After Michelle Obama sported a black cardigan atop her Michael Kors frock on election night, Alexandra Shulman, British Vogue’s editor-in-chief, took to Twitter to herald the ascension of a new star in the female wardrobe: the “power cardie”.
“A cardigan is comfortable and lightweight compared to a jacket,” explained Shulman, who has made vibrant cardigans a mainstay of her own professional wardrobe. The softness of wool “allows a woman in a high-profile position to appear identifiable”, she added, unlike a jacket, which can suggest an “alienating” image, or a woolly jumper, which “is hard to make look ‘executive’”.
Womenswear designers have taken the lead with the cardigan, integrating striking design details that lend the age-old piece – given its first high-fashion flourish by Coco Chanel nearly a century ago when the designer filched an elongated sweater from her boyfriend, the Duke of Westminster – dynamism and sparkle. Designer L’Wren Scott, for example, injected an opulent versatility to the look by introducing a cardigan featuring sequin-embellished front panels back in 2006 – and it remains a permanent part of her collection thanks to demand (£1,125). Scott’s pieces are collected by her clients, including the First Lady, and have inspired a host of similar models.
“I was always embellishing my cardigans, even when I was a kid,” she says. “The cardigan works with everything. If I’m exhausted, I just pull out my cardigan and it gives me an immediate lift: the colour brightens up my entire look.”
Karen Millen and other mainstream brands carry sequin cardigans (£125) for the party season, and Roksanda Ilincic offers a tangerine silk Lycra version edged in grey jersey (£530) for spring/summer 2013. Devoid of buttons, zips concealed at the wrist gather its sleeves to fall as elegant blouson cuffs.
Like Chanel, who wore her cardigans with long strands of pearls, however, Vogue’s Shulman stresses that with today’s power cardie “you need a jewel”. The addition of any sort of bauble will lift a cardigan and give it a contemporary edge, she says.
Even menswear designers have taken note of today’s power cardies. It began with Daniel Craig in Quantum of Solace sporting a black shawl-collar Tom Ford model aboard a motor yacht, along with Ford’s rose gold, chocolate leather-tipped aviator sunglasses. The sunglasses lent a relaxed sex appeal to Bond’s buttoned-up sweater, transforming it from fusty to cool. Now Sibling, the influential avant-garde London knitwear label operated by a trio of fashion consultants to edgy British brands such as Giles, has sustained the trend with outré men’s cardigans featuring patterns once strictly reserved for women, such as its leopard print design (£180).
“We like to punk it up a bit with colour and pattern,” says Sibling’s co-director Cozette McCreery. “We knit very traditional Fair Isle sweaters, but warp them by adding skulls, monsters and even putting strong, bright pattern against leopard or stripes. In this way, we hope to give even the most old-fashioned garments youth and vigour.”