Timeless Fashion

What Is The True Meaning of Timeless Fashion?

'Timelessness': it is a term ubiquitous in fashion, representing the iconic silhouettes of historically popular designs. But what makes a piece timeless? Contributing NJAL editor Lavinia Ban draws on a wealth of perspectives from the fashion world to explore the omnipresent concept...

When it comes to fashion, everybody loves talking about those classic, timeless, and essential pieces. They fit everyone well, they are comfortable and safe, and perhaps make good investments. Of course, it is good to know how to build a nice wardrobe, how to wear our garments; but beyond this, 'timelessness' in terms of fashion design is also a fascinating phenomenon which deserves to be discussed in greater depth.

There is something tricky about the idea of timelessness. Being by definition a realm of constant transition, fashion is very much about change – a context in which talking about timelessness may sound paradoxical. The contradictory fact that timeless styles exist in fashion, while simultaneously sitting outside of rigid trends, just makes the topic seem more intriguing.

Costume designer and fashion journalist Filep Motwary claims that being timeless has nothing to do with fashion; "Timeless is anything with a strong appeal of its own, a strong voice that breaks through the years passing or even centuries.” Richard Sorger, fashion designer and senior lecturer at Middlesex University, notes that timeless pieces “exist outside our notions of what is ‘fashion’”. In his opinion, these are quite neutral items, “so ubiquitous as to become invisible.”

On the other hand, Dr. Celia Stall-Meadows – marketing specialist and author of Fashion Now: A Global Perspective, observes the lack of accuracy in the phrase, stating that “Year after year, if customers wear a particular style, like a blazer, trench coat, or a plaid pattern, the fashion life cycle of the style may be marketed as ‘timeless.’ In reality, it only has a longer life cycle than other fashions.”

Thus, ‘timelessness’ is commonly used in the fashion slang as an easy phrase to cover various design pieces that have survived decades, surviving the fast-pace of fashion. The Burberry trench coat, the Birkin bag, the Max Mara camel coat 101801 and the Levi's 501 jeans model; these are all frequently referred as ‘timeless’ pieces.

I have always wanted to find out the formula of a timeless fashion piece. Is it simplicity? Is it a hidden complexity, or it is luck? What are there some ‘secret’ ingredients?

Of course, the pieces celebrated today as cult objects have not been conceived with a timeless built-in feature. Furthermore, some of them were initially designed for specific purposes, not necessarily related to fashion. Broadly speaking, Danilo Venturi, Head of Bussiness and Communication Department at Polimoda Florence, says there are no secret ingredients; "It is a mix of good branding linked to a good long-term trend forecasting, with a bit of luckiness of course."

Venturi believes these designs have to be linked to a specific generation, to a subculture, or a dominant archetype in society. “For instance, Converse All Stars were conceived for playing basketball, but they didn’t become an iconic product until they were adopted by the punk movement." It was the same for Ray Ban Aviators; "They had a medical use in the beginning, protecting your eyes from the sun, but they became the sunglasses for those who wanted to look like rock stars, when real rock stars actually started to use them for protection from the flashing cameras”. Last but not least, as he wrote in his book Luxury Hackers, there must be the “shadow of the future” – “the feeling that a certain product has always been there and it’s impossible to conceive its end.”

In order to decode the magic of timelessness we must consider several aspects. Celia Stall-Meadows highlights simplicity as a factor; “Often, it is the limited number of details on a style that make it seem timeless." The rarity and the luxury status, adding excitement, attraction, and association, among the keys that keep these pieces alive.

Similarly, there is the value associated to exquisite quality. “Perfect craftsmanship is always appreciated on a garment, old or new”, says Filep Motwary. Richard Sorger also emphasises on the power of workmanship: “I think that garments that utilize a craft, such as embroidery or embellishment, if they are made with integrity (and by this I mean by hand, paying a fair wage) instantly they have more longevity and value beyond the retail price.” He brings into question the concept of ‘heirloom pieces’ that can be passed down from mother to daughter, father to son.

Moreover, a lasting design should be highly desirable and imbued with emotion. Celia Stall-Meadows defines fashion as an industry built on emotional appeals where marketing directs customers toward a particular brand or fashion, "even though no amount of marketing can sell a product that customers don’t desire”.  As noted by Filep Motwary, timeless pieces such as Mugler’s jackets, or YSL tuxedos, flatter the body, conveying a sense of empowerment. Is this not the same for the Chanel jacket which intended to ease women from the constraint of the wasp-waisted silhouette of the 1950s? Or the Diane von Furstenberg wrap-dress described by Vogue as a “sartorial symbol of women’s sexual liberation”?

According to Motwary, today fashion lacks emotion. He stresses that “we ought to make things that will be remembered and loved for the emotion they brought to us. The moments we spent wearing them.”

So what about young designers? How much are they concerned about these issues? While Richard Sorger­ pertinently observes that ‘timeless’, as ‘fashionable’, is decided by others therefore “to worry about creating clothes that are either will inhibit the creative process”, there are a few individuals or companies that have a special affinity for this particular kind of project.

With a signature piece, the ‘bow buckle bag’, that successfully surpasses seasons, Belgian designer Niels Peeraer declares he is “ONLY interested in timelessness”. His personal aesthetic, defined by clean designs and a high level of craftsmanship, always maintains a certain cuteness.

NJAL designer Satu Maaranen, another young talent, believes that design should withstand the tests of time. She states that a piece has to be so original that to recognise the year or the decade in which it was designed would be difficult. Working with sculptural shapes and innovative fabrics, Satu Maaranen hopes that “at least one of the products” created during her career will become iconic.

Indeed, sometimes it can take a lifetime to complete such a project. It is always hard working around every pièce de résistance, even when it results in apparently simple designs. Think Alaïa – the ultimate creator of a timeless body of work.

Looking to the young designers who have the ambition to be in fashion, and to evolve beyond it, we have to wish them luck in their mission. Thanks to them, notions of ‘timelessness’ continue to be challenged by new ideas which definitely deserve to be further explored.

Many thanks to all the fashion professionals who contributed here with their insights. Please find their accreditations below...

Dr. Celia Stall-Meadows (USA) – Fashion merchandising & marketing specialist,  author of Fashion Now – A Global Perspective and Know Your Fashion Accessories.
Filep Motwary (FR) – Costume designer, fashion journalist, photographer, founder of unnouveauideal and thekinsky.
Danilo Venturi (IT) - Head of the Business & Communication Department at Polimoda International Institute of Fashion Design & Marketing. Author of Luxury Hackers and Momenting the Memento.
Richard Sorger (UK) – Fashion designer, Programme Leader MA Fashion/ Senior Lecturer BA (Hons) Fashion Design, Middlesex University, co-author of The Fundamentals of Fashion Design
Satu Maaranen (FN) – NJAL fashion designer.
Niels Peeraer (BE) – Fashion designer.