The Google definition of utility, in terms of clothing, is: ‘functional rather than attractive.’ Which puts my wardrobe in diametric opposition to SS17’s latest power trend (one with serious oomph). For whilst I’ve always admired Jenna Lyons’ prowess with a sequin skirt and an army shirt, I can’t say I’ve ever had even a lukewarm frisson of desire for the chino. In my lifetime I have owned — and crucially, no longer own — precisely one khaki shirt from Zara.
It’s not that I don’t understand the need for practicality. It is for that reason that I totally dig underwear (the chafing just isn’t worth the breeze of freedom, my friends). But I have never yearned for mid-thigh pockets — to put what, my tools in? — nor felt like my wardrobe would be really enhanced by some sludge duds. Mmmmmmm…. No.
When I heard Sarah Rutson, the (then) Vice President of Buying at Net-a-Porter, tell a crowd of press that for this season, “utility is the new denim,” my heart sunk. Because if it’s going to be everywhere, then as a fearless trend-tester – see: Crocs – I’m going to have to confront it. And how could I ever drop my high-waist Rouge/ MiH/ Frame jeans in exchange for some light cotton twill?
There are several things that me, myself and I do not do well. 1) Sportswear. 2) Rick Owens-type layers — stratums of oversize, clingy jersey just make me look like a ship’s prow. And 3) Utility wear. I don’t do drab very well. I am of the firm belief that you need tumbling, tangled dark hair, jutty hipbones and tanned angular features, like Emmanuelle Alt, to make khaki look sexy. (None of which I possess.) And yet, here I am: con-frun-tiiiiing it.
Before I get dressed, I ring up some fans of the trend to see if they could persuade me. Ellie Pithers, Fashion Features Editor at British Vogue, is all over it. “I am lusting far more for utility-skewed pieces than I ever have a pair of jeans. I’ve just pressed purchase on an Isabel Marant cotton dress that ticks more boxes than a girlish denim counterpart ever could: exposed seams, zips, crunchy-looking material. And I’m looking forward to breaking out some Uniqlo chino-ish trousers as an alternative to jeans, probably with a nice navy sweater in an attempt at hijacking Jackie Kennedy’s summer-on-the-continent style.” The thing is, Pithers is long and lean with a pageboy crop which means she’s biased. Because utility stuff just looks better on her. If I tried to pair some chinos with a navy cable knit, I would look like the short blonde one that got kicked off of The Real Housewives because her style didn’t cut the moutard.
I’m still skeptical (but less so, because I am a massive Marant fan) when I call up another expert, Natalie Kingham, the Buying Director of MATCHESFASHION.COM. It is then that I have a light-bulb moment of sorts: because as you can see from the pieces I ultimately opted for, this season’s utility wear is not utility in the classic sense of the word. Utility, by nature, is absent of decoration. But the MATCHESFASHION.COM buy of, “chinos from Marc Jacobs and Jil Sander; trenches from Preen by Thornton Bregazzi, Balenciaga and Toga; shirting at Palmer Harding and Brock Collection,” is all about the detail. The color may be muted, but the party is still there.
Those brands that Kingham namechecks have taken the utility trend and swayed it from its austere origins; taken it on a tango, if you will. Marant’s jackets have cinched, built-in corset waists; Palmer Harding is known for its extravagantly reworked shirting – see the one I am wearing here; and Rejina Pyo’s khaki coat is more about the ornate mixed bag of buttons than the sedate color. On the high street, Mango is totally leading the charge: see here, here and here.
From hereon, it all becomes much easier. Because I can take the dung-hued palette if I can keep my details (pleats, tucks, buckles; cinchy belts and corsets) and actually, often with something printed, those details can feel too much, anyway. A trench can be a marvellous way to ‘ground’ an otherwise bold look; see what Pyo’s coat does to this acid-yellow Mango dress, or the way this Marant trench levels out uber-statement cocktail earrings by Alessandra Rich. (Sidenote: What you read in my last piece still stands. I am not into stirrup pants. But by the time I donned these, it was too late to, uh, de-stirrup them.)
Conclusion: Would I go for a pair of chinos in lieu of my trusty high-waist denim? No. Would I pair a trench coat or khaki jacket with my jeans? Definitely. In fact, I wonder if this is less about utility and more about re-discovering a hue. (Kim Kardashian must be feeling q. smug about this right now.) To be honest, long as I don’t have to wear a khaki shirt ever again, I’m down.
Formerly the Fashion Features Editor and Wardrobe Mistress columnist at London’s The Sunday Times, Pandora is a freelance journalist, brand consultant, stylist and co-host of news/pop-culture podcast The High Low with Dolly Alderton. Read Pandora’s work at pandorasykes.com or follow her on Instagram @pandorasykes and Twitter @pinsykes. Shot by Frances Davison. Follow her on Instagram @tilfrances.