The expert’s guide to clothes that quietly ‘wow’

·7 min read
It’s all about looks that make heads turn in admiration rather than shock
It’s all about looks that make heads turn in admiration rather than shock

Have we reached peak dressing-up yet? This summer seems to be a pile-up of weddings, parties, proms, weekends away and job interviews, with all the concomitant sartorial pressures. On the one hand: a lot of chit-chat about comfort and flexi dressing. On the other: the insane expectations of hosts (and some guests) who’ve spent too much time watching Bridgerton and want all their guests’ outfits to match their napkins.

TheCut.com, a New York-based style website, recently reported on a couple who were so concerned in case their friends misinterpreted their bucolic wedding venue (in a Brooklyn park) and turned up barefoot in – God forbid – peasant dresses, that they created a Pinterest board for their guests. Included were shots of Liza Minnelli in a purple silk jumpsuit, Bianca Jagger in a lamé halter-top dress and David Bowie in chest-baring velvet. Absolutely no pressure there then.

Don’t assume that level of control freakery is confined to the other side of the pond. I’ve heard of nuptials in the UK that required guests to dress according to a specific section of the Pantone chart.

This will calm down. Most trends correct themselves eventually. The thing is not to be that person who’s left with a mound of redundant over-the-top froth that has almost nothing in common with their normal style. Put another way, the next time you find yourself shopping for a big occasion, make sure you end up with something that’s not just special but feels compatible with your existing wardrobe and that you can wear to more than one kind of event. It’s these clothes that deliver what Ian Griffiths, design director at Max Mara, calls “the quiet wow under the breath”.

Griffiths has successfully piloted Max Mara, the leading light of stealth-wealth camel coats, timeless tailoring and softly-softly colours for 26 years.

As you might expect, he’s quite the dab hand at designing clothes that make heads turn in admiration rather than shock. His shows are refreshingly full of clothes that are familiar to many women – but more luxurious.

The latest one, which took place in the lush gardens of the sleekly modernist 1969 Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, struck the perfect balance of dress-up and understatement. Like the setting, there was trad and there was modern – the modernity coming from the way classics were tweaked. Since it can be as chilly on a June night in Lisbon as it is in London – and often a lot breezier – this is about pragmatic dress-up that can be layered.

Models on the runway during the Max Mara Opening Resort 2023 fashion show - Carlos Rodrigues/Getty Images
Models on the runway during the Max Mara Opening Resort 2023 fashion show - Carlos Rodrigues/Getty Images

Think waist-defining, pleat-front wide-legged trousers that work for the office or at night; soft jackets that can be worn cinched in or undone, pussy-bow taffeta blouses, block heels and ruched midi skirts (the new skirt style that’s becoming a big trend).

They are coordinated with fitted jumpers, and the waistbands can sit higher or lower, depending on how slouchy you like them, and whether or not you want to reveal any skin.

Some of this is in black. But a lot is in cream, a colour that used to sound the laundry knell of doom but which, because it’s often more flattering on older skins than dark colours, is rapidly becoming a modern evening classic. In machine-washable fabrics it’s even quite practical.

The perfectly pitched, all-purpose, elegance-meets-refined-comfort wardrobe isn’t exclusively monochrome.

Griffiths may be the “chief of camel” but he knows how to drip feed in colour. “Start with one piece – a dress, a blouse or a jacket. It might be all you need,” he says. Muted shades such as bottle green, rust, midnight blue and aubergine always look sophisticated, as do splashes of red or orange.

Max Mara specialises in luxe fabrics that come with their own sheen or lustre. There’s another lesson for our next shopping expedition – good fabrics cost more but they can glide upscale or down and, if the design won’t date for a decade, in the end they’re value for money. “I also like the idea of putting something on and then not having to think about it,” says Griffiths.

Those belted wrap coats that slide effortlessly over the shoulders and drape over a strapless ivory jumpsuit look as glamorous as they are warm because they’re in the best cashmere, alpaca or camel hair. You don’t need a designated “evening” coat when your day coat looks as good over a party dress as it does with jeans.

It’s a similar story for trouser suits – which wouldn’t look out of place in the office with a T-shirt or a satin scarf neck blouse and are also good for a black-tie event.

Maybe it’s because Griffiths says he dreads looking overdressed that his evening wear manages to be effortless and low-key while delivering no-drama drama. He likes a statement, but a subtle rather than shouty one. This collection was inspired by Amália Rodrigues (a famous singer of fado, Portugal’s soulful genre of torch song) and Natalia Correia (the Portuguese poet, revolutionary and devout wearer of scarlet lipstick). To combine intellect and courage with style has to be a good goal for any wardrobe.

Asked what he perceived to be the difference between Spain and Portugal, Griffiths responded: “Spain is like a firework. Portugal’s more like the glowing ember.” That’s a good metaphor to adopt for one’s style too.

Other take-outs from this collection include loose silhouettes, sunray pleats, fishnet tights (a prime provider of drama but also a little bit of warmth) and utilitarian staples (shirt dresses, trench dresses and tunics) reworked in evening fabrics.

There’s a certain kind of celebrity – Katie Holmes, Elizabeth Debicki, Rose Byrne, Amy Adams and particularly Claire Danes – who look their best and most at ease in the quiet wow. They’ve all been associated with Max Mara; Danes was watching the show in Lisbon in a pinstripe trouser suit.

“Elegance can’t exist if you’re constantly worrying about showing too much skin, or something feels tight or you’re having to constantly adjust something,” says Griffiths. “I’m really not interested in designing clothes that make women feel they’re the wrong shape, age or type. I love something you can throw on and forget about.”

Six celebrity looks that are pitch perfect

Claire Danes

Claire Danes
Claire Danes

If the silhouette is sharp, a trouser suit can be in a casual fabric (here it’s linen) and still pack a punch at night. Wide legs create a flowy, dressed-up look (especially with platforms or a flatform) that’s the feminine side of androgynous. Day-to-night versatility makes any investment work hard.

Elizabeth Debicki

 Elizabeth Debicki - GUINDANI STEFANO SGP
Elizabeth Debicki - GUINDANI STEFANO SGP

Demonstrating the glories of satin crepe. This fabric looks liquid but has weight and substance and doesn’t require any other clutter. Superficially discreet, this is the epitome of stealth wow.

Ashley Park

Ashley Park
Ashley Park

The white trouser suit is this year’s little black dress – a heavy hitter that looks effortless, and can be pitched at infinitely different decibels. High street-wise, check out Reiss’s excellent white tailoring.

Renee Zellweger

Renee Zellweger - MediaPunch/Bauer-Griffin
Renee Zellweger - MediaPunch/Bauer-Griffin

Punchy and canny use of colour – below the waist where it’s easier to get away with a bright shade. Matching shoes lengthen the line (important with cropped trousers). A navy V-neck jumper and blanket coat also elongate. Result: playful but sophisticated.

Claire Danes (again)

Claire Danes
Claire Danes

It’s peachy. It’s taffeta. It has puffed sleeves and a low neckline. Yet this has a simplicity that holds the eye. It’s the pull of colour and the fact that she looks so at ease. Nothing tortured or fussy here, no cleavage to keep an eye on. Just a perfect fit.

Olivia Palermo

Olivia Palermo - Daniele Venturelli/Daniele Venturelli /Getty Images for Max Mara
Olivia Palermo - Daniele Venturelli/Daniele Venturelli /Getty Images for Max Mara

A tried-and-tested formula for understated daytime impact: one colour, head to shin, contrasting shoes and a flattering fit and flare silhouette. Pleats add softness to a luxe utilitarian vibe.