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Divide and conquer: A guide to separates

The phrase “divide and conquer” comes from the Latin divide et impera, and over the centuries, it’s been used in association with everything from the politics of the Old French Republic to computer science design paradigms. Likewise, people go through life essentially dividing it into categories. Friends are categorized: Those to stay in and watch movies with, those to take to sample sales, etc. Same with food: Foods to eat when feeling depressed, foods to be avoided before trying to fit into that dress, and so on.

So, when it comes to clothing, why can’t we apply the same principle? After all, separation leads to success perhaps everywhere except marriage. Purchasing just a few key “separates” each season can spice up the wardrobe and lead to a surprisingly versatile choice of outfits. Who said Latin wouldn’t come in handy one day?

With the help of Lisa Engstrom, owner of Lulu Belle Boutique in La Jolla, we recommend some pieces to try this season:

The vest

“I’m not a big fan of fur, real or fake,” Engstrom said, “But I do love a cashmere vest, and Burning Torch has one of the most fashion forward styles of the season. It has an asymmetrical cut to it, plus the cashmere is recycled for all us green girls.”

Fur, cashmere or leather, the vest is one of the most versatile pieces of the season and can be worn in many ways, whether layered over a sweater and leggings or worn over a feminine dress with tights and stilettos. San Diego’s weather is mild enough that on most days, the vest will even be able to replace a heavy jacket.

Jeggings

Want to tuck denim inside boots without dealing with the skintight discomfort? Try a pair of “jeggings,” but be warned: This denim/legging hybrid has some limitations. For starters, if Peggy Bundy’s not your fashion icon, make sure tops worn with jeggings extend past the butt area. These pants work best when worn underneath layers; think black jeggings, slouchy boots and an oversized sweater.

“I think the Rich & Skinny denim legging is a must have this season for sure,” Engstrom said. “I have them in black denim right now and they are an amazing fit.” For evening, stilettos are appropriate, but a back-baring top is not. Again, stick to a top that leaves a little to the imagination. More Brady than Bundy, if you will.

Slouchy tank/men’s cardigan

“I like boyfriend cardigans that are a little on the big side to pair with leggings,” Engstrom said. Think in terms of opposites: Wearing boyfriend jeans? Leave the boyfriend cardigan to your ... boyfriend. (The poor guy must be broke, anyway, with this season’s emphasis on stealing his wardrobe).

Wearing tight bottoms or a short skirt? Pick up an oversized cardigan and a slinky tank in a material like silk or refined cotton. The hottest colors look a little worn-in, like soft baby pink and steel grey.

Over-the-knee boots

The over-the-knee boot should not conjure images of the world’s oldest profession. It should look sleek and a bit bohemian. Recently spotted on the streets of Del Mar: A fashion-forward young lady wearing black leggings, brown suede boots, a loose-fitting white tunic top, a yellow vest, and a floppy brown hat. Now that’s the way to do it.

Bold, simple accessories

“Clutch bags and big shiny necklaces are a great accessory this fall,” Engstrom said. Here’s a fashion exercise: Head to your nearest boutique and survey the jewelry. Pick out a necklace that is just too ostentatious and flashy to incorporate into your wardrobe. Now, purchase it. Maintain that outlook when looking for jewelry this fall.

Build outfits around these five standout separates to make dressing for fall’s brisk weather easy.