Sultans of style and Cityslickers

Are British designers coming down to earth? No - but at least they are aiming at fun-loving career women, reports Belinda Morris
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The Independent Culture
Nobody could accuse British designers - either the stalwarts or the Cool Britannia lot - of creating with executive women in mind. Safe suits and easy-care blouses are not their stock-in-trade, and, let's face it, nobody would care much to see a phalanx of humdrum, worthy separates march briskly down the catwalk. Pizzazz is what we want.

But, and it's a big but, there was a certain air of grown-upness at the London fashion shows last week. Bare bosoms were in shorter supply than previously - hinted at rather than thrown (figuratively speaking, of course) in our faces. Bottoms were mostly outlined (provocatively, to be sure, in some cases) rather than completely exposed.

Admittedly it may simply be that these are the collections for next winter, when most of us will be snug and warm in our vests and only the most fiendish designer would have us catch a chill by leaving the house in nothing more substantial than a spun silver bikini. I prefer, however, to imagine that an unconsciously collective decision to take pity on the fashion- aware, thirtysomething woman with a job to do and a reputation to think of, has led to just a dash of (dirty word) commercialism amid the audacious sparkle that is British fashion.

If you like to shock and can still hold down a job in the City, then you may be tempted by Owen Gaster's fabulous fitted jackets - the ones whose slashes around the body can be zipped up quickly when the boss walks in. Then there are Flynow's prim pencil skirts, split high enough at the rear to offer a tantalising and deliberate flash of knicker, for that devil-may-care exit. A perfect example of office-to-evening wear, a backless, sheer cobweb knit bolero (Amaya Arzuaga) can be secreted under a sensible Paul Smith, masculine-cut, double-breasted trouser suit. You can whip the jacket off in the pub.

In fact, the unexpected juxtapositioning of day and evening ideas and fabrics is a recurring theme in next season's collections, and one that could be hijacked by anyone who needs a multi-functional wardrobe (and likes to flirt with danger). Sheer, stretchy, shiny, sequined and sparkly knits and T-shirts can be teamed with sharp tailoring, for example. Otherwise classic suits, in typical boardroom fabrics - pinstripes, chalk stripes, herringbones, checks - are given a lift with sprigs of floral detailing (John Rocha); lines of clear sequins (Sonja Nuttall); opulent block embroidery and applique work on grey flannel tailoring (Clements Ribeiro) and ribbon trims on black gabardine coats and jackets (Betty Jackson).

Without interrupting the masculine/ feminine mood of this summer's suit story (a choice of curvy, fitted shapes or more slouchy, boyish jackets and wide pants) designers are adding some spice to the working wardrobe. In a dramatic move, Jean Muir's usually understated suits and frock coats appear with sharply angled shoulderlines, for instance; Pearce Fionda's cleverly cut jackets are a riot of complicated seaming and pointy bits; and Ronit Zilkha's hourglass suits with subtle tiered edging should charm one of her most enthusiastic clients - Cherie Booth.

Elsewhere, sleeves also come in for treatment with mildly puffed shapes on some jackets, bell shapes on others and slashed details to show bright linings, a flash of flesh, or a shirt underneath.

Apart from the pencil variety, the skirt for next winter has to be a pleated sort, of any description. Box pleats (sewn down round the hips for a flattering line at Ronit Zilkha), sunray pleats (looking sporty with cropped jackets at Nicole Farhi), mini kick pleats, inverted pleats and knife pleats are all acceptable as long as they hover somewhere around the knee. If you can manage to incorporate a touch of asymmetry at the same time - achieved with insouciance if the skirt wraps around but dips slightly at the front (Betty Jackson), then so much the better.

If you feel that a business look is not complete without a jacket, the news that sweaters and coats may replace it could be alarming. It's not really true, of course - there are tons of great jackets for next autumn - but the fine-knit sweater makes a modern alternative to the dressy blouse, and a simple, slim-line, Sunday-best, knee-length coat (either fitted and flared or A-line) over a skirt or shift dress is an easy interpretation of executive dressing.