"Experiment. Play around with what you already own." This suggestion is one of the first pieces of advice that fashion consultants give clients seeking to build a versatile wardrobe.
"Shop your own closet first," is what Suzin Boddiford often tells clients. A local wardrobe consultant and former fashion editor with Woman's Day magazine, Ms. Boddiford often hears from women who have a "closetful of clothes and nothing to wear.
"Often women don't do things like organize their closets and separate all their suits," she says. "When women buy a suit and the saleswoman tells them that that blouse goes with it, they often don't think about wearing it any other way. And maybe they've got some great scarves stashed way at the back that they've forgotten about. Scarves are great for pulling together two unrelated pieces."
A well-chosen suit jacket can go from office to the grocery store and out on the town, as demonstrated by the jacket in the photos on this page.
Laurie Salladin, a buyer for the clothing store Femme, considers jackets one of the most versatile wardrobe items. Each season, she says, "I focus on a few things that I will spend money on and generally it's a jacket. And then I'll add inexpensive cotton turtlenecks or cotton T-shirts and leggings."
This spring she plans to invest in a pink Nicole Miller suit with a short fitted jacket and pleated skirt.
"It would look good with black accessories for early spring and then it will look good with ivory when the weather is warmer. I'm thinking of wearing it with these great stockings that have a fishnet, mesh design.
"I can also separate the suit and wear the jacket with black trousers or white trousers later," she says.
While conventional wardrobing wisdom holds that the most versatile clothes are solid, neutral colors, they don't have to be, .. says Ms. Salladin.
"I have a black and white houndstooth jacket in a really large houndstooth that I can wear with a lot of bright colors," she says. "Red is a bright color I happen to like a lot, but you could wear it with fuchsia, and all kinds of different colors. And sometimes I keep it very graphic looking, with all black underneath and I get the look of a catsuit -- but it's a black turtleneck and pants. When the weather warms up, I'll wear it with a white T-shirt."
If you're going to wear an item a lot, it makes sense to find something you feel is distinctive and that won't necessarily be a basic. Pascale Lemaire, the wardrobe stylist who coordinated the clothes for our cover shots, says, "The first thing to do is to find a piece that's a little bit special, then combine it with things that are a basic. Here [in the photos on the front] the color of the jacket was different and the buttons, the number of pockets and the newer shape all made it stand out a little."
If you decided to start with something basic like a navy blazer, she says, "you can always add something offbeat to it," she says. With her navy blazer, she sometimes pairs a gold lurex turtleneck.
"And what a lot of people don't realize is that navy looks good with bright colors, like lime green. Of course, there is always the red, white and blue nautical look, but going forward into spring, ,, coral, yellow, hot pink, all look great with navy, too.
"Even if you choose a pink skirt and pink top, you'll still get a fairly neutral, conservative look, because the navy jacket chops it up, so you don't look too flashy," she says.
That metallic top, by the way, can serve as a basic, too. When combined with shades of brown, instead of navy, a very different, warm look is achieved.
Ms. Lemaire owns decorative vests that she treats in the same manner. "I have one with gold buttons all over the front, there must be 200 of them. I can wear it with a skirt, turtleneck and jacket and it looks like a suit. Or I can funk it up with a black sheer lingerie top with a pleated skirt and fishnet hose."
White shirts are a basic in some sense of the word, but with proper accessories, they're considered an especially trendy item this season. "You could wear it with a great pin," says Ms. Lemaire, "or with a long pendant or unbutttoned with a triple-decker strand of Barbara Bush pearls."
With the menswear influence coming into play once again, Ms. Boddiford suggests "raiding your husband or boyfriend's closet for awhite shirt. Wear it loose over tights and maybe put a vest over it. Or you could roll up the sleeves, knot it at front and turn up the collar and wear with jeans." For an up-to-the-minute wrapped effect, tuck both tails at the front into one side for the look of a surplice wrap.
If you're working with French cuffs, she suggests threading black ribbons through the buttonholes and tying them into bows for a feminine twist.