Sunday, July 5, 2015

Summer Reading Book Club: "Wild Company"

A few posts ago I wondered whatever happened to Banana Republic that it went from sriracha to vanilla, from adventurous to corporate bland. In doing research I discovered the founders, Mel and Patricia Ziegler had written a book, "Wild Company: The Untold Story of Banana Republic", published in 2012. My local library came through, and I've just finished reading.

What an interesting story! First of all, a cautionary tale. Don't wish for something or you may get it. Mel and Patricia were young professionals (he a newspaper writer, she an illustrator) who were questioning "Is that all there is?" and hoping to find a way to earn a living while following their desires to travel the world and enjoy life's unscripted adventures.

Epiphany came in the form of an army surplus jacket Mel picked up on assignment in Australia. He loved it so much and was complimented so often while wearing it, he and Patricia decided to explore the world of military surplus goods and opened one small store in Mill Valley, California in 1978. They made it fun to shop— creating a faux foreign nation theme— and stocked the store with revamped or re-purposed surplus goods. They knew from the beginning they would need the exposure of mail order to stay alive, so produced smart, witty catalogs illustrated by Patricia.

Back in the GAP days
Still having adventures

Hereby lies the rub. Banana Republic grew so fast (and the supply of acceptable surplus shrunk so quickly) they found themselves run ragged trying to find and/or manufacture merchandise that met their quality standards. Staffing was always a problem, and there are some funny but sad tales of missing merchandise and mismatched deliveries— nightmares that would have upended any couple with less forgiving natures.

Without looking for it (although it was definitely needed) help in the form of corporate America came in the person of Don Fisher, founder and owner of the GAP. It was 1983, and the GAP was at the height of its success. He promised the Zieglers all the backing they needed (as long as they turned a profit) with no intervention from him. For a while the arrangement worked well, despite two of the Fisher sons being part of the now larger executive structure.

Yes, this was a store

It's here that your eyes may glaze over. I happen to love the study of the marketplace as much as the fun and frippery of fashion. I lapped up "Mr. Selfridge" and hated to finish "Style and Substance" (about America's department stores). I don't like the math part (agghh!!), but there's an adventure in retail for which "Wild Company" can be your guide.

In the end, the GAP won. Mel and Petricia realized, not that they were beaten down, but that money wasn't their aim in life. They "retired" for several years, started a family and two new ventures— one a success (Republic of Tea), one ahead of it's time. ZoZa was meant to be "performance clothes for the sport of living" (Lulemon anyone???), but it was short-lived. They came out of the jungle alive, so to speak, and have a great story to tell about retail big game hunters.

Oh, I finally learned what is a SKU, that string of numbers sales associates need when you ask for the "Dragonfly Morning Maxi Skirt". SKU stands for Stock Keeeping Units. Now you know.

That long string of numbers is the SKU

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Cinema Chic: "I'll See You in My Dreams"

Blythe Danner inhabits the role of Carol in the new movie "I'll See You in My Dreams" so easily, watching her you feel you know her as well as the friends she hangs out with, playing cards and drinking wine in their "Golden Girls" years. The film isn't exactly a romance or a comedy or a Lifetime-Movie-of-the-Week. It's a slice-of-life study that I won't ruin for you by giving away the plot.

Much of what we think we know about Carol comes through by way of her clothes, hair and makeup. Like the real Blythe Danner, Carol was always beautiful (old pix on the mantel attest to that)*. She is more beautiful still as she hasn't messed with what nature gave her, and is aging elegantly and gracefully. Blythe Danner is 72, and she plays a woman who easily could be 72.

Carol wears what many stylish women do. The costume designer was Mirren Gordon-Crozier, who has only a few years experience in the business. I'm impressed such a young woman has grasped a look I'm only just now beginning to understand: comfortable yet sophisticated clothing you can wear without thinking about what you are wearing.

Mirren and her resume (magnifying glass not included)

Carol (or Mirren doing it for her) must have shopped Chico's and Talbots, Eileen Fisher, Joan Vass and maybe Banana Republic. She's had her accessories "for years". She wears soft colors, loose sweaters and trousers, scarves draped softly rather than tied tightly. She smartly dons a straw hat outside. She has a pair of gold hoops that are her earrings of choice and a classic trench coat, the kind you grab from the closet without thinking. The only "off" piece in the movie is a stiff white blazer printed with oversize green leaves. Carol didn't look comfortable in it, but the scene called for her to be uncomfortable. That jacket helped.

Her hair isn't fussy or tightly styled. It's hard to tell whether it's gray or blonde. Doesn't matter. There are many scenes in which Carol wears no makeup. She looks like she believes in a good moisturizer. When she does get dolled up, she uses a hefty whoosh of eyeliner and mascara, which I think is great. We WOACAS have been cautioned against using prominent makeup, and to that I would like to say, "Balderdash". There's a time and place for everything.

"I'll See You in My Dreams" is definitely worth seeing, as evidenced by the long lines of ladies outside my local cinema the past three weekends. I'm happy to have met Carol and delighted to see Blythe Danner in the starring role, giving such a glowing performance.

I'll also confess to admiring one of Carol's accessories, he of the unlit cigar and major mustache, as  played by Sam Elliott.

* Look carefully and you'll notice there is a photo of the real Blythe with her late husband, Bruce Paltrow, as well as a young Gwyneth Paltrow standing in for Carol's daughter as a child.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Gal of a Thousand Outfits

Man of a Thousand Faces had nothing on me. I'm the Gal of a Thousand Outfits. I have this thing about not wearing anything twice in exactly the same way. It's part sport, part foggy memory— pretty much the way I operate.

My idea of mix-and-match is mix-and-mixmaster.

This is not rebellion on account of having worn a school uniform. I am so anti-uniform I once turned down a perfectly good sales job because the staff had to wear logo-embellished shirts.

I love to get dressed and look on it as an act of creative expression. What could be better? A necessity (one must get dressed), a challenge (to "make it work"), instant gratification. Failures are short-lived, and one usually learns from one's mistakes ("never wearing those together again").

Sometimes, in the great flurry that is getting dressed in the morning (which includes breakfast and the newspaper), I wish I could remember that interesting outfit I once put together. So I've taken to shooting a selfie and moving it to an album on my phone. Perhaps this idea is not the greatest since sliced bread, but the smart phone sure is.

A picture is worth...

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Does Omar the Tentmaker Sew for Thee?

I've so reached the point where I look better covered up. It just happens, and if you're there yourself, you know what I mean. The way I see it, we have two choices as we age. And by age, I mean 70+. You fifty-year-olds are not old, no matter what you may think.

We can either become one of those wiry, stringy old ladies who are thin but painful to look at or we can become one of those lumpy, soft and saggy ladies who at least look nice to hug. Of course, we don't have a choice.

Your genetic makeup will pretty much determine which direction you take. And for that, look to your mother. My mother was a little birdlike woman who nonetheless complained she was "fat". Her fat centered on her tummy, which was far from flat. And now I know why she felt that way.

As you age you realize health is the most important A #1 thing, and if it ain't broke, don't fix it. If you are a normal, healthy weight, and your doctor has not told you to lose or gain, don't start disrupting things. I lost a few pounds this spring as I can't seem to eat when I'm troubled or upset. I enjoy food, and it was no fun not to have an appetite, even if my pants fit looser. I kept thinking I really, really would rather be fatter and happier. In a week I was back to my old self again, in all ways including I kept thinking I should lose a few pounds.

Too much time on my hands? Hardly. I forget about these things as I go about my day. I make choices what to eat and how to exercise. I can rationalize the former with more of the latter. I remind myself we only live once, and you can take just a taste. We all have these brief intimate moments with ourselves when we take stock then move along. I just happened to write mine down.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Let's Hear it for the Boys

Shedding standard business attire has been the norm for high-powered tech executives. Led by Steve Jobs and fully realized by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, the no-look of casual t-shirt-and-whatever signals "I'm a rich genius so it doesn't matter what I wear." Bill Gates was just born too soon.

Steve and Mark setting a low sartorial bar

Casual Friday at the office eventually morphed into Casual Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday as well, with Friday and Saturday becoming more casual yet. I've gotten used to seeing men in scrubs at the supermarket. They have undoubtedly discovered scrubs' optimum comfort. I've convinced myself those men are through at the hospital and will not be going back to work. Or at least will not be working on me.

After years of fashion trying to get men to grow-up-and-dress-up, it looks like even fashion has given into their inner little boy. Any woman who has ever dealt with getting a grown man to wear long pants on an occasion when he should may cringe at the thought. But to some extent, fashion is only giving in to what may already be the norm.

No one likes wearing uncomfortable uniforms, and  today's business 9-to-5 reflects that. Young men maybe have grown up— but not always out— of the fun stuff of their skater youths. And the younger generation always influences the older one, even if it takes a while.

This summer the most dressed up men I've seen are wearing Hawaiian shirts with chino pants. It was practically a uniform among grown men of a certain age at dinner on Friday night.

I'll have one from column A, B and C

I convinced my husband to break up his beloved seersucker suit by wearing the jacket with a collared polo shirt and jeans. I got the idea from "Garden & Gun" magazine who were advising their male readers how not to look like attendees at a convention for southern lawyers.

Men, take note, lest you think you can just reach willy-nilly into your closets. Ladies, take notes because the man in your life may need your guidance. Oh, and Happy Father's Day.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

When "Banana Republic" Was a Destination

Once upon a time there was a banana republic as near as your local mall. A visit took you to another country, albeit a very tongue-in-cheek one, where khaki and olive reigned supreme and the further you were from your last safari, the closer you were to the next. No dictators or produce were harmed.

Inside a Banana Republic outpost

Whatever possessed the founders Mel and Patricia Ziegler (he a writer and she an artist) to think Americans would go for full-blown safari gear? Perhaps the term "urban jungle" had just been coined.  They began by finding, cleaning up and selling "vintage military surplus clothing in a new context". Like a few lucky geniuses before them, they had no retail experience and just plowed ahead into unknown territory. They "reinvented stores as theater and catalogs as must-read literary adventure journals" and soon began producing new safari-centric goods for both men and women. They were a hit from the start. Banana Republic was one of the first themed retailers and set a new bar for in-store merchandising. The Zieglers sold to the GAP in 1983 and the rest is a journey into the bland BR we know today. They wrote a book chronicling their adventures in 2012. "Wild Company" seems like a good read.  

Mel and Patricia and their wild ride

Today the bastion of acceptably cool corporate chic "Banana Republic" is a bit of a misnomer.  The offerings— and the stores— bear no resemblance to the glory safari days. That look is still so classic anything in the old catalogs could be trotted out and worn without irony today. Ralph and Michael, of course, will hopefully be a little safari forever.

Today's Banana Republic is the go-to for young men's and women's work wear, from buttoned up to button-down. You can depend on decent quality and fabrication at a lower tier but still on the corporate ladder. They've never been big on date looks or super casual weekend gear. If you run into your boss in the Hamptons, and you are wearing Banana Republic, you will pass muster.

In the country of 9 to 5

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Galliano Naming Rights— and Wrongs

Bill Gayten carries baggage

 Fashion is not just fun. It's not even just a business. It's serious stuff, sometimes in very polarizing ways. I refer to John Galliano's downfall as the designer for Christian Dior after a series of anti-semitic rants (even captured on You Tube) in 2011. I never brought it up before as it was sad to realize how a talented and successful man could be so stupid and clueless. In my opinion his fall from grace was well-deserved. And I'd rather not comment on his attempts at redemption.

John Galliano the brand still exists, owned by the conglomerate LVMH. It is not designed by Galliano, who is now the creative director of Maison Margiela. The designer of Galliano's namesake line is Bill Gayten, his former number two at Dior.

The Sunday New York Times recently ran an article titled, "One John Galliano Too Many". You may copy-and-paste here:

The John Galliano brand isn't garnering much attention but soon may as it begins producing a somewhat lower-priced line unattached to the couture stratosphere. I'm not in the position to buy any of this, so my opinion hardly matters. I did feel compelled to write the New York Times a letter to the editor. Chances of that being published are slim, so I'm putting it out into my own little corner of cyberspace:

Why recognize a man who still has a lot to atone for by legitimizing his name as a brand? Sure, it must rankle Galliano that he does not design it himself, but that is irony not punishment. I pity Bill Gayten who toils under a shadow and a burden. Why did the powers that could not change the name to something like "Nhoj Onaillag" (that up-and-coming Icelandic designer)? Or even "Bill Gayten"?

This is messy real life that shouldn't be swept under the carpet.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Tidy is as Tidy Does

This will not be a paean to Marie Kondo's best-selling "The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up". I won't be plunking down $16.99 as I know it will sit on that giant stack of Books I Will Read Someday. I'm intrigued though and am not about to pooh-pooh it away.

As a "hunter and gatherer" (coined by my friend DG), I don't really want the cure. I'm happy that over time I've been able to find things I love, some of which I didn't even know existed. I've never had a problem getting rid of stuff either. When we sold the big house in New York, the one with the walk-in attic full of stuff we were too lazy to take to the trash, the clean-out was the most liberating feeling.

This is a small house with no real attic, so getting rid of and/or tidying up (depends on how you look at it) is ongoing. I recently gave away a pile of favorite summer clothes— t-shirts, skirts, blouses, dresses— that were still in good condition, still fit and were still stylish. That t-shirt I enjoyed on our trip to Marfa in 2009 just made me feel older. Where has time flown?  I knew I would never wear any again, but I felt a little guilty letting go.

"The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up" has legions of fans. I first heard of it from a friend who cleaned out her closet and asked about donating to Dress for Success. I was happy to help her and was positively floored that her whole car was filled. Lucky Dress for Success!

The book itself has four books written dissecting and summarizing it. I read an online feature promising to reveal Marie's secret in two words. It did: "Do it."

Reading the piece I was muttering yeah, yeah, yeah until I got to where Marie says we should thank our clothing for the joy it brought us then say goodbye. I guess my purging of still-good-but-no-longer-loved clothing fell into the category of bringing joy no more. I just forgot to thank and wish them well on their way.

So a belated thank you to those I loved, those I tolerated (though I loved you once) and those who disappointed me after the initial attraction. We are talking about clothes here. May you bring joy to someone else.

Bonus tip (though this may be cheating since I didn't buy the book): Fold your foldable items so they store vertically. That way no more rifling through stacks to find what you want.

Bye for now. I have A PILE of t-shirts to work on.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Don't Run in Palazzo Pants...

...or you may have a nice trip!

Proof that all things can be fodder for this blog, I tripped on the sidewalk the other evening while wearing my new palazzo pants from Zara. No, they had been hemmed. Yes, I was in a hurry— to an appointment at the Apple Store. Don't laugh— if you deal with technology you know when it's broken you want it fixed now. And I was literally running late.

I tripped on nothing— a bit of uneven pavement perhaps. I fell flat smack on my nose without a moment to break the fall. Good thing I'm not taller. Thanks to the two ladies who stopped to help and made sure I was okay. We all laughed as I eyed my pants, checking to see if they had ripped. They had not. Thanks to Zara for whipping up some sturdy polyester.

The end result is a non-displaced fracture and a prescription from the doctor for no contact sports for six weeks and a "let's see how it heals" for any further action. He does not consider shopping a contact sport.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

How to Find a Necklace

I always follow recipes and usually the beaten path but love to improvise when it comes to clothing. Although I've bought many beautiful necklaces, some of my favorites are those re-purposed or cobbled from the stuff of everyday life. Feel free to run with the ideas, but don't trip.

The Bangle-adore
Lightweight plastic bangle bracelets on a leather thong. What's not to love?

The Plumber's Helper
Copper elbow pipe threaded through heavy cord. The knot is hidden inside.

The Rag Picker
Shredded fabric tied over cord, mixed with a few hanks of folded seam binding knotted at the ends. I've made mini versions of this for little girls.

Necklace on a Shoestring
Literally. My sister brought back these amber beads attached to a shoelace as my souvenir from her trip to South Africa. Never bothered to restring them.

Too Much of a Good Thing
Have a necklace that's just too long? Fold it in half and secure at the back with a length of chain pull from the hardware store. Love that stuff.

Then There's Real Art
My talented friend Jo-Anne Myers made this from picture hanging wire, bead and a champagne cap (Domaine Ste. Michelle of course).

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Women We Love: Frida Kahlo

Frida as a magnet

Frida Kahlo is having a moment, according to the New York Times. Another moment. As the Times says, "She was a genius before she was a refrigerator magnet." It's true that as fashion icons go, we take Frida for granted. For one thing, she doesn't need a last name.

Also from the Times "... she was an ace manipulator of society and media nearly a century before social media came into existence." Stripping away her fabulous paintings tinged with pain, her tempestuous relationship with Diego Rivera and her ardent Communist beliefs, she dressed to make a statement. When she wore gorgeous folkloric Mexican outfits she did so without irony and as easily as we throw on a pair of jeans. She even donned men's clothes on occasion, and did that ever say something.

Frida's earlier moment was a long time coming. I wrote a college essay on the painter Diego Rivera back in the '60s. Why not Frida? She would have been far more interesting, but her work sat in a very neglected niche of Latin American folk artists. When the world suddenly discovered Frida late in the last century, she did become that refrigerator magnet, t-shirt and shopping bag. Hers had all the elements of a great story: tragedy, triumph, doomed romance, political intrigue, that unique appearance and yes, she sure could paint.

Two museums are showing off Frida this summer. Detroit's Institute of Arts has "Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo" chronicling time spent there while Rivera painted a massive mural in tribute to Labor.  The NSU Art Museum in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, has "Kahlo, Rivera and Mexican Modern Art". The cherry on this sundae is "Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life" at the New York Botanical Garden. The inspiration is Frida's Mexico City home, Casa Azul. I've been to Casa Azul; it's a magical place.

Casa Azul in Mexico City...
...and in the Bronx

A new book, "Frida Kahlo: The Gisele Freund Photographs" promises 100 rarely seen candid photos of Frida and Diego. As they both illustrated so well, their art was their life.

We're having another Bohemian fashion moment as well. That makes me happy as I love a bit of let's pretend. As we layer on the printed maxi skirts, embroidered peasant blouses and ethnic jewelry, it might be wise to remember that very fine line between homage and oh-my-gosh.

Here's to looking at you again, Frida

Friday, May 22, 2015

Summer Book Club: London Society Fashion 1905-1925

A surprise early birthday gift (thank you, DG) brought me "London Society Fashion 1905-1925". The book is subtitled "The Wardrobe of Heather Firbank" but should be sub-subtitled "Who She Was, What She Wore and Why".

Heather Firbank, age 20

"In 1926 Heather Firbank packed away her extensive wardrobe of fine clothes, bought from London's very best dressmakers and tailors. These treasures lay undiscovered for the next thirty years, until they were given to the V&A [London's Victoria and Albert Museum of the decorative arts] after her death, laying the foundation for the Museum's world-famous collection."

It's hard to believe that until the 1950s fashion was not considered an art form and rarely exhibited in major museums. The Heather Firbank collection of over 400 items (not acquired in total by the V&A) was comprised of day dresses, gowns, coats, suits, blouses, lounging wear, undergarments, shoes, hats, etc. as well as bills of sale from dressmakers and emporiums she favored, clippings from the contemporary fashion press, sketches of things she wanted made and photographs of her wearing many of the outfits represented in the treasure trove.

It's also surprising that the V&A has only just published this book in 2015. The "why now?" is "Downton Abbey." Although we're into the mid 1920s in the upcoming (and last) installment of the series, it began in 1912 when the real Miss Firbank was 24 and on her way to spinsterhood (why is part of the Downton-esque intrigue). Ten years later she was very much unmarried for life and struggling with less income and less importance in British society— though she kept a lady's maid throughout and "reduced circumstances" forced her to reside in a luxurious seaside residential hotel.

The photographs are beautiful and detailed. The snippets of ephemera are charming and enlightening. What bowled me over was the wealth of information about why and how all this stuff was worn and the time-consuming importance of one's wardrobe for this segment of the population. There are the almost forgotten society dressmakers of the early 20th century, such as Lucile, Redfern and Kate Reilly. We learn how clothing was designed, marketed and manufactured and how "ready-mades" turned into the department stores of today. "London Society Fashion" is a great read for anyone who loves fashion, history... and "Downton Abbey".

The acquisition of Heather Firbank's wardrobe enabled the V&A to mount its show, "Lady of Fashion" in 1960 and opened the doors for all the amazing exhibits which followed. Currently showing is Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty (below)— through August 2, 2015.

It all started with Heather...