Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Play's the Thing

The little book that started it all

It's short— 144  7" x 9" pages— and will take you 45 minutes to read. The play based on the book has been performed thousands of times around the world. I saw a delightful local performance this week. It resonates.

The premise behind Ilene Beckerman's 1995 memoir is her life in clothes. Through simplistic, childlike renderings and poignant text, the clothes rekindle memories. Some were related to an event in her life. Some were the clothes that defined a person, like her grandmother. Originally written for her children, with copies given to a few friends, Ilene was completely surprised at interest from a publisher. The book is a constant seller and has been followed by four others in a similar vein.

Ilene Beckerman
A "self portrait"

"Love, Loss and What I Wore" was configured into a play in 2008 by Nora and Delia Ephron, with multiple speaking parts. Ilene's nickname is Gingy, and that's her character. Four other actresses assume multiple roles in mini vignettes and perform as a Greek chorus in segments tagged "Clotheslines", riffing on everything from the color black to what goes on (or doesn't) in fitting rooms.

Ilene's technique was such a simple premise with which to reflect on your own life. We don't all have her gift of recall, but photographs can trigger remembrances. I challenge you to pull out a handful of random photos from the scrapbook. Were the clothes themselves important to you? A special dress for a special occasion? How did that play out? Was the photo taken on just an ordinary day? What do you remember about yourself that day? It can be a revealing exercise.

Here's two from me. I've never forgotten what happened the night I wore that dress. I'd completely forgotten about the snowsuit, and I think you'll understand why.

June, 1948
I was almost six. 
The occasion was a party celebrating my 15-year-old sister's Confirmation, a practice meant to replace bar- and bat- mitzvah's in Reform Jewish congrgations. It entailed a party the size and scope of a Sweet Sixteen. Hers was held at the Wade Park Manor in Cleveland. My parents were not party people— givers or go-ers— so this was a big deal. The dress was a silky jersey fabric (like a good nightgown). Pale, pale blue with a pale pink bow appliqued across the bodice. Beautifully done as I remember not being able to see the stitches that kept it attached. Pale blue silk socks (that kept slipping down), white shoes and, yes, that's a bow in my hair. I was always squinting in pictures as of course you had to face the sun. That night, at the party, I chased an older boy into the men's room. I guess he was trying to get away from me. Or else he really had to go. That incident was the stuff of endless family retelling— and some embarrassment when I was introduced to said "boy" (now 19) years later.

Winter, 1948
Age six and in the first grade.
Squinting but happy. Why? I hated the cold. Maybe I had just gotten out there or maybe it was time to go in? The snowsuit was red and green plaid with yellow accent lines. The matchings pants were green and padded. Fat pants. "Stadium boots"— brown rubber, zipped up the front with a fake fur collar around the edge. Lined in something furry too. I liked them as they looked just like the boots my sister and mother wore. What I had completely forgotten was the buttons. Look closely. A snow suit would have zipped for protection from the elements. But I hated the zipper and could never get the two prongs to line up at the bottom so it would zip up. My teacher got so tired of zipping me in for recess, lunch and going home that she sent me with a note to my mother instructing her to replace the zipper with buttons. Which she did. To this day I kind of sort of hate zippers. At the Lovely Boutique Where I Work I still feel a mini ping of panic when a customer asks for help with a zipper, and I often call for assistance, for someone's "magic touch".

All the world's a stage, and most of us are desperately unrehearsed.
— Sean O'Casey

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Michelle Obama's First Oscar

The winning Oscar

No, Michelle Obama has not received an early award from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences— yet— but she did wear Oscar de la Renta for the first time this week. The uber-successful New York-based designer's clothing had not made it to the Obama closet until now. He was becoming conspicuous by his absence, despite Michelle having worn a custom made cocktail dress designed by Oscar's son Moises five years ago. Ironically she wore the Oscar to a cocktail party at the White House where the senior Mr. de la Renta had been invited but declined to attend.

A Moises not an Oscar

The party was part of a White House Fashion Education Workshop that brought together students and fashion pros including designers, business people and journalists. What fun and hooray! Although Michelle Obama has been a First Lady fashionista of a high order, the event "took this to a new level, embracing the importance of fashion as an industry for the future."*

Mrs. Obama's tenure may be "winding down" (with only two years and two months to go), but she has established herself as a first and foremost first lady of fashion. Yes, we all wanted to look like Jackie, but Jackie just wanted to look like herself. Michelle is aware of the attention she draws and the power she has to direct it. Then there are the first daughters, Malia and Sasha, who are growing up before our eyes and always look well groomed and appropriately dressed (hopefully without too much nagging from mom).

Photogenic and fashionable First Family

Michelle uses her visibility both to promote new designers and ensure the credibility of the old guard. Among those she's worn:
Jason Wu
Prabal Gurung
Duro Olowu
Alexander McQueen
Tracy Reese
Thom Browne
Narciso Rodriguez
Diane von Furstenburg
Maria Cornejo
Naeem Khan
Georgina Chapman
Natalia Koval

Whose is that last name? Natalia Koval is a Ukranian student at the Fashion Institute of Technology whose dress Michelle wore on October 9 as part of the fashion workshop. Natalia was one of 26 students at the school asked to design a dress for an unnamed celebrity. This was a spot-on choice as it shows off Michelle's great arms and flatters her hipline. Natalia, go directly to the head of the class.

* Vanessa Friedman in the New York Times, October 12, 2014

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Fashion's Name Game

Who'll revive Poiret?

You've heard of musical chairs? Fashion is a game of musical hangers. A piece in The New York Times (10/5/14), aptly titled "Split Seams", set forth the news that Peter Copping is leaving the French couture house of Nina Ricci (possibly to go to Oscar de la Renta in New York), and Guillaume Henry is leaving Carven (possibly to go to Nina Ricci). This was on top of Jean Paul Gautier closing his ready-to-wear line. That last comes almost as a relief, because nowadays it seems he would just get someone else to do it.

This isn't only happening in Paris, of course. Thomas Burberry himself hasn't designed a raincoat for years. He died in 1926. Burberry is designed by Christopher Bailey. Calvin Klein retired in 2003; Francisco Costa is his replacement. But that's Fashion as Business. French fashion has always seemed above the fray, but now you truly need a scorecard. The names of the French couture houses are dripping with history. Some of the greats have shuttered (sadly no more Paul Poiret), but many are just being designed by other people. To wit:

Dior  Raf Simons
Balenciaga  Alexander Wang
Chanel  Karl Lagerfeld
Ricci  Peter Copping*
Lanvin  Alber Elbaz
Givenchy  Ricardo Tisci
Balmain  Olivier Rousteing
Valentino  Pierpaolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri
Ungaro  Fausto Puglisi
Carven  Guillame Henry*
Vuitton  Nicolas Ghesquiere
St. Laurent  Hedi Slimane
Vionnet  Hussein Chalayan

Does the length of this list strike you as a little screwy? Many of these designers are so talented they surely deserve to helm their own labels, not be linked with someone else. But would you rather own a Valentino or a Chiuri?

With the exception of Karl Lagerfeld, who has picked apart and tortured Chanel for the past 31 years, the work of many bear little resemblance to that of the masters before them. I shudder to think what Valentino, Givenchy or even Calvin Klein must think when they see what their names are serving up. Perhaps they're like me when I saw my old house again for the first time in ten years. They don't completely look.

* Stay tuned

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Women We Love: Norma Shearer

Norma, not Moira

When I was a kid, and ballerina-obsessed on account of "The Red Shoes", the only Shearer I knew was the star of that 1948 film, Moira Shearer. A gorgeous, delicate redhead, Moira was originally a ballerina with Sadler Wells and was no doubt responsible for millions of little girls begging their mothers for ballet lessons. I was one of them, but the request fell on deaf ears. Possibly because my mother could see my two left feet; most likely because lessons didn't fit the budget.

Moira, not Norma
Checking out Norma

At the library I would repeatedly check out a picture book of old Hollywood stars. Norma Shearer was among them, but I thought she might have been Moira's mother. It wasn't until advanced adulthood and the birth of Turner Classic Movies that I got to see Norma in the flesh, so to speak, on celluloid. My first exposure was the fabulous "The Women". The story pretty much revolves around her, though she is surrounded by a glorious gaggle of co-stars acting their hearts out. Not to forget gowns by Adrian— in color— as the finale of this b&w movie. Since then, I perk up at the mention of "Norma Shearer" and try to catch her films when they appear on TCM.

Norma Shearer's appeal is her grown-up-girl-next-door good looks. She's wholesome but not saccharine with a twinkle that lets you know she'll try anything. She was the girly-girl women would love for a friend and men would just love. She was not a comedienne or tragedienne but injected a lot of life into dramatic parts. Norma was one of very few who transitioned from silents to talkies. The charm she gave her role in "The Divorcee" (1930), portraying a "good-girl-gone-bad", earned her an Academy Award and more sophisticated parts.

Conrad Nagel as mesmerized by the divorcee Norma

It didn't hurt that she was Mrs. Irving Thalberg. He was the charismatic head of production at MGM studios. You may recognize the name from the Irving Thalberg award presented at the Academy Awards for exceptionally high standards in film making. Norma and Irving skirted around a romantic relationship for years before going public and marrying in 1927. His untimely death in 1936 is part of Hollywood history.

Mrs. and Mr. Thalberg

As for Norma, she always worked hard to overcome supposed physical limitations ranging from "bad legs" to a "cast eye" (me, I see none of that). Some of her later films were not great choices. "Marie Antoinette" had her wearing a silly blonde wig and "Her Cardboard Lover" in 1942 was her last film. She did know what camera angles worked best, and she felt she knew when it was time to leave the spotlight.

Following her retirement she married a 12-years-younger man and "withdrew from the Glamour side of Hollywood, preferring anonymity". Janet Leigh credited Norma Shearer for mentoring her during her early days in Hollywood as well as helping many other aspiring actors. But quietly. She died in 1983 at age 80.

Heard but not seen, 1951

Hollywood, where there are "more stars than there are in the heavens"*. And more than you may know. Norma Shearer is worth discovering.

*According to Louis B. Mayer of MGM

Thursday, October 2, 2014

What to Read: The Biba Years 1963-1975

Published only a week ago, I received my copy this morning and flipped through it immediately to make sure I didn't buy a pig in a poke. I'm happy to tell you this one just might be the Biba book to have. Written by Barbara Hulanicki (Biba herself), that means she has finally embraced the amazing event that was Biba and fully acknowledges its legacy.

Barbara Hulanicki has skirted around this for years (fashion pun— sorry). Who can blame her? The demise of Biba was tragic and life-altering. She survived by embracing another profession altogether, and is a quite successful interior designer of commercial properties whose sunny, whimsical work is light years from the misty, Gothic romanticism that we associate with Biba. Her co-author is Martin Pel, curator of Costume and Textiles at the Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove. Bibaphiles know that Brighton scores high in the Biba story. It's where Barbara grew up and attended art school. The book is published by V&A Publishing of the venerable Victoria and Albert Museum in London. In other words, this one has street cred.

Vintage Barbara...
...Barbara today

For those of you who need the facts, "The Biba Years" measures 10" x 11 1/2" and comes in at 248 pages of heavy, semi-gloss stock. The hard cover is printed with the cover image, so there's no paper one to become dog-eared. It's a "coffee table book" with great pictures— of the clothing, store interiors, sketches, etc., but there seems like plenty to read as well. As promised there are facsimiles of the six Biba mail order catalogues (of which I have one actual in my possession), but they are matchbook size and hard to decipher. I'll see if a magnifier reveals the prices, which will make you cry by today's comparison. Not considered cricket to call it "Biba", I guess, but a last chapter covers Barbara's work from 1975-2014.

I've put my copy down, for now, as this one will be a Treat of the first order to dip and delve into— with clean hands!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

In the Mood

"Fabric Mecca!" is not actually on the building

Project Runway fans, this one's for you.

I've watched every episode since the first, and in 13 seasons have learned to like and admire Heidi Klum, respect (and get over my fear of) Nina Garcia, grow weary of Michael Kors (now replaced by the charming Zac Posen) and love love love Tim Gunn.

The supporting player in all this is Mood. That's Mood Fabrics, located at 225 West 37th Street off Eighth Avenue in the heart of Manhattan's garment district. Mood was opened to-the-trade-only in 1991 by a working designer, Jack Sauma, unhappy with the fact that designing didn't guarantee a steady paycheck. Word spread of Mood's cache of fabulous fabrics, and two years later it was opened to the public. Now Mood's New York flagship is 40,000 square feet. A Los Angeles branch is 20,00 square feet, and there's an online store. Not in the least elitist, Mood offers sewing lessons and workshops for all levels.

Yes, it's that vast

All the years I lived in New York I never knew about Mood. It's truly off the beaten path, as I found out on a recent visit to the city. This is an area that holds no interest for the casual tourist. You can sense the importance of these crowded blocks before so much manufacturing got sent to China or India or elsewhere. This is where the majority of American fashion was conceived, cut, sewn, brokered and shipped. Remnants (forgive the pun) of that still exist, and there's a real effort to keep jobs here that haven't left.

Mood is a short hop from Parson's School of Design. When Tim Gunn tells the designers, "And you have $200 and 30 minutes to shop at Mood", they're practically going to the shop around the corner. In New York terms, you wouldn't take a subway or try to hail a cab; you'd probably hoof it.

The facade of Mood is deceptive as the ground floor store is "Mood Home" (upholstery and drapery fabrics). For the dressmaker's nirvana you need to enter a nondescript office building and take an elevator operated by a real human to the third floor. From there you can take stairs up or down, so Mood Fabrics is essentially three floors.

They must clear the place for filming as it serves an average of 1200 customers daily and was busy. Between the bolts of fabric jutting everywhere, milling customers and Swatch running around, there would hardly be room for cameras.

Swatch and Eric

Let me tell you about Swatch. I'm not what you call a dog person, but I would pop that little guy in a sack and take him home. If I could catch him. Swatch was everywhere— chasing his turquoise rubber ball, darting in and out of the fabric aisles, sidling up to customers and generally enjoying himself at warp speed. The scoop on Swatch is he is a 7-year-old Boston Terrier, big for his breed, and belongs to Eric Sauma, owner of Mood and son of the founder. Swatch picked Eric in the pet store, and was even on sale. When you see Swatch on television he's usually sacked out in the middle of the floor, the only time he's still long enough for the camera.

Swatch posing for me: Action shot
Ready for his close-up

I wasn't there to buy anything other than a souvenir for my friend Annie back in Houston— something small that I could have packed in a Mood bag. I found a package of mixed buttons she could probably craft into something magical. I thought about getting some yardage but was blinded by the choices. Naturally, when I watched last week's show I spotted a fabulous bolt.

The reality of reality shows may be a bit suspect, but Mood is the real deal. Thank you, Mood!

Thursday, September 25, 2014


I haven't paid much attention to Target's designer collaborations for many a moon because (with a few exceptions) the quality isn't there. In the age of instant fashion at all price points, this would be the great divide. Target's designer collaborations are priced as high or higher than Zara or H&M and— the quality isn't there. It was fun to sport "Tar-jhay" (wink wink) early on, but over time it's become more like "Oh, she got that at Target." Not the same.

So I didn't rush to my local branch of Target's 1,925 stores to see the unveiling of Joseph Altuzarra's collaboration a few weeks ago. But I had time to kill in an urban mall this past weekend and ran into a goodly amount of it.

Joseph Altuzarra at 31 is a bit of a wunderkind, the latest in a list of young men with exotic last names that I am constantly confusing. Paris born but a graduate of Swarthmore, he is the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) 2014 Womenswear Designer of the Year. His Target connection is thus quite their coup.

As expected it was as expected. Designs I've surely seen before: a black lace pencil skirt, a Diane von Furstenburg-like wrap dress in snake print, a claret velevet jacket and pants (very YSL "le smoking"), but then this dress:

An elegant floor-length wrap jersey with flower photo print down the side for $69.99. It was an a-ha moment because I had just seen that dress at a wedding two nights earlier. The young woman wearing it looked so lovely I had to take her picture (though I am no Bill Cunningham). The venue was an abandoned factory turned art space. I hadn't a clue she was wearing Altuzarra or Target; she just looked perfect.

So it's not the dress or the price tag so much as it's you looking confident and appropriate. Chasing designer labels is not the answer. It's knowing who you are and what looks good on you as well as changing with the times as Style keeps on churning.

Woman's work is never done.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Madame Predicts: Leggings are Back

Miranda Kerr and her little dog too

They're b-a-a-c-k. For some, leggings have never gone away. What started as "footless tights" turned into actual bottom pieces— heavier than tights and worn in place of pants (see "Leggings are not pants" below).

Then there were the "legging jeans", jocularly nicknamed "jeggings"— more substantial than lycra/spandex alone, hell to get into with a comfort level of zero.

Leggings may never have gone away, skinny jeans are still here, but leggings are coming out loud and proud. No fashion publication or guru on high has pronounced it so, but Madame has eyes, and what she sees at the mall are LEGGINGS. To whit:

The formerly sparse display of the Hue brand in Macy's near the garage entrance on level 2 has grown to include a good selection of Hue's 44 different styles available in a myriad of colors. There are leggings that look like jeans, of course, and wild ones that we will forget we saw. The majority of leggings are pull on, with or without various seams and stitchings. There are corded varieties, textured weaves and some with tuxedo stripes. The legging gold standard is rayon/lycra/spandex heavyweight, black and to the lower ankle.

Leggings are in the House

White House Black Market (what ever does that mean???) has a window display announcing a sub-shop called The Leggings Studio with 8 styles available in regular and petite. This is clearly an investment by the WH/BM people. They would not have gone out on such a limb had they not a pretty solid hunch leggings are back.

Madame also has eyes and sees what women wear, particularly when they are dressing for themselves. I see them out every day, doing what they do, in and out of The Lovely Boutique Where I Work.

Leggings are easy, and today's big tops and tunics require skinny bottoms. Since tummy and waist are essentially hidden under the top, it's the leg that shows. If the thigh is a problem, the top should be longer, but you knew that already. Even if you don't like your legs, leggings are so "Ford Model T" they make your leg dismissible if not invisible. In other words, the state of your leg in leggings doesn't count.

What about footwear with leggings? Ballet slipper? Check. D'Orsay flat? Check. Bootie? Check. Chunky heel? Check. High heel pump or running shoe? The check bounced.

Two things to remember:
1) Leggings are not the same as footless tights. Leggings could almost stand on their own with a little assist. Tights are as flimsy as pantyhose.

2) Leggings are not pants.  Nothing gets tucked in and worn in public. Fortunately I've seen this look only on someone too young to have seen "Flashdance" in a theater. Lucky you if you are reading this. For the rest of us, leggings are meant to be comfortable and not complicated. That's why they're back!

Shall we be dusting off the leg
warmers and sweatbands too?

Friday, September 12, 2014

Who's that Girl?

She's arrestingly attractive, bubbly, vivacious, of no certain age. She's the "spokesperson" (though she never says a word) for Chico's. In television and print campaigns this Sophia-like stunner drives the message that Chico's is for the young at heart, girls (maybe now ladies) who want to have fun and is not your mother's Talbot's.

But who is that girl? She's Magali Amadei, no mystery woman really but by now very connected to the Chico's brand. Magali is a former French fashion model who lives in New York City. Born in 1974, she's a mere 39 years old. Magali was discovered at age 16 while studying ballet in her native Nice. As a model she had covers on Vogue, Elle, Marie Claire, Harper's Bazaar, etc. and has appeared in small television and movie roles. Especially interesting is that she suffered from bulimia for several years and now speaks out to educate young women on the dangers of such self-image issues.

Back in the day (1994) at age 19

A website called AskMen describes the lovely Magali particularly well:

"The long frame, the elegant features and the olive skin have cemented her reputation among fashionistas. Her famous legs are a neverending tribute to feminine perfection. In addition, Magali possesses a certain intangible quality that shines through in all of her photographic work. This trait is inherent in all of the big names in the business; call it photogenic magnetism or an ability to seduce the camera. Whatever it is, Magali has got it."

Is it a bad thing or a good thing for her that she got the Chico's gig? And how do we feel about a 39-year-old playing Grandma?

First of all, Chico's is not just for WOACAs (Women of a Certain Age). Before I knew I wasn't supposed to shop there, I would visit the branch in a small Connecticut town near my home and eye with some envy the colorful separates and accessories that were a bit too steep for my pocketbook. When I got older, and my pocketbook a little bigger, I looked closer and found that while accessories fit anyone, Chico's sizes (cunningly tagged 1-2-3-4) were too big for me. They've since expanded to include 0 and 00 and even stock petites.

Proud mom Debbie with
swimming champion Michael

But the perception is still that Chico's caters to a fun loving, socially active (meaning she goes places and does things) older woman whose figger may not fit a body-conscious silhouette.  At one time Debbie Phelps was a quasi-rep for Chico's, and I think she wore it well. We do know, though, not all fashion today is body-con and not all WOACAs have lost their figgers.

Despite wishing it weren't so, women buy into the notion that clothes look best modeled on—well— models. Sadly I also don't really want to see my true self looking back at me from the pages of my favorites magazines. I get enough of that in the mirror, thank you and am wise enough—or consigned to the fact— that everything I see won't look good on me. Everything never did anyways! The lovely older women models out there are still stick-thin so don't look like me either.

The lovely Linda 
The Charming Carmen
The Sassy Sue

So for me Magali is a winner. But I worry about her. She is is indelibly typecast now as the Chico's gal. I worry that she will never get work other than Chico's. One good thing, she probably has another 40 years in her modeling career.

Keep on keeping on

PS She's not the only one. Chico's has another model with an enviable cropped blonde pixie who never fails to make an appearance in the catalogues. Alas I've had no luck uncovering her identity.

Now who's that gal?

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Not Exactly a Full Gallop

Diana by Peter Emmerich

With the increased interest in Diana Vreeland (thanks to a new biography and the lovely film, "The Eye Has to Travel"), I was happy to see there would be a local revival of "Full Gallop", the one-woman play about her that premiered off-Broadway in 1996.

"Full Gallop" was written by Mary Louise Wilson and Mark Hampton. It was a tour-de-force for Mary Louise, garnered postive reviews, won her a Drama Desk Award and had a good run. Of course New York City is the perfect venue for anything Vreeland. I glimpsed Diana only once, during her time as editor in chief of Vogue, and feel the connection still. In fashion, publishing and museum-centric NYC that sense must be in the thousands.

Mary Louise Wilson in the original production

More surprisingly, "Full Gallop" has been staged in other cities with different actresses for years. The production I just saw was itself a revival. The actress portraying Diana expressed her feeling that being older herself now gives the performance more depth.

Galloping actresses 

This is not a review, though I'm surely influenced in my desire to write by flubbed lines and garbled dialogue. I was disappointed because she was portrayed for laughs. Every amazing bon mot was delivered with the intention of prompting a rise from the audience. She came across as being hounded by creditors, desperate for small change and more of a huckster than someone who really did have no idea about money. Her fallen-apart dinner party seemed like the guests would do anything to avoid spending the evening with her, one even suddenly heading off to Morocco. The actress drank constantly, filling her glass with ice and water that I assume was meant to be vodka. Didn't Mrs. V drink scotch? And couldn't the actress have nursed it so we didn't wonder if Diana was really a lush?

My hope is this is not the way "Full Gallop" is being staged. I haven't found any of Mary Louise Wilson's performances to judge her original intent. Not everyone will have seen "The Eye Has to Travel" first and certainly may not wish to afterwards. From what I witnessed on stage, I think the lady needs to speak for herself.

Never at a loss...