Do you ever flick wildly through your wardrobe — summer, winter, mini, maxi, citrus, black — and still have absolutely nothing to wear? Fashion is designed to surprise and delight, which is not the same thing at all as a day at the office.
What women think they want are Isabella Blow-style confections of funky material and headwear which put them ahead of the game (or, aesthetically, on it). What they actually need is a nice dress that doesn’t tear or fall apart and always looks smart. A dress for interviews or presentations or lunches or dinners. Something pretty but also professional. And not always black.
The useful dress is such an obvious concept that no designer ever thought of it. They were all too busy wanting to be youthful and creative. Until, in 1973, a trim Belgium-born New Yorker with big hair and wide-set eyes called Diane von Furstenberg started producing a line of patterned silk jersey wrap-around dresses of genius simplicity.
There is something about the heaviness and elasticity of the fabric which produces curves rather than bumps. It is truly a dress that is moulded round an idealised body. I first bought one of these artless dresses from the fashion website net-a-porter. The grounds for buying it were that it was moderately priced and looked as if it might resemble in real life the photograph on the website.
My Diane von Furstenberg dress is not my favourite, yet it is unfailingly admired by my male friends. Its pink and black geometric design is easy to spot and its contours are perky. Zoë Heller, the author, once observed that if fashion were left to boyfriends, women would only ever wear wet T-shirts. But there is also a primmer side to men and they feel safe in the presence of the sexy but bland design of a Diane von Furstenberg dress.
The DVF dress seems to work as a chain letter rather than a fashion collection. When I watched the New York fashion shows one year there was much less expectation and buzz about the DVF show than those of the highly strung young male designers who produced theatre rather than fashion and were always, on principle, about half an hour late in starting. Diane von Furstenberg’s unique selling point is not surprise but reassurance. These are dresses you can wear, even if — especially if — you are more than 30 years old. They have become such classics that one is even on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The idea that you might buy a dress because it looks good on the woman in the next office, rather than in a magazine, is revolutionary. It is the founding principle of Issa, a company that, like DVF, understands the practical beauty of silk jersey wrap-around dresses. You know that analytical look that you sometimes get from another woman when an outfit works? Women are interested in the how and the why, whereas men are unquestioningly appreciative. The power of the analytical look has made Issa into a multinational brand.
For instance, I was at a dinner the other week that mixed politics, media and business. In walked Martha Kearney, in the third week of her new job presenting the World at One. It was the day that Tony Blair had resigned, and Kearney had the professionally exhilarated look of a woman who had mastered her craft. This is not at all the same as the dazed-with- vanity look of many broadcasters.
Kearney was confident but also girlish and smiley. She was wearing an Issa print dress, which carried her effortlessly from office to dinner party. By contrast, my own day-to-evening wear was rather complicated and grubby at the cuffs. There was another female journalist present who looked sensational, but then she was practically topless, which I think would have been too distracting for the newsroom.
The main difference between Issa and Diane von Furstenberg is nationality. Daniella Helayel, the designer behind Issa, is from Brazil rather than Belgium. The designs of her silk print dresses are therefore ‘hotter’. DVF likes patterns, Issa likes wildlife. Helayel says of her dresses, ‘They make me feel both comfortable and glamorous at the same time.’
The women Helayel lists as role models include Catherine Deneuve, Sophia Loren, Bianca Jagger and Veronica Lake. What they have in common, apart from being beautiful and sophisticated, is that they are all beyond middle age.
In their disguised way, Issa and DVF are the sartorial saviours of the older woman. Both Helayel and von Furstenberg are cosmopolitan and their clothes are sold internationally. Travel is part of the fabric of their lives and of their dresses. DVF and Issa dresses take up little room in a case, do not crease and will probably turn out to be the little number you rely on when you reach your destination. The lesson we learn from DVF and Issa is that women look better in dresses and that dresses are not just for Christmas, but for life.