What happens when two of the best-dressed women in fashion — for which read women who wear clothes that you or I might actually like to wear — collaborate on a collection? They start with something classic, something simple, an item that most of us already have in our wardrobes — namely the breton top — and riff on it delightfully and, better still, wearably.
Because Jenna Lyons, the president and creative director of J Crew, and Sarah Rutson, the vice-president of global buying at Net-a-Porter, may be the sort of women to set off flash bulbs everywhere they go — they reside definitively among the fashion world’s most photographed — but look beyond their grade-A skill set when it comes to layering, accessorising, mixing and matching and they wear real, normal clothes.
When I spoke to Lyons recently she spent many minutes on the subjects of shirts, to which she first developed an addiction when filching from her father’s wardrobe as a teenager. (“I have an embarrassing amount of white shirts. That crispness is something I gravitate to again and again.”) Rutson, on the other hand, held forth on Le Smoking: “I have probably got every variation. I love something that can give me a bit of structure.” Nothing difficult or cutting edge here; nothing remotely Man Repeller, to use the telling (self-coined) appellation of one of their fellow street-stylers.
Which is why their respective jobs — when they aren’t cooking up the new J Crew breton stripe capsule collection, available exclusively at net-a-porter.com from Tuesday — involve presenting us with what we want before we even know it.
Rutson determines what the most powerful fashion etailer stocks the world over (for the new season she is particularly excited by Balenciaga, Atlein and Off-White). Lyons heads up one of the high street’s key influencer brands: J Crew built its success not on copying the catwalk but on tweaking its own way to a fresh, easy aesthetic — part-preppy, part-glitzy — which mixes the plain and boyish (blazers, chinos) with the fun and girlish (costume jewellery, kitten heels).
The new line-up for Net-a-Porter is quintessential Lyons, from the more subtle pieces (a chic white shirt or beige trench with blue-and-white-striped trim; £145 and £320), to the more outlandish (a diagonally striped fun fur coat; £500). Yet it was inspired by Rutson. “Every time I saw Sarah she was wearing a stripe,” says Lyons, “and often it was from J Crew.”
“I am a stripe obsessive,” laughs Rutson, “and a diehard J Crew girl”. She adds that she and Lyons “have a mutual style crush on each other”. Her friend agrees: “We bonded over our similar approach to dressing.”
Both women are in their forties, both women look fashion rather than victim. I suspected that they may have some useful ideas for the rest of us on how to dress our best. I was right . . .
1. It’s all about staples
Lyons and Rutson get a lot of attention for what they wear, but the end result tends to be more than the sum of its parts. “I have a wardrobe of staples,” says Rutson. “I love chameleon-like clothes because I travel a lot. You have to make magic out of the same things, so I wear a lot of separates and move things around.”
Rutson is so adept at this sartorial sleight of hand that when Anna Dello Russo, she of the endless showstopper single-brand looks, scoped out the etail queen’s wardrobe recently the Italian couldn’t believe how “little” was in it. (I suspect this term may be relative, but still.) “She was like, ‘Oh my God, you are magician!’ I like to use all my clothes. I need to be practical.”
2. Mix it up
It’s all in the blend, and no one demonstrates this better than Lyons who, by way of just one internet-breaking example, wore a plain white shirt with a cream feather floor-length skirt and fur jacket to Solange Knowles’s wedding a couple of years ago.
As Lyons puts it: “Sarah and I have the habit of doing the same thing, picking something inherently dressy, or over the top, and then pairing it with something incredibly classic and simple. It’s never head-to-toe simple or head-to-toe crazy. There’s always a mix.”
3. Buy multiples
Proof that fashion people are not like you and me: they buy the same thing in different sizes. “When I travel I always pack an oversized shirt,” says Lyons, “and a more fitted shirt that will go under a blazer. People get set on one size, and then don’t think about how they could wear something differently. Someone might think they are a medium in T-shirts, say, but if a particular T-shirt is cut narrow then you might prefer it in a large.”
Then there’s the question of trousers: Lyons will purchase two pairs of the same style and have them adjusted to different lengths, one for flats, one for heels . . . (I never said these women were normal.)
4. Get things altered
Which brings us to the next point. “I don’t think there is a single thing I buy that I don’t alter,” says Lyons. “Whenever I have helped dress someone” — yes, that’s the kind of thing the preternaturally stylish are asked to do for us lesser mortals — “we spend the most time not on picking the clothes but on a subtle shift in length or making the waist slightly more narrow. If the button placement on a shirt isn’t right, for example, you get gaping over your boobs — but people don’t know this stuff — no one’s ever told them.”
If you don’t have Lyons on speed-dial, making friends with a beady-eyed tailor seems to be a good idea.
5. Beware the season ‘must-buys’
Like many women in fashion, Lyons and Rutson tend to eschew the more out-there (for which, usually, read flash-in-the-pan) trends. “My style is always relevant,” is how the latter puts it, “but I don’t do a checklist of the trends of the season and think ‘I must get on it’. And there are always things I will wear whatever is going on. Like the breton stripes. That’s my way to do a graphic print.”
At the root, what both women wear is a kind of uniform, although it is far too cleverly — and joyfully — executed to look like one.
6. Seek out the comfortable
It should be obvious: if you feel good in your clothes, you look good in them. Both women prioritise comfort, though not, warns Lyons, “sloppiness”. (Consider too that Rutson tells me she is “going back into a high heel moment again”: one woman’s comfort is another’s cross to bear.)
Lyons reminisces about the classic — for a man — tuxedo get-up she wore to this year’s Met Ball in New York, together with Lena Dunham and her fellow Girls alumna Jennifer Konner: “We were definitely the most comfortable people in the room. There were people wearing corsets and dresses that lit up or that they couldn’t sit down in. It was pretty funny. And ironically we got lots of praise for our outfits. There’s an ease with someone when they feel at home in their clothes and their skin.”
7. Find your you-spot
Again, we should all know this, but it’s amazing how easy it is to lose your way — your sense of who you are and what you like — when shopping. “I help dress a lot of women,” says Rutson. (Her too.) “There is always that point and they are grimacing, pulling at it. I’m like: ‘Get it off!’ If you don’t like it in that ten seconds you are not going to like it for a couple of hours, never mind a day.”
“Finding who you are, your aesthetic voice, is so important,” says Lyons. “There is this idea that Kim Kardashian is the only kind of sexy, and she is incredibly sexy, but Jane Birkin is totally sexy and doesn’t dress that way at all. And it doesn’t have to be sexy you want to project. You might want to look like a nun. It doesn’t matter. Finding that thing that makes you feel like you is incredibly important.”
And don’t forget feedback. “If someone says I look nice,” continues Lyons, “or I see a photo and think, ‘oh, that actually looks OK,’ I keep doing it.”
8. Get real
It’s about embracing your shape too. “I grew up dying to look like Jackie Kennedy,” says Lyons, who was 6ft by the time she was 11. “I loved those pictures of her in Capri with the headscarf, cropped pants and fitted tee, but if I wore an outfit like that I would look like a homeless person.”
And then there are the realities of your daily life. “Whether you are in an office or you are a stay-at-home mum, think, ‘Are these clothes going to work for me,’ ” coaches Rutson. “What is it that makes you feel great, comfortable, confident, you?”
9. It’s all in the detail
I’ve come to realise it too over the years, that it’s those small but significant bits and pieces — a button, a trim, a lining — that transform certain things in your wardrobe from a could-wear into a must-wear. “It’s quiet details that make you like something a bit more,” says Lyons. “They make you pick that shirt rather than the one hanging next to it. These are the little things that make you more excited to get dressed in the morning. Or at least they do that for me.”
Both women are fans of jewellery as outfit-transformers. “I might wear a chunky necklace, or a long one, or multiples,” says Rutson. “I just switch it around a bit. That makes an outfit different.”
10. Look for ‘where the magic is made’
“I joke that I was born in a room that was covered in Swarovski crystals,” Lyons says, laughing. “I definitely got hit with the sparkle stick. However, it can lack balance. To me what’s interesting is the masculine and the feminine, the salty and the sweet. When you have two opposing ideas they make each other look better. That is where the magic is made.” And, let’s face it, we could all do with a bit of that.