How to cut loose from the corporate clones

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The Independent Culture
Tired of being ordered to adopt the `sensible' uniform supposedly worn by Britain's army of female executives? Belinda Morris is, so she sets out to prove it is possible to be both businesslike and fashionable.

As a result of a corporate image seminar I went to recently, I now visualise the nation's army of female executives striding out to work as an indomitable sea of severe navy and black, not-too-high heels clicking purposefully, neat bobs swaying controlledly.

These business wardrobes may play safe, but surely not every woman of power and substance has to surrender to what, in my view, are archaic guidelines. Whoever pronounced that women perform (and look) better in knee-length skirt suits and just a hint of tasteful gold jewellery was probably a) a man, and b) sartorially challenged. They certainly can't have been shopping recently.

So, in a bid to prove that it is possible to look both businesslike and fashionable, I was tempted into a store this week that has made its reputation dressing the middle-youth career woman. In fact it is a reputation that needs some serious updating.

Episode - for Episode it is - cannot be regarded as simply the home of all things classically corporate. And the Hong Kong-based clothing company behind the chain is aware of the danger of riding along with public perceptions.

"We've definitely changed since our launch seven years ago," says Samantha Langston, marketing manager of Episode in the UK, "but we have moved on further still since the end of 1996."

Which just happens to coincide with the date that New Yorker Michael Ward took over as designer of the seven or so capsule lines that comprise each season's collections. "We have had to respond to a customer who is now more adventurous and more informed about new and interesting fabrics. We've gone way beyond the silk occasion wear that we used to be known for."

To underline Episode's steely determination to be seen as contemporary, urban and even sexy (in and out of the office), the visual imagery for this year's spring/summer collection features the supremely hip Brit aristo-model Stella Tennant, loose-limbed and sensual, in some laid- back loft-cum-office.

It is a far cry from the classic fashion poses imposed on Christy Turlington a few seasons back and should endorse Ward's view that the Episode woman is "ageless - very chic and modern" who wants "wearable trends with an aesthetic level of style, cut and quality".

So much for fashion marketing speak - what about the clothes? What can Episode offer the working woman who wants style cred as well as office acceptability? There are skirt suits, of course, but far more important is the "masculine" tailoring philosophy. Trouser suits are big news for spring and the shift away from tight shapes should ensure that they suit most women. Fluid fabrics give them a soft edge.

Fabrics are as important, if not more important, than silhouettes at Episode. Look closely at a plain colour and you will notice a subtle texture: fine ribs, honeycomb effects, micro-herringbone weaves, piques and satin- backed ottomans are among the more exotic choices for otherwise simple tailoring.

And it needn't be black. This cold and dreary spring offers elegant, long-line jackets with a choice of trousers or skirts to match in the subtlest, palest pink - Episode knows pink is a hot fashion colour but that not everyone can carry off lipstick or bubblegum shades.

The other catwalk favourite, grey, is also represented - not just the standard charcoal, but a pale dove in an ultra-sharp and modern polyester/Spandex trouser suit that would look great with any of the fine metallic-yarn knits in the store.

If you really can't get away with trousers, then look at shift dresses to match tailored jackets. There are loads of them, from the curvy to the more forgiving loose shapes. They are all simple but with stylish touches - the shape of an armhole, the cut of a neckline, a cross-over detail.

And as for skirts, forget any notion about long ones being mumsy or librarianish - if they're pencil-slim with deep, buttoned side splits they're not.

Episode isn't the only place for women to reject the corporate clone look. Also on the high street: shot-effect trouser suits and ribbon-trimmed linen suits with wrap skirts at Pied a Terre; chocolate long-line jackets and pants and long knit dresses and cardigans by Linea at House of Fraser; three-quarter length cream cupro coats and pants at Phase Eight; and sexy, slim Miss Moneypenny navy jackets and long pencil skirts with side splits at Austin Reed.