8 Affordable, Stylish Outfits from Unexpected Places
Think you know Gap? Or Ann Taylor, or Talbots? These classic brands are reinventing themselves, and the results are surprisingly chic. Five stylish women sample the goods.
Fall fashion from Liz Claiborne
Then: Pioneering sportswear that had lost its oomph

Now: Brimming with pattern and color

New creative director Isaac Mizrahi gave the label a facelift this year, adding wit and playfulness, sharp tailoring, and a lot more fashion awareness. There's an obvious correlation between his designs for Liz and his own ready-to-wear line: This tartan blazer ($179), fringed scarf, and long skirt ($149), linked by a predominantly blue palette, are a version of Mizrahi's mad-for-plaid fall runway clothes. "It's Scottish Highlands meets downtown Manhattan," says art dealer Nicola Vassell, 31. Sweater, $129. Grommet belt, Hyde Collection.
Chico's Fall Fashion
Then: Bland "Golden Girls" outfits

Now: A fresher, more eclectic mix

Although clothes with comfort and flow have always been this company's trademark, a new focus on sensuous fabrics is elevating its basic shapes. These silk-cotton cargo pants ($89) aren't just for hanging out; they dress up easily with a heel (Ralph Lauren Collection) and sequined wrap, and their softness plays well against a hip aviator jacket ($119). Handbag designer Sang A Im-Propp, 36, carries a subtly shaded bag from her own collection, Sang A: "For me, style is all about mixing high and low, new and old," she says. Tank, Soma Intimates. Cuff, Kara Ross.
Gap fall fashion
Snuggle Up
Then: Weekend staples, wall-to-wall khakis

Now: Dressy, fastidiously engineered jeans and separates

"When Gap started 40 years ago, jeans were really casual," says executive vice president of design Patrick Robinson. "Now they're a $300-and-up status item." Robinson's solution: the just-launched 1969 premium-denim collection, which boasts high-end Japanese fabrics and meticulous fit for $70 or less. "I was afraid I'd be wearing 'Mom' jeans, but these are cute and sexy," says fashion stylist Ann Caruso (far right), 42, of her skinny dark-wash pair ($70). Ann also likes the slim-fitting shirt ($50), leather vest ($228), and shearling-lined boots, the latter a collaboration between Gap and French footwear designer Pierre Hardy. Hardy also made the denim wrap boots worn here by jewelry designer Zani Gugelmann (near right), 32, whose no-frills style shows in the silky shirt ($60), puffer vest ($70), and lean jeans ($60). Her bullet-shaped, jewel-encrusted pendants (Santo by Zani) unscrew to reveal a tiny scroll on which you can write your own message. Socks, Falke.
Express black boucle dress
Then: 20-something and trendy, not for grown-ups

Now: Sophisticated and polished

This strapless black-and-white bouclé dress ($90) combines a simple, feminine cut with menswear-inspired fabric; wear it with a cardigan or its matching jacket (not shown, $168) for an effortless work-to-evening transition. "I've never bought anything at Express except tank tops," says Ann. "But I love the shape of this dress. Who knew Express had clothes like this?" A bold, textured gold-tone necklace (Alexis Kirk) sets off bare shoulders; the above-the-knee hem is youthful but not too skimpy. Rings, Kenneth Jay Lane for QVC and Kara Ross.
Ann Taylor purple blouse and trousers
Then: Ultratraditional career-woman clothes

Now: Glamour mixed with authority

"Corporate dress codes have changed," says Lisa Axelson, Ann Taylor's senior vice president of design development. "We no longer wear head-to-toe suits every day." More to the point are versatile separates: This blouse ($70) reflects a move to more feminine styles ("The deep color looks luxurious," Zani says); well-cut trousers ($110) have a modern shape. Belt, W. Kleinberg. Bracelet, Express.
New York and Company snakeskin print sheath
Then: Inexpensive, unadventurous

Now: Fashion-savvy

Under a new design team, the label now delivers runway style for a song: little leather jackets, boyfriend blazers—and this snakeskin-print sheath (New York & Company Collection, $98). "It's got color and texture," says Sang A. Gleaming accents—a patent leather clutch (Sang A), mesh belt (Alberta Ferretti), gold bangles (Melody Rodgers)—add luster. Ring, available at Jennifer Miller.
J. Crew necklace
Then: Pretty, casual

Now: Posh instant heirlooms

No preppy critter motifs in J.Crew's lavish new fall accessories catalog: "A canvas tote is great, but no girl swoons over it—we want leather bags, satin shoes, sparkly jewelry," says creative director Jenna Lyons. Sang A likes the "vintage feeling" of these necklaces, combining glass stones and bows in an unusual smoky palette ($98 and $125). Top, J.Crew, $90.
Talbots checked jacket and houndstooth trousers
Then: Your mother's store

Now: Ageless classics

Talbots had been growing older rather than better. Chief creative officer Michael Smaldone's (re)visionary strategy: Upgrade the fabrics, fine-tune fit, add "just the right amount of trend." Note the mixed patterns, instead of a matched set, of the checked jacket and houndstooth trousers ($219 and $149) on real estate broker Susan McGraw Keber, 55. Flower pins, Yuh Okano at Supplements NY and Balu. Scarf, Me & Kashmiere. Gloves, Carolina Amato.

More from O's Fall Fashion Handbook