Thursday, June 28, 2012

The World is my Agora

Like a shark is always swimming, I am always shopping. Not buying, necessarily, but always always looking. I can make a shopping expedition out of a highway truck stop and usually find something useful-here-to-fore-unknown or an addition to my collection of kitschy magnets, souvenir plates, beaded belts and outrageous postcards.

Shopping for fashion is, of course, always the most fun. Alas some forays are slim pickin's in the fashion arena (i.e. flimsy plastic ponchos and trucker hats at previously mentioned truck stop). The following are somewhat offbeat places to consider as you wend your way through the agoras in your life.

Hardware store
While waiting for Mr. Handyman to find the right nut (interpret as you wish), wander through the offerings of chains, ropes, washers, toggles, etc. A little imagination and a pair of pliers can help you create some amazing adornments. It's real brass too, for a fraction of the price you will find in jewelry land. Patronize your local old-fashioned hardware emporioum if you still have one. Besides one-on-one service you will not be stuck buying a 500-count box of brads for your little craft project.

The boys' department
T-shirts! Pajamas! Cool button downs! Socks! Hats! Scarves! Sweaters galore!  Depending on your size you might make that the men's department. No matter; shopping with the boys will get you authentic tomboy looks at a better price.

The girls' department
Once again depending on your size you can pick up trendy fashion pieces or pants that don't need to be hemmed in the girls' department. Ditto pjs and robes. I'm a 2-4 and easily fit girls' 14-16.

Maternity department
Unknowingly I bought the most comfortable tunic top from the maternity department at Target. Well, there were no signs, and I just picked it up while wandering through women's apparel. No matter. I got a kick out of the discovery as when I really was pregnant I prided myself on never buying anything in a maternity department.

Charity resale shops
Depending on the neighborhood, resale shops can offer great buys on fine goods. Housing Works in New York City's Chelsea area is famous for their designer offerings, but I've found Ralph Lauren at my local Salvation Army. Charity resale shops seem to offer lower prices than the for-profit resale shop where goods are offered on consignment by their former owners. Even if the clothes seem outdated but not yet vintage, scour the offerings for good buys in bags, jewelry, scarves and— dare I say?— furs. By the way, I figure if it died 50 years ago PETA won't mind. Bonus: you are of course making a charitable contribution.

The dollar store
Last but not least. A cornucopia of delights just not usually associated with fashion but great for organizing your fashion: cheap cheap cheap plastic storage boxes and bins for bits and baubles, pretty papers for lining shelves, hooks and hangers, reading specs (I hesitate calling them glasses) for every room in the house and every car in the family (ditto sunglasses). Let your imagination be your guide as you walk the aisles.  

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A Tale of Two Bs

Heavens to Betsy!

Trolling the mall today I came across two startling storefronts. The first was the Betsy Johnson store— never hard to miss as it is painted shocking pink and stuffed with crayon-colored clothing. The windows and entrance were plastered with "STORE CLOSING" signs. I had heard she filed for bankruptcy in April, but seeing the result of that announcement was a little unnerving and very sad. Say what you will, Betsy Johnson was a force to be reckoned with. Though it's been years and years since her clothing was aspirational for me, I still got a kick out of Betsy's crazy ideas and delighted in her trademark runway cartwheel.

No turning cartwheels over this

Our paths almost crossed at Conde Nast. When I was starting as the junior in Glamour's art department she had just left Mademoiselle's to become in-house designer for a trendy boutique. I heard she was a delightful whirlwind at Mademoiselle and would knit you a crazy sweater for $10. Her star rose quickly in the boutique world. The Betsey Johnson label launched in 1978 and grew to 65 stores worldwide. She was a downtown-club-scene kind of gal when that was all very new. While her design sensibility began as wild flower child it morphed into a look that was very sexy yet feminine at the same time. But her clothes were Young— think prom dresses for today's club kid. Following her own fashion formula, she once described her style as "Take a leotard; add a skirt".
Early Betsy
Later Betsy
Heaven knows Betsey has had a good run. I'm actually relieved that no one else is taking over the reins of the company. That is never a Good Thing (see next subject). Supposedly she will still be designing a little. Betsy will be 70 in August. None of us in the neighboring age brackets have many proms to attend but could sure use an infusion of her joie d'vivre.

To Be or Not to Be

When a store changes hands one assumes either the product will remain the same or the name will change along with new stocking. In the case of Henri Bendel the name's the same, but the store is a mere shell of its former self.

A bit of history to begin: Henri Bendel was the original little boutique that could. Founded in 1913 by a former milliner, there was only ever one store. The 10 West 57 Street building was a jewel box of a place, catering to the carriage trade and always carrying the most avant of avant garde fashion. Bendel's introduced to Americans that new Paris sensation, Coco Chanel. And so it went. Helmed by the retail genius Geraldine Stutz from 1957 to 1986, a trip to Bendel's (for this working gal) was a little like visiting a museum with price tags. There was a Street of Shops on the first floor— mini boutiques showcasing tabletop items, stationery, flowers, cosmetics and all manner of accessories— a Street of Dreams. There was one of the first "makeover" make-up boutiques on the fourth floor (Beauty Checkers) and endless "salons" of clothing to inspire and aspire to. Bendel's carried the looks before they could be knocked off cheaper elsewhere and prided themselves on discovering a host of new talent through their Open See merchandise calls.
The Fifth Avenue Bendel 
The s(mall)er version 
There were two camps: those who pronounced it "Henry Benn-del" (emphasis on the Ben) and those who said "Anh-ree Ben-dell" (emphasis on the dell). Never sure, I usually mashed it up into "Anh-ree Benn-del". Although I may have purchased one or two things (if only to possess that iconic shopping bag), the visit I remember clearest was sharing an elevator with the newly married Linda McCartney in the early '70s. She was casually wearing a gigantic, gorgeous mink coat over slacks. Her small daughter Heather (probably about 7) was dressed in complete English Child attire— a velvet collared coat and matching little hat. Not a word was spoken, and I tried not to stare. Like many celebrities attempting to lead real lives, she seemed uncomfortable with my being there.

In 1990 the (probably leaky) old Bendel building closed, and the store reopened nearby on Fifth Avenue. But it wasn't the same. The intimacy and history were gone. By this time the owners were Limited Brands, they of Express and Limited stores, mall favorites. Three years ago Henri Bendel decided to stop selling clothing altogether to concentrate on accessories, fragrance and candles. And that accessory to the fact is what has just opened in my local mall. The handbags and scarves look cheesy. The candles were the same as those sold at Bath and Body Works (another Limited company). There is nothing in this store I will ever need or desire, except the old Bendel magic. Which unfortunately is not for sale.
A bag I will never carry

Sunday, June 24, 2012


Emma looking fine and dandy

July is a pretty thin month for fashion. Skinny in that the magazines are barely fat enough to bind. Advertisers are saving their ad dollars to spend on the feast that is the August and particularly September issues. So it was a surprise to find Something of Real Interest in the July Vogue that hit my mailbox yesterday. The cover is a very pretty shot of Emma Stone, she of the quirky red hair and literary mission in "The Help" as well as a host of movies in the recent past and near future.

The inside story is a lengthy piece on Miss Emma, which I have to confess I haven't read yet. What stopped me cold (or rather has me heating up) are the gorgeous looks that I have annointed Bohemian Menswear. The Vogue copywriters called the feature "Comic Relief". I don't know whether they are referring to the actress' comic talents or to the bit of fun she is wearing. In any case these outfits, styled by the usually conservative Tonne Goodman are delightful. Let the pix speak for themselves:

Could this be the answer to my love of Lauren et al and my ongoing failure to style it to suit Me? I am so excited by this gender bending mix of dandy details I may just play dress up despite the heat that is a Houston summer.

Not too long ago the New York Times ran a piece on the Return of the Dandy. This must have been great news to Patrick McDonald who never left.

Patrick McDonald shows his colors
Do you think the editors of Vogue read The New York Times?

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Dressing the Part: Vacation

Gone fashion...

I'm going on vacation in three weeks and already plotting what to pack. This is not a long weekend but a real week-at-the-beach to a place we've been visiting over 40 years.

Before you think "Boo-hoo— why not go somewhere new?", this to me is a real vacation. There is no orientation needed. You know what's what and what's where. Besides checking out new restaurants, new shops and the new condos that are wrecking the view, this is a place where we can completely relax. By the end of the week I usually wish I weren't wearing clothes at all.

Nevertheless pack I must. And here's the quandary. Black does not look so good at this quintessential American beach town. Neither does the folkloric/tribal twist in fashion this summer. What looks best against sand, sun, sky and ocean is good-old Gap/Tommy/Ralph/J Crew. This is not my usual a la mode, but I have the prerequisite chambray shirt, some sailor stripe t's, and even a pair of white pants with little embroidered birds. For me dressing this week will be more like dressing a play (thus play dressing).

I'm thinking about using the biggest suitcase I own (millimeters shy of a steamer trunk) and throwing everything in. There's no worse feeling than knowing you have left the Perfect Outfit at home (or your hooded sweatshirt). On the other hand the idea of packing a week-in-a-carry-on is intriguing, but I foresee falling for overpriced apparel in not-so-trendy beach boutiques to stave off wardrobe blahs.

Here's what I'm not packing: anything I brought last year. I don't want to look the same in this year's photos!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Fashionable Fatherhood

He looked the part:
Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird"

My dad was a natty dresser. Now that's a word you don't hear much anymore. From old photos that were before my time of remembering to the dad I did know— albeit briefly as my parents divorced when I was ten— he got dressed.

He wore suits and shirts and ties and pocket handkerchiefs Monday to Friday. I think the shirts were always white. My childhood laundry memories are of a sea of white flapping in the backyard in summer or the basement in winter. The handkerchiefs (my job to iron) could have a little color or be subtly plaid, but "the best" ones were white with a monogram (heavier and harder to press).

My father, John Ruskin, visiting Mt. Vernon circa 1940

He had pajamas, robes and leather slippers. He had cuff links and tie clasps and hats, but only one wallet. He had sport jackets, casual slacks and gabardine shirts in neutral hues (smoke, taupe, cream of wheat) for weekends, cabana suits and beachwear for rare trips to the beach. He had shoes of all description— brogues, oxfords, slip-ons— though no boots of any kind.

Did all men dress that way back then?

Some stories in the way of family history make me think not. There was the time, shortly after we moved to the suburbs, when my dad decided to introduce himself to the neighbors by joining the men on the community tennis courts. He left home one Saturday morning, attired head-to-racquet in brand-new tennis whites. He was back two hours later, took off the clothes, retired the racquet to the attic and never spoke of tennis again. The fact that he hadn't played before was immaterial as he looked the part and probably believed the clothes would make the Bill Tilden. My mother's recollections were a little bitter as she remarked years later how Daddy never denied himself new clothes, but she had to beg or sift from the grocery money to buy herself a new dress. Did I mention they were divorced when I was ten?

I have had many more happy father fashion moments seeing my son and his dad (my husband) forge a beautiful bond as they wear matching wetsuits and football jerseys. Clothes may make the man; they can also make the family.
Father and son showing their colors

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Life's Lost Little Luxuries #7: Patched Madras

Vintage madras jacket on Ebay for $1100

"Madras runs amok! Reported missing!" No that headline did not exactly appear in WWD (Women's Wear Daily y'all— the bible of things retail apparel), but look around. Do you see a sea of madras anywhere? Well, you used to. In the era of Villager and Ladybug and Brooks Brothers before there was a woman's department, summer meant madras, patched madras especially.

Although long produced by cotton weavers originally in the city of Madras (now Chennai), India, madras became a staple of the preppy look in the 1960's. Patched madras traditionally consists of 3" squares of various patterns sewn together before the cloth is cut, in fairly random selection but usually in a similar tone, ie. pastels with pastels, brights with brights, blues with blues, etc. Not all patched madras was as gorgeous as the example above, priced high as it is an original 1960s from Chipp, recognized as a pioneer of the preppy look and tailor to President John F. Kennedy. In its heyday, bleeding madras (dyes would run in the wash) was considered superior to the colorfast if only because it required more care so as not to ruin all the laundry.

In my eyes, a boy who wore madras knew what he was doing fashion-wise. If he wore patched madras he could teach me a thing or two. The young men I knew would wear their madras as bermuda shorts. Worn with a collared polo shirt or rumpled button-down, the look spoke Ivy League volumes. Wearing a madras sport shirt was considered geeky, except if it was patched madras. Only old men (over 30) wore the (long) pants. There were other madras items to be had— belts, wallets, bow ties. These wonderful Sperry Top Siders are probably more recent vintage:
You see, madras has never totally gone away. As it so evokes the preppy look, it's always making an appearance in some form. This whole thing started recently when I saw a patched madras blazer in the window of Joseph A. Banks. After checking with my husband his reaction when I said "patched madras blazer", I bought it for him for Father's Day. But trying to comparison shop after the fact found little success, online or in the stores. Where you could barely walk into one without being surrounded, madras is hard to ferret out, patched madras an endangered species. But it still looks so good:

And let's not forget the girls. We've never been able to leave a good menswear trend to the men, so— yes— madras and its patched friends made it onto everything female from barrettes and headbands to purses (where different fabrics could be buttoned on), skirts, shorts, capris, shirtwaists dresses, bathing suits, skimmers— everything with the exception of pajamas. With my head swimming in madras I sought and found a ladies patched madras jacket online, for sale at the 1960s price of $29.95. It's on its way to me from that bastion of all things preppy, L.L. Bean:
No-iron irony in 2012

Monday, June 4, 2012

Does H & M Stand for Hit & Miss?


A funny thing happened on the way to H&M today. I fell in love with Forever 21 again.

Let me say right away that— yes— both are poorly made, trendy, cheap emporiums of fashion, but— like fast food or Halloween candy— a little every once in a while can be tasty fun. We were living in New York when the first H&M opened on Fifth Avenue twelve years ago. As I worked practically around the corner, H&M was an easy pop-in to or from work (wisely avoiding lunch hours). I knew not to expect much, but sometimes I found the unexpected.

Having had H&M made me miss it all the more when we moved to H&M-less Texas.  Any trip required a search of the website's store locator. I spent three hours in the San Francisco store (thanks to a very understanding husband) and must have visited every one in London the summer of 2009. Repeated attempts to convince the company they should open in Houston failed miserably. So much so that the first Texas store opened last year in... Dallas. Just so you know, the Hatfields and McCoys had nothing on the rivalry between Houston and Dallas.

Insert confession here: The vast majority of my H&M purchases were duds. One I still have; a few I wore to shreds. But most ended up in the donate bin, some still with tags (nowhere to return them once I got home). Not a proud thing to admit, but those excursions were probably cheaper than a day pass at Disneyworld and a lot more fun.

The big day arrives
H&M finally opens in Houston, and I decide to play it cool and wait 4 WHOLE DAYS before going.
Never mind that they opened in a mall so outside my usual path that I'm still not sure what town it's in—Friendswood? Webster? Clear Lake? The drive took 30 minutes but the mindset was twenty years ago in suburbia. The mall location was huge and looked like any other mall you've ever been in. There was a popcorn stand right in front of the H&M entrance. Not a good sign.

Inside was the usual cacophony of people, music and hangers dropping to the floor. But what struck me loudest was the truly horrible fabrication of the clothing. This was proof that a picture may be worth 1,000 words, but seeing is believing. The stuff was just plain nasty and had no style besides. Where was all the "good stuff"? The collaboration with Comme des Garcons? Or Even Kylie Minogue? Does the company only ship what the traffic will wear? I was actually near League City, but this was truly out of my league. As in farm team. The only things to catch my eye were a chunky necklace of faceted green "glasstic" beads for $9.50 and a pair of pink satin ballet slippers that looked the equal to actual ballet slippers in both style and practicality as streetwear. Neither of which would make me wait in that snaking checkout line.

Meanwhile in another part of the mall...
The mall's Forever 21 was quite the largest I've ever seen. For years I avoided any Forever 21 as I thought the stores were for women "of a certain age" who wanted look "forever 21"— like Chico's for hookers. Just so you know, Forever 21 is a good-sized step up from the plethora of truly dreadful mall fashion like Charlotte Russe and Buikayah. It's cheap, fast fashion but so good at copying trends they've been sued 50 times. The quality isn't really there, but sometimes you do have to look twice to notice and sometimes you can find something worthwhile. The noise level was tolerable and the housekeeping decent. The store itself was so huge I totally ruled out visiting the massive sale section. Besides, "on sale" at Forever 21 must mean they pay you to take it off their hands. It was fun. I grabbed a shopping bag and started going around, not an easy feat due to the massive real estate. When I had enough I came home with three sweet treats: a short pullover top ($12) in rust lace, a pair of toast and black psuedo-Safari printed shorts ($15)— bloomery with gathered legs (strictly for the backyard) and a quite decent bateau-neck grey striped t-shirt ($8)— double-fabric rolled collar and stripes matching at the seams). $35 and I fear I spent that much on gas.

This is not meant to be a love letter to Forever 21. I have some issues indeed with the plagiarism suits. I'm not too fond of knowing the company's evangelical leanings, and "John 3:16" is printed on shopping bags. Perhaps I have learned yet another lesson, as in "you can't go home again" or "things change" or "the grass is always greener on the other side". For now let me say, now and forever, Forever 21.
Forever yours

Saturday, June 2, 2012

I Can No Longer Leave My House...

Also dressed to pick up the mail

...without looking okay. One of the things that delighted me about moving to Houston was the fact that women tend to get dressed, including makeup, when doing simple chores like buying groceries. I really appreciate the effort as I recall my mother dressing right after breakfast in full 1950's Leave it to Beaver style (maybe without the pearls) just to do housework and run errands.

Alas we daughters of women's liberation— and our daughters— have let that sense of urgency slide. I refuse to go all the way (i.e. t-shirt and shorts everywhere) but have been known to wear the rattiest and tattiest around the house— which includes the front yard and its environs.

Alas— no more. A customer at the Lovely Boutique where I work recognized me yesterday as being her neighbor down the street. Especially as she walks a little white dog in front of my house, I will now need to watch what I wear and just how crummy I look before picking up the paper, getting the mail or retrieving that CD from the car!

It's a point of pride. You see I truly believe it's important to always look your best, if only for yourself. It's a little bit of discipline, a minor accomplishment in the giant trajectory of life and one that is way too easy to let slip if you have a bit more time on your hands. I'm guilty of not taking my own advice and now feel guilty about it.

So, thanks for moving into 1313. The mailman just came, and now I have to get dressed.