• The Nineties Witch

    Posted by Maria Permalink

    If you’re still on the hunt for a Halloween costume at this 11th hour, may we suggest a hearty helping of Normcore with a twist of the occult? After all, if there is one take away from the S/S 2015 collections, it’s that the 90s revival is still holding strong. It seems particularly fitting that fashion’s favorite holiday be celebrated by an aesthetic so well suited for the fervent witch. It was the decade of Galliano and Gaultier dominance; of a Goth aesthetic inspired by Victorian resurgence; chokers, vamp lipstick and black, black, black. For inspiration, we take a look at five strongholds of the finite yet potent genre: The Nineties Witch.


    The Witches of Eastwick (1987)

    First stop, Eastwick, a neatly shingled New England hamlet. Over a round of potent dirty martinis, three lovelorn women unknowingly conjure up a trilateral dream man, an out of town stranger who arrives in the form of one pony-tail sporting, bathrobe enthusiast Daryl Van Horne (Jack Nicolson). If the pseudonym isn’t a dead give away, his inexplicable powers of seduction hint at demonic levels of mind control. With his heady breath and shifty eyes, the mildly repulsive Van Horne seduces each of the ladies – jaunty brunette Alex (Cher), sensitive redheaded Jane (Susan Sarandon) and free-spirited blonde Sukie (Michelle Pfieffer). Lucky devil, that Daryl Van Horne. He lays before them a pleasure den of vice and depravity, and for a while, the women indulge heartily; a midnight dip under sparkling chandeliers in a pailleted one-piece, a dizzying spin around a majestic grand staircase filled with pink balloons in a draped, strapless gold lamé gown, capped off with the softest satin negligees for a trip to a bed made for four. But when the indulgence takes a tragic turn, the friends ban together to banish the diabolical visitor.

    It's a fantastical tale, more raunchy than haunted, and features Hollywood’s most breathtaking leading ladies at their dewiest. The shot of the three women leaning tantalizingly out a window, ripe for the picking, is enough to send the most fervent flat iron devotee to the perm kit self at the drugstore. But the film offers more than just curl porn. The clothes are equally mouthwatering. Cher’s high-waisted trousers and crop-tops and Michelle Pfieffer’s breezy gingham sundress (hello Altuzarra!) are a dream, but it is Susan Sarandon’s Jane who stands out, morphing from a fidgety, buttoned up school marm to a bounding, sultry hybrid of Jessica Rabbit and Betsey Johnson. One strapless, polkadot peplum one-piece with laced up leopard booties? Yes, please!

    The Witches (1990)

    Next, we hop the pond to the equally charming English countryside. It’s a seemingly placid scene young Luke Eveshim encounters when he and his convalescing grandmother settle in for a stay at the seaside Excelsior Hotel in Cornwall, a lovely establishment, aside from the strict no pet policy. Luke spends his days surreptitiously training his pet mice in the corner of the ballroom. It is during one of these sessions, that he is unwittingly trapped by the annual meeting of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The gathering seems harmless enough, a homely bunch, dressed in geriatric florals and yellowed lace. (Film buffs take note: a careful examination of the scene reveals that most of the witches are, in fact, played by men). But no one is paying much attention to the dowdy lot with Miss Evangeline Ernst at the helm. Played by the transcendent Angelica Huston, Ernst is a stunning, precise creature, the sleek, blunt crop of her hair matching the crispness of her German accent. Her wardrobe is at once simple and decisive, head-to-toe black accented with deep purple. Her main costume is a corseted black satin dress featuring a plunging neckline; a cropped skirt and a train bustled with a mauve bow, topped off with black satin gloves covered in amethysts and diamonds. Her countenance is riveting, at once crepuscular and sparkling.

    But all is not as it seems. The RSPCC is in fact a front for England’s convention of witches. Behind closed doors, the witches remove their disguises, casting off itchy wigs to reveal a room full of bald, repugnant trolls. The Grand High Witch proves the most terrifying of the bunch; Houston’s regal bearing replaced by a hulking monster, in place of an aquiline nose, a proper beak covered in warts; alabaster skin supplanted by a bark-like texture; and glossy tresses gone for a handful of wiry, scraggly hairs. Poor Luke is found out, turned into a mouse and spends the rest of the film battling the nasty crew, finally beating them are their own game by slipping the same magic potion into the watercress soup served at lunch. The film is the fateful final production for the legendary Jim Henson, and would go on to successfully terrify millions of children for generations to come. Angelica Huston would go on to play Morticia Adams, but it is this role that proved her unmatched talent at hitting the elusive balance between uncanny and delightfully wicked.


    Hocus Pocus (1993)

    If there were ever a place and time for three malevolent sisters to return from the dead, All Hallow’s Eve in Salem would be it. And that is exactly what unfolds as the Sanderson Sisters, Winifred (Bette Midler), Mary (Kathy Najimy) and Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker), enact their revenge on a town seeped in supernatural lore. But the 20th century proves too much of a challenge for this frayed coven, and they are eventually thwarted by three kids, a friendly zombie and an immortal, talking cat.

    Here we return to the chromological trilogy motif – three women of varying hair color and temperaments – but this time enacted with a sororal dedication to rival any episode of Petticoat Junction. The sisters sport teased updos that are distinctive, if a bit floccent. The costume designer takes the color identification one step further, incorporating wardrobe and makeup into the coordination. In terms of sartorial inspiration, Allison’s red-hooded coat is a favorite. Flannel and tie-dye abound. But the film’s garb is perhaps most memorable in the hands of SJP, her flighty Sarah a step closer to SATC than Square Pegs. Parker breathes life into her tattered maroon rags with a hint of that Carrie stardust. But, our favorite of the bunch is the inspired costume selection by Max and Dani’s mother, Madonna in Gaultier conical bra, complete with Barbara Eden high pony and headset. Momma Madonna vogues up a storm under the spell Winifred casts on the town using the deliciously infectious “I put a spell on you.” Dance, dance, dance until you die!

    The Craft (1996)

    There is an element of witchcraft that is particularly calibrated to the feminine teenage sensibility. We’re on the west coast now, as angst-ridden Sarah (Robin Tunney) moves to a new town, new house and new school – albeit one with a dubiously lax dress code policy. “Rachel” haircut in tow, she falls in with a clique of misfits run by the forbearing and frenetic Nancy, who, in one of the most successful instances of typecasting, is played by the brilliant and terrifying Fairuza Balk (see Mildred Hubble as The Worst Witch). The girls have developed a predilection for the supernatural to cope with the cruelties of teenage life, and Sarah proves a natural, taking their dalliances to the next level. Lighthearted slumber partys tricks progress to trichological revenge fantasies (Christine Taylor had it coming), which graduate to meteorological and geological disturbances. Nancy possesses a maniacal streak as deeply sadistic as her icy stare, and the film ends with an epic show down between good and evil.

    If it’s a normcore fantasy you’re looking for, this is the mother load: a taupe color palette, mom jeans and overalls, delicate floral maxi skirts, baby doll dresses over tees, chunky boots, dark lips, berets, small tinted glasses, and chokers. The film’s sartorial masterpiece is the girls’ slow motion cruise through the cafeteria. The catholic prep school uniform never looked so cool.

    Practical Magic (1998)

    We end up exactly where we started, another picturesque New England town, this time following the Owens women, and a story that unfolds around the patterns of genealogy and fate. Orphaned at a young age, Sally and Gillian Owens (Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman) are raised by Aunts Francis and Jet in a house where traditional rearing is supplanted by a cultivation of the familial proficiency in magic. Furthermore, the tension of outsider status, so acutely felt in childhood, is heightened by small town rumors of a family curse; any man who dares to love an Owens woman will soon end up six feet under. Together, the sisters battle their predetermined fate, and prove that in some lives, the most substantial relations are not romantically based.

    The film pulls bits and pieces from the domestication and modernization of the rituals of sorcery, a delirious romp around a cauldron, cascades of enviable tresses, and the unwieldy nature of true love. But we’re here for the clothes. It’s hard to pin down the top look: Kidman’s velvety slips and clogs, Bullock’s cut off denim and delectable cardigans, or the Aunt’s post-Edwardian, Japonisme-infused brocades. Then again, in this case, we might take the house.


    What can we take away from this illustrious list? To limit the witch costume to a trim black silhouette and a heap of eyeliner is dimly myopic. Witches, even the 90’s incantation, come in all shapes and sizes. But there is one rule; always start with the hair.

  • An Exclusive interview with Patricia Lester

    Posted by Maria Permalink

    Gown designed by Lester, 'The Wings of the Dove', 1997.

    On the western coast of the British isle, with England proper at its back but facing the Irish gales over the Isle of Man, sits the broody region of Wales. Misty fogs bleed gray nebula over crescent bluffs and icy sands. It is a wet corner of the world. But when the sun’s golden rays break through the water-laden clouds, a joyful rainbow will light up emerald valleys peppered with stoic stone fortresses. Here is a land whose theatrical geography has produced a history tinged with mysticism and romance. And it was in this setting that Charles and Patricia Lester settled in 1963, and embarked on a lifelong journey to develop the craft of fabric sculpture.

    In a Georgian house set amongst delightful informal gardens near Abergavenny, the duo has spent four decades creating a laboratory of design to rival the great studios of old, those of William Morris and Mario Fortuny. Over years of meticulous trial and error, they developed their own methods for dying and pleating, producing a series of garments that stun in their beauty and craftsmanship. The Lesters have maintained their singular perspective – not exactly informed by historical references, but rather a manifestation of a timeless ethos. Their process is anomalous to the confines of the heavily stratified fashion machine. The designs are entirely devoid of trends, seasons and collections, but rather designed around and created from the notions of artistic dexterity, noble craftsmanship and skillful execution.

    Royalty and movie stars a like have worn their pieces with aplomb. Bridging the sumptuous and ethereal, timeless and nostalgic, a Lester gown will last a lifetime. And perhaps the success of the garments is due to the following paradox: they are shapeless yet intrinsically celebrate the female form. The delicately pleated gowns in diaphanous tones reveal as much as conceal, adding an additional layer of intrigue to the female body. And after all, isn’t that the sort of mystery every woman desires?

    Lester herself calls her designs ‘Romantic Couture’, which is an apt moniker for what is, in the end, soulful clothing. We had the great pleasure of speaking with the designer herself about her process, her many passions and the beauty of the region, which has undoubtedly shaped the spectacular gowns that find their way from Wales to every corner of the globe. Read on for the exclusive interview with Shrimpton Couture.


    Maria Echeverri: I would like to start at the beginning. You were born in Nairobi, Kenya during the war years – an exotic birthplace indeed. Moving to England must have been a stark change. Can you tell us a bit about your life in Africa – how long you lived there and what impression did such a colorful origin may have had on your spirit?

    Patricia Lester: I remember very little about life in Africa. I was about 5 years old when my parents left Kenya. Sometimes I am hit by something I do not, at first, recognize and then a memory slips into place. The Agatha Christie film ‘Death on the Nile’ for instance seems to be very familiar – the steam boat – the atmosphere. Then I remember my mother telling me how she had to get back to the UK somehow - three children and the only way was down the entire length of the Nile and then flying out of Egypt in a freight plane with me tucked up in the stack of parcels. I still have her passport with all the exotic stamps in it of the countries through which we traveled.

    I still use Swahili every now and then as it was basically my first language as spoken by the Ayha and my parents spoke Swahili too. Not much remains but again some words might just appear out of nowhere. Smells too – baking corn on an open fire, passion fruit – Christmas in a remote place where my father used to fish. Lying on the jetty in Mombasa watching the stripy Angel fish through the gaps in the jetty.

    The options for a career path were much more limited to women of your generation. I’m wondering if you always had a yearning to work, and if so, did you have a notion in your youth of what you wanted to do? Where you always drawn to design?

    Indeed options were very limited. If you were exceptionally bright you might get to be a doctor or teacher perhaps a nurse for the middle of the road brains – a secretary – then if you did not pass the required examinations – a shop assistant, a hair dresser. I did think I would become a doctor as I had spent so much time in hospital and it seemed to be a noble thing to do. Then I realized that fainting at the sight of blood might be a serious disadvantage. So off I went to Oxford to do a secretarial course with my father thinking that I might end up as a high-flying PA to the chairman of some huge corporation like Unilver! I enjoyed Oxford and managed to get a job in one of the colleges –St. Annes – as a secretary, then moving up to working for the Principal and people like Iris Murdoch. It was a fascinating place to work– I had different typewriters for old English and old French – and if I did not understand something the Tutors used to spend hours with me explaining what it was all about. When we got married and moved to Wales I got a post as secretary to the Chief Engineer in a Steelworks. Unbelievably boring I had been so spoilt in Oxford.

    There is something about the nature of the fashion industry that seems better suited for partnerships rather than solo endeavors. In researching your work, I was struck by what a deep and fulfilling relationship you seem to have with your husband. Tell us a little bit about your love story. How did you meet?

    We actually met at a mutual college friend’s home. Then the next day our parents had been introduced to each other by a medium in London and we turned up on their doorstep. Without thinking I said that we had already met at a party – oops he had told his father that he was studying with a friend – his father was very strict!

    Do you naturally fall into your different roles in the business? How has working in tandem affected your creative output?

    Indeed it is a miracle – we still get on well after more than 51 years of marriage. We have different strengths but often guided by the same thinking. It can be a bit unnerving when I say something that he is thinking, but we are used to that. We have rather grand ideas, like building this house, and somehow it comes together despite restrictions like lack of knowledge, skills, finances whatever – we problem solve intuitively all the time.

    People always assume that he is the brains and I am the dotty artist. However he can be and indeed is very creative and I can be quite bright. We have different skills in both the art and the business, but they are complementary. Charles has a passion for colour just as much as I do; I love pattern and form. I draw and paint – Charles takes stunning photographs. We are both ‘busy’ people and others often ask how on earth we get so much done – we don’t stop. We also take on new skills and experiment even if we do not know ‘how’. A bit like William Morris’s ethos – if someone else can do it – then so too can we.

    Your designs and aesthetic have a very personal perspective and I wonder if that stems from the fact that you are largely self-taught. What affect does this process of experimentation and discovery have on your appreciation for the products you create?

    A self –taught apprenticeship is tough because you pay for your lessons in more ways than one. But education can also be very stifling and I don’t think that I would have been able to design with any originality if I had followed rules. I design on the mannequin putting cloth on the body and seeing what that cloth dictates taking care to allow the fabric to be seen rather than forcing it into unnatural shapes. I do not use patterns, except for trousers and a simple camisole top. The pleated fabric would be impossible to be dictated to by a pattern – the designs are created with straight pieces of cloth and if shaping is needed the fabric is swirled into ripples and the pleats stitched together to hold the shaping. The work is very time consuming but very effective and still flexible enough to accommodate different shapes. I rarely use traditional smocking but that too works very well too if a shapely look is wanted.

    The essence of my design work is that I create clothes for women – real women who are different shapes not different sizes. I say that a woman’s body has taken millions of years of design combinations and is therefore totally unique. Even identical twins are different!

    Let’s talk a bit about pleats. I’m interested in hearing what about pleats appeals to you personally.

    Pleats – well first I will tell you how we started pleating fabric. I had decided that I did not like any of the fabrics that were generally available. 1960s a brave new world with easy care fabrics the fashion - a time of nylon, crimplene, harsh cloth with no comfort in the wearing – yes easy to wash and no ironing – pure plastic that did not breath or move with the body in any kind of sensual way. So I decided to try dying natural fibres like cotton and silk. 1960’s and all that hippy stuff going on – tie-dye, batik etc. much in vogue. However although I liked this kind of work I thought it too ethnic and wanted something that was unique to us and, arrogantly thinking, more sophisticated.

    We had experimented with various ways of applying dye and found that if we applied it dry and added water afterwards we could get interesting effects. Different dye colour molecules ride out into dry fabric at different rates – like the colour rings of ink on blotting paper – the rings of colour break up into their individual colour group. We experimented with roughly pleating (more like scrunching the silk up) down the length, added the dry dye which migrated out into basic colours. Then after washing the cloth we ironed it all out – the patterns that formed were a bit like tree bark very different from tie-dye.\

    Then I started handling the pleated fabric and decided that it was rather intriguing the way that it caught the light, played with shadows which added a unique dimension that changed with the direction of light. So we tried to make the pleats a bit more uniform – again down the length of the fabric. It took us two years to perfect it and get the fabric to behave in the way that I thought would be the most interesting. It used to take the two of us 8 hours to pleat one yard of fabric – a basic dress would take 6-8 yards. The original technique was painful because we used pins and various other things to anchor the pleats in place. What we wanted was a fabric that was textured but also fluid.

    Most designers utilize pleats at some point in their career, but then there are a handful of designers that have their entire aesthetics perennially aligned with this very ancient, very compelling technique. There is a beautiful essay published in Miyake’s book "Pleats Please" that examines the immutable connection between pleats and genius and I’d love to hear your thoughts on this passage::

    What is it that defines the pleat? The monumental pleats of the earth, the painful pleats of the mind, the pleating and folding of paper and the pleats of the body itself? The deep fold of the soul or the surface wrinkle of our skin? … [Pleating is] a reversible dialogue between the dark and the light, the negative and the positive, vital energies creating tension and creativity… There is just one step, one repetitious, continuous movement of transforming the plane into volume, creating life in the amorphous, installing movement in the still.

    I don’t think I can compete with this poetry but I can relate to it. It can be applied to anything that has depth of structure and enhancement of colour imagery. And yes once you have your mind programmed to see certain shapes you see pleats in everything. Dried daffodils and tulips gradually wither and concertina up into minute and delicate pleating. The colours of a plain pink tulip transforms into a rainbow of colour enhanced by the pleated dried petals. The extraordinary way that a butterfly’s wing is pleated up when it emerges from its chrysalis, or a stick insect coming out of the egg all wrinkled up in tiny pleats.

    And the mind does have to be educated. Our granddaughter once asked me how I could find fossils on the beach and she could not. I told her that my mind was trained to see shapes and once she had found one or two and that experience gave her pleasure she would be certain to find many more. That is how it works for my anyway. I can often find four-leafed clovers too.

    The designer you are most compared to is Mariano Fortuny, and while there is a clear stylistic connection with his work, I was struck by the similarities in your lifestyle. He worked very closely with his wife Henriette Negrin, and I see clear parallels to their commitment to the integrity of production, as well as their devotion to their beautiful palazzo. What do you find analogous to his work? Where do you see differences?

    Fortuny did have the advantage that his parents collected antique textiles and he lived in a place where textiles were lavish and vividly painted in the art of the Renaissance, which would have been a significant part of his life. Similarities – yes in some ways in that he was also very interested in and involved with inventing and designing different things especially for the theatre and lighting. We too create more than garments and interior art pieces. We create fantasies and follies out of reclaimed architectural pieces – indeed this whole house has been built using various things that we have collected over the years – but that is another story. A palace on a shoe-string.

    Despite the similarities, neither Fortuny or Issey Miyake, or in fact any other clothing creators were part of our knowledge. A secretary and a physicist would not know anything about other people in the field of textile and fashion design – our interests earlier had been in other directions. We worked completely on our own following our own path – it was not until much later that we actually saw anything by Fortuny when we were asked to show a collection of our work in an exhibition of Fortuny’s work in Milan, as being a contemporary version I suppose. That was the first time that we had ever seen a Fortuny dress, many years after we had invented our own pleating process, which although often likened to that of Fortuny and used for film costume of that period, it is very different.

    Miyake being a contemporary of your must also be closely related to your work. What are your thoughts on these comparisons?

    We were told that we had inspired Issey Myake with our pleating – he started his search to perfect his pleating in the late 1980s – we were doing it in the late 1970s and eventually showing during London Fashion Week in 1985/86. I can’t remember which year it was that we had 28 pages of editorial in British Vogue alone.

    Issey Myake works with polyester – a fibre that can be permanently pleated because when heated the fibre molecules can be fixed with the heat.   Our fabric is pure silk – so it is not permanent as such, but with care will last for a very long time. We can also have the fabulous colours that is the signature of our collection because we hand paint the fabric for each individual garment before it is pleated.

    Both these men designed pleated fabric that was comparatively rigid – in other words if you formed a blouson shape the pleats would be angular. What I wanted was something that was sensuous and fluid to follow the contours of the body without necessarily clinging to it. A fabric that would make you feel almost naked in its lightness of touch. Femininity is not about nudity or exposing body parts – it is the whole story and mystery for both the wearer and the admirer. The liquidity of the pleats somehow does this with little effort.

    They also have a timeless quality and this has allowed us to have dresses in films that are centuries apart. 1200 BC Egypt in ‘The Ten Commandments’ – turn of the 20th century – ‘Wings of the Dove’ and ‘Belle du Seigneur’ as well as sharp contemporary images that have been featured in magazines. They do not date, which is perhaps a bad commercial mistake because people are still wearing dresses that they bought more than 30 years ago.

    My mother took me to see Wings of the Dove for my 12th birthday. It was the first film that deeply roused my sensibility and has stayed with me like a poignant dream. The costumes are all spectacular, but there are two gowns that go beyond aesthetics to deepen the story and characters. Can you share a bit about the costuming choices and design process?

    As a costume maker you do not really get involved with the ‘stars’ but I did meet Helena Bonham Carter when we were first asked to make two dresses – one for her and one for Charlotte Rampling. I had sold to Helena’s mother somewhere along the line and we used to go to London regularly to meet people. Having made the two pieces at the request of Sandy Powell (who had previously asked me to make a dress for Tilda Swinton in Derek Jarman’s film Caravaggio) I thought nothing more of it.

    Early one morning I had a call from Sandy Powell’s assistant saying that the Director loved the clothes and could they have some more. We went through the colours and story etc. with me making notes on the kitchen wall. I asked when they needed them – ‘they have to be in Venice tomorrow morning’. If I was daunted, I did not show it; I went into the studio and said: ‘right, we are working on a film today and the clothes have to be in Venice by 4 o’clock tomorrow morning’. We pulled out various garments that were somewhere near the colour pallet that was discussed and some fabric already painted and pleated was made up. Our amazing team conjured up the most incredible group of clothes. We had arranged for a courier to take the clothes to Heathrow, but he would not wait even though we were sticking the tape on the parcel – so in the end our coal merchant couriered them up to Heathrow.

    I wanted to ask you a bit about inspiration. I read that you are often inspired by your vivid dreams. Can you tell us a bit about how inspiration becomes actuality?

    I don’t think it is possible to anchor down any hard and fast rule as to what inspires me or in fact either of us. We are both attracted to shapes and colours – the intricacies of natural form – industrial structures – accidental patterns like the touch of a bird’s wing in the sand – the little stars that are made in clusters where the sea birds have been dabbling in the mud. A bright blue drinks can discarded amongst the copper of fallen beech leaves – I see the colours first and then swear at the b****d who threw the can out of their car.

    What do you look for when you collect and gather antiques? What catches your eye?

    We have a strange collection of antiques. We both love unusual things that we want to live with, never thinking at the time of investment although that is a consideration because we have always had a limited budget. We started collecting when we first got married. Not collecting as such, but old furniture that was not yet fashionable was all we could afford – Victorian couches – we were bought drinks to take those away and friends would not go in the same room for fear of potential mice and fleas!!! We re-upholstered these pieces as best we could using all sorts of inappropriate stuffing – but they looked good on the outside! Gradually as and when we could afford it we began to buy more serious pieces, even bringing things back from New Zealand when we went to visit my family who had all moved out there after I left school. A very special piece that we bought in New Zealand, for instance, is a little Japanese desk top cabinet with tiny drawers – the front of which is decorated with egg shells. This we did not know until we had some Japanese visitors and they explained what it was.

    I read a beautiful quote where you talk about Wales and how it informs your work. “Somehow the combination of the tranquility, colours and the dimension of history all provide inspiration. As for Welsh culture – there is an aura of mystery in the old stories and the atmosphere is rather Arthurian – the castles, the battles, the mist and richness of diversity in the landscape.” It reminded me so much of the work of Dylan Thomas. Do you think you chose Wales or did Wales choose you? Any updated thoughts?

    Yes Wales is where I am at peace – it is a wonderful place to live, to visit, to enjoy. It is not highly commercialized and you can still find those gems that transport you back in history or that show you nature at its purest in a very heavily populated world. The walks are stunning – one going very near is the coast path – a new section just opened a few hundred yards from us.
    Here we are touching on the dreadful decision of Carmarthenshire County Council Planning Committee to allow a turbine to be built in this very beautiful, so far unspoiled area in Wales. We overlook Laugharne and can easily see Dylan Thomas’s boathouse and the castle. The area is designated as a Special Landscape Area and one of historic importance as well as the estuary and bay being designation by the EU as a Marine conservation area. The proposed turbine will be only 500 yards from our home that we had hoped to set up as a place for art exhibitions, master classes in music, writing, art, meditation etc. *(See editor's note below for more on this)

    Your pieces are reminiscent of another time yet still timeless. How does historicism function in your work?

    I am fascinated by everything – historical – ancient and more recent but it does not dictate to me how I will create unless it is work for film or opera – then I do a very detailed study which I love doing. I create intuitively and if sometimes it looks like I have been influenced by other’s work – it is probably because we have been inspired by the same thing whether related to clothes or just an atmosphere of a time. Artists like Lawrence Alma Tadema painted his models in their under garments trying to neutralise the period, making the images timeless. Many allegorical paintings depicted the characters is clothes that were ‘out of’ the artist’s time, a way of making them float in time in order to focus on the story rather than dating the piece to a certain period.

    You’ve spoken before about how your work is purposely removed from the frenzy of the fashion industry. I was wondering if you have your own way of organizing and presenting new ideas in lieu of the fashion calendar. Do you make pieces and then sell them? Do costumers place special orders? Are your palettes seasonally defined? I would love to know a bit more about the process?

    Our creativity is a constant process, it evolves through the seasons in a complete mix. Our customers are international, and in this time in history – with accessibility from all corners of the globe – seasons become irrelevant.

    What legacy would you like to leave?

    Perhaps leave something to inspire other people, of all ages, to strike out on their own and follow their own path whatever that is. We are stifled by rules and convention we do not encourage entrepreneurs – this should change because it is the original thinker that gets us out of a rut of just existing.



    *Editor's note:




    Early 1980s Rare Patricia Lester Silk & Bead Gown/Set available now on Shrimpton Couture.


    (L) Model wearing Charles and Patricia Lester, The Duke of Westminster's jewel feature in Hello Magazine. (R) Vogue Italia.


    (L) Vogue, October 1985. (R) Vogue, May 1986.


    Vogue Italia, May 1986.


    Cosmopolitan, May 1986.


    Gowns designed by Lester, 'The Wings of the Dove', 1997.


    (L) Opera Holland Park. (R) Couture velvet luxury jacket by Charles and Patricia Lester.


    (L) Two piece in golden brown by Charles and Patricia Lester, Vogue. (R) Vogue, December 1988.


    (L) Textiles in the home of Charles and Patricia Lester feature by Francesca Fearon for Hello magazine. (R) French Elle Magazine.


  • Getting that '80s vibe with Gilles Bensimon

    Posted by Maria Permalink

    Any reader who has stayed abreast of Vogue Paris this summer might have noticed that photographer Gilles Bensimon has developed a keen predilection for the nimble charms and 40-inch inseam of the young and supple Karlie Kloss. And why not? The model du jour is blessed with all the pert accouterments (of body and spirit alike) required to realize an editorial in the quintessential Bensimon style: a sun kissed face, windswept hair, and the spastic prowess of a racehorse, all set against a steady tumble of crashing waves. Referencing the athletic subtext of the past few seasons, the kaleidoscopic editorials are absolutely mouthwatering. If you find yourself yearning for the florescent orange Plexiglas visor you never knew you needed, consider this. It was (almost) thirty years ago that a dewy, buoyant Yasmin Le Bon was flexing and high-kicking all over white-sands, her own hair scrunchie-tied in a high pony. As of late, the preferred hair accessory of the 80s has been propositioning fashion by way of hipsterdom and normcore. Can a sanction by Emmanuelle Alt be the final catapult into the mainstream? Or are we really waiting for the inevitable presidential bid from Hillary Clinton to dust off our own coordinated elastic rosettes? What is evident is that, in fashion, as ever, what’s old is new. And, then again, what’s new is old.

    "Bronzage Culturel" by Gilles Bensimon, Models: Karlie Kloss & Andreea Diaconu, Stylist: Claire Dhelens, Vogue Paris, May 2014.


    "Bronzage sur tous les tons" by Gilles Bensimon, Model: Yasmine Le Bon, Elle France, June 24 1985.


    "Nageurs en technicolor" by Gilles Bensimon, Elle France, April 22 1985. (L) Yasmine Le Bon by Gilles Bensimon, Elle France, May 20 1985.


    "Préparez-vous à l'été" by Gilles Bensimon, Model: Yasmine Le Bon, Stylist: Elena Melik, Elle France, May 20 1985.


    "Amazone" by Gilles Bensimon, Model: Karlie Kloss, Stylist: Claire Dhelens, Vogue Paris June/July 2014.


    "Été exotique en madras look" by Gilles Bensimon, Model: Yasmine Le Bon, Fashion Editor: Sophie David, Hair: Guillaume for Mod's Hair, Elle France, July 9 1985.

  • Eileen Ford & Anne Hollander

    Posted by Maria Permalink

     Eileen Ford looking at film.


    One of the most memorable scenes from 2008’s Devil Wears Prada comes early in the film as novice Andrea Sachs attends her first run through in the office of Runway’s editor-in-chief Miranda Priestley. When a ginger-haired, sparrow-faced assistant offers two belts as styling options, Andrea audibly scoffs at the similarities of the two pieces. It’s a grave misstep, as Miranda immediately sets her icy contempt toward the girl and her own attire. With all the measured stealth of a jungle cat, she deadpans,

    “Oh. Okay. I see. You think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select… I don’t know … that lumpy blue sweater because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not blue, it’s not turquoise. It’s not lapis. It’s actually cerulean…. That blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of stuff.”

    It is not the bark in her bite that leaves rookie Andrea red-faced and speechless, but rather the undeniable truth in the sharp retort. Fashion is a complex system, a global industry that employs millions of workers and moves billions of dollars. And yet, it is continually marginalized and discounted as a superficial industry. What’s more, this demarcation is usually made along gender lines.

    The entry of women into the workplace was a shift that occurred slowly throughout the course of the 20th century. In the beginning, fashion was deemed the only industry suitable for the feminine constitution. And perhaps, its castigation in the face of other industries has been fostered as a consequence of a mainly feminine contingency. Whichever inequity came first is besides the point. For better or worse, fashion has played a pivotal role in the shift from homemaker to career woman, offering a safe outlet where women could exhibit competitive business savvy. In return, a handful of trailblazers elevated the industry itself, carving out singular careers that restructured and revitalized fashion and the way it was perceived in the world. Two such formidable pioneers passed this month, but their legacies shine brighter than ever before.

    After graduating from Barnard with a degree in psychology, Eileen Ford worked in various capacities in the fashion industry, as a copywriter, photographer’s stylist and fashion reporter. In 1946, the expectant mother began to manage booking for two model friends as a means to bring in some income. She discovered a knack for the work, and within a few years she and her husband founded The Ford Modeling Agency. The duo revolutionized and standardized the modeling industry, advocating for respectful treatment, decent working conditions and fair wages. Before long, they were championing the careers of the world’s most famous sirens: Suzy Parker, Jean Shrimpton, Lauren Hutton, Jerry Hall, Christie Brinkley, Cheryl Tiegs, Christy Turlington, Brooke Shields and Naomi Campbell, to name a few.

    Ford’s legacy is of particular relevance in today’s discussion on the tricky balance of motherhood and career. She and her husband had four children, and her devotion to them has been a constant reference in the obituaries and interviews that have been published since her passing. But she was also a notorious workaholic. When her youngest daughter was four, the girl announced to the family that she could remember the exact moment of her birth. “Daddy and my brother and sisters were at the hospital,’ she said, ‘and Mommy was at the office.’ (LIFE, Nov 13, 1970). Perhaps her success at the elusive balancing act was achieved in part because she established a career that combined traditional masculine and feminine attributes. She offered physical judgments with the blunt, unattached practically usually reserved for a business transaction (Christie Brinkley was put on a famous diet consisting of fish and water and Lauren Hutton was advised to fix her nose), yet young girls were nurtured like family at the Ford’s 78th street townhouse and their Long Island weekend home. What’s more, she led by example, teaching them, alongside her own daughters, that a woman had to care for her own finances, make her own career and believe in herself in order to be successful. Even in an industry based on superficial merit, it is an invaluable and impressive lesson.

    Scholar Anne Hollander’s footfall may have been quieter, but her imprint is no less pronounced. The fellow Barnard graduate received a bachelor’s degree in art history in 1952, but it was the drapes and folds in the paintings she studied that piqued her curiosity. Hollander was entirely undeterred by the intellectual stigma the study of dress held, the “taint of a woman’s-page subject” as explained by Judith Thurman. Instead, she forged her own brilliant path, effectively igniting a new field of study. Her 1978 masterpiece Seeing Through Clothes utilized the history of Western art to show how clothing has effectively shaped each era’s evolving notion of self-image, a concept that is culturally and temporally constructed. It is this association that validates the power of dress. “Considering their importance for the individual self-image, it might seem right to think of clothes as entirely social and psychological phenomena, as tangible and three-dimensional emotions, manners, or habits.” Seeing Through Clothes puts forth a clever hypothesis that accredits fashion, instantly elevating the act of dress to a germane standing worth of scholarly consideration. Hollander achieved was more than just respect for the field of fashion study; she provided ample and effective ammunition to debunk its critics.

    What Ford and Hollander share goes beyond a generational relation and a mutual love of fashion; they both strove to make the field relevant and important in the face of a daunting reputation of frivolity and insubstantiality. That they did so on their own terms and with such success is a further testament to the strength and talent of each woman. And it is a lesson that continues to be relevant for women today.

    One of the pervading tenets of feminism has been a requirement to reject any notions, behaviors or associations that have traditionally been associated with femininity. Fashion is always at the top off this pejorative list of “girlie” actions. It’s a controversial stance, and one that has inadvertently isolated many followers. The careers of Ford and Hollander speak to such nuanced questions of femininity – what it means to be female, and how that defines or defies the choices a woman makes. While they were, admittedly, born of a generation that was offered fewer choices, both women flourished within their field, and went on to shape it’s future. They can serves as powerful examples for the 21st century wave of feminism. Sometimes, to be successful doesn’t mean acting like a man. It means acting like a woman.


    (L) Anne Hollander at an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1999. (R) "Seeing Through Clothes" by Anne Hollander.


    Eileen Ford (with husband Jerry).


    (L) Eileen Ford, Photo by Nina Leen, LIFE Magazine, 1948. (M) "To arrange jobs, Eileen needs a quick massage to repair the damage done to her shoulder by using it constantly to hold the reciever."


    Eileen Ford and Anita Ekberg, Photo by Lisa Larsen, LIFE Magazine, 1951.

  • Fédération Française de la Couture

    Posted by Maria Permalink

    (L-R) Row 1: All Dior Atelier / Row 2: Dior 1951, Didier Grumbach, Lucien Lelong Paris 1945 / Row 3: Givenchy Atelier, Chanel Jacket, Elie Saab Atelier, Charles Worth 1907, Ralph Toledano.

    With all the glassy polish befitting a French businessman, Didier Grumbach has presided over the Fédération Française de la Couture, du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode for sixteen years. That’s 32 seasons and, as haute couture and prêt-à-porter are shown approximately two months apart, 64 collection presentations. But the Fall Winter 2014 haute couture shows may hold a particularly sentimental grip on Monsieur Grumbach as this will be the final fashion week under his tenure before handing the reins over to Puig fashion director Ralph Toledano.

    Grumbach oversaw years of precipitous change to the industry, administering through the effects of globalization as well as mounting competition from other cities. He steered French fashion to where it is today, internationalizing the pool of designers, fostering and encouraging young talent, and perhaps most significant, evolving the Fédération to function suitably in the age of global conglomerates by creating the executive board comprised of the 5 super powers of fashion (Hermes, Chanel, Puig, LVMH and Kering). Toledano has a long history in the industry as well; he served as a co-founder of Saint Laurent Rive Gauche and enjoyed successful stints at the helm of Chloé, Karl Lagerfeld, and Guy Laroche. Toledano will be in charge of vision and strategy for the Fédération, while Stéphanie Wargnier, formerly of Hèrmes, who will come on board to run day-to-day operations.

    The Fédération Française de la Couture, du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode functions as the de facto gatekeeper of France’s most coveted industry. The governing body is the determining authority on who shows in Paris, and when, effectively shaping press coverage and production deadlines. The Fédération as it exists today was founded in 1973, growing out of the original Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, founded in 1868. What began as a simple trade guild has grown to define and defend national identity for a century and a half. During the German occupation of World War II, President Lucien Lelong was able wield the power of the Chambre Syndicale to prevent the Nazi invaders from relocating the couture houses to Berlin.

    Such a mystic of invincibility has developed as a result of supreme exclusivity. Members of the Chambre Syndicale enjoy a reputation that is carefully crafted as artistic aptitude meets rigorous standards and unapologetic enforcement. Haute couture is a “protected name” recognized by the French government; the qualifications stringent criteria set directly by the Chambre Syndicale. As explained by Amy Fine Collins the fantastic chronicle “Toujours Couture” Vanity Fair September 2009.

    According to the bylaws of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, a division of the French Ministry of Industry, an haute couturier is a designer who presides over the creation of hand-finished made-to-order clothing, in a “laboratory” that employs at least 20 workers in Paris. The haute couturier must present a minimum of 25 ensembles twice a year, in January and July, and construct a garment over the course of several fittings, directly on a client’s body or on a dress form replicating her physique. (Hubert de Givenchy, for example, had a dummy built for Audrey Hepburn, whose 31½-22-31½ shape never varied.) From a peak of 200 before World War II, only 11 authentic haute couturiers remain; additionally, there are four correspondent members. (Giorgio Armani joined as one in 2004.) Just two Americans have ever been classified as haute couturiers—Mainbocher (retired 1971) and Ralph Rucci, who was accepted as a guest member in 2002. (After five years and 10 collections, a guest may advance to full membership.) “If someone is simply a couturier,” explains a Parisian expert, “all that means is that you are sewing.” And, the Parisian adds, if a dressmaker uses the term “haute couturier” without the Chambre Syndicale’s sanction, “he can be arrested.” (link)

    And yet, in today’s world of immediacy and fast fashion, the terms “couture”, “haute couture” and “demi-couture” are thrown around with such haphazard aplomb that the demarcations have begun to blur. It is a development that further convolutes the tenuous process of proper accreditation for the fashion historian. Proper classification is elemental in preserving the value of the industry’s most extraordinary production. It is such selectivity, the seemingly anachronistic dedication to artistic hierarchy, that the Chambre Syndicale, and by extension the Fédération Française, have championed the precision and excellence of French fashion.

  • Naked Dress

    Posted by Maria Permalink

    You’ve been deemed the fashion icon of the year, by the CFDA and Vogue no less. The red carpet is laid out for you, and Anna Wintour herself will present the award in front of an audience of industry insiders and heavy hitters. So what, pray tell, are you going to wear?

    If you should ever find yourself in this predicament, a good place to start would be to ring up Rihanna. Just a few weeks ago, the Bermudian songstress hit it out of the park at the CFDA awards. So, what does an icon wear? Skin-colored fishnet from head to toe, dripping with 230,000 Swarovski crystals, each the size of a pen tip, and … not much else. What she lacked in fabric she made up for in brio and élan. The choice was inspired, lighting up the virtual world and proving once and for all that if Rihanna wants to be naked, no social media outlet can stop her.

    Starting with Adam and Eve, clothing’s main function has been as a conduit for coverage. And yet, dressing to undress – that is, the paradox of clothing that somehow discloses more than it hides – is especially poised to stress the ingenious nuances of sartorial artistry. Thanks to the psychology of dress, there is a fine line between concealing and revealing. The most brazen attempts turn to the tools of the tailor, diaphanous drapes in gauzy cottons, translucent silks, and luculent lattices embellished with flickers, sparkles and glint. The result celebrates the human form while simultaneously transforming the wearer into a radiating, otherworldly vision. What’s sexier than naked? The Naked Dress.

    The first modern dressers to appropriate the Naked Dress did so at the turn of the 19th century. The spirit of the French Revolution, as well as the discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum, inspired neo-classical styles where acceptable décolletage might include a view of the entire breast, barely covered by the most pellucid of fabrics. As evidenced in the portrait of Paulina Bonaparte, these ethereal maidens clothed in papery sheets left little to the imagination.

    It would be another hundred years before the fluffy, frilly, buttoned-up purity of the Victorians relented to expose flesh once more. In the 1920s, the decade led by a generation of Bright Young Things, arms, legs and bosoms reemerged, this time tinged with the boyish charms of la garçonne. Flappers need to flap, so the sheer, flimsy fabrics of the popular shifts were covered in beads, sequins and tassels. The amazing Josephine Baker captured the spirit of the age as she cavorted across Europe’s great staged in harried ecstasies, set off to a tilt in an entire wardrobe of Naked Dresses.

    The elegance of the 1930s was promulgated by Hollywood’s golden era. The elaborate film sequences of the pre-Hayes Code silver screen provide some of the most breathtaking instances of the Naked Dress – see Jean Harlow’s spectacular bias-cuts in Dinner at Eight (1933) and Joan Crawford’s dazzling staircase scene in Dancing Lady (1933). The austerity of the war years rolled in a new wave of prim and proper dressing. Enter Marilyn Monroe. First came the diaphanous pleats from The Seven Year Itch, followed by a sultry, dripping little number in Some Like it Hot. But the pièce de resistance in her arsenal of Naked Dresses came in 1962, as the sex bomb crooned an unforgettable rendition of Happy Birthday to rumored lover President Kennedy at Madison Square Garden on May 19, 1962. The dress, designed by Jean Louis, still holds the record as the most expensive film costume ever sold at auction, estimated at $1,267,500. A birthday suit indeed.

    Marilyn set the standard and others followed suit. The effect of the Naked Dress was adapted by the most famous performers of the 1970s, an era where a little nudity never bothered Diana Ross and Cher became living breathing disco balls ready burn on and on. More contemporary incantations include a fiery Devon Aoki in Thierry Mugler shot by David LaChapelle and airy, elfin silver sheath worn by a baby-faced Kate Moss.

    Add to this illustrious list the divine Miss Fenty. We can all wonder how referential her jaw dropping appearance in the Naked Dress was. Was Rihanna dressed as Diana Ross as Josephine Baker? Is she the modern Marilyn? The possibility is tantalizing, as it would prove an auspicious thread of audacious, fierce women whose talent as entertainers is as boundless as their ambitions. What we do know is that in the capable hands of amazing duo of Adam Selman and Mel Ottenberg, Rihanna solidified her place as fashion icon for the ages. Shine bright like a diamond.

    (L) Portrait of Marie Pauline Bonaparte by Robert Lefevre. (R) Josephine Baker, 1925.


    (L) Jean Harlow wearing a Gown by Adrian in "Dinner at Eight", Photo by George Hurrell, 1933. (R) Joan Crawford in "Dancing Lady", 1933.


    Marilyn Monroe. (L-R: In Seven Year Itch, 1955 / In Some Like It Hot, 1959 /  At JFK’s Birthday, May 19th 1962)


    (L) Diana Ross, Photo by Richard Avedon, 1970. (R) Cher, 1972.


    (L) Model in Thierry Mugler, Photo by David LaChapelle. (R) Kate Moss & Naomi Campbell, 1993.

  • The Cecil Beaton At Home Exhibit Interview

    Posted by Maria Permalink

    Stephen Tennant, William Walton, Georgia Sitwell, Zita Jungman, Rex Whistler and Cecil Beaton at Wilsford, 1927.

    Cecil Beaton was a creative visionary whose artistic output was only matched by his raw talent and widespread influence. And yet, the celebrated photographer and designer has so far avoided a biographical retrospective that properly captures the essence of his spirit alongside the nuances of his oeuvre. It is a challenge presented in part by the multifaceted nature of his creative range, as examining each medium on its own distills the brilliance of his life’s work.

    It is with great perspicacity, therefore, that the Salisbury Museum turned to the one sphere of Beaton’s world where work, love and play all came together – his two homes in Wiltshire. The show takes us from Ashcombe, the legendary hideaway for his band of Bright Young Things, to Reddish, the picturesque retreat he maintained until his death in 1980. Curator Andrew Ginger has devotedly pieced together a collection of meticulously crafted replicas, cherished personal possessions and endearing local anecdotes to present a comprehensive look at Beaton the man alongside Beaton the legend. It is a beautiful show that celebrates a life comprised of equal parts passion and refinement, ever imbued with colorful theatricality. Maria Echeverri spoke to Ginger about Beaton and the unique perspective the show offers on his extraordinary life.

    “Cecil Beaton at Home” is the third in a series that previously investigated the lives of Rex Whistler and John Constable. It opens Friday, May 23rd and runs through September 19th.

    Many thanks to Andrew Ginger and Roger Barnard from Beaudesert Ltd. Andrew Ginger is the Exhibition Curator and the Managing Director, Beaudesert Ltd & The Cecil Beaton Fabric Collection.

    More information on the exhibit can be found here


    Maria Echeverri: Cecil Beaton was a mainstay of the 20th century, and played an enormous role in shaping culture and society’s perceptions of sophistication and good taste. How might this exhibition introduce his influence to younger generations?

    Andrew Ginger: Beaton’s creativity spanned everything from theatre to film, fashion to interiors, painting to writing and much of his photographic imagery will already be unconsciously known to young designers. This show will offer an in-depth understanding of Beaton’s personal life, his relationships and his houses, all of which were hugely influential on his creative output. It may be a surprise for some to discover that what they may see as their own ‘modern’ problems, such as sexual confusion or creative self-doubt were just as formative for Beaton.

    ME: The highlight of the show seems to be the re-creations, particularly of the Circus Bedroom. Could you tell us a bit about that process?

    AG: The bed is a tour de force of Beaudesert’s bespoke bed-making skills and has been in production for some 6 months, and is based on a series of photographs from the Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s and a single watercolour painting by Sir Francis Rose, as the only known colour reference. We've analysed every detail using Sotheby's hi-res images and checked everything in black and white as well as against the colour impression. Beaton's bed was moulded in papier-mâché and we didn't feel that was a medium we could work in nor one that was as durable as we would want. Consequently the bed has been largely hand-carved in Lime-wood with the friezes cast from moulded sections.  


    (L) Cecil Beaton in his first costume of the night, the famous 'Rabbit' outfit, in his Circus bedroom 10 July 1937. (M) Cecil Beaton photographed by George Hoyningen-Huené for Vanity Fair 1934. (R) Beaton's Bedroom and his gang of artists-standing around one of his drum tables with a little drummer lass.


    (L) Cecil Beaton in the "Circus Room" at Ashcombe Mural by Rex Whistler. (R) Rex Whistler, Lord Berners, Oliver Messel and Cecil Beaton, 1931. Photo by Beaton.






    ME: The murals on the walls were painted by friends Oliver Messel and Rex Whistler. How were those recreated? How close do you feel the room is to the original?

    AG: The murals were painted by Cecil, Oliver Messel, Rex Whistler, Lord Berners, Christopher Sykes and Jorg and Elsa von Reppert-Bismarck. They were all staying over the weekend of 29th May 1932 and bad weather kept them indoors. Having two of the greatest 20th century muralists and set painters there and a white bedroom, everything fell into place. Andrew Joynes has recreated the murals for us from the photographs and captured them perfectly - but it took rather longer than a wet weekend! Only two of the murals still exist at Ashcombe - the equestrienne by Elsa von Reppert-Bismarck and the Columbine with dogs by Lord Berners. These will be shown in the room as life-sized photographs though, having been painted over from 1945-1995, they aren't as fresh as the new ones.

    ME: In researching for this piece, I came across the painted panels that Salvador Dali did for Helena Rubinstein’s apartment. It stuck me as deliciously extravagant to commission a mural instead of purchasing a movable canvas, and seems a bit of a novelty for the 20th century. I was wondering if this was a trend that started with Beaton and his close circle of friends at Ashcombe? Are there any other trends or fashions that can be traced to him that may not be as well known?

    AG: Murals date back to Roman times, and were popular through the Renaissance and the Baroque eras. Beaton, Messel and Whistler loved them because of their overtly theatrical nature and their ability to deceive the eye and take you to another world. The Circus Room is a great homage to the inspiration of theatre - it didn't matter to Beaton that it was all effect or a bit flimsy, he wanted the romance of an imaginative, created space. Rex and Oliver went on to become very famous for murals, illustration and theatre design but in some ways they were unusual in being so inspired by the past, and by the 18th century in particular. Ashcombe seems to be unique in the period for its wildly creative and theatrical atmosphere - perhaps Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell at Charleston are the only obvious comparison but in quite a different, more domestic scale.


    (L) Salavador Dali Mural for Helena Rubinstein, Photo credit House & Garden, April 1948. (R) Dali murals for Helena Rubinstein.


    Beaton himself set the world alight with his use of colour - particularly black and white (after the gasp-inspiring Ascot scene in My Fair Lady) - and in his love of red rooms. Not only did he use a red room in many of his productions (Gigi, Lady WIndermere's Fan etc), he upholstered his bedroom walls in London in peony red and his drawing room in black velvet the better to show off his contemporary art. The red velvet drawing room at Reddish was described as 'crushed blackberry' at the time.


    (L) The Reddish House Living Room. (R) Dorian Leigh in the drawing room of Beaton’s 18th century manor house (Reddish House), 1950’s by Cecil Beaton.


    (L) Diana Vreeland in Red Room. (R) Cecil Beaton’s living room in his suite at the Plaza Hotel, 1946.


    ME: There have been many exhibitions on Cecil Beaton, and yet the shows rarely feel whole, perhaps in part because of the multifaceted nature of his work. But still, there is an elusive nature to the mediums he choses: portraiture directs steadfast attention to the sitter, while set and costume design, by their very nature confuse identity through continuous experimentation. This exhibition, however, seems to properly capture the essence of the man – why do you think that is the case?

    AG: I hope it does - but the better you feel you know him the more he fascinates with his contradictions. I hope the show will inspire visitors to read his excellent books and diaries, which are hugely entertaining and engrossing, as well as explore his lesser known work as textile designer, illustrator and caricaturist. One of the motivations for the show was the fact that Beaton seems to be a person many people come to with a host of prejudices and preconceptions - sometimes quite negative ones. Getting to know the few people who still remember him, we were touched by the way they saw him as a deeply warm and loyal friend and a very generous and unaffected man - quite different to the spiky, polished persona he often projected in his work life. His complex approach to life and art is deeply interesting, as his complex approach to love and sex. In his devotion to self-publicity he was completely prescient, though this ultimately led to a sense of loneliness. The work and ambition came at a price.


    ME: Much of the story you are telling with this show seems to center around Ashcombe, and Beaton’s relationship with the estate can be described as a kind of love affair. I was struck by the sanctity of his words in describing his first visit to the estate. “None of us uttered a word as we came under the vaulted ceiling and stood before a small, compact house of lilac-coloured brick. We inhaled sensuously the strange, haunting - and rather haunted - atmosphere of the place ... I was almost numbed by my first encounter with the house. It was as if I had been touched on the head by some magic wand.” For those of us who have not have the pleasure of visiting, can you speak to the unique energy of the home?

    AG: I've been lucky enough to go three times so far and I can honestly say it lives up to every word and description. The place is uniquely beautiful and in quite a quietly haunted way. It sounds exaggerated but I was bracing myself for disappointment the first time I walked under the archway but it was just breath taking. The house is small - quite domestic in scale - but very enfolding and the views from every window are gorgeous. Of course inside it looks quite different now, but the slightly melancholy beauty remains even though it's immaculately kept. It didn't surprise me that Beaton had no qualm about being there alone and relished the silence. You can't help but feel cut off and close to nature.


    (L) Farewell to Ashcombe, 1948. (M) Ashcombe. (R) Cecil Beaton with his sisters at Ashcombe.


    (L) Ashcombe photo by Tim Walker for US Vogue. (R) Cecil Beaton’s photograph of a fancy-dress party in 1937 at Ashcombe.



    (L) Lady Ottoline Morrell at Ashcombe, Summer 1933. (R) Ashcombe, The Story of Fifteen Year Lease, 1949.


    ME: Can you elaborate a bit on the specificity of Beaton’s time at Ashcombe? His book Ashcombe: The Story of a Fifteen-Year Lease was written in 1948 and is tinged with post-war nostalgia. Do you think the exuberant innocence of the years before the war informed the world created at Ashcombe?

    AG: The War changed everything for everyone - so many didn't survive for a start - so the place Beaton looks back at Ashcombe from is grave and sober in comparison. The 30s take on a mystical festivity and extravagant innocence through this lens. But in reality he captures more than the jolly larks of a uniquely wealthy, privileged and artistic set. He captures the thrill of early adulthood - independence, self-knowledge, kindred spirits - it's the essence of what so many of us go through after college from 22-35. For Beaton - as for all his artistic, intellectual, gay and bi-sexual friends - the chance to spend time together away from the gaze of restrictive elders, society or press, was intoxicating - country house weekends for the rest of the gang meant being in the grand houses of their parents. Ashcombe was, as Rex described it, “Liberty Hall" and Beaton, extraordinarily, was earning the vast salary to manage it. The extravagance during what was, let's remember, the Great Depression, was remarkable, but Beaton never thinks about money or the future - there is a wonderfully spontaneous, joyful frivolity about the whole episode which comes directly from the heart.

    ME: Can you tell us a bit about Reddish? What work did he do to this house? How did it compare to Ashcombe? Did he try to recreate some of the magic of the previous place or was it a fresh start?

    AG: Throughout his later life Cecil insisted Ashcombe could not be repeated - he could never go back - it wouldn't have been the same. Had he returned there after the War who knows how he would have felt or what he would have done. One can't imagine him in the Circus Bed at 60 somehow.., it could have been all very sad.

    Reddish was very different to Ashcombe, though finding a house with anything like the same character was bound to be a struggle. In the two years of looking Cecil suffered nightmares, waking in a sweat imagining he was being obliged to buy a modern, suburban villa with a magnolia tree and double garage. Though Reddish sits directly on a quaint village street the garden of 5 acres behind and in front of the house (across the street) brought a feeling of remoteness and seclusion a little similar to Ashcombe. Reddish like Ashcombe is a very grand little house - barely 3 bedrooms in the main building and two thatched cottages in the garden. It has huge architectural character with the stone bust of a laurelled poet over the front door and a laurelled oval in the brick pediment topped with a theatrical mask.

    Beaton paid £ 10,000 for it in 1948 (about a million today) and immediately set about improving it, though it wasn't until 1955 that he enlarged the drawing room with the columned apse and added the winter garden. The theatricality of Reddish is more adult than Ashcombe - the Circus Bed was dumped for being 'frivolous junk' and he turned to his other great passion - the Edwardian age. The red, white and gold drawing room with its French furniture and trumeau mirror is a sophisticated stage set for him as the older aesthete complete with smoking jacket. The rosy chintz he had specially copied for the room has been recreated for the show and once again covers his sofa, standing on a recreation of his own designed classical carpet. His increased standing as designer of films and Royal photographer brought in more income and the art collection became suitably grand and mature to match his new status. The garden was his greatest joy and the house was always heavy with flowers and they were ritually carried back to London every week.

     One thing that is worth pointing out - for all the sophistication and depth of engagement with both his houses in Wiltshire - Cecil was always (until his stroke in 1974) a weekender! He rarely spent longer than a Friday to Tuesday in the country, even though he stated that all his artistic, creative work was done there. London was for 'marketing his produce', as he put it, and taking photographs of course. Add to this that he travelled continually, before, during and after the War, and that he spent 2-3 months of most working years in New York, Palm Beach and Hollywood and it is simply staggering how much he achieves.


    (L) Dorian Leigh, shot by Cecil Beaton in the garden at Reddish House, Wiltshire, Vogue 1951. (M) Beaton's Self-Portrait at Reddish House. (R) Cecil Beaton with dog at home in Reddish.


    (L) Cecil Beaton at Reddish. (R) Cecil Beaton & Bianca Jagger, Reddish.


    (L) Beaton and Jean Shrimpton, Reddish House, 1965. (R) Beaton at Reddish.


    ME: I want to talk a bit about Beaton’s style. In the teaser trailer you have released for the exhibition there is a clipping that reads “Theatrical Panache”. That seems a very apt term to describe his mode. There is something about his work that feels very interactive. I’m thinking of the handprint wallpaper of course, but also the blurred lines between interiors, sets and costumes. Do you think this style evolved through his work at both homes?

    AG: Beaton's love of theatre really informs everything he does - certainly his photography and in many ways his homes, his art, his photography are only tools to achieve a romantic and theatrical feeling. When he first goes to Hollywood in 1928 he lingers on the giant sets of a Dolores del Rio movie and says in his diary - "how wonderful to live among scenery". At Reddish it all looked very grand but the columns in the hall were hollow and marbleised by the set decorator and designer Felix Harbord - similarly the dado mouldings in the drawing room (at least until 1955) were trompe l'oeil.

    The hands on the bathroom wall and ceiling at Ashcombe weren't actually wallpaper but were drawn on the walls and signed by invited guests, but I suspect he went over them in ink later as they look so consistent in quality, if wildly different as hands. Before he left Ashcombe he wrote a list of all the names and we'll publish that for the first time in the forth-coming catalogue. There were 280 in all and it represents a second visitors' book in a way. He used to lie in the bath and muse on the various juxtapositions. I was surprised to see the name of his landlord, Mr Borley, on that list! He must have felt obliged to include him...


    Cecil Beaton in the bathroom at Ashcombe.


    ME: What about his personal style? Did he dress as elaborately as some of his designs? Was he a dandy?

    AG: Dr Ben Wild gave a lecture all about Beaton’s own style at the V&A on Saturday 10 May and will repeat it again later in the year in London and hopefully Salisbury. Cecil certainly was very stylish and cared a great deal about his manicured appearance - his visual sense was acute and he turned his critical eye on himself as much as everyone else. Though he toned down his sense of flamboyance on the advice of Noel Coward and others, he was brave enough to wear what he liked in a very conservative age. His broad brimmed, high crowned, planation Panama hat alone was enough to make some uncomfortable in those days and he was rarely seen without it or the flowing neck scarves he favoured. He shows great courage and integrity in his determination to dress as he wishes, though he claimed to be baffled when he was voted on to the list of the world's best-dressed men in the late 60s.

    Did you uncover any more of his legendary scrapbooks?

    AG: Sotheby’s hold 42 and there are others in private hands, one of which will be in the show, which is very exciting, as it hasn’t been exhibited before.

    The Beaton Estate have some of the last few unseen scrapbooks and we are absolutely delighted that they have consented to lend one to the show. It dates from the late 20s and will be used to demonstrate his obsession for Greta Garbo long before he finally met her in 1932. The scrapbooks are every bit as fascinating as you would suppose and it was tough to choose the spread it was to be open at.

    We are also delighted to have Cecil’s Ashcombe/Reddish Visitors' Book which is something of a Holy Grail. You may have seen it at the V&A show in 2012 but this time we have access to more pages showing sophisticated doodles by Graham Sutherland, Tchelitchew, Francis Rose and many others, as well as a touching entry by Stephen Tennant.



     (L) Images from the Ashcombe Guestbook.


    (L) Cecil Beaton's Scrapbook. (R) Greta Garbo Eye scarf fabric by Cecil Beaton.


    ME: What is your favorite piece in the exhibition? Is there anything about Beaton you were surprised to learn?

    AG: It's hard to have a favourite piece - there are many highlights - I was very thrilled to find Garbo's Rose, still owned by the photographer who bought it at the auction in 1980. This is the rose Garbo played with when they first met in 1932 and which he kept dried in his diary and later framed. Nothing speaks of Cecil's essentially romantic self more eloquently than this - was he in love with Greta? Or in love with the idea of her or the idea of being in love with her? It's probably one of the smallest items in the show but one of the most poignant and iconic.


    (L) Greta's Rose. (R) Garbo visited Beaton in England for the first time. She is photographed in Salisbury and in Beaton's mansion at Reddish House in Broadchalke/ England. 1951 - Here at the garden door, Reddish.


    In talking to and recording the residents of Broad Chalke who remembered Cecil I was so touched by their affection for him. I've worked with lots of very wealthy or renowned people and how they treat their staff, or how their staff speak of them, is perhaps one of the greatest litmus tests of a personality. You can't keep a pretence up at home and it was clear that they all had a lot of fun and kindness from Cecil and missed him very much. I felt that people needed to hear that and I hope that visitors to the show will take the time to listen to the brief excerpts we will be playing - some of them are hilarious, some very moving.

    ME: Any closing thoughts?

    AG: When Noel Coward was shown round Ashcombe in 1937, whilst staying for a weekend with Lady Juliet Duff in Wilton, he commented that he thought it "the most courageous thing he'd ever seen". In an age preoccupied with self-image and self-honesty Cecil has much to contribute - for all his carefully manufactured image he was undoubtedly unafraid to take his own course. He was a man acutely concerned with what the world thought of him, and yet, oddly determined to provoke criticism and judgement by being unrelentingly himself. For years he has been derided for being a social climber but how else is the talented man born out of his milieu to succeed? Especially in a time of such rigid social strata. On his trips to Reddish on the train from Waterloo he would often notice a suburban photographers studio, visible from the train window at the end of Victorian terrace in Woking and say to himself: "There but for the grace of God, go I". What a loss for us all if he hadn't had the drive and courage to become the man he was.

  • Charles James & Orchids

    Posted by Maria Permalink

    Charles James Ball Gowns, Photo by Cecil Beaton, 1948.

    Charles James mania has hit fever pitch. From the dim, somber galleries of the Costume Institute radiate visions of lush velvet bodices, folds of intricate tulle, and glistening, pearly silk satin. After a string of Anglo-themed shows, Charles James is a refreshing return to the elegance of post-war America. The retrospective is an auspicious choice, as 2014 was declared the year of Radiant Orchid. But what does this audacious hue have to do with the American master of couture? Let’s dive in, shall we.

    Pantone’s annual chromatic dictation, announced just ahead of each new year, is a forecast decided by the zeitgeist, a secret formula that takes into account upcoming trends to deduce a prophetic declaration of taste. This year’s selection was met with mixed reviews; one critic called the choice both “hilariously misjudged” and thirty years late –1984 was after all, the year of “Purple Rain”. In truth, the hue is not for the faint of heart. It is bold and brazen, yet somehow murky, lying somewhere between pink and purple. What’s most interesting is the name, which grounds the abstraction of the designation. Orchid the flower lends orchid the color all the cache of one of the world’s most coveted plants.

    Even in the most modern sense, man’s creative ingenuity is ultimately an attempt to mimic nature’s inspiration. That the layers of a gown emulate the petals of a flower may be an obviously metaphor, but it is a useful one. The relationship between fashion and flora is explicit and robust. Twenty years ago, Richard Martin and a young Harold Koda took on this rampant stimulus of fashion in a small but cleverly devised exhibition titled Bloom. As stated in the catalogue, “Lush and sensual, the flowers of grand dresses are no merely their surface decoration but their essential metaphor.”

    Many of the fashion’s most prolific designers have selected signature flowers. The camellia is as emblematic of the house of Chanel as the quilted bag or tweed suit. Christian Dior, who inherited a fanatical love of gardening from his mother, based his spring 1954 collection on Lily of the Valley, or Manuet, then adopted the flower as the permanent symbol for the house. Paul Poiret chose the rose, which he incorporated right onto his clothing labels. So illustrious is this band of designers that one might suppose the assignment of a signature flower a forecast for success. American designer Charles James was similarly drawn to the intoxicating allure of the blossom. As noted by Martin and Koda, orchids inspired the sculptural forms and exotic palettes of his gowns. It speaks volume that of all the charms of the garden, James was most drawn to the mysterious and uncanny beauty of the orchid.


    (L) Christian Dior Spring collection basd on Lily of the Valley or Le Muguet, 1954.


    Flowers are an exceptional amalgamation of innocence and sophistication, a literal and figurative representation for layered femininity. Each bloom presents its own identity – the wilting ennui of the peony, the pert prettiness of the tulip, the piquant color of the poppy, the crystalized sweetness of the violet. And yet there is a prevailing sense of gentle beauty throughout world of flora, with one exception: the orchid stands apart from this list in that it eschews saccharine loveliness. Although soft to the touch, the petals are rigid, the forms sharp and unyielding, the colors anything but proper, from ghostly translucent to darkness of clotting blood. Orchids represent intrigue and mystery, rebelliousness and intricacy, a beauty that is confrontational and erudite, and a range that is stupefying; all descriptions that also serve for the spectacular designs of Charles James.

    In 2001 Botany of Desire, author Michael Pollan explores the ability certain flowers have developed to maintain popularity beyond the whims of fashion. Some have been more successful than others. The pink or gillyflower was the rage in Shakespeare’s era, while hyacinths enjoyed a moment of vogue during the Victorian age. A select few have evolved beyond the scope of human caprice; by regenerating and reinventing to suit the aesthetic or cultural expectations of the time these special flowers have reach a kind of immortal status wherein trends are inconsequential. Consider the orchid.

    “There are flowers, and then there are flowers: flowers, I mean, around which whole cultures have sprung up, flowers with a n empire’s worth of history behind them, flowers whose form and color and scent, whose very genes carry reflections of people’s ideas and desires through time like great books. … flowers that have survived the vicissitudes of fashion to make themselves sovereign and unignorable.”

    What a muse.



    Man’s fascination with orchids is neither geographically nor generationally limited. Orchids comprise the biggest flowering family on earth. They grow on every continent except Antarctica, and were cultivated and collected as early as ancient China. Each bloom features a collection of fleshy petals, with one standout that differs in both shape and color from the others. The elaborate petal, often enlarged into a pouch or lip, is called the labellum. As the names suggest, these flowers offer the most flagrant suggestions of carnal anatomy found in nature. The sexual innuendoes of these graphically erotic flowers were not lost on the population Victorian England where an orchid craze gripped the nation. “Orchidelirium” was set off by the Duke of Devonshire then enthusiastically taken up by the Queen herself. Hot houses sheltered hundreds of varieties so that men and woman alike could leer at the suggestive blooms from the comfortable distance that their regimented society dictated.

    James’ designs mimic orchids in form, color and texture, but it may be this overt sexuality that is the closet link of all. Judith Thurman refers to this element of his work in her recent piece for the New Yorker. “If you strip a James to its foundation what you find is sex. The true function of fashion, James said, is to arouse the mating instinct... A deceptively austere sheath, like the Coq Noir, of 1937, swaddled the figure like a mummy’s wrapping, but James bunched the excess silk at the back, forming an obscenely gorgeous labial bustle.” His dresses are singular and anthropomorphized, in the same way a single orchid can stand alone and still produce awe. It is no wonder that James was so gripped by orchidelirium himself, as he needed a flower that would stand up to his notions of complex, magnetic femininity.

    Fashion’s fascination with orchids is certainly not limited to Charles James. Irving Penn shot a spectacularly lurid spread for Vogue in December 1970. Bill Blass and Mary McFadden were avid collectors. Calvin Klein has continually referred to the flower to further his minimalist aesthetic. Halston, a lifelong admirer of James, famously filled his studio with masses of white orchids, the “embodiment of Halston’s sensibilities: purity of design, elegant simplicity, Asian exoticism crossed with an almost rugged naturalism.” (Susan Orlean, Vogue 1998). And of course, Tom Ford’s turned to the only flower that could carry his brazen brand of sexuality when naming his signature scent – the elusive Black Orchid. On his way into the Met Gala last week, Mr. Ford stopped by and had a chat with Andre Leon Talley. When asked about James’ stately constructions, he stated that while he finds them incredibly beautiful although not “particularly sexy”. We wonder if, after further inspection, he may have changed his mind.


    (L) Charles James with Model, Photo by Cecil Beaton, 1948. (R) Charles James Butterfly Gown, Photo by Cecil Beaton, 1954.


    (L) Clover Dress, 1958.



    (R) 1948.



    (L) 1939. (M) 1947. (R) 1941.


    (L) Lisa Fonssagrives in a Charles James gown,1948. (R) 1951.


    (L) 1946. (M) 1948. (R) 1952.


    (M) 1954. (R) 1955.


    (L) Muslin, 1946. (R) La Sirène, 1939. (R) 1947.


    (L) Selena Gomez in Diane Von Furstenberg. (R) Rashida Jones in Tory Burch. (L) Olivia Munn in DVF. All at 2014 Met Gala.


    (L) Reese Witherspoon in Stella McCartney. (M) Emma Stone in Thakoon. (R) Stephanie Seymour in Vintage Balenciaga. All 2014 Met Gala.



    Photos by Irving Penn, Vogue, December 1970.






  • Paris in the Spring

    Posted by Maria Permalink

    Le Cafee de Flore, Photo by Boris Lipnitzki, Paris, 1959.


    The Internet is a cavernous, sometimes dark rabbit hole primed for the historically persuaded. A Google deep dive is the surest way to a 3:30 am out of body experience. And yet, there comes a point when it seems you have reached the very end. You’ve seen it all before; every picture of Kate Moss and Audrey Hepburn stored away on its corresponding Pinterest board. So, it is always a welcome surprise to stumble across a source for less common visual candy. Such is the case with the lovely tumblr page “Chamade – Vintage French Photos”, proving once and for all that before street style blogs, there was Paris. A few of the classics are there, but by and large, it a refreshing collection for any nostalgic Francophile. Without further ado, we’ve pulled our favorites of the bunch. Paris in the spring? Qui, bien sur!


    (L) After midnight Brassaï, Paris, 1930. (R) American girl in Montmartre, Photo by Inge Morath, Paris 1954.


    (L) Juliette, Photo by Jean Moral, France 1933. (M) Hairdresser, Photo by Gisèle Freund, Paris 1938. (R) *Madame Henri Gouin, Deauville, août 1939.


    (L) At the cafe, Photo by Nico Jesse, Paris 1957. (R) Audrey Hepburn, Photo by Daniel Cande, Paris 1962.


    (L) Bibi in driver suit, Photo by Jacques-Henri Lartigue, 1923. (R) Boulevard Montmartre, Photo by Izis Bidermanas, Paris 1966.


    (L) Brasserie Lipp, Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris 1969. (R) Brigitte Bardot on the set of A Coeur Joie, France 1966.


    (L) Bus Stop, Photo by Robert Schall,1930s. (R) Cabaret Tabarin, Paris circa 1930.


    (L) Catherine Deneuve, Paris 1960s. (R) Corinne Luchaire, Photo by Séeberger, Deauville, 1939.


    (L) Catherine Deneuve, Photo by Milton Greene, Saint-Tropez, 1962. (R) Deauville, Photo by Robert Capa, France 1951.


    (L) Deauville, Photo by Agence Meurisse, circa 1928. (R) Dior, Photo by Mark Shaw, Paris 1954.


    (L) Fançois Truffant et Jeanne Moreau. (R) Françoise Hardy, Photo by Hugues Vassal, Paris 1960s.


    (L) Photo by Mark Shaw, 1961. (M) Mlle Scarlet Gresham, aux courses à Deauville, 1 août 1938. (R) Champ de Mars, Photo by Willy Ronis, 1956.


    (L) Françoise Dorléac on the set of La Peau Douce, Photo by Raymont Cauchetier, Paris 1963. (R) Jean Gabin and Marlène Dietrich.


    (L) John F Kennedy, Photo by Jacques Henri Lartigue, Cap d'Antibes French Riviera, 1953. (R) Ladies Lunch, Photo Donald Honeyman, Paris 1949.


    (L) Les Champs Elysées, Paris 1960s. (R) Les Parisiennes, Photo by Nico Jesse, Paris 1950s.


    (L) Leslie Caron, Photo by Jack Garofalo, Marseille 1960. (R) Lillian Bassman, Paris 1950s.


    (L) Martha's nap on the Seine, Photo by Pierre Jamet, Paris 1942. (R) "Maybe She's Late", Photo by Alfred Eisentaedt, Paris 1960s.


    (L) Mistinguett Séeberger, Deauville 1929. (R) Molyneux Studio, Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt, Paris 1934.


    (L) Models wearing Jacques Heim, Photo by Fred Bommet, Paris 1954. (R) Models, Photo by René Burri, Paris 1950s.


    (L) Mondrian Dress by Yves Saint Laurent, Photo by Lood Van Bennekom, Paris 1965. (R) Outside Christian Dior, Photo by Jacques Dutronc, Paris 1960s.


    (L) Photo by Loomis Dean, Life Magazine, Paris 1957. (R) Parisian Cafe, Photo by Frank Horvat, Paris 1959.


    (L) Place Vendôme, Photo by Edouard Boubat, 1952. (R) Pontoon of the hotel Carlton at Cannes, Photo by Séeberger, France 1936.


    (L) Quai de Seine, Photo by Izis Bidermanas, Paris ca 1950. (R) Reflection, Photo by Frances Mortimer, Paris 1950s.


    (L) Renée Perle, Photo by Jacques-Henri Lartigue, circa 1930. (R) Sophia Loren in the Christian Dior Salon, Photo by Burt Glinn, Paris 1963.


    (L) St Roch Church, Photo by Edouard Boubat, Paris 1952. (R) Suzy at the Eiffel Tower, Photo by George Dambier, Paris 1954.


    (L) The last waltz of the Bastille Day, Photo by Robert Doisneau, Paris 1949. (R) The Eye of Love, Photo by René Groebli, 1953.


    (L) Two Young Parisian women on a balcony, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Paris 1963. (R) Photo by Izis Bidermanas, Paris circa 1960.


    (L) Ana Karina, Photo by Luc Fournol, France 1962. (M) Bibi at Megeve, Photo by Jacques-Henri Lartigue, France 1930s. (R) Grand Prix du Jockey Club, Photo by Jean-Loup Seiff, Chantilly racecourse 1956.


    At the Fun Fair, Gaston Paris, 1935.

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  • The Day "Midi" Protestors stormed Oscar De La Renta

    Posted by Maria Permalink

    It seems apt that Oscar de la Renta would serve as co-chair for the Costume Institute Gala Benefit on the occasion of celebrating Charles James. De la Renta is, after all, known for an elegant and sophisticated style befitting the smart set of the Upper East Side. As C.Z. Guest once said, “Oscar doesn’t even understand what bad taste is”. As such, it seems hard to imagine that the debonair designer would be anything but beloved. But early in his career, he came up against a staunch roadblock, as the world had not quite caught up to his refined palate. Below is the story of Oscar de la Renta’s brief dalliance with notoriety.

    It was the hemline drop heard round the world. And the rebuff was so vitriolic, it took all of Seventh Avenue by storm.

    To set the scene: 1965. Mary Quant is credited with inventing the Mini, effectively freeing an army of well-formed gams into the world. Women rejoiced, blissfully flapping tender ankles, bronzed knees and shapely thighs everywhere from transatlantic flights to weddings. It was the suitable attire for a youthful generation dedicated to changing the world. But fashion is nothing if not relentless in pursuit of a defying change. Fast forward five years and the daring abundance of skin below the waist somehow seemed dated. For S/S 1970, designers proposed a new look for a new decade; skirt lines would drop demurely to mid-shin levels, while the name retained something of the charm of its predecessor: The Midi. As it turns out, their projections were, if not entirely wrong, then at the very least premature. No one was ready to put the legs away.

    The outrage that the new styles caused was so intense that The New York Times dubbed it “The Great Midi Crisis of 1970”. Perhaps not surprisingly, the greatest protestations were from men. “I think they’re awful. They look like 1950 vintage Deborah Kerr movies. And there’s nothing more dated than that particular vintage,” offered Harry Dawson, a 28 prep school teacher from Manhattan. Even Paul Newman weighed in on the matter. “I think it’s absolutely shameful that designers are able to get away with something like this. My wife’s got great legs. Why should she hide ‘em?” Mrs. Kenneth Silver, a thirty-year-old employee at the Scientology Foundation, agreed with the famous actor, “The mini is where it’s at for chicks like me with good legs”. Designers were forced to take a stand on the issue. Mollie Parnis, Pauline Trigère and Sarmi opened their shows that spring with compliant anti-Midi speeches. And so, disgruntled customers turned on those that perpetuated the trend.

    Among the American designers, Oscar de la Renta was the principal culprit championing the case for the Midi. (In Paris, Valentino and Saint Laurent were presenting similar silhouettes). On May 4, 1970, the members of FADD (Fight Against Dictating Designers) and GAMS (Girls/Guys Against More Skirt) joined forces to picket outside 550 Seventh Avenue, where de la Renta was showing his boutique collection. “We chose Mr. de la Renta because he is so pro-midi, and he isn’t showing anything else. We thought it important to take a stand in the garment center this week.” For over an hour they stomped their bare stems, waving placard with passionate fury. The courteous Dominican designer faced the irate crowd with good humor, predicting with a knowing smile, “They’ll be wearing the midi length in five years”.

    De la Renta proved a proficient soothsayer. By November 1973, the disgruntled troops had disbanded, and the Midi skirt was safely reintroduced to the market. So, the designers triumphed in the end. And, in truth, the idyllic vision of a world entirely populated by naked legs was in actuality not universally appealing. “I have fat knees,” Marcy Donovan, an 18 year old secretary lamented. “But now, I’m going to cover them up again in the name of fashion.”


    (L) Mary Quant in her Studio, 1965. (R) 1966.


    Women wearing Mini's, 1969.


    (L) London, February 1968. (R) Jane Birkin, 1960s.


    1969 Fashion.


    Midi Protestors, 1960s.


    Midi Protestors, 1960s.


    Oscar de la Renta Fashion (R: Midi Skirt, Vogue, March 15, 1970)

  • Patrick Kelly's Love List

    Posted by Maria Permalink

    Hubert Givenchy had Audrey Hepburn. For Yves Saint Laurent, it was Catherine Deneuve. Today, it’s Tilda Swinton for Raf Simons, Kirsten Dunst for the Rodarte sisters. Beautiful actresses are a dime a dozen in Hollywood, but when a designer unearths a muse, the result is kismet.

    Bette Davis was a wild cat. She lived her life with all the brazen spitfire of her most celebrated role, the mercurial, shrewd and brilliant Margo in All About Eve. So it is not surprising that it took her eighty years to accept the role of fashion muse. In Patrick Kelly, she met her match. The designer dealt in the a similar currency of theatricality, commanding his models backstage before a show, “Paint those red lips! I want you to look like you just got rid of your third husband!” Finally, a man who could match her spirited pizzazz and joie de vivre.

    The doyenne with the polished pronunciation was tickled pink by the skateboarding, graffiti-can wielding Kelly. And he was equally as flummoxed by her. While scouring flea markets to complete his collection of black memorabilia, he eagerly procured any Bette Davis souvenir he came across. For her part, the legendary star shamelessly promoted him at every turn, including two stints on David Letterman where his lively creations served as props in her bits; glittering question marks and lacquered lips proposition the funnyman, reminding the audience that the sweet old dame was no shrinking violent. In the hands of Kelly’s vibrant, playful and suggestive designs, the feisty octogenarian felt comfortable in her own skin.

    Kelly openly declared his devotion to his muse in the program notes of his F/W 1988-89 collection. Instead of the customary program notes, the audience was presented with the designer’s “Love List” (written below), where Davis is prominently featured along with Spare Ribs, “I Love Lucy”, and, of course, Buttons. Privately, Kelly had just been dealt a monumental blow, a deadly diagnosis of the HIV virus. In light of his devastating prognosis, the joy and celebration of his list is particularly moving.

    Over the next two years, his devotion to Davis would only grow. Perhaps they shared a united, cheerful front in the face of their own mortality. Bette Davis passed in October 1989, and two short months later, Patrick Kelly followed.

    Shop our selection of Patrick Kelly Pieces here
    Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love runs through April 27 - November 30 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.



    I LOVE:

    Families, especially Grandmothers and Mothers
    Nice People, Work Vacations
    Fried Chicken and “Foie Gras” and “Fauchon” Croissants
    Buttons and Bows
    Pearls and Popcorn
    Pretty Things
    Madame Grès


    (L) Patrick Kelly with his grandmother Ethel Rainey. (R) Madame Grès.


    Pretty Girls and Valentine Candy Boxes and Fried Catfish
    All Women (Fat, Skinny and Between....)
    Lycra Dresses and Spare-Ribs
    Ethel Rainey, Bette Davis, Martin Luther King
    Josephine Baker and Pat Cleveland


    (L) Bette Davis wearing Patrick Kelly. (R) Martin Luther King.


    (L) Josephine Baker. (R) Pat Cleveland (as Josephine Baker), Photo by Alan Kaplan, Italian Vogue, 1970s.


    “I Love Lucy”


    I love Lucy Cast.


    Music: Gospel, Loud, Classical, Rap, Jazz, Soul, Luther Vandross
    Big Overalls
    Birthdays and Christmas
    Paris in the Springtime, in the Fall, in the Winter, BUT ESPECIALLY IN MISSISSIPPI
    Buttons, Buttons, Buttons
    ........................and You!

  • Patrick Kelly

    Posted by Maria Permalink

    The year was 1987. A young and radiant Princess Diana was at the very height of her reign as the world’s most dedicated clotheshorse. During a clandestine afterhours stop at London’s Harvey Nichols, the svelte blonde was distracted from the rows of Christian Lacroix and Escada by a sequined, leopard print number designed by Paris’ newest bright star. After slipping it onto her 5’10 frame, she turned from the mirror to her male bodyguard, “It’s too tight, isn’t it?”. When the blushing sentinel agreed, her blue eyes flickered back, “I’ll take it.” So it was that a few short years after his prêt-à-porter premier, Patrick Kelly, the King of Cling, was blazing his way from Parisian showrooms into the wardrobes of the world’s most glamorous and discerning women. The designer’s meteoric rise will be celebrated next week, when the Philadelphia Museum of Art will premiere “Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love”, a comprehensive retrospective celebrating the singular spirit of the American Designer.

    By 1988, Paris was burning with the openhearted magnetism and sheer velocity of Patrick Kelly. His client roster ranged from Grace Jones to an eighty-year-old Bette Davis. At the insistence of Pierre Berger, Kelly became the first American (and first black) designer to be voted into the prestigious Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode. As the City of Lights warmly cast the limelight on the southern transplant, he shined it right back, breathing new life and energy onto the runway. The first collection he showed at the Louvre, as the newest member of the coveted inner circle, was a blithe lampoon of the Mona Lisa, featuring “Billie (Holiday) Lisa”, ”Jungle Lisa Loves Tarzan” (a décolleté leopard print gown) and “Moona Lisa” (a silver paillette gown topped with Plexiglas-bubble headgear). His runways featured mermaids and cowboys, his muses ranged from the Eiffel Tower to Jessica Rabbit. The response to his robust, vivacious shows was rapturous. By 1989, he was bringing in $7 million a years, expanding licensing to included menswear. He was in talks with Hollywood executives to produce a movie based on his life. But the F/W 1998-90 show would be his unexpected final bow. In the blink of an eye, his colorful life was tragically cut short, a victim of the AIDS epidemic, the emotional maelstrom in which fashion lost an entire generation.



    Bette Davis.


    Grace Jones in Patrick Kelly.


    Bette Davis.


    Kelly’s collection of Mona Lisa cards.


    Invitation to Kelly's Spring/Summer 1989 show. Designed by Christopher Hill.


    (L) Moona Lisa "Woman’s Evening Dress," Spring/Summer 1989. (R) *Women's Ensemble Dress and Hat, F/W 1989.


    It was less than ten years earlier that Patrick Kelly had arrived in gay ole’ Paris. He had come by way of Jackson, Atlanta and New York, but when the Vicksburg Mississippi native step foot in the mecca of flea markets, the one time refuge of dazzling Josephine Baker, he knew instantly he was home. Along the circuitous route, he had taken up any sartorially inclined task that came his way: sorting clothes at AmVets, opening his own vintage boutique, dressing Yves Saint Laurent windows (for free), coaching models at Barbizon, and hawking assignments for fellow students at Parson’s. In New York, his knotted tees gained a cult following among Studio 54 regulars, but the granite coolness of Seventh Avenue’s “line of snobbery” wore on his sunny disposition. A fairy godmother (in the form of the divine Pat Cleveland) intervened with a one-way ticket to Paris.

    Freelance design work came plentifully. Kelly began selling soul food feasts of fried chicken and Aunt Jemima mix biscuits to Paris’ hoity toity. A personal folklore began to take form. But never one to rest on his laurels, the smiley designer would zip on his skateboard to the Church of St. Germain des Prés. Clad in denim overalls and a flipped brim baseball cap, he would peddle his skintight, cotton tube jersey dresses to the off-duty models leaving Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent and Ungaro. Word spread quickly. Nicole Crassat, an editor at French Elle, offered a six-page spread in the magazine, with one caveat – that the designer appear in his own insouciant uniform alongside the gaggle of models. His appearance was a pivotal ingredient in the creation of the Patrick Kelly persona, mixed in with the color of his skin and the cultural heritage of his upbringing. It is a truth no one was more aware of than the designer himself.


    French Elle, Feb 18, 1985.


    The aesthetics of the American South derive from a culture that is rich in visual, musical, culinary traditions. The earliest sartorial codes Kelly realized were informed in this tradition, where parishioners at the Sunday service at a black Baptist church were “just as fierce as the ladies at Yves Saint Laurent haute couture shows”. In his work, southern mythology mixed with personal experience. As a child, Kelly complained to his grandmother about the mismatched buttons on his clothes. In response, she sewed on a haphazard dash of buttons all over his shirts and suits. The practice inspired the funky, tessellated patterns that would become his signature. Other accents carried shreds of his past; king-size dice buttons, bandana skirts, watermelon minaudieres and the omnipresent golliwog logo. The French were enchanted by his brazen whimsy. And Kelly, for his part, was able celebrate a past that had not yet found its way to the hallowed tents at the Musée de Louvre.

    Kelly’s emergence on the scene coincided with a significant cultural shift in which fashion was suddenly regarded in a more reputable light. A 1989 article in The Sunday Times UK (“Patrick Kelly Gets His Kicks”) suggests that the intellectual stew of the Parisian fashion scene at the time primed an audience for Kelly’s brand of design.

    “The fashion industry has in the past decade gained an intellectual and cultural respectability that it never enjoyed before. Suddenly everyone had to have a look or participate in the creation of one... Yves Saint Laurent staged a fashion show at the Fête de l’Humanité, the annual outdoor bash thrown by the French Communist Party, and Mitterrand, in his first term, made it a priority to establish the Musée des Arts de la Mode in the Louvre. There is a Chanel look, a street look, an androgynous look, and even a presidential look. Now, with Patrick Kelly, Paris figured, it had its ‘look black’.”

    But to write off his success a pure novelty would be a naïve misstep. Kelly was, after all, raised in the Deep South at the height of the battle over Civil Rights. (In a 1989 interview for Time Magazine, he refers offhandedly to a own short-lived ‘militant stage’.) Even an ocean away, only the nimblest hands can handle a topic as charged as race. In this, Kelly showed inimitable dexterity. His bombastic success lay in the lighthearted air he lent the heavy topic, an approach that was disarming – and effective. His riffs on African American stereotypes provided a new audience access to the pulsating energy of urban culture. And of course, gentile irreverence was conflated with precise tailoring. There always existed an infectious authenticity at the heart of his work, that which ultimately sold the product.

    Kelly loved putting on a wild show full of “happy” clothes, but for all the zany flourishes, hearts, stars and rainbows, his collections were built on solid foundations, pieces that were commercially viable, easy to merchandise, and long lasting. He admired the modern practicality of Donna Karan as much as the kooky witticisms of Elsa Schiaparelli. Most remarkable of all is what an imaginative and broad oeuvre he created in so little time. In six short years he established codes, explored themes and put forth a bold, unpretentious aesthetic based on his own personal philosophy. The recent return of playful fashion in the work of Jean Charles de Castelbajac, Jeremy Scott and Nicola Formichetti as propagated by pop stars Lady Gaga and Katy Perry can be traced back to Patrick Kelly. The loss of his wit, joie de vivre and raw talent were devastating to the fashion industry, but through the generosity of his partner Bjorn Guil Amelan, and in the hands of veteran curator Dilys Blum, the retrospective assures that his legacy will shine as brightly as he once did.


    Shop our selection of Patrick Kelly Pieces here
    Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love runs through April 27 - November 30 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.


    (L) Women's Ensemble Bra Top and banana Skirt, F/W 1986. American supermodel Pat Cleveland wore this ensemble on the runway, and brought down the house with her spirited interpretation of Baker’s famous banana dance, originally performed at the Folies Bergère in 1925. (R) Josephine Baker. (Kelly dedicated his Fall/Winter 1986–87 collection to Josephine Baker).


    (L) Invitation to Patrick Kelly's Fall/Winter 1986–87 fashion show. (R) Close up of Banana Skirt.


    Patrick Kelly Designs.


    Patrick Kelly Designs, 1985.


    (L) Patrick Kelly with Models for Good Morning America Taping, 1986.




    Close-ups of Patrick Kelly Button work.


    F/W 1986-87.


    Patrick Kelly from "Backstage" photo by William Klein, 1987.


    (L) Kei Ogata for Mademoiselle magazine, Dress by Patrick Kelly, November 1987. (R) Madonna at Home 1989 - in Patrick Kelly.


    F/W 1987-88.


    F/W 1986-87.


    Kelly anonymously designed jeans and clothing for the Italian fashion brand Benetton.


    Photos by Oliviero Toscani.


    Photos by Oliviero Toscani.


    Photos by Oliviero Toscani.


    (L) Photo by Oliviero Toscani. (R) Outfit worn by Patrick Kelly for his final fashion show, Fall/Winter 1989–90.


    (L) Women's Bodysuit and Veil F/W 1988. (R) Women's Dress F/W 1986.


    (L) Women's Ensemble Jacket, Skirt, Headband, Gloves and Lapel Pins F/W 1988. (R) Women's Evening Dress and Two Pairs of Gloves F/W 1988.


    (L) Patrick Kelly Autumn-Winter 1989-1990 Fashion Show (we have this one in the shop now ). (R) Patrick Kelly, Vanity Fair.


    (R) 1987.


    (L) For his Spring/Summer 1986 collection, Kelly featured fabrics printed with the golliwog, which was once an extremely popular children’s doll. Rooted in the American blackface minstrel tradition, the image had become a symbol of racist stereotyping by the mid-1900s. Kelly’s vast collection of black memorabilia included various representations of the golliwog, and he adopted it as the logo for his brand, Patrick Kelly Paris. (R) F/W 1986-87.


    (L) Women's Ensemble Dress and Gloves F/W 1988. (R) Woman’s Ensemble Trenchcoat and Belt, S/S 1989.



    Today's top purveyor of kitsch and whimsy, designer Jeremy Scott has pulled heavily from Patrick Kelly's aesthetic. The following looks are from his F/W 2009 collection "Mouse Trap".


    Lady Gaga and Katy Perry in Jeremy Scott designs.

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