A cardigan jacket is synonymous with chic... at least to me. Round neck, tweedy boucle, cut only as long as the waist... very French. We call ours the Kiki jacket, in a not-so-subtle nod to Coco Chanel, who made this style iconic. We make a few riffs on it every season, and while it looks great, it's also a bit sentimental. I have loved this style from the very beginning of my career in fashion – mostly because it's the whole reason I even got a career in fashion in the first place.
It started back when I spent a few months in Europe with my older brother, post-college but pre- any real job. I talk about this trip often, I know, but it was such a transformative few months that I have a hard time talking about any style moment without thinking of this trip in some way. When we were in Paris, I noticed such a divide between the grungy collegiate style that was popular in Boulder and the bon-chic-bon-genre put-togetherness of the women walking around the 6th arrondissement. After a lot of freezing mornings just hanging out in cafes (we were there in February and March which was ridiculously bleak), I was sufficiently inspired to come home and move to New York and start my life... which meant getting a job doing something creative. First, though, I needed something to wear.
I made a pit stop at my parents' house in Richmond and picked out a navy wool crepe suit at the local Loehmann's. Palazzo-ish wide pants and a short jacket... which became my sole interview outfit. I had almost no money left after our big European sojourn and could really just afford the one. My next stop was to the notions aisle of Jo-Ann Fabrics, where I picked up four fat gold-ish buttons to switch out on the jacket. Total transformation: conservative – but kicky – and definitely French.
I wore that suit to every interview I went on, in and out of advertising agencies and at least two other assistant jobs at Conde Nast that I was not offered. This suit, and all my other belongings, were stored in the corner of an apartment on Lexington Avenue and 56th Street, right above a Burger Heaven. It was actually the first of three friend's (and then, friends-of-friend's) apartments where I would stay, relegated to the couch, while I did my best to find not only a job, but an apartment that I could afford. I wish I could remember more. Did I hang the suit, or just neatly fold it? I have no photos to document it. The one thing I do remember from that first apartment on Lexington was the feeling of tiny skittering claws on my skin, when a mouse escaped the trash bin and ran all the way down my arm. (When you are sleeping on someone's couch, it's nice to take out the trash every once in awhile.)
But even pulled from the corner of someone's living room, my doctored-up suit eventually did the trick. I interviewed with Polly Mellen, then Fashion Editor at Vogue, who hired me within the hour. The woman from the personnel department (they didn't call it HR back then) called me, breathless, and said "I'm not sure what you said, but can you start tomorrow?" I did, in fact, show up to work at Vogue the very next day, where I would work as Ms. Mellen's assistant for the next eighteen months. The real effect of the suit was verified a few weeks into the job, when I was apparently starting to underperform, wardrobe-wise and probably in every other department. It was an impossible job. "Annie – what is WRONG with you? Why can't you just look like you did when you interviewed in that chic little Chanel-looking jacket?" At least the insult acted as validation. The gold-ish buttons had worked!!
I had to admire her candor. And by that time, I knew how dramatic her outbursts could be, so I didn't let it get to me. (Stockholm Syndrome?) Needless to say, I got my act together, organizationally and otherwise, and I wasn't reprimanded again… at least for what I was wearing. My point here is that early on, I learned the VALUE of that ladylike little jacket. It got me in. Like me, you could be sitting across from your future boss – or nearly anyone – and a jacket like that deems you in the know. The look is polished, but not too. Not too fashion-y, not too serious, not too masculine, not too feminine. Just right.
And I do mean just right… you would have a hard time messing this up. It can be a little tricky deciding what to wear underneath. My rule of thumb is nothing with a true shirt collar. To me, the round neck calls for a crewneck tee, a boatneck, a scooped tank, a camisole, even a skinny turtleneck… I also love a big silk bow tied at the neck underneath. The bottom half is easier… almost anything goes. While I wore it with matching pants on that fateful interview – and lots of other workdays to follow – I am now getting old enough that a full suit can make me feel too prim, and so most often I wear it with a pair of jeans and a silk blouse. My daughters, too, will borrow mine on occasion, and the ladylike nature of it is a perfect foil for their youth. Worn-in jeans and a vintage Sonic Youth t-shirt and ballet flats… perfect! My go-to visual reference for this style is Inès de la Fressange, who was the face of Chanel for ages. She has amazing style: easy but refined, tomboyish but gamine, polished but not too serious... all the things Coco Chanel herself embodied.
I've said that we make this jacket every season because it's so dear to my heart, but it's also because there is a seemingly limitless supply of fantasy tweeds and pretty jacquards to make it feel new. Right now, we have it in an amazing clip jacquard with a hit of yellow running through it, as well as a classic tweedy navy. There will be more to come... (There are even a few on sale right now!) For me, this was my "fake it til you make it" jacket. Literally. Whether you're faking it, or you've made it (I myself am never sure, depending on the day) you need a Kiki jacket in your closet. I promise.