True colours - Issue 170 - Magazine | Monocle
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For New York writer Fran Lebowitz, it’s an Anderson & Sheppard suit, made bespoke on Savile Row. For the designer Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, it’s a black leather biker jacket and a trademark razor-cut bob. At Milan Fashion Week, Miuccia Prada tends to take her catwalk bow in a pleated midi skirt topped off with some fine knitwear. In a world filled with novelty, a recognisable look, a trademark garment or signature silhouette, can work as a calling card. Think of a uniform as a kind of personal branding. However you choose to dress, the clothes you don are a chance to impress a version of yourself upon the world, to say something to those you meet without speaking out loud. To wear the same item, or a variation on a theme, wherever you go, adds another layer of definition to your image. At the same time, having a uniform removes a layer of decision-making from your morning routine. Perhaps that’s partly why for generations, men in positions of power have relied on the same variation of a well-cut, navy or grey suit. There’s something quite precious about having a signature look: it speaks to an intentionality around getting dressed that requires time and attention – two of the ultimate luxuries of the modern world.  

I’ve always aspired to have a uniform, poring over pictures of Diane Keaton as Annie Hall in masculine Ralph Lauren separates and envying peers who built wardrobes around a single designer or trademark piece. Instead, for the majority of my twenties, my own wardrobe was a collection of oddities with no through-line connecting them. In hindsight, I wasn’t ready to pin myself down. My work-life often felt precarious, so I wanted my clothes to act as armour and give me the flexibility I needed to move from one project to the next. That’s one of the powers of clothing, after all – it’s the camouflage an individual needs to gain access to different kinds of context. One morning, I would put on a turtleneck and a smart blazer to meet a new client in a boardroom; another afternoon, I would wear a vintage Laura Ashley dress and trainers to interview an off-duty actor in a neighbourhood café. The single signature style felt like an indulgence that I couldn’t quite afford. 

A signature style is a way of taking stock of the changes that define us: places, jobs, people, decisions made and regretted

Over time, though, I started defining a uniform and turning particular colours, fabrics and silhouettes into staples. To get there, you can start by tracking down multiple iterations of your favourite styles and silhouettes, the moment you find them. I like slightly wide-legged trousers, men’s shirts, tweed or corduroy layers, knit turtlenecks, a little blue denim, a little white linen and always a dark woollen coat in winter. It’s also better to aim for coherence over strict concurrence and dress for your lifestyle. Out of practicality and a love of walking, I wear my colourful Hoka trainers almost every day. 

It’s an ever-evolving process, informed by the places we experience and the people we meet along the way. Last year, I moved home to Dublin, fully aware that the cities we inhabit leave traces on us. It’s not that a city comes with its own dress code but it pushes us to adapt to a new set of circumstances. Until recently, I felt myself to be a Londoner and I dressed for the city’s temperamental nature: its rain and morning fog; its influences, from Savile Row and sportswear alike. I was conscious that my neighbours, my colleagues, strangers on the Tube carriage – most of us had not grown up here. We decided to move here of our own volition; like getting dressed in the morning, it was a choice we had made for ourselves, as a way of determining our own lives.

Dublin, by contrast, is a smaller city – you can walk across it in an hour or two – with long winters that are reminiscent of the Nordics. It’s why here wool is mandatory and a big coat trumps everything. Since making the move, I’ve started wearing colourful vintage scarves to keep warm. I reach for one almost every day and tie it loosely at the throat. Then I go about my day, just the smallest bit more certain of who I am, where I find myself and why. This evolution is a reminder that signature style is a way of taking stock of the changes that defined you: places, jobs, people, decisions made and regretted.

Where to begin to figure out your own style signature? Pinpoint the garments you most enjoy wearing – it might be a blazer with particularly sharp shoulders, a fedora in a specific shade of green or the perfect pair of loafers – and double down. Filling your wardrobe with the items that bring pleasure will shape the impression you leave among acquaintances both new and old.

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The unmistakeables
Major players who defined their own look

1. Miuccia Prada
Embodying Milanese elegance, Prada is always seen in midi skirts and slim-fit cardigans of her own design.

2. Rei Kawakubo
The Comme des Garçons designer carries an air of mystery, partly thanks to her all-black uniform and signature bob. 

3. Steve Jobs
Never without his signature Issey Miyake rollneck sweaters, Jobs understood the power of personal branding from early on. 

4. Fran Lebowitz
The writer is known as much for her sharp wit as her flair for boxy Savile Row blazers and brown cowboy boots. 

5. Tom Ford
Ford applies his sense of precision when dressing himself in a uniform of slim suits and aviator glasses. 

6. Karl Lagerfeld 
A uniform of fingerless gloves, sharp suits and dark sunglasses turned the fashion designer into a pop-culture icon.

Monocle comment: Rethink your shopping habits by taking a step back from the fast fashion cycle and returning to the atelier, where you get to meet the makers, learn about the production process and invest in fully personalised items.

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