Dressing from the shoes up is an adage that fashion likes to trot out from time to time. And, tellingly, shoes provide everything you need to know about where fashion is at any given moment. For spring 2014, fashion editors attending the latest shows weren't in the regulation heels that anyone who has seen The Devil Wears Prada might expect. Instead, flats prevailed: Adidas Stan Smiths, Céline satin skater shoes and – the alpha choice – Prada's crystal hiking sandals. The message? Suffering for your style is out. Comfort is in.
Forget the high heels and strappy dress that has ruled Saturday-night style for the past decade. Instead, trainers, wide mannish trousers, sweatshirts and pool slides are being pushed hard as the unlikely wardrobe staples of the spring wardrobe. The latest street style trend, Normcore, takes it to an extreme: it's all no-label, not-skinny jeans, "Dad trainers" and a grey marl sweatshirt. Think the kind of clothes you pull on when hungover, in search of breakfast, and that's 2014's hot look.
But this isn't a trend exactly. It's more of a slowburning shift – the tortoise rather than the hare, if you will. Comfort dressing has taken a good part of a decade to show itself. Jane Shepherdson, CEO of Whistles, believes "we're in the middle of one of those big silhouette changes. It's a backlash against lady dressing, with the heels and the dress. It's the total opposite of that – the ugly shoe and the slouchy man's trouser."
Make no mistake. When Shepherdson calls the pool slide "ugly", she is not insulting her own product. Ugly is fashion-speak for shoes that are clunky, bulky and about as far away from a Carrie Bradshaw Jimmy Choo as you can get. For exactly this reason, they look new. The dainty spike of a stiletto is overplayed and oversubscribed. Shepherdson says that, last year, Whistles' bestselling shoe was a high court. Now, it's the silver pool slide.
To find out how that happened, skip back to a time when fashion was about a no pain, no gain attitude with "fierce" the favoured adjective. The year 2007 saw wunderkind Christopher Kane on the London fashion week schedule – and a collection of short, neon-coloured lace bandage dresses. In September 2008, this newspaper ran a story centred on models at a Prada show falling down due to heels that were "perilously high". A pair of YSL Tributes, with 6in heel and oversized platform, became just the thing in which to nip out for a pint of milk. Burberry and Balmain featured short bodycon dresses, sometimes covered in rhinestones, and often weighing an absolute tonne. In 2009, Victoria Beckham's stretch sheath dresses introduced her now-familiar First-Lady-does-sexy thing. Looking pulled-together and expensive was the ideal. Comfort – what was that?
But, just as the high-fashion crowd were getting used to the idea of clothes that double up as resistance training, the rest of the world caught up. By 2010, reality TV shows such as Towie, Made in Chelsea and Keeping Up With the Kardashians had the filtered-down version of what had been on the catwalk three years earlier. Their look of bodycon dresses, high heels and "proper" grooming – where tonged hair, contoured makeup and false lashes come as standard – is now mass.
Accordingly, high fashion moved to the flipside. As the noughties reached double figures, "off duty" was style's favourite buzzword and the clothes celebrities wore on coffee runs – rather than the dressing-up box of the red carpet – were under the microscope. The seeds for comfort dressing began to take hold. "I'd love to think this shift was that women have become more feminist and not so concerned about what men think of them," says Shepherdson, "but I think it's more cyclical than that. You need to have the opposite in fashion."
"Fashion in the last five to 10 years has been quite shouty and bold," adds Richard Nicoll, who has advocated loose shapes and flat shoes on his catwalk. "It's an old-fashioned idea that aesthetics matter above comfort. It's outdated."
What would have once set off alarm bells for fear of the F word – frumpy – was quietly reassessed, by the highest authority. As 2010 turned into 2011, Céline's Phoebe Philo and Isabel Marant tweaked what you might wear to watch TV – boring navy-blue jumpers and trackie pants – into designer items, and smaller boutique labels were in the fashion fold. In a prescient retail move, Folk launched womenswear last year. Its wide-legged culottes – of all things – are now a bestseller. "I wanted to show comfort could be beautiful," says head designer Elbe Lealman. "There are lots of other things to be bothered about in life – you don't want your clothes to make you feel bad."
A fashion-curated insouciance is what you're after in 2014. "Things such as boyfriend jeans and pool slides make the person who is wearing them look like they don't care," says Jane Bruton, editor-in-chief of Grazia. "There's nothing more fashionable than not having to care – or looking like it, at least." Clothes to make you feel good, and that feel good to wear, are in fashion – but beware. With pool slides now in Topshop, this summer marks the tipping point for comfort chic. The wheel has started to spin again. The look in 2020? High heels, cocktail dresses and mini bags. Just you wait and see.
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