Aerin Lauder, newly minted founder of her own eponymous brand and Estée Lauder board member, recently revealed her key seasonal purchase: a velvet dress. “I’ll wear it all the time,” she said. And she is far from the first young woman to think so, according to the Victoria and Albert Museum’s new book on its collection of 15th and 16th-century Renaissance velvets (see fabric detail right). “Velvet was only used by those who could afford its expense – and loved by them for being so exclusive to their status,” says Clare Browne, the V&A’s curator of European textiles 1500-1800. This winter, however, velvet is more ubiquitous, and democratic, than ever before.
“There’s a certain richness and colour intensity to velvet that other fabrics don’t have. The deep blue looks darker than anything else,” according to Peter Pilotto and Christopher de Vos, of design label Peter Pilotto who have combined lasered velvet panels with their signature prints.
“Velvet’s softness and femininity always makes women feel so glamorous,” agrees New York designer Jason Wu, who dressed Michelle Williams in a midnight blue devoré gown for her 2012 Golden Globe win as Best Actress for My Week with Marilyn. Indeed, as awards season kicks off, velvet is set to be a red- carpet staple.
Laura Larbalestier, buying director at Browns, says: “Velvet is more modern than sequins for a party and more sophisticated.”
Case in point: Bottega Veneta’s black velvet evening gown with a peplum embroidered with exquisite organza petals (£15,300). Then there’s Etro’s understated semi-sheer devoré dress with its plunging back; the elegant ivory and pale gold velvet and silk gown with cutaway top by Esteban Cortazar, previously chief creative officer at Emanuel Ungaro (£1,100); and Pucci’s velvet Crocodile appliqué on silk (from £3,010).
“The velvet replaced classical embroideries, as I wanted a more sober take on the embroidery,” says Peter Dundas, creative director at Pucci. “Using velvet appliqué instead of embroideries gave richness without the flash.”
“We have cut out our velvets, so you see a lot of skin,” note Pilotto and de Vos. “This makes the fabric look lighter and gives it balance. A full dress is heavy and old fashioned.”
According to Dennis Nothdruft, curator at the Fashion and Textile Museum, “Designers are mixing things up nowadays. Frida Giannini at Gucci has made velvet sexy with her [emerald green] stamped velvet [floor-skimming] dress slashed to the waist. The stamped velvet is something you’d expect to see in a Renaissance portrait, as the very elaborate fabric shows wealth and status, but Giannini has taken out the grandeur.”
For Sarah Curran, founder of My-wardrobe.com, “It’s the contemporary shapes that makes velvet work this season – such as the short A-line skirt and square neckline on Lanvin’s black velvet dress, as well as puff balls such as Carven’s red velvet cap-sleeve dress.”
Velvet’s appeal is not limited to party gowns. Isabel Marant’s blue silk trousers are given a new twist with a blue-tone, pink and white-flecked velvet ikat print (£525), while Junya Watanabe has used quilted velvet instead of leather for his tough biker style gilets (£1,015) and jackets (£1,310).
Stella McCartney has combined black velvet with off-white super silky stretch-cady textures for her chic jumpsuit (£2,285), and J Brand offers velvet brocade flocking skinny jeans in red, dark blue and gold (from £290).
“There is even a lot of velvet mixed within garments, such as a velvet border, peplum or collar, which gives a piece a lusher, more premium feel,” says Emma Wisden, fashion director at Topshop, referencing the brand’s sheer black blouse with floral embroidery and velvet collar and cuffs (£45) and Nina Ricci’s silk razmir dress with velvet shoulder straps, neckline and woven ribbons (£2,390).
The result, says Jason Wu, gives the impression of a woman who is “strong, glamorous, fearless – and just a little dangerous”.
‘Renaissance Velvets’, by Lisa Monnas, V&A Publishing, RRP£35