealing that people were more likely to perform like a boss when wearing more polished workwear — pinstripes and all. For Armani, the beauty of work wear lies in its progression.‘ The evolution of my style has followed a path parallel to that of women’s emancipation. Today, women make their own choices and decisions independently, and not to please any man or society.’
THIS PAGE White tricotine jacket, £660, and black velvet trousers, £430, both EMPORIO ARMANI. Sterling-silver earrings, £355, FAY ANDRADA
OPPOSITE Cotton shirt, £900, double-faced wool
skirt, £3,350, and leather boots, £1,020,
all THE ROW at MATCHES FASHION.
Earrings, as before