Style Police: Prepare to split your suits

The jacket isn't dead. It's just popped a Valium and relaxed, says JAMES SHERWOOD. The new version is a blend of cardi, coat and zip- up crop top

What do we think about the Monica Lewinsky makeover? For her first UK television interview, Monica did the right thing and flattened the bouffy hairstyle. But she missed a trick with the dark tailored trouser suit. Why is it that women who want to be taken seriously always wear what is essentially a man's suit? Particularly when fashion has finally made up its mind: the suit jacket just isn't going to cut it come 2000.

Checking the Style Police archive, we notice the first registered sighting of an alternative to the suit jacket was the zip-front crop top way back in winter 1997. We didn't think women would bite. After all, the jacket was always a cornerstone of the working wardrobe. Then, suddenly last summer, along came the cardigan. It's a great look. It's a cute look. It's a young look. Ultimately, however, it was never going to replace the jacket.

For spring/summer 1999, designers have finally consigned the suit jacket to the fashion trash can. As a concession to real life, however, they have given us viable alternatives. Here's the deal. Jackets aren't dead, they've just popped a couple of Valium and relaxed.

Think of the designers as you would those mad genetic engineers mating the cardigan and the jacket or the coat and the jacket. At Armani that meant elongating the jacket to the knee and ditching the suiting fabrics in favour of violet silk crepe, overlaid with a layer of smoky grey tulle. Even more unstructured were the drawstring-tied tunic tops at Salvatore Ferragamo.

Alternatively, you've still got the zip front but this time round it's in leather (McQueen), suede (Max Mara) or peppermint boucle wool (Versace). We're talking about a body-hugging crop shape with the zip nipping in the waist. Alberta Ferretti provided the ultimate jacket/shirt hybrid in nude jersey. There were also scads of fine-knit cardigan coats but they're all a bit Guardian women's page so they're best left. But the jacket rethink is so strong, and so unanimous, that you cannot underestimate the trend.

Ultimately, it's a good thing. The pant suit in co-ordinating fabric has been big in womenswear since about 1930. Women loved the velvet-trimmed revolution that was cardi time last summer. But it ultimately let them down. Now we have a fabulous alternative to Savile Row drag.

HOW TO WEAR IT

This is not an excuse to look sloppy at work. We're not talking dressed- down Friday. No, best to break this look in gently. If you bought a pant suit in the last four years, do not despair. Look at the pants. Are they slouchy? Are they hipster? Are they cigarette-slim? All the above are A1 OK as separates.

Break up your suiting. Unless the jackets have Mike Tyson shoulders there is hope of salvation. The black single-breasted jacket is still going to work if balanced with a luxe silk viscose maxi or a more evening-oriented pair of pants.

Lift the pieces of suiting with a colour flash or with a texture gear-shift: cappuccino nubuck pants with tailored jacket, black leather button-front jacket with tight white pencil skirt. Ease into the look until you can confidently phase out the tailored jacket.

You've got until autumn so take your time and take it easy.

Where to buy it

Style Police have been shopping for you because we just weren't convinced the high street was on top of this trend. Sorry, guys, but they really aren't there yet.

But there is a starter-pack style everyone has had a go at. It's that single-breasted frock coat so beloved of boy bands and TOTP presenters. It's grey and it's invariably part of a cigarette pant suit. You'll find it in grey wool crepe at Wallis (pounds 80), gunmetal shot silk at Principles (pounds 125) and in dove grey stretch wool at Next (pounds 74.99). They're all good basics if you just buy the jacket.

A much more modern approach to the new tailoring is at Marks & Spencer. Granted, the rest of the store still looks slightly Home Counties, but M&S have cut a killer grey wool and Lycra sleeveless dress and matching long jacket (pounds 175 for the two). The fabric is not dissimilar to Alexander McQueen's suiting last season and the dress-and-coat combo is to-die-for.

One shop that really warmed Style Police's heart was Top Shop. God bless Top Shop for being brave enough to have a go. Yes, they've done the grey flannel frock coat (pounds 65) but have cut it with the all-important concealed buttons. They've also come up with a zip-up cardi/coat (pounds 28), padded shell zip-top in icy blue and baby pink for pounds 25 and experimented with the shot silk hooded nylon coat (pounds 95). Love it.

ADDRESS BOOK

Marks & Spencer: 0171 935 4422.

Next: 0345 100500

Principles: 0990 233343

Top Shop: 0171 291 2332

Wallis: 0181 910 1333

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