I just picked up the latest vintage alteration from my tailor. This YSL silk satin fuchsia blouse was a lucky find that had never been worn but was several sizes too big. It needed to be taken in and the shoulders had to be recut. Inspired by vintage Vogue Patterns of Yves Saint Laurent creations, I asked my tailor to create a thinner necktie from the wide necktie fabric. The after photo, I think, shows the difference good tailoring can make in updating a vintage garment and keeping it wearable for many more years.
A month ago I went downtown to A Current Affair, an impressive Los Angeles vintage fair, and came home with a vibrant purple Yves Saint Laurent blouse. It’s always risky going to vintage fairs where many dealers, both local and from around the country, congregate to offer up their collections. Because there is so much temptation and very little time to think, a vintage fair can be a day of mixed emotions: from the joyful high you feel coming away with that one of a kind item, to the sorrowful regret you experience over holding back and returning home empty-handed. In my case, the happiness I felt buying an Yves Saint Laurent garment, was slightly blunted by the fact that I would need to remove the necktie in order to make the blouse modern and wearable. And so, the day after the fair, I planned a visit to my tailor.
Though I’ve stood in my tailor’s studio many times over the years, contemplating what changes to make to a garment, this YSL blouse was different. Because of the removal of the necktie, a new neckline with a trim had to be constructed. Despite the fact that the necktie could still be worn as a type of scarf with the blouse and the original buttons and pleating remained intact, I felt a slight twinge of guilt at altering the 80s design. But through the process of disassembly, I came to see the blouse as something regenerated, a garment that enfolds the original while having a separate life from it. More than likely, in its original form, my blouse would have remained an inspiration garment for fashion designers, stored away in a studio – frozen in time without a chance at a second life in a new setting.
I don’t think I’m kidding myself when I say that Saint Laurent himself would have approved of the transformation process – his Rive Gauche line was fundamentally about experimentation and creativity. In a 1972 interview he explained his philosophy this way: “With ready-to-wear you can play around with the many parts of clothes and change them. In couture you can’t play with clothes.” After all, cutting and sewing is at heart about play and repurposing. Or put another way, it’s about the spirit of the idea taking flight.
If you’re looking for inspiration this holiday season, it’s worth checking out the latest Yves Saint Laurent exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum on view until January 8, 2017. The show will travel on to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts from May 6-August 27, 2017. But if you can’t make it to the museum, the exhibition catalogue by Rizzoli offers a multidimensional look behind the scenes of Yves Saint Laurent. After looking through my copy yesterday, I think the book would make a great gift for yourself or for the fashion lover in your life. Highlights include many previously unseen documents from the Fondation Pierre Bergé and Saint Laurent’s maison de couture or paper doll collection fabricated out of cut paper when the designer was only a boy. Click here for a look at the current exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum.
Back from my tailor, a vintage Yves Saint Laurent blouse. I think the before and after photos really demonstrate that proper fit matters.
Hedi Slimane showcased Part I of his Fall 2016 Ready-to-Wear show for Saint Laurent on Wednesday night at the historic Palladium here in Los Angeles. As a vintage lover, I had resisted the rebranding of the fashion house when he took over as creative director in 2012. But this show stole my heart. The looks were lush and sophisticated and modernly elegant. An abjuration of both normcore and the fashion dictates of good taste, Slimane’s Part I showing convincingly recalled the best of Yves Saint Laurent’s 70s tailoring and silhouette. Yet the strength of the collection lies in how it turns YSL’s iconic pieces on their head, through such modern touches as sharp leather jackets worn with silk brocade skirts, velvet tuxedo jackets layered over sequin tops, and the high/low combination of strict houndstooth menswear suiting with metallic leather boots. What’s most compelling to me about this kind of dressing is the offhanded nature of juxtaposing your Sunday best with your weekend casual. Shows like this get the imagination churning and always inspire me, when I’m confronted with what to wear, to think a bit differently about pairings.
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.
At a social gathering in November last year someone asked me what I wear when I’m not dressed up. I am usually dressed for work or for a special dinner or for a party, and so the question got me thinking about how you present yourself to the world in a casual way. In my case, because I like a uniform, I stick to a general formula: top plus pants plus nice shoes or sneakers plus jewelry plus bag. I find many women, who pull off casual day dresses with great conviction and style, prefer them to pants when they’re not dressed up. While dresses do away with the stress of puzzling over what separates go with what, I favor pants for the everyday. The few dresses I own are vintage and belong to the category of special occasion.
Although I resist each year making any New Year’s resolutions, the weekend after the holiday, I spent time pondering the question of casual clothes. What constitutes a put together, or in today’s fashion parlance, effortless look? In evaluating the situation I had no choice but to confront my doggedness. You see, dear reader, when I find a contemporary designer who suits my silhouette and my sensibility I stick with them. You might suppose the realization of this fact in the new year of 2015 to mean I have come to reassess my intractability regarding designers. Not at all. From the holiday sale period to the current arrival in stores of the new spring collections, I have continued to be squarely focused on one designer: Isabel Marant.
Since 1998 when the first Isabel Marant store opened in Paris in the 11th Arrondissement, I have been obsessed with the label. Why does the Parisian designer attract me in this unfaltering way? Why when I’m not dressed up, am I wearing the designer responsible for spawning such trends as studded boots, the high top sneaker with the concealed wedge heel, lace dresses and Navaho print jeans? I had moved to the 11th with my husband in the fall of 1997 and so my first encounter with the designer’s clothes was at the original shop on Rue de Charonne, a few streets away from our apartment. (Humble beginnings for a brand that currently has stores in many cities throughout the world and is frequently photographed on celebrities.) That academic year in Paris, as a relatively poor twenty-seven year-old graduate student, I never dared purchase anything from the designer’s compact shop with the wooden interior. When I regularly passed by the window, occasionally stopping in, it was only to wistfully admire the glamorous bohemian appeal of the collection.
But for some twelve years now, with few exceptions, I have been wearing Isabel Marant. Her clothes strike the right note of casual chic: singular garments that do not call out for attention. All the same, can one have too much of a good thing? In considering the issue, I have come to realize that what I admire about Isabel Marant is her ability to evoke a particular mood. The pieces I am drawn to are never the wildly successful editorial ones. Instead, I am enticed by the quieter garments that emerge each season – the uncomplicated shirts and pants that mix easily with my wardrobe. In referencing disparate eras like the 1950s or the 1980s, and by reworking certain iconic American pieces like the t-shirt, denim, the military shirt, and the cavalry coat, Marant has a knack for elevating workaday clothing through cut, fabric, and print. These clothes rouse in me a nostalgia for clothing I owned at various stages in my life, or for clothing that is reminiscent of the understated wardrobe worn by French actresses in certain films I admire. I appreciate too the transparency of her aesthetic: her collections are clearly indebted to such venerable designers as Yves Saint Laurent and Issey Miyake. And like these heroic designers of the past, Marant consistently works with natural fibers. With so many contemporary brands in the same price point making clothes from synthetic fabric, her garments are produced in cotton, rayon, linen, wool and silk. Fashion today prizes disposable clothing but Isabel Marant’s pieces wash and wear beautifully over the years and can be easily found for resale on Ebay.
There is a nagging thought in my mind that someone who champions vintage clothing as much as I do should not be seduced by a contemporary brand reinterpreting American sportswear. But this is the rational mind at work – the old desire from that year in Paris is still in me, my regard for the label arising from the past, from youth. I cannot not shop for Isabel Marant. In this new year of 2015 I have learned that no amount of self-awareness or reflection can change what our hearts admire.
Marie works as a sales assistant in Burbank at one of my favorite vintage stores, Playclothes. She’s a gamine from Brittany who has a knack for effortlessly mixing vintage pieces with contemporary clothes in a playful chic way. Here are her answers to my seven essential style questions.
What do you find glamorous?
Glamour for me could be a low cut bias satin gown with barely any jewelry, or jodhpurs with a white shirt. It’s really about an understated elegance.
Who are your favorite designers?
Oh, I have a few! Yves Saint Laurent, Jean Paul Gaultier, Sonia Rykiel and I will add Vivienne Westwood to keep things fair with all the French.
How would you describe your style?
I usually mix contemporary and vintage pieces, so I would say my style is eclectic. I like whimsical or unusual costume jewelry. I particularly love the look of the 1960s’ New Wave. My favorite hobby is to go thrift store shopping; it’s like a treasure hunt. Lots of my favorite pieces come from these outings.
What scent/perfume do you wear?
I have been wearing Eau du Sud by Annick Goutal. But for an evening out, I like to wear Jardin de Bagatelle by Guerlain. I love the scent of vanilla. Occasionally, I’ll wear Eau Sauvage by Dior; although it’s a men’s cologne, it brings back memories…
Is there anything in your wardrobe that you are purely emotionally attached to?
I actually have a lot of things! When I fall in love with something I usually keep it forever. But there are two things in particular that I’m attached to. I have a pair of black cigarette pants I bought in France about twenty years ago. They have kept their timelessness and go with everything. I also have a collection of Breton striped shirts. It is rather an embarrassing addiction because I’m from Brittany.
Who are your style icons?
I really admire Jane Birkin for her casual androgynous style. There is nothing better than a good pair of blue jeans with an oversized white shirt or sweater. I also love Charlotte Rampling and appreciate how gracefully she is aging. Lauren Bacall is forever a great source of inspiration.
What have you learned about style over the years?
To be daring. I don’t believe in following trends and think using your imagination is so much more interesting. It’s important to know your body and what works with your shape. Clothes are a means of self-expression; I see getting dressed in the morning as my little art project.
For some years now I have kept on my desk a postcard of the actress Greta Garbo. She rests her chin in one hand and her head in the other, as she gazes melancholically into the distance. On one wrist she wears a Verdura curb link bracelet watch, and on the other, the matching bracelet. After becoming well known among the Hollywood set, Verdura, a fine jewelry company, opened its doors in New York City in 1939. Although I appreciate the minimalism and elegance of Garbo’s jewelry, it is not the reason I have been attached to the photograph. One thing in particular attracts me to this image of the star: the impossibility of separating the Verdura bracelets from the woman. I’ve long held the illusion that the bracelets symbolize the wearer. The other afternoon, while doing some research, I discovered that the curb link bracelet watch had been an especial Garbo favorite. When it comes to style, I like constancy. And so it pleases me to know that Garbo wore the same watch during her lifetime, to the exclusion of other designer options.
Fashion today demands a compulsive turnover and an endless quantity. When the urge to go shopping gets the better of me, my favorite thing to search for is vintage fashion jewelry. But I’ve noticed that my appreciation for steadiness places me in an awkward position with the selling community. It brands me as both a good and a bad shopper. Good, in that I’m inclined to spend a bit more money for a piece of jewelry that is of high quality. Bad, because I don’t buy in volume. And although I frequent consignment stores and vintage expos, and look regularly on e-bay for necklaces and bracelets, I come up short with purchases each year. I marvel at this desire to experience the new while sticking with the familiar, and recognize there is an aspect of severity in my enjoyment of repetition, for I’m told it’s necessary to have variety in order to stave off a fashion rut. But I prefer to reach for the same dependable items: that favorite bracelet and necklace and watch.
When does a person consider selling or giving away certain pieces of jewelry? This past summer I spent weeks contemplating the question. Finally I determined, if it is the right piece, there is no expiration date. In recent months, I’ve wondered if my dependence on fashion jewelry has become an obsession. When deliberating over a purchase, I bear in mind how it will age on me. Will my desire for it extend into my advanced years, and will I wear it as convincingly in the future as in the present? It’s true that this sort of calculation drains some of the excitement from shopping, curtailing the deep pleasure derived from finding something you love. If I am obsessed, it is an obsession in which the end results matter most to me. I experience both a comfort and a luxury in putting on the same familiar objects over the years.
Like Garbo, who wore her bracelet watch as a type of amulet, I count on my fashion jewelry for strength. There it is seeing me through day-to-day obligations and trying moments. Once more, it is there to accompany me on the travels and adventures that lie ahead. And in donning again and again the pieces I’ve carefully collected, I’ll feel, as when beholding them for the first time, that spark of love at first sight.
Nora Ephron gave a commencement speech at Wellesley College in 1996 and said something I’ve cherished. “Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there.” This statement occurs to me each time I look in my closet, tasked with finding something to wear. Unlike many of my peers, I missed out as a child on experimenting with fashion. I was never one of those kids, who on the path to self-expression, masterfully paired clashing items of their wardrobe to create an improbably chic outfit. My sisters and I were closed off from this creative process: we wore a uniform every day from kindergarten through to eighth-grade. In the Catholic school atmosphere we grew up in, there was no room for sartorial experimentation.
A direct consequence of my uniform years is that, as a teenager and college student, I abided by the fashion rules. A lady doesn’t wear white after Labor Day; she matches her bag to her shoes; she doesn’t show her knees past a certain age; a lady avoids black, white and pants when attending a wedding. But rather than finding comfort in my execution of the rules, I often felt insecure in whatever I had on. I didn’t take any joy in getting dressed. Wearing all white in the summer made me uneasy, as did wearing dresses to weddings. In college, I didn’t understand why it wasn’t socially acceptable for a woman to wear a jumpsuit or even pants to formal events. Then, in my late twenties, when I was about to become a bride, I was cautioned on all sides against the color black and dressing in pants.
At this point, I knew it was time to rebel and break the rules: I wanted to be the bride who wore both black and pants. I also wanted to experiment with oppositions, combining those colors and fabrics that are conventionally seen as incompatible: purple with burnt orange, burnt orange with green, navy with black, brown with grey, velvet with brocade, tweed with chiffon, and floral prints with military separates. And while we’re at it, why not mix winter fabrics with summer fabrics? And layer a tough chic motorcycle jacket over a ladylike dress? Let’s incorporate feathers and sequins into a traditional daytime look. But contrast and opposition are not ladylike. And society places a great deal of pressure on women to dress appropriately. In her commencement address, Nora Ephron, a rule breaker, recognized that women are encouraged to follow convention, to avoid taking risks, to be ladies.
Like Ephron, Loulou de la Falaise was the kind of woman who never bothered with the rulebook. A bohemian with whimsical style, de la Falaise met Yves Saint Laurent in 1968 and became his lifelong muse and collaborator. A jewelry designer for the Saint Laurent house, she once described her style in a Guardian interview as tomboy gypsy. In refusing to conform to various fashion decrees, de la Falaise was extraordinarily stylish. Shortly after her death in 2011, Hamish Bowles wrote in Vogue, “she provided a walking embodiment of what real style-personal, quirky, unexpected, inspiring-could be.”
It seems to me, that not following the fashion rules matters because in the process of jettisoning certain dictates and trends, you arrive at a point of discovery. It’s a moment in which you come to recognize what it is you truly admire about fashion. It’s not rebelliousness for the sake of rebelling; breaking the fashion rules is far more complicated than that. When a woman wears what’s unexpected she demonstrates a fearlessness that’s both empowering and engaging. Because breaking the rules is honest-a woman is being true to her own unique style-and that’s awfully courageous.