When Russian entrepreneur Dasha Zhukova appeared at Stella McCartney’s Paris show last month in a barely-there miniskirt dwarfed by a chunky alpaca-blend knit, it was so casually cool it put the must-have capes and complicated coats to fashion victim shame. And outside, fashion insiders arriving at the shows were making the jumper the undoubted editorial street-style star. Most photographed were Balenciaga’s futuristic sweaters while Céline’s striped leather, wool and fur mix was most ogled. Welcome to the season of luxe knits, where price is no object and size is not an issue.
“Customers are now realising that the staple sweater can be utilised to create a statement in their daily outfits,” says Justin O’Shea, buying director at Mytheresa.com, which sold out of both the £1,250 Jil Sander “J” sweater, and Marc Jacobs’ £1,730 embellished cardigan in just one week. “Modern novelty knits and embellished styles are actually replacing coats and jackets for daytime and occasion dressing.”
Outerwear has always been considered an investment piece in winter, with many women expecting to spend thousands on a new coat; what’s new is the idea that knitwear is an acceptable alternative.
The trend started with a Chloé jumper on the autumn/winter 2012 catwalk. Chunky, multicoloured and a patchwork of contrasting knits, it was a modern alternative to a coat – and at £3,335, the same price. Next came Paco Rabanne’s jersey with chain mail (£825), Bottega Veneta’s cropped cardigan with velvet panels (about £900), Valentino’s cable knit infused with black beads (£2,675), Fendi’s loose weave finished with fur-trimmed short sleeves (£1,420) and Marc Jacobs’ hand-crocheted sweaters in pop colours (£1,800).
Paris fabric fair Première Vision even included a knitwear section this year, saying that “knitwear represents 20 to 40 per cent of ready-to-wear brands’ product offer”.
Designer Joseph Altuzarra has a sell-out in his Senegal fringed wool and cashmere diamond knit (£1,215). “This year we’ve seen a much higher demand for our special knitwear pieces,” he says. “Women see sweaters more and more as an investment.”
New York-based brand strategist Anita Borzyszkowska, a self-confessed luxe jumper addict, says: “I have always considered big knits outerwear. I have a Belstaff sweater with fringing on the sleeves; it doesn’t make sense to cover it up, and it is more than enough on its own.”
This season she has also invested in pieces by Céline, Nina Ricci, Sacai and Givenchy, although she is too embarrassed to admit exactly how much she is prepared to spend. “There’s a functionality but also a polish to finishing a look with a statement sweater – plus you tend to keep them on throughout the day, through meetings and so on, unlike coats,” she says. “For me, they are more practical.”
Indeed, Christopher Kane’s cable knit polo neck (£1,985) is not only flattering but is practical because it has room for cold weather layers underneath. Additionally, while the difference in length between coats and skirts is a perennial issue, all hemlines work with a jumper.
However, as with jackets and coats, the more you can spend on sweaters the better, as there is nothing worse than an irritating itch. In a knit opt for cashmere or at least a cashmere blend, while in an embellished or embroidered style a lining is worth every penny.
“Each season we see new design, silhouette and embroidery developments that reinvent this basic product group,” says Mytheresa’s O’Shea. “It’s important to continue to test the boundaries. The high prices haven’t deterred anyone yet.”
Kay Barron is fashion features director at Harper’s Bazaar
“There are now yarns which have metal woven in them, so they naturally scrunch and coil, creating 3D pieces. Students today are really innovative with new materials, creating designs using traditional techniques on machines but with new fibres. They are a far cry from the classic twinset. The fashion at the moment is for what the students call ‘eyelash yarn’, which creates a huge pile and resembles lots of eyelashes clumped together.
“You can make special effects with any yarn, and manufacturers who produce beautiful fibres increasingly offer innovations. They will mix cashmere with another material, so the cashmere is next to the skin and the rougher yarn is on the outside, or Lycra is put next to the skin to pull it in, with cashmere on the outside to give it a luxurious look.
“There are new yarns which have anti-bacterial properties woven into them for people convalescing from trauma, and also huge innovations in sustainable threads using banana leaves and paper. Paper yarn looks almost like fine raffia but it knits like a squashed, flat cotton, and looks good. I think these new fibres could catch on. On the high street the shops often have an organic range; they are getting used increasingly, and they’re cheap.”
Sarah Gresty, tutor in knitwear at Central Saint Martins college in London