Isn’t it great about the best laid plans of mice and men? It’s true they do oft go awry, as poet Robert Burns wrote. But what he failed to mention is that your plans can also wind up better than you expected, and without any help from you. This was our experience yesterday, when we took a trip to the (awkwardly named) Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum, former stately home (or, more accurately, former stately mansion) of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. We were among a select few lucky enough to score seats for a talk between Laura Mulleavy, one of the two sisters who comprise the renowned Rodarte fashion design house, and Sally Singer, a Vogue features director.
We arrived early, partly to see the small "Quick Take" Rodarte show (in conjunction with Cooper Hewitt’s exhibition of award-winning design), partly to enjoy the Museum at leisure, and partly to ensure that we got good seats. (More than half were papered with RESERVED signs.) Here's Jean on the landing of the sumptuous staircase that goes up to the Rodarte show. The bench is probably long enough for two five foot two Andrew Carnegies to lie down on. Jean is modeling black armings (the arm's version of leggings) with bold white stripes down the center.
While making spectacles of ourselves on the landing, we stopped to chat with Phyllis and Belleruth from Ohio. They said they were in town to visit grandchildren, so we knew they were part of our demographic. We told them that our blog is aimed at women of a certain age. Phyllis told us that she was a part of a group of political volunteers for Obama once called Women of a Certain Rage. We LOVED that. Please don’t steal the name from them. We hope to steal it ourselves at a certain point, so we claim DIBS.
Jean says: Cooper Hewitt's Rodarte exhibit, although small, is beautifully staged. (Photo from the Cooper Hewitt website) My favorite is the final set which recreates a charred, fire-ravaged room with gaps in the walls and floor. The mannequins are dressed in black, romantically wrecked, structured but deconstructed dresses, one with a skirt of what appears to be ribbons of torn woven fabric. Tucked in betwen the cracks in the flooring are examples of their trademark warrior-like, strapped, spiked, platformed footwear.
[My favorite pair (pictured), designed by Nicholas Kirkwood, has extremely thin, tall heels of stacked hardware nuts. The tableau is breathtakingly beautiful.]
The Rodarte interview was a fascinating look into the designer’s mindset. We were surprised to see Laura Mulleavy enter the room dressed in what might be called a subdued Ralph Lauren style, down to the chignon in the back. It’s not de rigeur that designers wear their own clothes – after all, Oscar de la Renta doesn’t present his collection wearing any of his gorgeous gowns, and LOTS of designers make their runway bows wearing tee shirts and jeans. (Is that so as not to draw attention away from their work?) But Rodarte is kind of goth and scary and avant garde and OUT there, so when Laura came out wearing a demure white sweater (which she said she’d bought years ago at Sears), a polka dotted white blouse with a frilled raised collar that framed her jaw, plain dark pants and FLAT, flat shoes, that raised interesting questions for us. Laura’s very smoky eye shadow, in what appeared to be several shades of purplish gray, was the only hint of the vaguely threatening, brooding, highly self-assured fashions that rocketed the sisters to fame in the space of five years.
[Jean says: While I wasn't shocked that neither of the shy, retiring Pasadena-based sisters ever wears their own designs, I was surprised to learn they have no muse and they do not design with a customer in mind. Their approach is totally cerebral. Self-avowed geeks growing up, the sisters (Kate on the left and Laura on the right) were bookish and extremely family-centric, playing with Barbie and paper dolls, rather than interacting with peers. Their critics cite their apparent disconnect with real clothes, as evidenced by Laura's statement in the October 2007 issue of "W" that "Wearability is subjective."
Decay and ruin are recurrent themes. Laura described how their 2007 collection, based on Japanese horror films and ballerinas, used red as splattered blood. Even the flowers were red-tipped. I was thrilled when she also mentioned one of my favorite Korean slasher films, A Tale of Two Sisters. The clothes were burned and sand-papered and otherwise abused. Their last collection was inspired by condors, after a trip to a Death Valley ghost town. That must have created some interesting conversations between Hollywood stylists and starlets at red-carpet time: "But darling, EVERYone this season is wearing something inspired by carrion-eating members of the vulture family."
Rodarte's Fall/Winter 2010/2011 Collection, just shown at New York Fashion Week, was inspired by their October drive from California to Marfa, Texas for a Halloween party. To hear Laura tell it, listening to '50s music, passing through the town of Valentine (with 20 houses and a post office), and seeing all that empty space produced their current vision: a sleepwalker getting dressed in the middle of the night and going to work in a factory ... in pearls. She said she tells friends that the long white gowns are not wedding dresses but rather are nightgowns, and that their grandfather's Mexican heritage is reflected in the floral prints and bright colors. She described some of the fabrics as Depression prints with faded florals in chiffon. I cannot wait to see the photos.]
Valerie: Interestingly, although Laura defined herself as ‘visual’ rather than ‘verbal’, the UC Berkeley graduate answered every question quite articulately. Despite that, however, some of us felt we knew as little about the workings of Rodarte after the interview as we did before it. This probably says more about the mysteries of the creative process than it does about Laura’s willingness to speak about her work, though.
No trip to a museum is ever complete without a trip to a museum shop. [This is so true that there is a book on museum shops]. After all, if you can’t buy a Rodarte gown (or a Picasso, should you be visiting MOMA, or a dinosaur jaw, should you be visiting the American Museum of Natural History), you can mollify yourself with something equally wonderful and far more accessible.
In our pilgrimage around the museum shop, we fell in love with a book with the unlikely title Fashion at the Time of Fascism (edited by Mario Lupano and Alessandra Vaccari), which we must recommend to our readers.
Fifteen hundred fabulous photographs are packed into four hundred pages, and on every page we saw at least one stunningly original, beautifully designed hat, jacket, dress or pair of shoes from the 1922 – 1943 fascist period that we seriously coveted. It’s difficult to imagine how a political movement as oppressive as fascism could have dictated (pun intended) fashion trends, but the authors explain the relationship with very thorough scholarship. (See the blurb in the link above.)
Excited at our find, we later researched the book on line, and to our surprise we also found Fashion Under Fascism by Eugenia Paulicelli, and Nazi Chic? (yes, there’s a question mark in the title) by Irene Guenther. We can’t recommend these yet, not having seen the books themselves, but the social backdrop that gives rise to fashion is always deeper than is apparent to the eye. Despite the horrors of the political atmosphere that gave rise to World War II, all three of these books are probably very interesting and eye-opening. (If you've read any of them, please drop us a line.)
Also while in the museum shop, we had the great good fortune to run into Stacy, wearing a dangerous looking Catherine Malandrino coat, which our photographs unfortunately do not adequately capture. Here are Stacy and Jean, front and back (below). (The yellow sticker on Jean's hat marks her as one of the chosen few to attend the Laura Mulleavy talk.)
The coat is made of a gazillion tiny, shimmering black squares (nylon?), less than an inch in size, each stitched tenuously, end to end (or point to point, really), vertically on black cloth. Because the squares are not sewn down flat, each one reflects at multiple angles (the same concept as sequins). We should have taken a real close-up, but this blurry blown-up detail will have to suffice. We were so NOT surprised when Stacy told us Bill Cunningham had photographed her before she arrived at the Museum. (And we were SO envious!) Looking like some fabulous exotic bird with highly sought-after feathers, she was kind enough to pose for us.
Stacy, who has worked in The Industry (of course!), was also wearing killer heels. We’re used to wearing flats now, but we still remember, every time we see the Stacys around us, what it’s like to swagger, and teeter on the edge (literally and figuratively). SIGH.
After our tour around the museum shop, we had to stop at Cooper Hewitt’s conservatory, not only because the wall-to-wall windows and Gilded Age architecture are stunning, not only because it was a gorgeous day and the window seats afforded a great view of the outside and the garden, but because the window seats are, at the moment, piled high with pillows designed to engage the visitor while providing comfort. We had a long
while soaking up the atmosphere.
We left the Museum for a quick bite to eat at nearby Jackson Hole. We left thinking that would be the end of a lovely day, when who should we pass by on the bench outside the restaurant but Bill himself, in a small knit cap and Michelin Man jacket. (Our photo from the web, by Christopher Peterson) I completely missed him, but Jean with her eagle eye (the same eagle eye that last week spotted Rachel Zoe) picked him out right away. When there was a polite distance between us and Bill, Jean pulled me aside and whispered urgently, between gritted teeth, THAT’S BILL CUNNINGHAM! Of course, we were both stunned that he let us pass him by. MOI?, we thought. NOUS? Well, I said, why don’t you sit down next to him, and I’ll photograph both of you? Jean demurred. Or, I suggested, why don’t we just turn the tables and photograph HIM? [Jean says: Obviously, next time, I'll have to fortify myself with something more substantial than a decaf latte before accosting Bill Cunningham on the street.]
Fate intervened as just then we found ourselves in front of Eleni’s, a new cookie shop on Madison Avenue near 91st Street, and we were transfixed by the fabulous Oscar-themed cookies with frosting portraits of the Academy Award-nominated actresses (and the envelope, please). Here’s what they looked like in the window.
(We thought for sure that one of the employees would chase us away if they saw us photographing, so we snapped this surreptitiously, but everything is on Eleni’s website, where you can get a much better view.
Enraptured, we went inside, and were further delighted to discover that there are cookies shaped like shoes! Be still our beating hearts! (Of course, they all have heels, but we’re accustomed to this unintended kind of exclusion. Age allows us to accept these petty slights with aplomb.) We had a talk with the spirited sales clerks (who LOVE their product), and learned that at the moment, in the Oscar series only the Best Actress cookies are available (16 cookies for $59.50), but there will also be Best Actor and Best Picture cookies – Coming Soon to an Eleni’s Near You! (Downtown readers can go to Chelsea Market.) Eleni’s also makes customized cookies, in case you don’t see what you want in the wide variety of designs in their catalogue. I'd love to be able to say we discovered Eleni's, but her cookies are already recommended by Zagat's, and sold at Neiman Marcus. Just proves we need to get out and about more.
When we finally left Eleni’s, it had gotten cold and dark, and Bill Cunningham had left his lookout post. But no matter. As we all know, the thrill of the chase can be just as sweet as the capture. There should be a cookie for that.
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Jean is wearing a black cashmere batwing ¾ sleeved turtle neck sweater by Inc., white-striped black skunk-style modal fingerless gloves (no tag), Marithe and Francoise Girbaud coat, Brigitte harem pants, Ignatius fleece Shrek hat, black skulls and stars scarf, charm necklace, assorted black Bakelite and gold rings, brass skull and crystal earrings (from East Village jewelry designer extraordinaire Kirsten Hathorne), Missoni sunglasses, Trippen boots and Maurizio Taiuti black Italian leather bag with faux embossed crodile pattern.
Valerie is wearing an unlabeled gray astrakhan hat from a long-gone flea market, gray boiled(?) wool jacket with a million snaps by Jill Anderson, vintage Issey Miyake black leather belt, pieced black leather skirt with cotton tape insets and acrylic ribbed waist labeled MD By from a second hand shop, and black and gray acrylic and suede boots by S Edelman from Century 21. Honorable mention goes to the unseen but by no means unappreciated midnight blue crushed velvet brassiere - the first unmentionable worth mentioning in too long a time. This one is a star for several reasons: 1)(wonder of wonders) it FITS (i.e., it doesn't create bulges); 2) it doesn't have those awful pads that make women look like large-scale molded and pressed Barbies; 3) it's thoughtfully designed all the way around so a less than 10 body can still look good in it. Extra added surprise: it's from Top Shop. Way to go, TS!