This week on the Cut we’re exploring how to get your act together when it comes to personal style — from organizing your closet, to finding your signature scent, to figuring out your work uniform.
My first inkling that a signature look was more than just a time-saving gambit came outside a tent at Somerset House in central London. I was there covering Fashion Week as a newbie, and stood clutching my stiff, hand-lettered invitation as the bouncers at the door held me back, convinced — despite my press badge — that I was some kind of teenage crasher. Meanwhile, Suzy Menkes, with her trademark loop-de-loop bouffant, and a number of street-style stars, each with their own copyright-worthy looks, sailed past without so much as a cursory invite-flash. You could spot them coming and going. I eventually managed to convince the brass that I wasn’t a rogue Central Saint Martins student and hoofed it to my seat just as the lights went down.
Maybe if I, too, had honed some sort of signature style, I wouldn’t have had to face such indignities. To use the term of art, a lewk is a personal style signature so individual it’s almost indivisible from you. It connotes something noticeable: wearing jeans every day isn’t a lewk, but wearing a Schiaparelli lobster hat might be. It might be something you wear every day, but is not the same thing as a uniform. It’s not about saving time and brainpower by cutting out frivolity; it’s about embracing a particular brand of it, one that is yours alone. Think Jenna Lyons in her oversize glasses, Tom Wolfe in his crisp ice-cream suits, and Anna Wintour in a printed (usually Prada) dress, a crystal necklace, and the Manolo Blahnik tan slingbacks she’s worn since 1994. Carine Roitfeld broke down her lewk in the documentary Mademoiselle C. “Always fitted, more skirts than pants, thin waists, high heels … I am a Parisian, and it shows in my style.” In ballet flats, she’d be about as unrecognizable as she would in one of those bejeweled Margiela masks.
Since at least the era of Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli, lewks have been synonymous with fashion personalities: signature pieces, silhouettes, or swagger that set their wearers apart from the pack. That said, you don’t need to be Isabella Blow or Daphne Guinness to have a lewk (though if you work in, say, corporate law, armadillo heels may not be a realistic option). But you do need to do something that’s challenging, maybe even mildly uncomfortable — you need to come to an understanding of yourself.
Take apart a personal style and you will find a person, one with baked-in predilections and arbitrary revulsions. Fashion press releases constantly misuse the term DNA (“the DNA of the brand” being the rote phrase of choice), but there is a genetic-code-like inevitability to personal style that makes it impossible to duplicate. You can wear as many sleeeveless Narciso Rodriguez shifts as you like, but it won’t make you FLOTUS. Nor will a wholesale embrace of all things rainbow-hued make you Solange. (Sorry.) Magazines encourage us to take a Frankenstein approach to fashioning ourselves — get Michelle Obama’s arms! Angelina Jolie’s cheekbones! Sheryl Sandberg’s work ethic! J.Law’s likability! — but a lewk isn’t something you can copy. It has to be yours, and yours alone.
While the concept of wearing the same thing over and over can sound boring, if you are truly expressing yourself, it won’t be. So rather than trying to xerox someone else’s look, take your inspiration from the fashion-industry stalwarts, who, constantly facing a maelstrom of “new, new, new,” tend to stick with a signature, whether that’s Bruce Weber’s kerchiefs, Simon Doonan’s Liberty print shirts, or Diane Pernet in her widow’s weeds. Mickey Boardman, who favors a combination of a preppy polo shirt topped with a glitzy statement necklace or cardigan, told me that after being gifted a navy Lacoste polo years ago, he ended up amassing 60 navy versions of the same shirt. (He has it in other colors, too, but says, “Eventually, I’ll wear nothing but navy blue. If there was a cult that wore nothing but navy I would join regardless of what they stood for.”)
A word of caution: A lewk is not made overnight. “You don’t find out who you are unless you work at it,” Iris Apfel once told Elle Decor. When she was 11 years old, her magpie eye alighted on a brooch in the basement of a Greenwich Village shop. “I didn’t have a penny, so I saved and I saved. I would return to visit it,” she told an Allure interviewer. “When I finally had 65 cents, I proudly went over there and haggled over it. I still have it, by the way.” That relic of her Depression-era childhood ended up finding its way into her love of over-the-top accessories, from outsize jewelry to big round frames. Her whole look gives the lie to that old chestnut about taking off one accessory before leaving the house. She’d rather throw on five more.
Most importantly, a lewk isn’t about saying, This season, I need culottes, or mules, or what have you. It transcends the trends. As Boardman puts it, “There’s something about being involved in the constantly changing fashion world that makes wearing the same lewk all the time feel very comforting.” Or as Roitfeld says in her documentary, “My rebellion was to stay the same.”
Click through the slideshow for some of the best carriers of the lewk torch.