Thinking About: Key Pieces (Encore)

Eileen Fisher fall 2015 collectionAbove: Eileen Fisher pieces from Fall 2015 collection. I purchased that cropped sweater last year, wore it frequently, and look forward to wearing it again when the weather cools down.

>>This post originally appeared in March, 2016. Look for a post on the Eileen Fisher Fall 2016 fashion show and collection later this week.

I posted this article, “How Key Pieces Made A Comeback” on my Facebook page a few days ago and it sparked a lot of conversation, so I thought it might be fun to continue the discussion here.

For a while, I was enamored with the idea of developing a uniform, but ultimately found that too restrictive. I’ve gravitated toward the idea of key pieces instead, the types and styles of clothes that work best for me.

Of course, fashion houses and ready-to-wear designers have always had house classics — think of Chanel’s bouclé jacket, Mulberry’s Bayswater handbag or a glitzy Dolce & Gabbana cocktail dress. Such items keep customers coming back throughout their lifetime, which keeps retailers happy. But more often than not, these key pieces are overlooked by the press in favour of collections with ephemeral narratives shown at season-specific fashion weeks.

While the article focuses on high-end designer brands, I think the idea of key pieces is relevant no matter where we shop. One of the crucial elements in a stylish and functional wardrobe is cohesion, where the majority of pieces work together. When there’s too much radical shift in designs from season to season, that becomes harder to achieve. Most of us don’t buy an entire wardrobe at once, and it’s important to be able to build over time.

“We felt too much information and too many choices are major issues in a women’s life in 2016,” say Meyer and Vaillant. “The rhythm of the seasons is terrible for designers and the pressure to produce more and more, without taking the time to analyse ideas, is awful. When a design is beautiful, when it just works, why not make it evolve from season to season? Why not develop its lines and technical qualities, rather than starting everything from scratch? Less is more.”

After all, this is how we’ve been told for years that French women (and the most stylish women anywhere) shop. They identify the few key pieces that suit them, and the designers or brands that make “their” best versions of those pieces…and then stick with them, building their wardrobes season after season, and replenishing the items that eventually become worn or dated. This requires that brands produce a coherent and cohesive selection of key pieces over time. While most of us are not shopping the high-end designers, we want the same thing from the brands we rely on: some consistency in style, fit and vision. I hope the broader shift away from hard-and-fast trends will also help brands to move toward more consistency across their collections.

One of the reasons that so much of my wardrobe comes from Eileen Fisher is because they seem to understand this. While I don’t always like the direction of every season’s collection (enough with the boxy sweaters, already!) over the years I’ve built upon a core of basics, adding seasonal or accent pieces periodically. And when those basics need to be replaced, I can almost always find something current that fills the same role.

I also have come to rely on a few other brands recently: AG and NYDJ for jeans, J.Crew for striped tees, Madewell for lightweight summer shirts.

What did you think of the article? Which brands offer the key pieces you keep coming back for?


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  1. Absolutely – I rely on certain brands that I know work for me – I invest in a Vince cashmere sweater once a year and a pair of AGL shoes – I know they will last and won’t let me down! Although I love to nudged out of my comfort zone from time to time – I’m going to take a look at Eileen Fisher!

  2. While EF has not been a good fit for me, I do always hit the J Crew and Madewell sites as the main places to shop. Will take a look at Everlane as I am attracted to their concept. You have helped me the most by just teaching me to edit, edit, edit and even if a top is the same cut and only 2 colors (gray, white) I stick with it and add variation w/accessories. Thanks! You have saved me so much money and time.

  3. EF is always consistently on spot for style, comfort and year to year wearability. I love the pieces you pair together and always look forward to seeing what you put together for your travels. Keeping a theme or key pieces in mind when I shop has helped me save a lot of buying mistakes. Love when I find key pieces at a consignment shop too! Love your quote by Coco Chanel about “Luxury”. If something doesn’t feel comfortable it goes in the giving box!

  4. This is so true. I’ve been interviewing women about how they dress/their ‘uniforms’ for my next book and the majority have said it’s more about key pieces than a whole look. Susan, you are very wise!

    1. Hi Katie, to me a “capsule wardrobe” is more specific, e.g. *these* 12 (or 15 or 30) pieces. “Key pieces” are the *types* of items and styles that we know work for us, e.g. slim-leg jeans, long jackets, asymmetrical tops, collarless blouses, etc.

  5. I recently discovered the Nashville designer Elizabeth Suzann and am in love with many of her linen and silk pieces. The cuts and styles are timeless and are made so well that I know they will last for many years and can be dressed up or down. I like the idea of “key pieces” b/c it makes figuring out what to wear every day so much easier for me.

  6. Eileen Fisher has ‘saved my bacon’ on more than one occasion. Her clothing is always comfortable and the fabrics are divine. I do disagree with you re the boxy sweaters as I find them to be perfect for layering. Perhaps I go for a more casual look?? Another company that I love, love love is FLAX. I live in their linen clothing all summer.

  7. Cohesion is definitely the word. Eileen Fisher clothing is designed to last, and for each new season to work with the seasons before. I’m still wearing one jacket that I’ve had for about ten years, bought second-hand. Two black dresses also have gotten a lot of wear — one from this season (V-neck jersey below-knee length) and another I’ve had for several years (cowl-necked sleeveless knee-length sack shape).

    Other makers I rely on:

    Jeans — Kut from the Kloth seem to fit well consistently.

    XCVI — when I want to stir things up a bit, and add a little California-casual, feminine vibe. I have three of the same cotton jacket in different colors, two of the same linen pants, and two pairs of black cotton cargo pants.

    Summer dresses: I live all summer in three different cotton, embroidered huipils from Central America — one white, one black, and one red that I overdyed myself.

    Shoes: Paul Green is consistently good, as are Birkenstocks (Gizeh thong-style only), and Taryn Rose is good, also.

    Armani — two pairs of wool pants for winter, one black and one gray.

  8. Susan, thanks to your introduction, I have some Eileen Fisher pieces that I wear year-round (a moto jacket and a few tunics). Other brands I rely on include J Crew (their Tippi sweater is a wardrobe staple), Talbot’s cashmere Audrey is another one (both feature the 3/4 sleeves I crave). Through another blog I follow I recently added the Express Portofino shirt to my “key pieces” wardrobe. As a curvy girl, I never thought I could successfully wear a blouse, but the Portofino works wonders and is surprisingly well-made. Pants and leggings? J Jill, Talbots (petite), NYDJ, and Hue Wide Waistband all work well for me, with a few Chico’s pieces thrown in for good measure. Oh, and last but not least? My “Covered Perfectly” tops that you also introduced your readers! As for shoes; Munro Abby sandals and Paul Green booties are staples, and my Frye Melissas and Phillips are “must-haves”. This sounds like a lot, but honestly, I’ve pared down my wardrobe substantially over the past year, so a.m. dressing is a breeze. Top, bottom, shoes, a scarf or necklace and I’m out the door!

  9. I also love EF pieces, although your last two blogs remind me it’s time to replace some cozy old EF pieces. Other designers whose pieces often find my closet are St. John (bought at my favorite high-end consignment shop), Polo, Escada (fabulous jeans!), Chico’s no-iron blouses and tanks, and Worth NY jackets. Also love shoes by Tod, Brighton, and (don’t laugh) Skechers. I’m really enjoying your blog lately. I know your tech update was a pain, but it’ll be so worth it. Big congrats on that effort.

  10. Yes, I think it is important to identify the key pieces for your wardrobe and then replace/update them when necessary. I have several stores/brands I come going back to, and I have been wanting to check out Eileen Fisher more closely for a while now…