Friday, May 29, 2009

R.I.P. House of Lacroix

The fashion house of Christian Lacroix, which has produced opulent fashion rich with historical references since 1987, has filed for bankruptcy.

Apart from a brief moment shortly after the house's onset, when he found fame producing the notorious puffball gowns so beloved of the Park Avenue 'social x-rays' portrayed in Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, Lacroix remained a connoisseur's designer; out of the headlines but quietly admired by fashion lovers who valued his flamboyant imagination, utter craftsmanship, and bravura way with color.

His couture and collection pieces are priced out of the range of most of our budgets, but if you'd like to own a piece of fashion history, consider this gorgeous silk jacket now up for sale on Etsy. Materials, wit, workmanship, and again that wonderful color: fresh lime with a dash of raspberry, as cool as a sherbet on a balmy summer eve. Merci M. Lacroix, and hopefully see you again soon.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Beauty at the Beach

Never thought I'd be saying this, but THANK YOU Tommy Hilfiger, for putting together the look that, once the sun comes out, will get me from deckchair to pool floaty to Marbella Club champagne couch (haha I wish).

Seriously, this is genius. Take a standard stretchy sleeveless polo shirt, cut fairly close. Throw it on over a bikini top and bottom, or, if the upper half needs amplification, a nude bra. Put on some cool sunglasses. Beckon poolboy.

It doesn't have to be white over navy, although that looks tremendous here. Could be pink over ditsy floral. Stripes over solid. The key point is, the polo covers the avalanche zone between midriff and hips, making it all look sleek and pulled together. Yo Tommy, if you want to join me poolside, the mai tai is on me.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Fashion Icons: Karl Lagerfeld

How much do I adore Karl Lagerfeld? He's the gift that keeps on giving, not only for the collections, always executed to an excellent standard and often inspired; not only for keeping Chanel steaming ahead at full throttle; but for a personal style which never fails to inspire a fresh WTF every time he appears in print (which is happily very often indeed).

It's all so deliciously wrong, it warps into unwrong: the Karl Dimension. The studded half-gloves over fey fingers. The faux periwig over nasty square shades. The ultrastarched collars that throttle the wattles into submission. And here, something new.

Canny as ever, he's making sure that the keys to his zoo don't slip into the wrong hands . . .

(photo: Grazia, from Getty Images/Chanel; illustration from Good Night Gorilla by Peggy Rathman)

Nice Girls Don't Dangle

My husband brought home the first series of Mad Men on dvd last night, which made me very happy, for, as anyone who is even vaguely attuned to fashion knows, this show is visual rapture.

One thing (of many) that made an impression from that first episode: the polish of the women in dress and deportment. Of course this is televised fiction, and period trends will be heightened for the screen, but the late fifties/early sixties truly did see women with carefully curled hair, immaculate manicures, run-free stockings, freshly blotted lipstick, pressed blouses, girdled hips, and well-shined shoes as a matter of course. It helped that wardrobes were far more limited back in those days: with only five blouses and three dresses to maintain, it mattered far more that they were always in good nick.

Little details counted loads. Any deviation from the code of proper dress could mark a woman as a slattern. Here is Edith Head, famed Hollywood costumer, in her book How to Dress for Success:

"As far as shoulder straps are concerned, the sleeveless dress has made it a must that you sew little ribbon 'anchors' in every dress so your slip and bra straps never show. There's nothing in the world that makes a woman look sloppier faster than a dangling shoulder strap, unless it's dirty fingernails."

Whew. I happened to find a Worth dress on eBay a few weeks ago from this very era. Its interior is bustling with hand-stitched details, among them these little ribbon stays that Head dictates.

Looking at them, I reckon they would take about fifteen minutes of sewing time for a minimally-abled seamstress to tack in, with a press snap and thin ribbon. Could you spare fifteen minutes with a needle to eliminate 5-50 instances of self-conscious yanking and tucking under? Our more disciplined sisters, back in the '50s, knew that effortless public poise demanded quite a lot of behind-the-scenes work. [note to self: manicure nails]

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Fashion Icons: Althea Gibson

It is bucketing down in London at the moment, which naturally puts me in mind of Wimbledon.

Just over 50 years ago, American Althea Gibson took to the center court and demolished her competition. Back in the here and now, Venus may have the ballistic serve, Serena the fashion deals with Nike, and Sharapova the $5,000 diamond drop earrings from Tiffany (??!) -- for me, Althea has the style; a grace in movement and dress that immediately translates off the court into the sort of outfits you could wear on a summer Saturday and look tremendous, even though it's half a century after the fact.

What I love about the photo here, apart from her taut concentration: that's a nice belt in that skirt. And a nice belt transforms even the most summery, sporty of looks into something just a bit more.

Motto: If you're going to dress down (and since it's summer, you ought to) make sure your accessories reach for the sky.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Queen of Shops Takes On Benighted Charity Stores

Have just learned that Mary Portas, the UK's "Queen of Shops" -- expert on the stocking, merchandising, and selling of fashion, from haute to High Street -- will be presenting a show on refurbishing Britain's charity shops to make them more enticing to those not otherwise disposed to drop in. Non-UK readers, you have no idea what you'll be missing. This encounter will pit combatants formidably armed with opposing worldviews: an ultramodern Mary Poppins of retailing whose no-nonsense, plain-spoken approach to her trade will run right up against a pocket of the land where the ideals of wartime austerity, genteel shabbiness, chipper amateurism, reticence to offend, and, above all, thrift still hold true.

This is, of course, a subject near and dear to my heart, and I'll be fascinated to see how she takes on the issues. The obstacles in refurbishing these places are legendary: no budget for fixtures, a motley and unpredictable flow of stock that given people's closet-clearing habits tends to buck the seasons, sales staff that is volunteer and possibly not disposed to interacting with customers, leaky ceilings, balky steamers, the list goes on and on and on.

But amazing treasures lie within, and that is the gold she can spin . . . with Portas's fantastic energy, enthusiasm, and superb eye (met her at a party last year wearing Nine West's faux snakeskin glad sandals, ran out and bought them the next day, and they're still dead on style for this season . . . ) she will electrify the shops that she visits . . . it will be so interesting to see if she can help them stay lit.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Fashion Icons: Amelia Earhart

The Space Shuttle Atlantis may be landing this morning, if the weather cooperates, after a successful mission servicing the Hubble Telescope. Which got me thinking about fashion in way up there. Stay with me now, because one of the most strikingly stylish women ever to successfully design a line of clothing, or work as an editor for Cosmopolitan, was in fact far more famed for her aviating.

Amelia Earhart looked the business, whether she was dressed in pilot's leathers or, as here, a more genteel day touring the labs at the Langley research building in 1928.

(According to Wiki, her beaver coat got sucked into a wind tunnel. I have no doubt whatsoever that she handled it with breathtaking composure.)

Amelia Earhart, and mission specialist K. Megan McArthur, this one's for you.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Out of the Attic: Patio Dresses

Just learned a new fashion term, which after twenty years in vintage territory, is a delight. It's "patio set", aka "patio dress" or, sometimes still, "squaw dress", (though the crudely gynaecological meaning of the word 'squaw' means that most polite speakers no longer use it).

Anyway, the patio set. This would be the skirt and top you'd put on for a party, if it were outside, summertime, and the late 50's-60's. Something Annette Funicello might have worn after a day at the beach, when Scooter had the gang over for a barbecue.

Hallmarks: a top (or bodice, if it were a dress) that hugged the torso and possibly exposed the midriff, and a full, possibly pleated circle skirt for when the dancing started up later on.

The embellishments often took on Native American-esque designs: rickrack, horizontal stripe.

Later on in the '60s, the patio dress morphed into a maxi-length hostess gown (which I know PLENTY about, more on these in a later entry).

In the meantime, here are some more patio dresses from eBay--also worth checking if you like what you see.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

How to Wear It: Vintage Pleated Khakis

It's not often that I deliberately revive the 80s for my personal wardrobe, but when I saw these classic Gap "easy fit" (haha) pleated khakis going for a fiver in a local charity shop/thrift store, I couldn't resist. Three years, even a year ago, I would have turned up my nose, but thanks to rising waistlines and an easing-off of pleats as fashion anathema, the time seems right to go there once more.

How to style? There's history here. After WWII, when returning soldiers popularized them for wear on campus, the ideal was with a crisp white or blue oxford-cloth shirt, or, for a more James Dean-y vibe, a blindingly white t-shirt.

When Diane Keaton was dressed by Ralph Lauren for Annie Hall, the look jumped to the women's department, while keeping a menswear edge with a vest , tie, and brogues. Neither incarnation is going to work perfectly for me but what I will do (much as trying-harder fashionistas are doing this season with the dreaded harem pants) is keep the upper half as close to the body as possible, possibly with layered tees. Sleeveless shirts would also work very well. On foot: sandals--pretty ones--because as much as I love easy fit, fashion's gonna come in there somewhere.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Gilt Trippin'

A few evenings ago I ran into my old friend and mother-in-arms Karen, who has moved to Rome from London. She was telling me how different the light was there--so strong and bright and clear, no wonder the Italians so loved to surround themselves with gold. This is in contrast to the English, whose own pearly, more evanescent light is more supportive of all things silver.

This, when you think about it, perfectly explains why all those glitzy gold bags and shoes I've so loved in the Mediterranean or Miami look so dreadful when worn back at more northerly latitudes.

I'm not sure in which part of the world this young lady happens to be--in this especially golden get-up--but it's certainly waging war with her English Rose skintone. Anna, baby, even back in the early 90's, you of all people should have known.

Monday, May 18, 2009

How to Wear It: Vintage Beads

I'm commited to the idea that even though the vast majority of us can't afford designer clothing of the highest rank, we can still learn from the genius of these designers and adapt their visions to suit our own means.

Here's one starting point: an orange Valentino ensemble from 1969, illustrated in Valentino: Themes and Variations.

First note how timeless the look is; it could have as easily been produced ten years ago as forty.

Now imagine how easily the look could be recreated--not necessarily with the knife-pleated silk and enamel jewelry used here (though that would be nice)--but with any monochrome dress or tunic, styled with a skein of like-colored beads.

It wouldn't matter at all if the beads were plastic, as long as they're decent plastic. You could even use a pile of identical chainlink belts, for a look more reminiscent of Paco Rabanne. The point would be to heap them on the neck, around the waist, even across the chest, to form a lovely cagework that very subtly emphasizes the body's curves. Pinning a few sparkly brooches on here and their could heighten the effect, as long as they don't jump out (see the rather modest effect of the stars and sunbursts here).

The most important point when working with masses of jewelry like this? Oddly enough, it's restraint. Not too much theme or variation in the look of the ornaments themselves. Let the volume do all the talking.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Stealth Brands: Pat Premo

I had never heard of this designer before a long wade through Google this morning, but am instantly smitten with her design ethos. One of the handful of California designers that drove the west coast wing of the American sportswear initiative after WWII, she began her career making "little golf dresses" out of superior fabrics like Egyptian lawn cotton, with meticulous, intricate tailoring and dressmaker details.

Of particular note was her fondness for horizontal stripes, which contrary to common wisdom she found highly flattering.
(I happen to think she's right, and with greater authority, so does couture designer Jean-Paul Gaultier.)

Above is a glorious Premo design, many thanks to the website Couture Allure Vintage Fashion.

If you want a Premo of your very own, Couture Allure has some lovely examples. If you're on the petite side, there's also this great bolero, now up for sale on eBay.

Pat Premo, it's been a pleasure to meet you.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

How to Wear It: Espadrilles

They pass in and out of fashionability every few years--otherwise these canvas and ropework slip-ons are the footgear du choix of southern Mediterranean residents who wear them casually: at the cafe sipping Pernod, playing boules, tending their rose garden, or knocking out a watercolor of the yacht-ridden view from the terrace.

The question: it is possible to look chic in espadrilles?

Here's a little lady who manages, unsurprisingly, to pull it off . . . Ranier, down in ultra-Med Monaco, must have taken one look and thought, she will do nicely.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Fashion Icon: Joan Collins

Seriously! I love Joan, mostly because she's one of the very few women in the world who could get away with a hat like this (and turbans, one of her trademarks).

Joan is a paragon of 80s excess, maybe why I so love the 70s vibe in this picture. The jersey blouse with a great graphic print, unbuttoned low. A big belt, to show off those slim hips. The slinky gold chain. The bucket bag. The bold frames. The don't-f*ck-with-me manicure. The dude in the back in the Euro suit. It's got it all going on. Joan, keep on showing the rest of us how to look amazing, always.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Take a Dip!

If your job sees you buttoned down all week then one way to let your vintage flag fly is playtime, specifically at the pool or on the beach. In that spirit I thought it would be fun to present this roundup of vintage bathing beauties: good looking, wearable suits from all eras that are an excellent alternative to the ones that won't fit you in the retail stores.

Buying beachwear without trying it on first is of course a gamble, but these retro models are far more forgiving of typical figure issues than more modern cuts with higher legs. And the styles are so fantastic! I love the daisies, the flouro maillot is so classically 80s (and therefore exactly right for this summer), and the woolen Edwardian model would be perfect for a beach in Maine or Cornwall, where a little bit of extra coverage compensates for the ""refreshing" temperature of the water.

All these suits are found on eBay: have a look for yourself to see if anything strikes your eye.

Monday, May 11, 2009

How to Wear It: Ruffled Blouse

I think it's safe to say that most of us have a blouse in the closet that is a bit shall we say, overly poetic. You know what I mean. Ruffly of placket, billowy of sleeve, romantic in inspiration but veering toward blowsy if not reeled in with some disciplined coordinating.

I've got one, of course, and it tends to languish unworn. It's just too much shirt to be putting on very often. But now, thanks to the brilliant minds at June's British Harper's Bazaar, there's an alternative.

Just look how stylist Mouchette Bell has tamed hers (click to enlarge). Put it on underneath a great jacket with skinny, ultrascrunchable sleeves. Presto, the look is less New Romantic than 18th-century dandy.

A more sober approach would be to wear a billowy-sleeved blouse with a skinny cardigan, pushing up the sleeves in the same way.
Avast ye pirate shirt, you've been tamed.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Why I Love Ebay, Part 5

It's not often that an eBay vintage lot makes me feel deep nostalgia but when I saw this one, I just went awwwwww. Looking at it conjured the very smell of my old brownie uniform (Mr. Bubble, chalk dust, Hi-C fruit punch).

Best of all, it's being sold by the Cat's Pajamas, one of my favorite vintage purveyors. Scout's honor.

addendum: was thinking about the beanie at breakfast. As you do. Anyway, got to wondering whether the Girl Scouts of America have updated the beanie in some doofy, misguided way, like turning it into a trucker's cap. So had a cruise around a brownie uniform site, and found this:

GSA, you rule! Thanks so much for preserving the adorable in this little acorn-cap.

Top Bird: Joanna Lumley

Am feeling big love for Joanna Lumley at the moment, for her steadfast support of Nepalese and North Indian Gurkha soldiers' right to settle in the UK after serving in the Gurkha Brigade in the British Army.

Lumley has been a very public, eloquent advocate and will not be shut down by the usual tactics aimed at crusading women:

"I know we have been accused of being emotional but that is because I am an actress and a woman, and we are always being accused of being emotional of which I am rather proud. I think that unless you can take judgments of right and wrong like an automaton, you must have emotions because that is our only way of moral guidance."

This from the actress who created the iconic character Patsy of Absolutely Fabulous--a vodka-swilling, chain-smoking walking fashion crime scene with the morals of an alley cat.

Here she is, pulling off the not negligible feat of making tangerine look amazing on a red carpet. Ab fab to the core.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

A Pinna For Your Thoughts

Have been fascinated in recent weeks with a near-extinct textile known as "sea silk". Pre-industrial, probably even pre-Christian, it derives from filaments extruded by the mollusk Pinna nobilis to attach itself to a mooring. (Known as the "byssus," this clump of filaments is known to anyone who has bearded mussels prior to making moules mariniere).

Imagine it. Gathering the shells from their rocky coastal habitat (Taranto, in southern Italy, remains the sole locality to preserve the custom, thanks to weaver Chiara Vigo). Plucking out the bronzed strands. Untangling them, washing them, bleaching them (alternately in urine or lemon juice, depending on who's telling the story), spinning them, and then weaving them. The resulting garment was said to be ultra-lightweight and compactable, a cloak able to pack down into a walnut shell--in this quality akin to the also legendary and now quite illegal shahtoosh shawls of Asia.

Some say the fabled Golden Fleece of the Argonauts was made of sea silk. Others say that the fiber was used to make gloves in the early part of this century. While the fleece is certainly lost to history, a pair of fine vintage sea-silk gloves remains a tantalizing possibility.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Leave 'em Guessing

Memo to all the ladies slashed up to here (and down to there) at the Costume Institute Gala:

It's possible to look dead sexy without revealing an inch of skin.

Many thanks to; if you love classic fashion photos, you'll love the site.

Will Somebody Please Padlock Davy Jones' Locker?

I think we all sensed--even before Jack Sparrow made it official--that pirates had a finely honed sense of humor. They'd have to. Week after week on pitching seas with no-one for company but a troupe of reeking, foul-tempered no-hopers--the only way to survive that scene would be to cultivate a fine sense of life's absurdity.

Hence their emblem, the Jolly Roger. Sure, pirate crews flew the skull and crossbones as a warning: "we're killers, y'all, so hand over your cargo without a fight, and there's a slim chance we won't make your decks sluice with blood."

But the emblem was also representative of the pirates themselves, who were, essentially, the walking dead. If caught, they were hanged, no questions asked.

Their devil-may-care moral code is why the skull emblem is today so popular with wannabe rebels, from Hell's Angels to Alexander McQueen bescarfed starlets to purchasers of the equally overpriced (and in his case hideous) Ed Hardy t-shirts.

The problem with this co-opting of a perfectly respectable symbol of terror is that its original message is drained of all power. The people (and toddlers!) I see everyday wearing skull and crossbones are flying a flag, alright, but if it's got a care label, really, how edgy can it be.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


Behold the personal presentation that a squillion-dollar bank account and access to the greatest fashion talents in the world gets you.

Massive fail on both counts.

But Marc, sensibly conservative, looks nice in the tux.

Brolly Good

Another grey morning in Londontown and I'm thinking about how to improve on the forecast. The weather's not going to listen, obviously, but my mood got a lift courtesy of the vintage umbrella department of eBay.

Battenburg lace parasols. Kicky transparent-plastic 60s domes. Victorian bamboo-handled beauties, some a bit tattered, others as fresh as home-squeezed lemonade.

If you like a touch of vintage but don't want to look too costumed, a vintage umbrella is a great halfway house. Shelter under one come the next storm and be a spokesperson for situational advantages.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Quality Details: Welt Buttonholes

Here, the lovely Marella Agnelli, wife of the Fiat founder, in her day one of the most elegant dressers in Europe. Admire not only her swanlike neck, the lovely renaissance facade behind her, but also the wonderfully subtle craftsmanship of her buttonholes (click on image to enlarge). When you see this mail-slot-like detailing, you know the garment is distinguished, whether you find it in a great boutique or a lowly thrift store.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Henri Bendel fashion, RIP

Just learned that Henri Bendel, one of Manhattan's greatest small department stores, is folding its fashion departments due to poor sales. It's a shame, I always loved browsing there. One favorite memory is seeing Custo Barcelona tops there for the first time in the early 90s, and thinking how very cool they looked. Their buyers were superb at sourcing offbeat labels that went on to become fashion standards.

In demise, the fashion floors join other great names from Manhattan's past--Franklin Simon, B. Altman--that stood for a certain kind of quality for women like my mom, who'd take the train in to do some serious adventuring in retail.

But just because these fashion registers have shut for good doesn't mean the names don't linger on. Oftentimes on eBay I'll key in the names of dear departed department stores rather than the names of specific designers. What turns up is often a revelation.

Here's something from Bendel that caught my eye--for some nouveau hippy chick who wants to get her groove on. Looks homemade, but the quality will be awesome.

Thanks Bendel's fashion buyers--you won't be forgotten.

Finding a Daily Uniform: Part I

I don't work in an office, and consequently am not obliged to look "professional", but am still constantly on the hunt for the perfect daily uniform. By this I mean clothes that require minimum effort to buy, wear, and maintain, but still lend a great casual look.

Here, I think Marc Jacobs, designing for Louis Vuitton, has it nailed. The proportions are perfect. He's used deluxe silks, but it would easily translate into cottons. And it readily scales up, meaning you don't have to be this thin to look this great.

The important points: The colors tone with each other, but the textures don't match, which lends subtle style. The knees are covered. The cut of the cropped pants is just loose enough to flow. The sleeves don't need to be this short: if you don't have Naomi's arms--even Naomi doesn't have these arms anymore--look for a longer, slightly more relaxed sleeve. The style can go from easy to amazing with the addition of a fantastic cuff bracelet, or gorgeous sandals.

Best of all? These cuts--classic polo shirt shape on top, cropped trous below--can be found in any decent charity shop/thrift store. You don't have to pay Vuitton prices to get a classic, easy, wearable look.

(photo Andrew Lamb, © Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications, Ltd)