Fashion: This is my fast-track suit

Dressing for the city is an ongoing dilemma for fashion-conscious women. How to be smart and stylish without looking like Ally McBeal? (She's just so ... Eighties.) Ditch the tailoring and think sporty
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Every so often the fashion industry throws a new word, term or category at us. Before the season is out, we should all be completely au fait with it, dropping it airily into dinner-party conversations and boardroom meetings. We are, of course, totally familiar with "greige" and know just when to bring it into play; who doesn't describe Paul Smith as "classic with a twist"? And as for "lifestyle", we've all seen Wallpaper* magazine.

So, here's another one for your sartorial lexicon: urban sportswear. Not, as some might imagine, clothes to wear when playing footie on city street corners (although you could, I suppose...) but something rather more sophisticated. It is, however - like so many other nebulous fashion phrases - left wide open to personal interpretation and definition. Thus, one woman's urban-sportswear chic zipped jacket may be another's walking- the-dog wind-cheater.

The rules are a little sketchy at present, the only sure one being that this isn't anything to do with real, active, performance stuff that involves getting sweaty.

Just influenced by it. A little bit. The bit that says clothes ought to be comfortable and easy rather than restrictive and tricksy. This is sportswear in the American rather than the British sense of the word, but erase any thoughts of "leesure" from your mind because we're not talking Hawaiian shirts and sneakers. For "urban", read modern, minimal and mostly monochrome (with a few colourful highlights thrown in, such as navy and brown). So who, as Loyd Grossman might ask, would wear clothes like these?

Well, me for a start. I'd like to submit myself as the (slightly older, but young- at-heart) core customer in the back of the minds of designers and retailers who are launching (or are about to launch) collections that may be categorised as urban sportswear. "Women need more multi-functional, less power-dressing clothes, especially those who are in freelance situations," says Kathy Wuersch, the American designer behind the new Episode Sport line, to be launched this month.

"There are fewer women in nine-to-five positions, so things are easing up," she explains. "Everything is more lifestyle-driven. Women are dressing to suit their own needs, making their own choices, and this tends to be more separates- and sportswear-based."

At Episode they identified "a huge gap in the market for better-made relaxed dressing" and decided to fill it. It was also a canny move for the retail group, which, since its introduction to the UK seven years ago, has acquired a reputation for working wardrobes and occasion-wear. Episode Sport could significantly broaden its appeal.

"We're also addressing a more fashion-aware woman who appreciates the technical aspects of new fabrics which are glazed, rubberised, more entertaining; and the fact that classic suits can be spiced up in a way that isn't trashy or throwaway," Kathy adds. The result is a look inspired much more by menswear (rather than being glam, or city-sharp) with tailoring that is less structured (lots of unlined jackets). "That whole corporate image, competing with a man, thing, seems a very old attitude now," she says.

Finding a generic name to encompass this laid-back but fashionable, no-fuss but modern category isn't straightforward, Kathy admits. The trade calls it, confusingly, a "bridge" market. It forms the link between jeans and formal wear but also can disregard seasons - which tend to be rather blurred these days. "It's an evolution of knit-driven dressing - important for comfort or travel reasons - and the need for "faster" clothes that don't require so much care but which still don't look sloppy," Kathy says. "It also recognises that we need year-round options, which is why black is still so important."

And grey - in particular grey flannel, which in Episode Sport's autumn collection takes on a soft yet durable, jeansy feel (with masculine overtones). But as this is a line of separate pieces rather than co-ordinates, it mixes in with other fabrics such as leather, jersey, knits and synthetics. Take a pair of drawstring-waist pants in grey flannel, team them with a hooded, pale grey jersey shirt and soft black leather jacket, and you've really demolished the boardroom spirit. A grey pencil skirt teamed with zipped fleece jacket and vest top will do much the same thing, yet both have a strong feeling of presentable, modern workwear.

A different look, but a not dissimilar rationale, is found at Judith and Hernan Balcazar's Notting Hill shop Wall, which was conceived to fill a specific gap in the market. Both widely travelled people (Hernan is Peruvian), they saw a need for clothes designed for women with busy lives. More specifically, they create simple, relaxed yet elegant dresses, skirts, pants and knitwear for us who work from home. Many of their customers are journalists, aged 30-plus, who would rather not just throw on jeans and a sweatshirt every day, based largely on the fact that they may have to leave the house suddenly on an urgent mission (chocolate, in my case).

True to urban sportswear form, the all-natural (Pima cotton, alpaca and wool) amply cut, linear dresses; pared-down knitted jackets (with immaculately detailed jersey linings); long, roomy edge-to-edge cardigans and semi- sheer V-neck sweaters come in reassuringly metropolitan colours such as black and charcoal grey, with muted highlight tones reserved for T-shirts or the odd pashmina.

Hernan suggests that the ethos of Wall "is to create a space within yourself for harmony and tranquillity" - a notion that could simply be translated into: clothes that you don't have to think too long and hard about.

There are no nasty rough edges or tight, restricting waistbands ("we wanted to design clothes that can change with you - a woman's body doesn't stay the same shape throughout the month"); and as this isn't high fashion, styles evolve from season to season, adding longevity to the list of plus points. The Wall customer is the type who has a penchant for labels such as Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto, but as a Wall cotton-knit dress is a mere snip at pounds 85, she is likely to buy one in every shade and then treat herself to a rather more costly alpaca and silk shawl. And since this cool, minimally decorated shop also sells lifestyle, she can also pick up a set of tactile earthenware bowls and a pair of alpaca fur (totally PC, I'm assured) slippers.

Patricia Davidson, of the mail-order company Kingshill, is also taking a trip down the urban sportswear route, but like Episode, she is aiming to catch the eye of a customer who is younger (in attitude). Kingshill Studio is a definite split away from the mainline collection of own-label and designer brands, offering a more fashionable, slightly less expensive contemporary range of workwear and "urban weekend" wear. "It's a mannish, borrowed-from-the-boys look, with styling details that are more directional, like longer jackets, higher buttoning and new trouser shapes," she explains. "It's got more of an edge to it, but I'm a great believer in comfort, so nothing's too tight and there's lots of Lycra mixed in for ease."

So much for this autumn. If you really like to be ahead, then you'll be thrilled to learn that Sportmax, of the giant Italian MaxMara group, is to have a baby sister next spring. This is an advance warning of Sportmax Code, yet another urban sportswear look, also directed at the younger-thinking women ("We're not ageist," insists Giorgio Guidotti, of MaxMara). This, too, is minimal in its colour message (black, white, indigo, denim, with touches of pink and sky blue) and has absolutely no trace of country weekend, walking-the-dogness about it.

Nor is it a nightclub look. "It's urban, connected to music videos and street life," says Mr Guidotti. And since there are British designers in the team, that means London as well as downtown New York. Code is jeans- based, but in the loosest sense, since there are few western touches and lots of non-denim fabrics. Four different cuts of jeans integrate with stretch-cotton poplin, three-quarter-sleeved shirts, coated cotton cabans, loose, slash-necked cotton sweaters and tie-dyed T-shirts.

Clam-diggers look surprisingly good under neat shirt-waister dresses, while an ankle-skimming, drawstring-hemmed linen skirt teams up beautifully with anything from gingham Riviera-style shirts to fleece tops.