So happy to watch a new Azzedine Alaia documentary by the stylist Joe McKenna. The short video, which has been released online, is intimately shot with footage of the designer in his showroom and studio. What is so inspiring about Alaia is the fact that he has never veered from making clothes the old-fashioned way: using fitting models and his own designs and patterns. The admiration of designer Nicolas Ghesquiere and critics Suzy Menkes and Cathy Horyn makes clear why Alaia is a master craftsman still working successfully outside of the fashion system. You can enjoy the video here: https://www.joesfilm.com
A few months ago, my husband and I decided it was time to visit Italy again. Since booking the airline tickets and renting an apartment in Rome’s Centro Storico, I have been in a muted state of anxiety over what to pack. Despite the fact that I’ve been traveling to Italy on and off since childhood and am wildly excited to once again walk the streets of Rome, I feel bad about my vacation wardrobe. The truth is, since about my thirties, I always fly into a panic before a trip abroad. If you saw my wardrobe, you would politely say there was no need to panic. After all, it looks as if I have all the necessary basics. But that is just the problem: the basics. When it comes time to pack for a two-week trip, practicality retreats and fantasy takes over. In order to explore the streets of a European city, I suddenly feel guilty about choosing sensible outfits. It seems as if the least I can do is to make the effort to approximate through my clothes the mystique of the cities I will be visiting.
This, I find, is harder to do when you are a woman of a certain age. How to look casually glamorous in comfortable shoes for sightseeing and walking on cobblestones in ninety-degree heat? Today’s trends – the charming floral mini dresses, the sweeping boho skirts, the high-waisted, wide leg pants worn with a midriff t-shirt, the kimonos paired with cut off denim shorts are not tempting options. It seems in the words of Linda Wells, former editor-in-chief of Allure magazine, speaking with Cathy Horyn in 2007, “The choice is to wear something juvenile or be a total killjoy.” Despite the shift in trends and the fact that the options for women’s clothing have expanded exponentially over the years, Wells’ comment rings as true today as it did back in 2007. In refusing youth driven trends and low quality fast fashion chains, I sometimes feel like I am resorting to normcore by stubbornly adhering to my personal style. This, dear reader, is the reason why the last few days have found me craving the kind of clothes Audrey Hepburn wore while living in Rome with her second husband, the Italian psychiatrist Andrea Dotti.
That I turn to vintage photos in order to inspire my packing doesn’t greatly surprise me; just before sitting down to write this, I began going through photographs of Ingrid Bergman in the 1950s Rossellini films, Stromboli and Journey to Italy. In flicking through the film stills, I realize it is not just the glamour projected by these images of Bergman or the stylishness of the paparazzi shots of Hepburn that I am after. Rather, the images impress me with the ease and confidence of these women of a certain age. Instead of the typical girlish movie star photographs, these pictures document grown-up faces and experiences. When Bergman starred in Stromboli she was in her thirties and had just begun an affair with Rossellini that would cause a scandal in the United States for producing a child out of wedlock. The Roman photos of Hepburn reveal a woman in her forties, in her second marriage, raising her son from her first marriage; these are not the better-known Roman Holiday pictures of the ingenue in her twenties, floating about the ancient city in ballet flats. In a time when blogs and fashion magazines regularly preach to women about age appropriateness, the images of these two fashionable and graceful women make the claim for considering proper fit and quality before age. Maybe the focus should shift to what’s suitable for one’s body and lifestyle – ageless dressing – over what is age appropriate.
As I begin to pack, I comfort myself with fantasies of a new definition of basic: tailored, well-made clothes in durable fabrics that can be worn many times and personalized with accessories. (I’m thinking vintage and sustainable fashion here). Could it be what’s old is truly what’s new again?
When I was a child I spent the summers in Italy and the winters in New England. While this may not sound like much of a significant formative experience, it set the course for how I feel about tailoring. It was the 1970s, and I had a doll named Emily who was better dressed than I was. Her clothes were custom made while mine were off-the-shelf. She had two tailors: my mother, who cut the fabric and operated the sewing machine, and my grandmother who finished the details by hand.
Summering in Italy and wintering in New England meant that Emily needed the right clothes. Her winter wardrobe focused on print dresses, pants, and long sleeve shirts, while her summer wardrobe included sundresses and the perfect red bathing suit for the beach. I grew up surrounded by the hum of my mother’s old Singer sewing machine, flanked on all sides by various baskets, heaped high with spools of thread and buttons and scraps of fabric. Despite my grandmother’s repeated attempts to teach me how to sew buttons and to stitch by hand, I never developed any real skill beyond threading a needle. My passion seemed to lie in the process of tailoring rather than in the actual mechanics of sewing. I loved choosing the fabrics for Emily’s clothes and watching the cloth take shape into a finished form.
If my mother and grandmother are to blame for my appreciation of tailoring, they are also to blame for my general state of rapture when it comes to vintage. As a teenager, I learned the pleasure of hunting through old clothes – a pleasure that was partly derived out of necessity – as my mother’s deep-seated thrift prohibited spending on designer items. Unlike today, when wearing vintage is considered both coolly sophisticated and environmentally conscience, donning secondhand clothing in the 1980s branded the wearer with a distinct air of the alternative. Those were the days of Laura Ashley and the Gap and Jessica McClintock. While it’s true, at least in the 80s, that vintage clothing became more socially acceptable through the influence of movies like Pretty in Pink and images of pop culture stars like Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, it still wasn’t something that many teenagers and college students openly embraced.
Not too long ago, I read a quote by Diana Vreeland that really struck me. “I always say I hope to God I die in a town with a good tailor…” No one has taught me more about the transformative power of adapting clothing to the wearer’s specifications than my beloved tailor, Tatyana. Hailing from Kazakhstan, where her sartorial training included engineering, Tatyana has a fundamental knowledge of construction and a grave regard for fit. Although proper fit is generally acknowledged as the hallmark of notable style, most people would never buy anything secondhand that required alteration; for them it is too great a chore. But I am convinced there may be some readers who, like me, derive satisfaction from the process. The allure of vintage lies in its ability to speak to both memory and metamorphosis: you are able to quite literally take a garment that is too big and perhaps too evocative of another era (think mountainous Working Girl shoulders) and reshape it into something that harmonizes with the present. Rather than a destructive act, the tailoring process celebrates the past, and reincarnates it, washed free of any melancholic nostalgia.
I don’t think I am fooling myself when I say tailoring is my greatest luxury; the sea change it affords is deeply gratifying. As a daughter who has had a lifelong fraught relationship with her mother, the collaborative process of alteration is a means of staying connected to the happiest and most cherished times with my mother. Reconstruction of the vintage clothes I buy strikes me as an attempt at understanding, an attempt to control the outcome. It’s as if all the youthful hurt might be redeemed through this simple act of transformation.
Over the span of our twelve-year relationship Tatyana has altered countless vintage blouses and dresses. Each time the result is the same: I recapture both that childhood wonder at watching a garment transform under capable hands and the echo of the lost intimacy with my mother and grandmother. Maybe all along I have been chasing after the traces of this lost relationship, the cuttings and threads of maternal care, of maternal love. And the vintage fabric that is proof it all existed.
With the excitement of back to school clothes already come and gone and with Halloween costume season currently in full swing, I have been contemplating the question of how much men notice what women wear. It’s sometimes happened that women I’ve met while shopping, have lamented the clothing purchased for them by their special someone: brightly colored loungewear, patterned onesie pajamas, ankle length floral dresses, impossibly high-heeled shoes, and sexless architectural shapes. The main problem, from what I can tell, is that they are given clothes that don’t bear any relation to how they see themselves or to how they wish to be seen by others. I am not persuaded that such misguided choices, which women find dispiriting, are proof of men’s inattention to a woman’s individual style. I am not sure it is an indication of a blindness or of some kind of myopic distortion. And I think women would feel better about a man’s vision of the female wardrobe if they understood it most likely has its roots in childhood fantasies.
My introduction to how men see women’s clothes came when, unemployed and in my middle thirties, I arrived in Los Angeles from New York. Having left the East Coast for the foreseeable future, along with my job teaching Italian at The Fashion Institute of Technology, I decided it was an opportune time to try my luck as a middle and high school English teacher. Though students at FIT always took notice of whatever I happened to be wearing in class (usually with the intention of learning how it was made) it wasn’t until I taught thirteen and sixteen year-old boys that I got a true sense for how the opposite sex thinks about women’s clothes. I noticed right away that save for the occasional addition of a sweatshirt, the boys typically dressed in jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers every day of the school year. Though their clothes gave me no cause to suspect they harbored any interest in fashion, on more than one occasion, the boys looked upon my wardrobe as an object of fascination.
There is a fundamental contradiction in teenage boys: they are as direct in their observations as they are equivocal. It wasn’t uncommon in the middle of a lesson to have a student raise his hand only to ask a question about the logistics of what I was wearing. Could the two columns of buttons on a Dries Van Noten cardigan be buttoned on either column? Was my cropped black Viktor & Rolf utility jacket with large pockets on the chest a Soviet army issued military coat? Certain silhouettes and fabrics, I discovered over time, were associated in their minds with the things they had some familiarity with – historical figures about whom they were reading or classic films or individual cultural reference points, with a good dose of pop culture thrown into the mix. On one school day I wore a vintage Givenchy necktie dress and several of the boys remarked that I looked like Anne Frank. In a 1980s Cerruti oversized chartreuse sweater I reminded them of iconic rap stars they had seen on TV. Rather than shying away from their perceptions, I welcomed the chance to understand the mechanics behind male associations with women’s clothing. And, as though to bring things full circle, for Halloween I wore a silk YSL necktie blouse with wide leg trousers. Students had a hard time pinpointing who I was embodying but after a few broad hints, they eventually guessed I was trying my best to look like Jackie Onassis.
I’m not sure if the boys learned anything about a woman’s personal style from the outfits I wore that school year. But I came away with a solid belief, reinforced over the years by anecdotes and by personal experience, that men not only notice what women wear, they create narratives around clothes, perhaps as much if not more than women do: a graffiti print handbag reminds one man I know of Woodstock, while for another, a Margiela wool trench coat evokes images of captivating female spies. Almost every runway show by male designers from the recent Spring 2016 Ready-to-Wear collections is full of elaborate sets and fanciful themes, and Nicolas Ghesquière at Louis Vuitton gives credit for his show’s inspiration to a favorite boyhood film, the 1982 “Tron.” Clicking through the runway images, I notice that the male designers far outweigh the female creative directors in their use of intricate concepts. Proof, I think, of what most women learn merely by evaluating the bewildering clothing gifts from the men in their lives: our projections are bound by the youthful imaginings of what we find familiar.
I am convinced women should not be so quick to judge; the sartorial fantasy men construct around their significant other is simply the look of love.
“You gotta have style. It helps you get down the stairs. It helps you get up in the morning. It’s a way of life. Without it, you’re nobody. I’m not talking about lots of clothes.” – Diana Vreeland
A stylist and fashion editor for Elle Italy, Eva Fontanelli is not afraid of color or print. I love her playful but very grown-up style that incorporates feathers and sequins into daytime wear. Though thoughtful, her look is never studied which makes it all the more charming. Whether wearing neutral tones or vibrant colors, she projects an unselfconscious air that never fails to inspire.
When I was in my early twenties, I lived for a summer with my mother’s cousin in Tivoli, a medieval hill town on the outskirts of Rome. Newly graduated from college in the spring, and craving independence, I left behind my books and my husband – who at the time was the boyfriend I had just rented an apartment with – in New York City. My mother’s Italian cousin was married with two daughters, ten and fifteen years older than me. As sometimes happens in families, the sisters were opposite in every way. The older of the two, Milvia, a black haired tomboy, had her own apartment and a car. Luciana, a glamorous red head, lived at home and never showed the slightest inclination towards something as practical as driving. While Milvia was chatty and immersed in one community activity or another, Luciana was introspective with a girlish shyness. I admired both sisters for their Italian flair and wild long hair. But it was Luciana, though technically the younger in the family, who stood out in my eyes as the chic older sister. She had the style of a 70s movie star, the likes of Claudia Cardinale.
And so, on the hot Saturday afternoons of that summer, Luciana and I strolled through Tivoli window-shopping together. I had seen Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” enough times to know that Italians care about being well dressed and groomed; all the same, the afternoon walk – the passeggiata – was a revelation to me. I was amazed by the broad display of style. Up to that summer, my identity and self worth had been linked to school and to campus life, where aside from the occasional formal event, dressing well and looking put-together wasn’t a top priority. In sartorial matters, I was different from other young women my age. I appreciated and respected great style but it intimidated me. I didn’t feel I possessed the knack for dressing that society admires in a fashionable woman. Instead, I stuck with what felt safe: the all-American classics of sweatshirts, t-shirts, jeans and sneakers. Here walking along beside Luciana, seeing all the elegant women nearly brushing against us as we weaved in and out of shops, I was aloft in a setting far more sophisticated than any I had known before. Who would I become in the post college world I had newly entered? And more importantly, what would I wear?
It became plain that rather than being indebted to a particular designer label, Luciana owed her movie star appearance to the old fashioned virtues of mindfulness and self-control. She resisted fads and gravitated instinctively to brands that were in tune with her unique vision, personalizing each ensemble with jewelry or through the way she belted something or purposely chose to forgo a belt altogether. Most importantly, she looked confident and relaxed in her clothes.
And this perhaps was the greatest lesson of that summer: the difference between ease and comfort. For the first time in my life, I discovered that looking effortless is not the same as wearing shapeless or ill-fitting garments. Seeing the care Luciana took each day in composing an outfit, I realized style involves making a decided choice: discovering the right silhouette for your body and sticking with it regardless of trends. This in turn requires the difficult task of editing – sorting the unflattering cuts and colors from those that complement your body type. But being aware of your body and knowing the difference between the flattering clothes and the less than forgiving ones takes real skill. A skill Italians have in spades.
In his Renaissance advice manual, The Book of the Courtier, Baldessare Castiglione, a diplomat and writer, takes pains to outline the necessary physical and emotional attributes constituting the perfect courtier. He exhorts his readers, “to practice in all things a certain sprezzatura (nonchalance), so as to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.” This then is the Italian creed Luciana had so generously let me in on: a faultless attention to detail in order to present to the world an unstudied elegance.
By August, as the end of the summer neared and the eve of my departure arrived, I had amassed a generous assortment of hand-me-downs from Luciana’s closet. Into my suitcase went an orange cotton fisherman’s sweater, a light summer jacket, a floral mini skirt, various long sleeve tops, a hairclip. But one item stood out among all the rest: a honey-colored laminated wicker bag with a gold chain strap. Stenciled on the lining in gold lettering was the word RODO, a Florentine company that began producing bags in the 50s and remains in production today. I had never before seen a purse so refined but completely practical and chic. It articulated all that I admired and all that I had learned about Italian style: that mixture of whimsy and deadly serious put togetherness. More than any other object I owned it was the embodiment of sprezzatura.
Back in New York City I stayed faithful to the Italian creed, dressing with care and carrying my RODO bag everywhere – to weekend brunches, to lunches, to cocktails and then on to dinner. I had the bag for years until one day the chain strap broke. I was entrenched in the mayhem of moving from Manhattan to Brooklyn and didn’t know anyone who could repair the strap. And so, in a fit of desperation, I packed up the RODO bag in a box of Salvation Army donations. I never saw another one again until a decade and a half later at a flea market in Los Angeles. It was only there, as I gazed upon a table full of RODO bags, that the loss of Luciana’s bag washed over me. And the joy: I had been reunited with an old friend after a lifetime of separation. Though it was without a gold chain strap, I purchased a honey-colored clutch from the vendor. With bag in hand I stood instantly reconnected not only to Luciana but to the lessons of that summer. I was united again with that long forgotten part of me: the adventurous young woman who left her boyfriend (if only for a short while) to live carefree and uncover her style in a medieval Italian town.
Of course by now, with the help of Ebay, I have collected many RODO bags in various shapes and colors. But each time the feeling is the same: when I swing the gold chain strap over my shoulder and head out the door, I’m swept up once more in the glamour of those Italian summer afternoons.
Here is a link to my Elle magazine essay on personal style, published in the October 2012 issue.