From The Straits Times    |

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As is sometimes the case in fashion, the nomenclature can be misleading. American sportswear doesn’t actually refer to athleticwear, but clothes that emphasise ease and freedom of movement. Its beginnings can be traced back to the postwar years, when American women in a rapidly modernising world started seeking both form and function from their clothes. Unlike the French couture of the time, these were clothes meant to be worn not in gilded salons, but out on the streets. Since then, American sportswear has been a style mainstay, not just in American fashion, but in a much wider context.

Hermès fall/winter 2023
Hermès fall/winter 2023. Photo: Hermès

Its popularity ebbs and flows depending on the cultural climate, often making a comeback when the culture starts rejecting excess in favour of restraint. Sometimes, it conflates with other movements. Today, much of the fashion conversation revolves around quiet luxury. When Phoebe Philo debuted her elegantly pared-back Celine collection in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008, it was called stealth wealth. Whatever the name, the core value is the same—these are clothes not meant to be fussy or flashy, but chic and functional. 

Prada fall/winter 2023
Prada fall/winter 2023. Photo: Prada

The invention of American sportswear is often credited to Claire McCardell, who hit her stride in the ‘40s. Unlike her counterparts in French couture who were thinking of wasp waists and bustling skirts, McCardell had more practical concerns, creating dresses with zippers and spacious pockets. In a book she published in 1956, titled What Shall I Wear? The What, Where, When, and How Much of Fashion, McCardell wrote, “Most of my ideas come from trying to solve my own problems. I like to be able to zip my own zippers, hook my own eyelets. I need a dress that I can cook dinner in, and then come out to meet the guests.”

Tory Burch fall/winter 2023
Tory Burch fall/winter 2023. Photo: Tory Burch

That book is back in print, with a new foreword by Tory Burch, McCardell’s spiritual heir. “I think a lot of ideas globally came from American fashion. Claire McCardell was the beginning of sportswear and her impact wasn’t just on American fashion—she had Paris couture looking at what she was doing, because she took ideas from men’s workwear and applied them to a dress,” says Burch. 

Gabriela Hearst fall/winter 2023
Gabriela Hearst fall/winter 2023. Photo: Gabriela Hearst

Bonnie Cashin was another influential designer of that period. Her most famous garment was perhaps her dog-leash skirt, a long skirt that can be shortened with a ring-and-clasp mechanism so that a woman might easily walk up and down the stairs while holding a martini glass. Since then, a whole host of American designers have carried on that tradition of melding style with practicality. There was Halston, who made glamorous numbers in ultra-easy jersey; Donna Karan, whose 7 Easy Pieces changed the game for women entering the corporate workforce; Michael Kors, who built a billion-dollar brand on the back of his sexy, Seventies-inflected sportswear; Calvin Klein, who burst the bubble of Eighties excess with his cool modernity.

Michael Kors Collection fall/winter 2023
Michael Kors Collection fall/winter 2023. Photo: Michael Kors

Former Calvin Klein publicist, the late Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy was perhaps the poster girl for the Nineties reincarnation of American sportswear in her uniform of slim skirts, white shirts, elegant sheaths and cashmere knits. Today, it is Gwyneth Paltrow who elicits the same kind of fawning—see the reaction to her courtroom style earlier this year; she sent the Internet into a tizzy with her parade of understated but undeniably expensive outfits of button-downs, polo knits, pleated skirts, luxurious coats, and sensible shoes. 

Gwyneth Paltrow in Prada
Gwyneth Paltrow in Prada. Photo: Prada

Some of the designers Paltrow wore during the trial, such as The Row and Proenza Schouler, represent a new guard who are reiterating the relevance of American sportswear, while nudging it in new directions. The Row, especially, has continued where Phoebe Philo left off. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen make clothes that are obviously luxurious, but in a way that is intimate to the wearer, rather than through the kind of ostentation that telegraphs its price tag to the world. Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler started out making cool clothes for their cool downtown friends, but as the designers and their friends grow up, so too have the clothes. They’ve sanded down some of their more subversive edges, dialled up the sophistication, but maintained the effortlessness. 

Katie Holmes in Khaite
Katie Holmes in Khaite.

But the brand that is currently on the lips (and in the wardrobes) of all the girls in the know is Khaite, designed by Catherine Holstein. Holstein makes grown-up clothes that are luxurious and functional with just the right amount of edge. Katie Holmes in that cashmere Khaite bra and cardigan set looks like the very picture of modern American sportswear. And then there are the designers who are not American, though the pragmatism that runs through their recent work very much reflects an American sportswear sensibility. 

The Row pre-fall 2023
The Row pre-fall 2023.

At Prada, Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons spoke extensively of creating clothes with care and an eye towards usefulness. After seasons of fantastical, surrealist outings, Jonathan Anderson has pivoted towards a more pared-back, quietly luxurious vision at LOEWE. At Hermès, Nadege Vanhee– Cybulski tempers sensuality with an earthy sense of utility. As Prada and Simons said of their fall/winter 2023 collection, “Beauty here is determined not by aesthetic, but by action—garments are representations of the beauty of care, of love, of reality. Through a redress of purpose, significance is afforded to clothing that expresses these fundamental values.” 

LOEWE fall/winter 2023
LOEWE fall/winter 2023. Photo: LOEWE

These values have always been at the heart of the best of American sportswear; what a great moment that the rest of the fashion world is rediscovering it—yet again. 

This article was originally published in Harper’s Bazaar Singapore.