Listen to this article
The promise of holidays, of azure waters and dining al fresco can exert a powerful pull on our sense of style. With clean-cut minimalists transforming themselves into bohemians jangling with bells and shells and Birkin-carrying executives embracing frayed denim shorts and knapsacks, this sartorial transition from serious professional to free spirit for two weeks can be tricky. This season, however, new versions of the kaftan have made it a panacea for (most) holiday fashion dilemmas.
This tunic-like garment, which appears under different names and guises everywhere from Africa to the Middle East to southeast Asia in silk, cotton and cashmere, is being reinvented with a fervour not witnessed since the 1970s. But, if you have in mind an image of Talitha Getty in Marrakech, or perhaps the gilded society ladies of Slim Aarons’ photography, kaftans frequently fall short of that ideal. Their fluidity and relative lack of shape can be unflattering. So how do you find the perfect one?
The growing popularity of lifestyle wear has fostered a micro-boom in the kaftan business. Sarah O’Keefe, founder of boutique The Cross in Notting Hill, London, set up myhibi.com, an online retailer of travelwear. “When it comes to kaftans I can hold court, having lived the past four years sporadically in Goa and in Tarifa, Andalucía, which looks across the Med to Tangiers,” she says. “First and foremost the feel of cotton or silk on my skin is paramount before prints and embellishment. I can’t stand cheap tacky textiles after a day spent in the sun, no matter how incredible the print is. If it is patterned, it has to be flattering. The majority of my customers are in their late thirties to fifties and I’m here to help them feel good.” Her kaftans include a Hibiscus cotton style (£46, sale price £28) and a lace-edged square-neck design (£210, sale price £120).
Sukeena Rao, a personal shopper, has been equipping her clients with kaftans found in mainstream collections such as Isabel Marant’s Etoile line and The Row. “Think of it as a wardrobe extension rather than basic beachwear, and choose timeless prints to wear over plain bikinis,” says Rao. “A kaftan is a great way to look like you’re wearing a designer label even if the bikini is not. They dress up for evenings easily with heels, bangles and earrings. This season the fringed hippy bed jacket is also a hit and a beautiful one can be worn with jeans back in the city.”
The rise in kaftan connoisseurship is, perhaps unsurprisingly, an international trend. Tel Aviv-born Valérie Messika, who is behind the eponymous diamond jewellery line, wears Saint Laurent’s classic style in leopard print, belted with a diamond ribbon necklace and accompanied with glamorous hair and make-up. New York-based creative consultant Amanda Ross favours knee-length embroidered versions that tie under the bust by Figue and Irving & Fine (at Moda Operandi), which she wears “in Mexico, the south of France, Capri and in my own backyard”.
While living in the intense heat of Texas, stylist Pippa Holt became so enthralled with kaftans that she took to wearing them both during the day and as eveningwear. “I’d cinch them in at the waist with a studded Hermès belt or traditional woven straps from Guatemala and wear them with Valentino lace or Chanel espadrilles. People would stop me to ask me where the kaftans were from, so I started to make my own,” she says. Holt’s first collection will launch early next year under the label Ulysses, and features Mexican hand-loomed styles with fluorescent stripes or embroidery.
Part of the joy of finding a kaftan can be discovering them up on your travels. Fashion entrepreneur Carmen Haid shops for silk kaftans at the Rose boutique in Santa Gertrudis, Ibiza, and invests in bejewelled versions from Qatar-based brand Toujouri.
Even with a simple shape, the fit is everything – kaftans are frequently too long or too wide, with unflattering neck and sleeve lines. All those issues were on fashion editor Kim Hersov’s mind when she hit upon the idea to create a lifestyle collection after seeing the artisanal embroidery work of New Delhi-based designer Shon Randhawa.
The pair formed a business partnership and worked with craftsmen in New Delhi to develop Talitha, a travelwear collection. Now available at Net-a-Porter, Matches and Harrods, the line includes fringed kimono-robe shapes (£1,349) and hand-blocked star- print silk kaftans with pom-pom trims (£675). Some side-slit styles (£345) have detachable panels that allow them to be worn over a bikini (without flashing too much thigh) or jeans. “The challenge was to steer away from too literal interpretations or overly ethnic looks – the idea is that you will want to wear these pieces on holiday and in the city,” says Hersov. The cover-up repertoire extends to suede jackets (£783, sale price £470) and capes (£824, sale price £494) for colder climes.
If you’re planning to join the kaftan connoisseurs, there is one more tip to remember. When choosing your style, consider the context. Is there a teak deck and Aegean blue in the background? A tropical jungle paradise? Windswept Montauk sand dunes or an urban skyline? Match your kaftan with the scene and your Instagram moment is made.
Photographs: Catwalking; Getty
Stockists in this article and this week’s other Style articles
Get alerts on Style when a new story is published