thinking about: key pieces

Eileen Fisher LA showroom
Eileen Fisher showroom, fall 2015 collection on display…I purchased that sweater on the mannequin when it became available last fall, and it’s still in frequent rotation


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 do you find have the key pieces you keep coming back for?

A few of my key pieces…

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  1. I am a retiree with a very casual lifestyle so I spend most days in jeans (Lands End or NYDJ), tee shirts (Lands End) or button down shirts (Foxcroft). My dressier options are mostly Eileen Fisher. I like the fit and quality of EF and the fact that I can mix and match almost everything I have from that line with additions or replacements without any shopping stress.

    As for the article, I like the idea of sustainable fashion. I am willing to spend money on quality clothes that fit me and my lifestyle. I want to be able to go to my closet and pull out a top, a bottom and a topper without much thought and know that I will comfortable, stylish and appropriate for any occasion whether I’m walking my dog or catching a good deal on a long weekend in Paris.

    1. I agree with you. I’m also retired (newly) and trying to bridge the work to retired wardrobe. Most if my summer casual pieces are from J.Jill and Talbot’s, although I really dislike Talbit’s jeans. I’ve several pair from J.Jill that I love. But my favorite clothing is mostly Eileen Fisher and I’ve been collecting pieces over the past years. I can dress them up and down and I always feel comfortable and put together.

  2. I also have quite a few key pieces from Eileen Fisher. I totally agree with you that they need to move on from boxy sweaters. I don’t buy them. What I do buy is their pants, shells, and tops that are not voluminous or boxy. I can’t think of another brand for the key pieces that can be found at Eileen Fisher. And, I now have two striped t-shirts from J Crew! This last winter, I did find black and gray ponte knit pants from J. Jill. They held up well and could be put in the washer AND the dryer (the dryer because they were a bit long and I was not worried about shrinking.) I think so many mid priced brands of women’s clothing are just missing the mark. It would be wonderful if they took a page from EF’s book and started creating cohesive collections that could be built on year to year.

    One of the key pieces in my wardrobe is a black sleeveless midi dress from EF. I have found it can be dressed up or down with jewelry, scarves, cardigans, etc.

  3. I am an unabashed EF fan. I too, used to overbuy, attempting to include too many colors and non harmonizing styles. In the past year, I finally understand that color is important, but it is most easily incorporated through quality accessories. EF pieces are my workhorses. When I realized that 20% of my wardrobe is what I wore 80% of the time, it caused me to re evaluate. I am trying to purge unnecessary items and streamline my look.

  4. This post is so perfect for my new minimalist approach to not only clothing, but my life! At almost 68, retired, I keep things casual. I have a few EF pieces and will be replacing my fall winter wardrobe with same. My spring summer wardrobe still has entirely to many off brand pieces. These will be weeded out and if necessary replaced with higher quality purchases. Thanks again Susan for keeping me informed and up to date with your knowledgeable postings. I’m always looking forward to seeing what’s next!

  5. I also began to build key pieces with Eileen Fisher and I find I wear them over and over again. I am going to an EF fashion show today and can’t wait to see what they have for this year!

  6. I do love the way you shape your wardrobe, Susan. Keeping a core of classics and adding new favorites every season. So French and so thoughtfully done. I am a big EF fan as well; one of her linen full skirts is in my summer core wardrobe. xo


  7. Although I’ve loosely been referring to the way I’ve been dressing these last months, newly retired, the concept of “key pieces” is probably more apt. Yes, I’m often in sweater and jeans or a skirt, often with a vest, I’m quite particular about which jeans, sweater, skirt, vest, and increasingly, I’m realising that much of my wardrobe is getting left behind in the drawer or closet. Like you, I have a few brands or shops I gravitate toward, and I always feel pleased to pull out a piece I love and recognise that I’ve been loving and wearing it for several years.

    1. really wish there were an “edit” feature for comments 😉 My first sentence should read that I’ve been referring to the way I’ve been dressing as uniform dressing, but that your “key pieces” is actually a more apt description.

  8. Great article, Susan! I was quite young when I got out of the work force and it’s taken me a few years to realize the importance of building a Key Piece wardrobe. This year I’ve purged my closets and it feels so good! I do like and appreciate EF and I’ve invested in a few pieces but apparently I must still be too young at heart for mist of hers. I tend to rely on Ann Taylor and Banana Republic my key pieces like black and/khaki slacks and jcrew for a nice blazer.

  9. I’ve been retired for three years now and live in jeans, tees and SPF shirts. My dressier outfits are now composed of EF, J Crew, Ann Taylor and Madewell. I remember my mother telling me YEARS ago how the French women buy a few quality pieces of clothing every year or so and wear them over and over—creating a classic wardrobe that suits their style, their lifestyle and fits their budget because they don’t buy often. I’m still not very good at that. 😉 I bought voluminous tops from EF in Hawaii because it was so darned hot and now I’m stuck with them!! I do like the idea of a uniform though–like Angelina Jolie I want everything to go together and not have to scratch my head about choices. Great article and discussion about Key Pieces!

  10. For work I am Loft for pants (Julie fit for my hourglass shape fits like no other brand and the construction is wonderful), and J. Crew Tippi sweaters and Land’s End shirts (talls). I don’t want to spend a lot of time thinking about what I am wearing everyday but want to look professional and these things work. A pants/top combo of the above, with a pretty necklace and my Burberry trench on top, and I am good to go for the day. Comfortable flats are a must as, like you, I can no longer wear heels.

    For casual wear I am addicted to Old Navy Pixie pants in black. I also have a pair of dark and light cropped NYDJs and that’s pretty much it. Tops come from various sources; I do like J. Crew stripes as you do, and also have been loving what J. Jill is putting out lately.

    Thank you for sharing your go-tos with us. I’m going to start looking at Eileen Fisher as it looks so great on you. The pieces have always been a little too flowy for me (since I am tall I think I look like a large ship set sail in flowy) but I will keep trying!

  11. Many of my key pieces also come from Eileen Fisher. Too many clothes make it difficult to get dressed, for me. I’m amazed at the size of many women’s wardrobes. Uniform dressing still works for me while traveling.

  12. I have just had 6 months of chemotherapy and a mastectomy to treat breast cancer. Mi am 66, and have decided not to have reconstruction. I will be rebuilding my wardrobe with clothes that work for this silhouette; I cannot find much online about this situation, although many women must be experiencing it. I agree that the key is to find the key pieces that work for you, invest in them and keep it simple. Any ideas?

    1. Humm does no reconstruction mean you’ll do a prosthesis or that you’ve had a double and will go flat? In either case, particularly in the beginning when you’re self conscious layers, soft constructions and higher sided arm openings work well.

      1. Yes, a prosthesis, probably only some of time. Reconstruction takes so much time and involves more surgery; I would rather spend my time travelling and pursuing other interests. A lot of women must go through this, because even if you have reconstruction it takes a while until you have your breast shape back. Then there is the hair, skin recovery, etc. might be a good blog post.

    2. Anita, I have been where you are now and it can be a challenge on the wardrobe front. I had a bilateral, no reconstruction, 14 years ago. Went from 40D to zero. I spent a lot of time looking at small/flat chested women for wardrobe inspiration because it was all very new to me. Here’s what I finally settled on after much experimentation: almost always wear dark colours all over, or at least on top. In summer, I often wear all white, which works if the fabric is right. No clingy fabrics on top, but soft fabrics with a bit of body work. Soft gathers, cowl necks are good. Big chunky jewellery and lovely scarves are a must to effectively camouflage the top, and balance your silhouette. Most of the time I layer on top with a soft shirt base and a jacket/shell/overshirt. A cashmere sweater draped over your back is great. First, your upper back will be cold a lot of the time (all that insulation is gone) and the arms of the sweater falling over your chest work well. You can add a lot of nice colour accents this way too. For me, a slender bottom of skinny pants or straight skirt look best and balance the top. “Swing” dresses also work well and are comfortable. And hey, no bra!!!
      Best of luck to you.

  13. Like others, I have a substantial and much-loved collection of EF clothes, which I have worn daily over the last five years. They are the foundation of my wardrobe, but I did not like this season’s small top/flowy bottom styles at all, and I often find Eileen Fisher clothing “sexless.” At 66 and doing my best to stay fit and slim, I do not want to look like a rice-paddy worker or like I need to hide everything in voluminous black fabric., Also, as much as I love to keep current, the skinny leg/loose top is most flattering to my build and I’m sticking with it. So, I’ve been looking everywhere for interesting tops and merchants other than EF for staples. I bought two pairs of pants and a couple of tops at Kit & Ace that look very fresh, with their nod to “athleisure.” I found a beautiful Ralph Lauren purple label sheer silk paisley tunic on eBay ($30 + dry cleaning) — how I wish they’d re-invigorate that line. I’ve bought pretty silk patterned blouses from Alice + Olivia, and a handful of cool shirts from Current/Elliott. I check out Johnny Was (Neiman’s) but find it too embellished for my Washington, D.C., life. However, I just purchased a very pretty velvet burnout top from Life & Liberty, one of Johnny Was’s “lines,” and it is a bit simpler. This also from a consignment store. I’ve also found a couple of vintage velvet/silk Lauren scarves on eBay for little money. After dry cleaning they add a unique vintage touch.

    Obviously I love clothes and love to shop. If I had to name it, the style might be “modernist vintage.” Or maybe it’s just Eileen Fisher with some pattern and embellishment thrown in.

  14. The article was interesting and a great read. The only true designer article of clothing I have is a hand-me-down from Bonaparte’s aunt, Daniele Delorme. She gave me a Courreges ensemble. A simple red sleeveless dress with matching red bolero. I need to have it tailored to fit me but I just haven’t gotten around to it. Honest to god, I can’t wear Eileen Fisher. The brand’s clothing is too boxy on me and that does’t make me feel comfortable. My go-to has been J. Crew–but lately I have a love/hate relationship because I can’t stand what Jenna Lyons has done to the brand. Gingham Moto Jackets? Come on now! I’m rambling again. Sorry. My key pieces are: White fitted t-shirts from Old Navy. At less than five bucks, these shirts are the best fitting tees around I think I have a dozen. I also like the black ones. Dark wash skinny jeans. White skinny jeans. Black J. Crew Pixie Pant. Navy and white boatneck knit shirt. J. Crew Navy schoolboy blazer (I have three in Navy because J. Crew discontinued them and I need backup). Fitted denim jacket. Black Repetto flats. Black leather Longchamp bag. 20-year old Bass Weejuns (that are in the shoe repair for new heels). Rondini Tropeziennes sandals. Black pointy-toed stilletos. LBD. I am currently sleuthing a perfect pair of canvas Tretorn sneakers in white. I have just added a classic trench coat to my key pieces (which I am writing about as I write this–multitasking)!

    1. Hi Catherine- you summed it up for me, also. I find EF the most unflattering lines out there and i feel they are way overpriced. EF reminds me alot of the awful fit of a line called FLAX- just awful shapeless stuff at a big price. J crew has always been my favorite but absolutely cant stand some of the new idea things/ really not good. I try to get T’s from the GAP and Madewell.

      1. Susie. I also agree with you on the EF price point. I try to look for a good value and quality. Honestly , try the ON fitted tees. I size down for an even better fit and air dry after washing!

  15. Rather than thinking seasonally, about three years ago I decided to buy one key piece a month: usually its Eileen Fisher, or some other brand that works with that esthetic. Other than EF, which I challenge myself to buy as cheaply as possible (Nordstroms Rack Clearance, consignment, etc) I rarely shop by brand, focusing instead on local independent shops which suit me. This is supplemented with my own handknits which are plentiful. I am retired and my clothing can be as weird as I want it to be, but I like to underlay that with solid basics. We live in a casual city, and travel quite a bit, so I shop with travel flexibility in mind and keep my color palette somewhat narrow.

  16. Twin sets, blazers, turtlenecks, and boot cut or flare jeans. Talbots 5 pocket jeans, and White House Black Market jeans are my go to jeans. I’m not really brand specific anymore. Styles and quality fluctuation have changed the way I shop these days.

  17. I am obsessed with Eileen Fisher! Probably have 10+ black jersey tunics, just 2 pair slouchy jersey pants, 1 pair wide leg silk pants. Loved Talbot’s heritage fit pants (5 or) and jeans (4 or) but not sure they offer them any more. Also something changed at the company several yrs ago when it was sold to “investment bankers (?), quality really went downhill. I stopped shopping there about 2-3 yrs ago. Love love love Lafayette NYC 148 White Shirts, made in NY, wonderful material, don’t mind the ironing, have about 10 of these, never a problem with buttons stress in the chest area. Love love Cole Haan shoes and Fossil and Coach handbags. I can’t wear J Crew as they don’t offer women’s size, 1X or 12W/14W tops, I wear regular 14/16 or EF Large pants/skirts. Do not like shoulder seams that are to slouchy, that aren’t at the shoulder, because I think that makes me look even bustier. I think EF gets this because often the plus size tops will have the design change from slouchy to on shoulder seaming.

  18. Eileen Fisher does not do for my body type, unfortunately. I have a lot of Ralph Lauren as it fits well. I am at a stage when I want to try something new! My latest passion is Equipment blouses. I don’t know when I will find a pair of jeans that I like. I adored my David Kahn jeans; I am not liking the jeans with the new designer at the helm. So I am babying my old ones along. I love Marine Layer t-shirts — they are so soft!

  19. I am also very much in agreement with the key piece concept. I think that it why shops like Eric Bompard and Anne Fontaine appeal. One can count on finding the exact same styles year after year.

  20. A little off topic, but I bought (after seeing in your “shop”) a long EF black and gray striped cardigan. Whenever I wear it, I get stopped and asked about it. I really love it and would love a lighter colored one as well. I also bought the gray Gap jeans in your shop (2 pairs) and love them.

  21. For the last three years, since EF opened a store in my Canadian city, I’ve been transitioning to a key-piece stye of dressing. (Using special offers and extra-off sales days I’ve rarely paid full price for a piece.) I’m hooked on not only how easy the clothes are to layer and wear in so many different combinations, but how they feel on my body. Light, airy, soft, cool or warm as needed. I used to shop at Banana Republic and Talbots a lot, but have almost stopped even going in to these stores to look. To balance out the cost of my EF pieces, I shop at Joe Fresh, and have since it launched in 2006 in my grocery store. I’ve had good luck with Joe jeans especially.

    What I most definitely agree with is this:

    “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.”

    Eileen Fisher does this extremely well, evolving the use of fabrics and style from season to season. You always know you’ll be able to incorporate a new piece with those you already have. And I like the shots of colour included each season. I’ve already bought the Delfina (pale blue) organic linen box-top sweater (it’s a much slimmer fit than some, I need XS so I swim in many of them) to wear with black in the transition to warmer weather.

    BTW Funny thing, I just bought a striped B/W viscous T-shirt on sale at J. Crew this week. Susan, I hadn’t realized you were a fan. I’m going to wear it under an EF black jacket with the black, washable crepe slim pant.

  22. I love the idea of a highly edited wardrobe with some fun pieces thrown in. I’ve dressed that way for years, mostly because I love things that are well-made and they often cost more, ergo I need to buy fewer of them to be able to stay within my budget. Plus, many of the lower priced, fast-fashion stuff just does not fit me, too short in the legs and arms among other things. I always admire your outfits, Sue. It’s funny that we have similar tastes, but your petite frame is very different from my body type. As for Eileen Fisher, I drool over the ads in the magazines, but her clothing looks dreadful on me. The article in BoF mentions that generation Z (I think it was) just does NOT want to be dictated to about trends. Hello? Don’t we all want NOT to be forced to slavishly follow trends? It seems to me we all want to be able to find well-made chic clothing that suits us, no matter the trend.

  23. I agree with several others Eileen fisher doesn’t fit my body type either. I shop at jcrew frequently but I do agree I wish they would go back to their basics. I have things from 20 years ago that I like better than things they have now. My wish is there was a ga ranamals for adults (remember the children’s clothing line?) I dislike making outfits. Outfits for work, for dinner for home. It is exhausting!

  24. I am a big fan of EF clothing. It is well made, stylish, is available in a wide range of sizes and happens to fit me well. I have pieces that are 10+ years old that are still worn constantly. I recently purchased her beautiful organic linen plaid blouse – my spring wardrobe splurge – which I know will give me years of enjoyment.

  25. Excellent advice, Susan. My wardrobe for all seasons is built around key pieces, as well, which means that I don’t need to shop very often. If you stay w/in the casual chic range you can dress up or dress down an outfit at a moment’s notice and w/only a great accessory (or two). My tante Colette always said that if it doesn’t fit into your armoire, you can probably get along without it. No overstuffed, walk in closets in the average Frenchwoman’s home, just lots of well chosen basics.

  26. Key pieces? I have really loved pleated skirts from Carlisle. Not cheap but really look great and are fun. I have two that I have worn for over 10 years. The pleats stay crisp, the skirt has the wonderful swish that pleated skirts can provide, and the design usually has one color accent with a basic black, brown or gray. Finally, the skirt has a flat panel below the waist of several inches, so that there is no pleat fullness around the tummy.
    And I have gone back several times to Vera Bradley for scarves. The color combinations are rich and provide a great accent — depending on the color I am wearing. They lay flat, and twist well. I get many compliments on them.

    I have tried Eileen Fisher several times. They look droopy on me or look like there is too much material, making me look like I am drowning in fabric. But such testimonials!!!! I will try again. (Another) Susan

  27. You sold me on Eileen Fisher. And while I agree with everything you say about them, I am still trying to style the one piece I bought when I was in Vancouver. I need to skype with you and you can style it for me haha. But the quality is so good, you can spot that from miles away.
    I love Max Mara and their subbrands like Sportmax and Weekend Max, or Marella. Good quality and not that trendy but still fashionable.
    Building up a sensible wardrobe as you suggest is on my wishlist. Unfortunately my style (and need) is all over the place, so I haven’t been able to do that.