Suit yourself: Re-thinking the power suit for modern women

The power suit. Even just uttering the phrase ignites a vision of shoulder pads, a perm and purposeful walking. Perhaps while holding a clipboard.

And yet, just as the idea of what power looks like has morphed – witness the praise of Jacinda Ardern's deep empathy after the Christchurch terrorist attack (former Vanity Fair and New Yorker editor Tina Brown called it the power of "female grace") – so too have our thoughts about what makes a suit.

Patrick Johnson of P Johnson Tailors, which is based in Sydney and has showrooms in Melbourne, London and New York, will launch a range of made-to-measure suiting for women in July this year, P Johnson Femme. Women have been asking him to do so for years.

For Johnson, it's not about creating a men's suit for women (though plenty of women have already been fitted in his men's suits) but making something relevant for how women live, and work, now.

"Women's suiting is different to men's, in construction, in the body shape, but women also wear the clothing differently. The rules for men's tailoring don't apply," says Johnson.

The made-to-measure suits will have two base trouser designs in a high-waisted, double-pleated version and a slimmer cigarette style, with an array of choices when it comes to cut, fabric and colour. The idea is that the suits will be comfortable, allow women the same kind of freedom in having a "uniform" that suiting has long given men, and that the pieces will re-imagine the idea of the suit and how it is worn.

Johnson has had input from the women in his life over the two years he's been planning the brand. Ultimately, he says, it's about "empowering" women by giving them modern suiting which allows for a little personality and character. And definitely some boss attitude.

The new direction in suiting is running parallel with one of this year's biggest trends, the chic boilersuit (yes, a more fashion version of the kind worn by mechanics and Rosie the Riveter), The softer power suit is less Working Girl and more 'woman on the run between a busy job, a parent-teacher meeting and drinks with her friends in a fashionably tiny inner-city wine bar'.

As Pulitzer-winning fashion critic Robin Givhan wrote of the suits seen on the runway at the likes of Givenchy, Thom Browne and Dries Van Noten in February: "Women have had pants in their closet for a long time, but it hasn’t been that long since they began to reap some — not all — of the benefits of wearing them. Bundled up in all the smart tailoring and dramatic shoulders is the question of what the suits really do for women."

And what they're doing more than ever – with the focus on fluid tailoring, sharp shoulders and unexpected volume and shapes – is giving them modern-day armour that can take them anywhere.

The multi-faceted lives of her customers is something fashion designer Rosie Assoulin, known for her punchy colours and exaggerated proportions, factored in when she launched a new range of shirt and suit separates this week. The range, By Any Other Name, came about because she has "an aversion to ‘corporate wear’ or ‘mummy wear'."

“My identity is spread out among lots of these different things, and I don’t know I can reach into my magic suitcase and change every time I’m one of those things," she told The New York Times. "We are wearing many hats, and I would like to be able to wake up and feel like I can get through my day without any change whatsoever.”

Giselle Farhat, founder and director at fashion ecommerce website My Chameleon, is a long-time fan of the suit. Farhat previously worked in corporate finance and says she still incorporates elements of suiting into her daily wardrobe, but these days there is less structure and more mixing and matching in her wardrobe; she pairs suit trousers with a T-shirt instead of a business shirt, or opts for flat sandals rather than heels.

My Chameleon stocks brands such as Ellery, Dion Lee and as of this month, Tibi, the brand that has been dubbed the fashion editor's “stealth favourite”  because of its classic-with-a-twist tailoring.

Farhat has noticed a trend toward increasingly interesting shapes and fabrics when it comes to suiting. "Suiting is becoming more oversized and relaxed while still maintaining a silhouette [that works] for women," she says.

"In particular we are seeing more of a straighter, slouchy pant style paired with jackets that are boxy or detailed. Fabrications are shifting towards more textural and fluid finishes. The structural elements do remain, however suiting is translating beyond the traditional ‘office’ style to something more for day and night."

Re-thinking how and where a suit is worn is front of mind for fashion designer Rebecca Vallance. Suiting, along with tailored and glamorous dresses, is a big part of her business.

Vallance loves wearing a suit herself because it works as well for the office as it does for a cocktail party or with a pair of sneakers for a day time errand. "What we used to call power dressing is now every-day dressing," she says, adding that her suits have particular appeal to the "fashion conscious" woman.

"We play on the traditional elements of suiting but are always re-inventing to make a new and exciting offering for our customer."

But, as with most fresh sartorial ideas, the new suit has taken a little time to find popularity.

Designer Anna Quan, known for her shirts with exaggerated cuffs, first launched suiting in 2015 but her silhouettes didn't have the cut-through she had hoped. She's since re-launched the category and it's now her best seller.

She says customers are enjoying experimenting and wearing a suit on their own terms.  One particular surprise for Quan has been the take-up of her shorts. "Shorts suit sets are resonating with the local and international customer," she says. "It’s got the right amount of playful yet functional."

In fact, perhaps a functional yet playful aesthetic is about the most modern a way of dressing you can hope for.

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