Six months ago, our survey showed that fashion wasn’t giving our female readers what they wanted—especially in the triceps area. To find the answers, Isabel Lloyd takes the Style desk shopping

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2013


“Don’t you have anything with sleeves on?” On a warm evening in early summer, on the ground floor of a large department store in central London, a young woman was pleading with one of the assistants in the All Saints concession. After an abrupt improvement in the weather the place was humming with post-work workers, all on the same sudden mission to find something to wear now the sun had finally come out. At the entrance to the changing rooms, the queue of women waiting for free cubicles snaked round piles of discards, a crumpled cornucopia of dresses in garden-party pinks and acid yellows, posh-utility separates in grey chiffon and navy silk, drapey tops and drainpipe jeans. The assistants were doing their best, but their smiles were fraying. And despite their help and the choice on offer, could this poor girl—not model-skinny, not fat, just average size with average hang-ups about her body—find an attractive top that wouldn’t be too hot but covered the tops of her arms? Could she heck.

The style survey we ran in the March/April issue of Intelligent Life shows she isn’t alone. We asked 40 women of different ages, backgrounds, sizes and nationalities what they really felt about fashion. Where were the holes in modern clothes? Their answers were clear. They wanted more clothes that were well made and that would last, not flop after a few washes, drop their buttons or come apart at the seams. They wanted brands that didn’t constantly churn their stock and shift their styles, but that had a consistent identity they could rely on season after season. They wanted clothes that showed some regard for the well-being of the planet and for the people employed to make them. And they wanted more sleeves. Lots more sleeves. Men might think it’s the size of our bums that women are obsessed by, but what really makes us wince when we look in the mirror is that faint wobble of blancmange just south of the triceps.

Cover it up, and we breathe a whole lot easier. Yet many designers seem unable or unwilling to help. After the department-store girl wandered off muttering “I only wanted one top…”, I did a sleeve-count of the racks of different brands. Among them were teen-pleasers like Topshop and Miss Selfridge, but also more grown-up labels such as Michael by Michael Kors and Ted Baker—and still a good 85% of the dresses and tops on offer had no sleeves. If you wanted a tad more coverage, you had to buy a jacket or cardigan as well. Maybe that was the idea.

Common sense says it can’t all be weeds in fashion’s garden. There must be some people making clothes the women we surveyed would approve of. So here at the Style desk we set ourselves the task of tracking down brands that meet at least some of the following criteria: they sell well-made clothes in a way that is sustainable and/or ethical, rather than swinging wildly between the points of fashion’s compass, they pick a direction and stick to it, they produce no more than two collections a year, and they design plenty of pieces which don’t need special bras, knickers or slips before you can decently leave the house in them. To keep things desirable, we also gave each brand marks out of ten for stylishness. Though in the same genus as fashion, style is a subtly different beast and hard to track down: what we looked for were clothes that were sharp, not stuffy. And that, preferably, had sleeves.

What follows here is the best of the labels and designs that we found. Most we turned up by grilling stylists, checking out the goods at press days, and nosing around in shops – we were those odd people peering at stitching and tugging at hems—while a few came from our own wardrobe back-stories. There are few big names, though. With some, it was slavishness to fashion that ruled them out, and the bewildering speed with which they change stock: Topshop states with some pride that it ships 300 new styles to its Hong Kong flagship every week. Slower high-street brands such as Reiss, Whistles, COS or J Crew might change their stock less vigorously, bringing about 300-400 new pieces in-store over the course of a three-month season, but they failed to distinguish themselves with particularly high quality. J Crew’s famous cashmere-in-every-colour has a tendency to bobble. I’ve had the cuff buttons break on a £150 Whistles shirt on its first day out, and all I was doing was typing.

Despite our best efforts, we couldn’t find one brand that ticked every box and got a high style score—many of the most eco-conscious brands, for instance, still sell clothes that make you look worthy rather than wonderful, and if they do get it right in style terms, they then fall down on quality or the sleeve issue. But while no one individual brand or item scored in every category, everything here scores in at least two, and some do considerably better. Who did the best? I’ll save that bit of good news for last.

Top Yellow Shakespeare silk-print dress, £953, by Georgia Hardinge; 18ct white gold and Gemfields ethically sourced emerald “Sabre” earrings, £20,100, by Shaun Leane at Couture Lab

Above Dark denim Jesse Stretch jeans, $225, by Imogene + Willie; drop tourmaline and 18ct granulated gold ring, £2,600, by Milly Swire at Wolf & Badger