Smart set: How to work a capsule wardrobe

I’ll confess, I wasn’t a huge fan of Meghan Markle’s guest editorship of the recent edition of British Vogue. The concept was grand, and I loved some of the people she featured, especially our own great Sinéad Burke but, as I said on radio, I don’t think she was edited enough. Maybe they were a little starstruck at Vogue Towers.

The same complaint does not apply to her latest charity project, the Smart Set capsule collection, which focusses on workwear essentials, bringing together leading British brands and fashion designers like Jigsaw, John Lewis, Marks & Spencer and Misha Nonoo.

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For every item from the collection sold, the four fashion companies involved donate the same item to the Smart Works charity who are filling their offices with brand-new clothes to help women in need enter the workforce.

Coming with that Meghan Markle ring of royal celebrity dust, it’s no surprise that many of the pieces (priced from £19.50 to £199) have already sold out and are on re-order. But are they worth chasing down? And does a capsule wardrobe actually work and help you in the long run? The answer is yes and yes.

The constipated state of high street retail has given birth to a seemingly non-stop series of ‘celebrity loves’ collaborations of late. Some dubious, others lazy, but often you will find a gem which is well curated and achieves its goal of being useful and taking the panic out of dressing (almost in the dark) five or six mornings a week.

Meghan’s harshest critics have been lining up to take pot shots and knock the Smart Set concept which, by the way, was developed and honed during her maternity leave.

But you know what, they will just have to eat humble pie because the five pieces in this capsule collection work, not least because it has Meghan’s style DNA, experiences and relationships written across it.

Take the crisp white shirt, for example. Oh, how I hated the close-fitting white shirts paired with secretary skirts that were the office uniform when I started full-time work aged 21 as assistant editor of U magazine at Smurfit Publications.

I was too terrified to be different and I left the boho, 70s gear to the weekend. Those were the days when we followed each other blindly on the workwear front and consequently all looked the same, from receptionist up to senior female executives.

The Smart Set shirt was designed by Misha Nonoo and I’m a fan because of its more modern, mannish proportions.

“The shirt is more form-fitting than the husband shirt,” Misha explained, referring to another of her white shirts that Meghan famously wore with jeans to the Invictus Games in Toronto in 2017, the day Prince Harry showed the world his new love.

Blazers are the cornerstone of Meghan’s working Duchess wardrobe, ideal for switching up looks, either with a feminine dress or with matching tailored trousers.

The £199 jacket by Jigsaw is not going into my wardrobe. It’s too short for a pear-shaped woman like me but the slim-legged, tailored Jigsaw trousers (£120) look great. Along with the shirt, my second buy here would be the leather tote bag from John Lewis. It’s big enough for a laptop and the long cross-body strap is ideal for walk-to-work women like me and equally handy for a young mum wearing it on one shoulder and balancing a toddler on the other hip.

Elsewhere, Meghan’s M&S dress is well judged because dresses in the workwear sections of highstreet stores are often very fitted ‘shift’ styles and they usually come sleeveless – even in winter! I think the body shape they went for is flattering and, best of all, forgiving. Plus, it works for those ‘feeling fat’ Mondays or after pizza nights at home. It also has a subtle neckline and shows just a little flesh without too much and, as every woman should remember, a V-neck is the most flattering neckline of all.

I had my adult daughter in fits of laughter as I trawled back through history and described the all-black wardrobe I used to wear. You could have mistaken me for a wannabe lawyer in the Four Courts as I waited to cover a case. All I was missing was the frilly white jabot at the neckline.

The same black boring suit took me right through the gamut of reporting jobs, from Dáil Eireann, Oireachtas committee meetings, County Council meetings, inquests, ACRA meetings at night and those challenging mornings when reporters were dispatched out to Ballymun Towers when the lifts were broken.

Now my workwear wardrobe is far more flexible – and colourful – and the best change to my working life is how acceptable dressy trainers are on the work landscape.

Kids reared, no jam sandwiches to make at night, I like to get organised and steam – never iron – pieces for the next day.

My capsule wardrobe is aimed at eliminating potential brainfog in the mornings. I wear lots of COS, Carolyn Donnelly, Zara and Lucy Nagle in block colours. Blurring lines and introducing leisure wear into the workplace is tricky. As for leggings in the office, they are definitely out in my book.

Some commentators maintain you should have 40-50 pieces in your capsule wardrobe throughout the 12 months. I tend to drill down and work around 10.

Dress for Success Dublin, which has been supporting women with professional clothing, skills and mentorship for the last eight years, are also advocates of a capsule work wardrobe.

“We think it’s wonderful that Meghan Markle is using her status and her celebrity to provide resources to women seeking to enter employment,” says services and operations manager, Nuala Smith.

She says a smart-casual dress code is becoming the new normal in offices. However, when it comes to interviews, prospective employees are still expected to look the part.

Dress for Success clients work with volunteer stylists who help them choose an outfit that reflects the role for which they are interviewing, and Nuala says blazer suits – black, navy and grey – are the go-to for jobs in corporate and financial institutions.

My biggest recommendation is to work blacks with navy accents. The two colours look incredibly chic together, more so I think than mixing black and brown.

It was couturier Peter O’Brien who opened my eyes to the black-and-navy vibe. Recently we were speaking together at the Dunnes Stores press day and our conversation got around to how he likes to dress.

“I wear a uniform and have for years and it consists of a navy blazer, chinos, white shirt, cardigan and Church’s shoes in oxblood or black,” he told me.

“You know, Bairbre,” he added. “Diana Vreeland always said that a woman over 40 should have a uniform.”

And that’s advice that can be applied to women of any age.

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