What do Stephen Hawking, Oscar Wilde and Mick Jagger have in common? It may surprise you, writes Heath Brown.
Consider a recently leaked photo from the set of the forthcoming film, The Theory of Everything, which stars Eddie Redmayne as Hawking. There he is, the famous physicist as a young man, riding his bicycle through Cambridge – resplendent in a dapper ribbon-trimmed blue velvet blazer. Yes, velvet. It turns out the fabric so beloved of the Belle Époque is not just for aesthetes and rock stars but any man who wants a touch of plush.
Gordon Richardson, creative director of Topman, explains the fabric’s appeal: “Velvet is one of those perennial classics that are faintly nostalgic, reminiscent of simpler, noble times,” he says. “And it is particularly good at taking on colour due to its sumptuous depth of pile.”
As well as its deep rich appearance, the tactile nature of the fabric makes it feel seductive to wear. “There is an overriding sex appeal to velvet,” says Tony Glenville, creative director at London College of Fashion. “It can be quite cosy when worn in the daytime, but can also have a James Bond macho swagger if worn with attitude at night. It’s not so much a trend as a versatile staple. I’d recommend a velvet jacket as an essential part of every man’s wardrobe.” Increasingly, many men seem to agree.
“Velvet has definitely undergone something of a renaissance in recent years, and shed its dandy connotations,” says Richard Froomberg, owner of London menswear store, Grey Flannel.
Indeed there are velvet pieces to suit all men, be it a skinny velvet tie (Topman, £14), a bow tie (Lanvin, £80), a two-button tailored blazer (Jigsaw, £175), a slim purple velvet blazer (Burberry London, £595) or a richly embroidered tuxedo jacket (Dolce & Gabbana, £4,620)
Traditionally velvet has been reserved for evening, but it is, in fact, smart enough for most workplaces if worn in dark, rich, office-friendly tones.
“It’s the one thing you can wear all day, then all night,” says Savile Row tailor Richard James. “You can don a dark-coloured velvet jacket with white shirt, black trousers and black bow tie, and look fantastic. Next morning you can wear that same jacket with an open-necked shirt and jeans and look equally good.”
Another Savile Row insider, Craig Reynolds, chief executive of tailor Kent & Curwen, agrees. “Velvet is especially modern when paired with a pair of jeans or grey flannel trousers,” he says. “Your look should have a good contrast between the formal and the casual for it to work.”
But when choosing a velvet dinner jacket, matching it with a velvet trouser is not the way to go,” says Philip Green, a customer with e-tailer Farfetch. “A pair of classic black trousers is a much better option.”
And this is a warning to heed: a full velvet suit is a difficult act to pull off, sartorially. “To get away with it,” says Glenville, “you either have to be very young and eccentric or an ageing rock star.”
Right now, London girls are Christmas shopping in Topshop’s velvet leggings, Dr Martens boots and chubby fake-fur jackets, writes Julia Robson. In New York, you are likely to find Ralph Lauren’s purple velvet harem pants being worn exactly as they were on the catwalk: with a cashmere sweater under a Cossack jacket. In Tokyo’s fashion district, Harajuku, pink-haired girls are teaming velvet dolly dresses with glitter pumps by Simone Rocha. And those are just a few examples of velvet’s global domination. This season Net-a-Porter has shipped velvet pieces to customers in 75 countries. Items range from an Alexander McQueen bell-sleeved top (£1,295) to an Emilio Pucci onesie and Charlotte Olympia’s velvet Kitty pumps (£465).
“Velvet has got its cool back,” states Laura Larbalestier, buying director at London boutique Browns. David Wolfe, creative director at New York-based trend forecaster the Doneger Group, explains why: “In a time of wealth-worship, velvet is a no-brainer,” he says. “Wannabes love it because it feels regal. The cool set likes how it can look worn out, implying old-money luxury.”
Sure signs of a velvet comeback began on the autumn/winter catwalks. At the Christopher Kane show, a midnight blue velvet shift (£1,300) with peekaboo panels swept past. Next came L’Wren Scott’s pencil skirts in black embellished velvet (£745), Givenchy’s velvet skirts (£705) with velvet biker jackets (£2,765), and Saint Laurent’s girlish velvet minidresses (£1,185). Alberta Ferretti sent out an austere column dress (£1,725), Marios Schwab went Medieval with an off-the-shoulder long gown (£2,403) and Valentino showed a long black Pre-Raphaelite dress with swirling flora and fauna embroidery (£10,200).
The historical references were no accident: as Jenny Lister, curator of fashion and textiles at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, notes, velvet has a long association with wealth, power, monarchy and the Church. “The first time we see velvet used in garments other than church awnings and robes are in portraits of Henry VIII,” she says. “It fell out of favour following the French Revolution only to make a comeback during the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century and again in the 1960s with Biba.”
“I just knew when I saw the toiles of the dresses that they had to be in velvet,” says Christopher Kane. “The richness of pile, and the drape you get with it was perfect.”
In fact, Kane has used velvet in five of his 15 collections and each time in a new way. “I’ve used stiff velvet, stretch velvet, velvet adorned in Swarovski crystal, bonded velvet and flock velvet,” he says. “This time I just wanted this feel of clothes falling from the body, half-dressed in a sense, exposing a neck, shoulder, thigh.”
“I don’t think velvet is a trend that comes and goes,” he adds. “It is always in the background. Maybe it was my grandmother’s smocked velvet cushions that got me on to it. Whatever the reason, whenever I have it in my collections it sells. Always.”