Sunday, June 26, 2011

Our Own Private Cocktail Culture

What better way to follow up our post last week about Cocktail Culture, the exhibition at RISD, than to do our own cocktail research?

Being to some extent Foodies - people in search of sublime food - we went in search of the sublime cocktail. Does that make us Drinkies? We had already found our Holy Grail of cocktails - the frozen mango margarita - at Tabla. But when Tabla closed last December, we were left adrift in a city where good cocktails are everywhere, but sublime cocktails take some sleuthing. (We recently discovered a strawberry margarita with black peppercorns at Savoy, but alas, it closed on June 18th! What are the chances? Perhaps in some perverse karmic other dimension, producing our "perfect" cocktail is somehow the kiss of death for a bar!) We looked for recommendations in magazines and on the internet, and spent the next week diligently taste testing for this post.

To qualify to be tested, all the following criteria had to be met:

Criteria for the drinks:
1. there must be a cocktail menu (not "we can make whatever you want"), and it must diverge significantly from the old standards.
2. there must be at least ten non-standard cocktails on the menu from which to mix and match.
3. the ingredients must include a variety of herbs and spices, not just varieties of alcohol.

Criteria for the venue:
1. there must be a comfortable place to sit.
2. the noise level MUST reasonably accommodate friendly conversation.
3. the location must be convenient to one or the other of us (although we recognize that out of the way places can be wonderful, and intend to try some in weeks to come).

For ourselves, we had two criteria:
1. must wear a cocktail hat.
2. must wear cocktail-appropriate clothing, or at least appear to be wearing cocktail-appropriate clothing from the waist up, for photo purposes. (Jean says: For the record, we've not gone bottomless yet, and have no intention of so doing. This latter rule is rather superfluous since if we've gone to the trouble to garb the torso and select headwear, finding a skirt or slacks or sarong is anti-climactic. Valerie says: not superfluous to me - I am not liberal enough to view pants as appropriate cocktail wear. Unless perhaps they're the tight black capris Audrey Hepburn wore to the smoky French cafe in Funny Face. But then, she didn't wear a hat in that scene. It's all very confusing to those of us born too late to be true participants in cocktail society.)

Here are our impressions of the drinks we ordered, the ambience/character/quirks of the bar, and the patrons.



Valerie ordered: a raspberry margarita, with Patron silver, creme de framboise, sweet & sour, raspberry puree. $22

Jean ordered: the award-winning Tequila Mockingbird with Jose Cuervo Gold, Mount Gay rum, grenadine, bitters and pineapple juice. $22

Ambience: Great ambience. Tiny sliver of a balcony off the small but nice bar; spacious glassed in room somewhat reminiscent of a sultan's seraglio; spacious outdoor room with red umbrellas, tables, sofas, and fabulous city views. (Here's a shot of the rooftop of the Cartier building across 5th Avenue from the Penninsula.) Tables, chairs and sofas were located far enough apart that we could hold a conversation without shouting, although the place was crowded. Service was excellent, staff was friendly, attentive, knowledgeable. This is where we went at the end of our day trip to RISD.

Patrons: Fellow customers were of all ages, and also very friendly. The two handsome gentlemen at the next table (one from New Zealand and the other from Australia) loved our hats and kindly offered to take our photograph. It is noteworthy that we were NOT the oldest customers on the rooftop that evening.

Verdict: Drinks were very good, but don't surpass the Holy Grail. We would go back for the view more than for the drinks. At $22 each, they were the most expensive cocktails we tried for this post. Salon De Ning, 700 5th Ave (between 54th and 55th Streets).



Jean ordered: a Mescal Mule with Del Maguey mescal, lime juice, passion fruit puree, ginger beer, cucumber and candied ginger, chile. $15

Valerie ordered: a Venus & Cupid with Siembra Azul Reposado tequila, Aperol, Punt y Mes, grapefruit, egg white, cardamom. $15

Anne (a friend visiting from Baltimore) ordered: a Paddington with absinthe, rum, marmelade and lille blanc. $15

Ambience: Entrance to PDT on St. Marks in the East Village is in true speakeasy style, through the phone booth in Crif Dogs, one of the most unlikely locales (a local hot dog joint with pinball machines). A wide variety of taxidermy displays appear around the bar, including mythical jackalope (rabbit with antelope ears) wearing Raybans at the far end of the bar. In addition, no respectable 1920s bar was complete without the requisite painting of the reclining nude, this one a copy of the famous Velasquez painting, Venus at Her Mirror. We got to watch our suspendered barman perform manual gymnastics while making drinks, which was delightful to see. We were told that while the phone booth gimmick adds to the speakeasy atmosphere, the real reason they did it is that Crif Dogs has the hard-to-come-by liquor license, and PDT, by not technically having its own door facing the street, can piggy-back off Crif Dogs' license, saving a lot of waiting time for approval.

Patrons: We were comfortable, and if we were the oldest patrons in the bar, we weren't aware of it. Because of its small size and great popularity, getting a reservation can be difficult on weekends. (Good idea to call ahead at any of these places, just in case.) As walk-ins, we left our name and had to cool our heels outside the bar for about twenty minutes. While hungry patrons can grab a Crif Dog with mustard and onions while waiting, we took full advantage of the situation and used our time taking photos in front of the gated entrance next door.

Verdict: The drinks were great! Watching the bartender mix the ingredients and shake them like crazy was terrific. This was the runner-up (and if for some reason the winner is unable to fulfill the duties, the runner-up will assume the crown and take over.) PDT 113 St. Marks Place



Jean ordered: a Bright Boy Cooler with Don Julio silver habanero-infused tequila, house made pomegranate grenadine, cilantro and lime $15; to eat, grilled cheese and tomato dumpings around $8.

Valerie ordered: Broken Blossoms made of cinnamon Avion anejo tequila, antica artisanal vermouth, lemon-honey $13; to eat, whipped ricotta, chopped fresh nectarines, honey, basil and chile on tender crusted thin sliced bread $10.

Ambience: Located through a pawn shop on Essex St just north of Rivington, Beauty and Essex is a hidden gem reached speakeasy-style through a door at the back of the shop (see photo). Once inside, you at first find the sheer size of the place to be quite daunting. The first floor continues past a large ornate staircase, past the hostesses behind a beautiful glass vitrine, past a large bar area into a dining area that looked to be about 100 feet away. Since we just walked in without reservations and the downstairs was packed, we were seated in the upstairs salon, reached by the staircase lined with framed goatskins. (Jean says: my inner PETA was screaming!) We selected a banquette (covered in eel skin?) against the far wall so we could view the room and new patrons as they came up the stairs. A second dining room past the upstairs bar at the rear of the second level was also packed. The noise level in the upstairs salon was decidedly lower than that on the first floor. Yards of faux pearls hung from chandeliers. The operational word here is: BLING!

Patrons: "LBH SS HH" - need we say more? Translation: long blond hair, short skirts, high heels. We were, with the exception of a few sugar daddies in the restaurant area, the oldest people in the establishment. That said, we got a lot of compliments and positive reinforcement from our waitress, the hostesses and the pawn shop staff.

Verdict: Great place to visit but you wouldn't want to live there. Were we thirty years younger and on the prowl, this could be a possible venue. Both appetizers were dee-lish and the drinks were interesting with tasty ingredients. The drink glasses did have a lot of ice which seemed to dilute the drinks too quickly, even with the majority of the ice carefully spooned out. We kept telling each other that NEXT time we had to ask for no ice or little ice, but we never remembered until too late. Beauty & Essex 146 Essex Street



Valerie ordered: a Strawberry Mezcalita with organic mezcal, strawberry, strawberry-basil syrup, house-made sour mix, Italian bitter, citrus salt. $14

Jean ordered: a Maracuja Sunrise with habanero-infused tequila, passion fruit, orange, pear puree, topped with a prickly pear. $14


More a restaurant than a bar (with full lunch and dinner menus), but with low bar-like lighting. High and low tables, small cushy chairs and sofas, booths for larger parties. People seated far enough apart to allow for conversation at normal speaking volume. Service a tad uncoordinated, but everyone was very helpful, nice and accommodating. We liked that in addition to their cocktail menu, there was an extensive menu of interesting non-alcoholic beverages made of fresh fruits and vegetables. Not only is this great for children, and adults at work, but those drinks can probably also be adjusted to make unique cocktails. There seemed to be a full additional floor below, but we didn't explore that.

The patrons:

We were not the oldest people there, and at the table next to ours was a father with his son, a boy about 10 years old. A nice mix. Jean spotted Chuck Scarborough (who spotted us in our cocktail hats).

The Verdict: A good, solid place to go. Rouge Tomate 10 E. 60th Street

Jean's bus got stuck in traffic on the way home while the presidential motorcade passed by. (Valerie says: I was walking, and the motorcade came within 15 feet of me. I'm told I saw the president, but I must have been looking at a different face at the crucial moment. Darn! Still, it was fun.)



Jean ordered: a Bardot with Don Q anejo rum, grapefruit juice, dark sugar, benedictine & absinthe $13 and parmesan french fries with 3 dips $8.

Valerie ordered: a Demoiselle with Cruzan rum, apricot brandy, egg whites, lemon juice, champagne.

Ambience: While the main Plein Sud bar and restaurant with an entrance on Chambers Street was noisy and packed to the gills, the lobby bar was much quieter. One can sit at the bar itself or move to one of several separate little dimly lit niches filled with comfortable sofas and chairs. We selected one with facing sofas and a 2" x 2" table, and had lots of room to lounge and enough privacy to hear each other without strain.

Patrons: On an earlier mid-winter visit, we had an equally enjoyable experience at one of the sofas at the far end of the bar. We did notice on our latest visit that we were indeed the oldest creatures in the room and that there were a number of LBH SS HH types and their beaux at the bar.

Jean basks in the glow of her cell phone.

Verdict: Because it is a comfortable place to hang out and chat, we will definitely revisit when in the 'hood. The drinks were tasty (although not the Holy Grail) and Jean LOVED the french fries and dips. Smyth Hotel 85 West Broadway at Chambers Street

Here's Jean on her cell phone (again):

In the spirit of full disclosure, we went to Plein Sud because our original choice, Ward III, was - as on our first attempt to visit weeks ago - noisy beyond endurance. Carmen, our lovely maitresse d', tried to seat us in the back, but there just wasn't any escape from the deafening noise. We would have been the oldest people there, but a look at the drink menu (check it out online) tells us that the drinks are probably fabulous, so we wouldn't mind the age thing, and anyway we'd be the best dressed tipplers there. We do want to try them out when we don't have to scream or use earplugs. Here we are with Carmen.

On our way to the subway, we were treated to this great view of the Woolworth Building swathed in fog.



Valerie had: Fields of Heather with heather tips, cilantro gin, a slice of white peach, raspberries, lavender, limoncello, lime (from the Aphrodisiac section of the menu). Note: the recipe originally called for vodka, which I asked to replace with the cilantro gin.

Jean had: a Painkiller with tamarind, tequila, habaneros, agave and lime. We shared an an appetizer of pita toast points with edemame hummus and peanut sauce dips. Scrumptious!

We loved the way this picture came out. Jean has one of those teeny LED flashlights. She spotlighted the drinks while Valerie framed the picture. The darker the location, the harder it was to take pictures. One place asked us not to use flash in deference to other customers. They were right to do so, but sometimes it meant we took very few photos. Or very few usable ones!

Ambience: Apotheke is following the trendy speakeasy theme - there is no recognizable sign for them at the entrance of what appears to be the Gold Flower Chinese restaurant (see photo). (Further compounding the air of mystery, the address we got on the internet was off by a few digits, necessitating a bit of sleuthing on the part of Jean, the first to arrive.) Dark inside, with no windows. Cushiony seats placed far enough apart to allow for quiet conversation. Interesting music at a very low volume. A small band began playing live music not twenty feet away from us, but the sound never overpowered. The waitstaff were all tall, young, slim and leggy. Our waitress was quite lovely in every way.

Patrons: We were the oldest people there, but everyone around seemed very appreciative of the atmosphere. No Valley Girls, and no Masters of the Universe emphatically pumping bottles of beer into the air.

Verdict: HANDS-DOWN FAVORITE! The most interesting drinks we've had in ages. One of the things we noticed (with the help of Time Out New York) was the dilution factor, which results from the ice in one's drink melting. All our other drinks suffered eventually from a bit of dilution, but the Apotheke drinks were fabulous, and retained their full-bodied rich flavor from start to finish. The location is a bit out of the way for us, but worth every step you take to get there. Apotheke 9 Doyers Street (a stone's throw from the Bowery and about 3 blocks south of Canal)

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A few other places:

We were not taking notes when we visited these other places, on previous occasions, so we can't give full details, but here are some other watering holes where we've had great drinks (in no particular order).

The Savoy Restaurant

As mentioned above, we were dumbstruck to learn that the Savoy has closed for several months while the owner takes down this cozy little jewel of a restaurant and replaces it with an entirely new concept. We each had great drinks there, with very little dilution factor as an extra added bonus.

The Modern, at MOMA

Very good drinks. (Food’s good, too!) Not the Holy Grail, but an extensive variety of alcoholic beverages to perform alchemy with. The Modern introduced us to cilantro-infused gin which, for admirers of all things cilantro, is a great way to add a fresh twist to less inspired drinks. Better seats go to those dining, and not just drinking. This is probably inevitable, but one can wind up feeling a bit jammed in.


At this small French restaurant, run by real live French people, serving bona fide French cuisine, try the heavenly strawberry basil margarita.

The Plaza Hotel

On the advice of our friend Sara (on the advice of her friend), we had drinks at the newly renovated Plaza Hotel, where we were told there was a very well priced restaurant. Well priced for whom, we have to ask. To our way of thinking, none of the menus showed signs of moderate pricing, and the drinks were good, but not the Holy Grail. Our view of a marble staircase and tiled floor, however, from a wood-paneled Rose Bar on the mezzanine, was quite grand. Service was good. A great place to take people who want to see the glitzy side of New York.

Valerie is wearing:

At the Peninsula: vintage ‘50s hat from Lord & Taylor, Jean's mom's earrings, Elvis Presley/Andy Warhol print 'gloves' (no fingers) cut from knee socks, Issey Miyake shirt, Joan Vass dress, Arche shoes.

At PDT: Red lacquered raffia pill box hat labeled ‘design by d. charles’ and ‘John Wanamaker’; shrug by Strawberry; bustier by H&M; vintage bakelite blouse clips; pants by Huge Apple; sandals by Nicole.

At Apotheke: vintage pink velvet spiral hat; Otakfuku pin from Blue and White in Tokyo; Pleats Please blouse; poufy skirt by H&M; vintage (‘80s) dark pink snakeskin belt with abalone buckle; Aerosoles shoes.

At Beauty and Essex: five horned orange straw hat by Ignatius; Little Black Dress by Joan Vass, porcelain bracelet of greenheaded carrots; Aerosoles shoes.

At Rouge Tomate: home made hat comprised of a vintage plastic puzzle dog, a place mat from Gallery Gen, and gros grain ribbon from M&J Trimmings; Issey Miyake blouse and skirt; red lacquered wood neck piece; unlabeled belt; felt cuff by Omatic; Jeffrey Campbell ankle length rubber boots.

At Plein Sud: vintage grey velour juliet cap with pin by Danielle Gori Montanelli, Pleats Please coat/dress and shirt, Arche shoes.

Jean is wearing:

At the Penninsula: a 1980's woven flying saucer hat; Romeo & Juliet Couture shibori shawl top; linen harem pants made in India; Michael Stars t-shirt; Pataugus shoes from A Uno; black and white striped earrings from Red; charm necklace; Lux De Ville purse from Enz (same purse & shoes in all photos)

At PDT: a vintage straw hat with vintage bakelite mah jong tile pin; silver skull and pearl earrings by Kirsten Hawthorne; black and white striped yogawear top; Patagonia shirt; linen harem pants.

At Apotheke: an Ignatius hat; Poof (Made with Love) asymmetrical shawl top; lili linen pants; Donna Karen shirt; black rubber knot earrings by Kirsten Hawthorne; vintage bakelite necklace and rings; Angela Caputi Giuggio resin alligator cuff; Ellen Tracy polka dot socks.

At Beauty and Essex: a black hooded top over a vintage straw hat with vintage bakelite mah jong tile pin; vintage red bakelite earrings, red and white bracelets and assorted red bakelite and plastic rings and gold rings; red wooden gumball necklace; Brigitte harem pants.

At Rouge Tomate: an Ignatius hat; Poof shawl top; Helmut Lang shirt; Timbuktu linen harem pants; silver gum ball necklace and aluminum wire and marble craft show earrings; Angela Caputi gator cuff; 1980's silver-plated safety pin punk bracelet; Made Her Think leather and black metal stud snap on bracelet; vintage black bakelite rings; black resin Made Her Think skull ring; gold rings.

At the Smyth: a black straw Ignatius hat with denuded peacock feather; Kyodan jacket; Made in India linen harem pants; black and white striped lanyard.

Disclaimer: We each had six cocktails in eight days so we could write up the results as a timely follow-up to our Cocktail Culture blog posting. We would like to stress that we do not recommend nightly, or near-nightly cocktails for anyone. We think a cocktail is a great finale to a fun evening. AND ONE SHOULD NOT HAVE TOO MANY FUN EVENINGS, or one will not appreciate them for the fine things they are.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Cocktail Culture

Being great afficionadas of cocktails, when we heard that the Rhode Island School of Design had an entire exhibition devoted to that very thing (well, primarily to its appropriate attire), how could we not go? So off we went last Saturday to check out "Cocktail Culture: Ritual and Invention in American Fashion, 1920-1980". Lillian Bassman's July 1955 photograph of Suzy Parker, "The V-Back Evenings" for Harper's Bazaar, which was used to advertise the show, really captured its essence. It's wild, whimsical, fashionable and electrically charged, perfect for the task. Who wouldn't want to be part of cocktail culture if its devotes all looked like this?

The true test of the success of the venture was our mutual agreement that getting up at 5am for the 3 1/2-hour trip (one way!) was worth it. Of course, we dressed for the occasion and from the minute we hit town, we were an instant hit. (Literally, says Valerie. Jean had not taken two steps off the bus when someone complimented her on her hat.) When we needed directions in town, the grey-haired Fed Ex driver said: "Love the hats, ladies. Bill Cunningham should photograph you." Seriously, not only did he know who Bill Cunningham was but he'd also seen the recent documentary. What are the chances of that? (Are you listening, Bill? STEP AWAY from Fifth Avenue!)

The Cocktail Culture show was located in an adjacent building across a glassed-in bridge. We took full advantage of the reflective glass to capture the moment.

Chalk it up to sleep deprivation, but we were having a blast. On our way to the show, we stopped in another exhibit and since we were both in black and white, took advantage of our graphic surroundings. No one else had dressed for the occasion, so we caused little flurries of gawking and picture taking and q&a among our fellow visitors. All in a day's work for the Idiosyncratic Fashionistas!

When the lady at the admission counter told us where the ladies' rooms were located, she highly recommended one location over the others. Once we got there, we figured out why: the Fornasetti wallpaper and black tiles were divine!

The show, designed by Boston architect and RISD graduate Nader Tehrani, seeks to show the world of cocktails through 20th century fashion and design. The exhibit includes more than 220 objects, including dresses by Dior, Oscar De La Renta, Chanel and Balmain; hats from Charles James, Balenciaga and Halston; decorative arts, barware and glassware, film and photographs. A well curated show with a GREAT atmosphere! (Mea culpa: In our initial posting on 6/19, we neglected to credit Joanne Dolan Ingersoll, show curator and catalogue author, who hatched the original idea for the show! See Comments section below for details.)

Projected onto the wall in the large entrance area were film clips from movies in which cocktails themselves or cocktail culture loomed large. This still was from the marvelous closing moments of the wonderful comedy "Dinner at Eight" featuring Jean Harlowe (in a bias cut long white satin evening gown and fox wrap) and Marie Dressler.

This clip featured the dapper Charlie Chaplin gyrating the heck out of his cocktail shaker. We also saw clips from Auntie Mame, Casablanca, Notorious, Bringing Up Baby, All About Eve, The Thin Man, The Women, The Seven Year Itch, and countless others. A great intro to get visitors in the mood.

Of course, fans of Ian Fleming's Agent 007 all know that James Bond (for whom several clips were included) preferred his martinis "shaken, not stirred".

The exhibit focused not just on the cocktails themselves but also on the social interactions at cocktail parties. One clip we saw included the wild party scene in Holly Golightly's apartment. Here's a shot of George Peppard getting beaten to the punch in lighting Audrey Hepburn's cigarette from "Breakfast at Tiffany's". And of course they included the iconic scene of stunningly chic Hepburn alighting from her taxi in front of Tiffany's early in the morning, pastry in hand, evoking the movie's name.

When William Powell and Myrna Loy got together on screen, alcohol and gunplay weren't far behind. In this still from "The Thin Man Returns", William Powell has traded up from his martini glass to the jug. In the scene we saw, Loy demands that a waiter line up six cocktails in front of her so she can catch up with Powell, who has started without her.

Valerie says: This iconic Fortuny Delphos gown is the piece I would have taken away if I could have any one thing from the exhibition. (This photo is not of the gown in the exhibition, but it is a near perfect facsimile.) Several hats ran a close second, needless to say.

This black beaded French flapper dress was dated 1925.

This green gown is also from the '20s.

Understandably, we weren't allowed to take pictures of the show, so the photo above and several of the next few are borrowed from Newport Seen.

These less glamorous looks above are from the war period, when luxury materials were not available.

Dresses from the '50s and '60s.

Distinctive hand painted and spangled outfits were often bought by vacationers in Mexico.

Dresses from the jet set period.

Cocktail culture also extended to furnishings. Note the drink holders (and the ashtrays) built into the table legs.

Architectural and industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes not only designed exhibits for the World's Fair and pioneered chic metal furniture but also designed one of the iconic American deco cocktail sets, "The Manhattan", in 1936, for Revere Copper and Brass Company. When Valerie and I played our usual "If you could have just one thing, what would it be?" game, I picked this gorgeous chrome-plated cocktail shaker, tray and cups. While researching this, I discovered two interesting facts about the designer himself: Norman's original last name was Geddes (and in 1916, when he married Helen Belle Schneider, they condensed their names into Bel Geddes) and his daughter was actress Barbara Bel Geddes.

A penguin cocktail shaker by Emil Schuelke, dated 1935.

Gorham cocktail service in silver and bakelite.

Canape Dish by Lurelle Guild, in chrome and copper, dated 1933.

Cocktails wouldn't have been the only occasion for which this fabulous hat was suitable, but they might have been the most frequent excuse to wear it. The length of the feathers would have made it difficult to wear in close quarters, but it's a wonderful object. The label says Joseph's New York.

A Schiaparelli hat in velvet and nylon.

A Balenciaga hat from the '60s. Milliners couldn't compete with the Big Hair looks of the' 60s, so they made hats that mimicked cascading hair.

Since this was a day trip, as soon as we'd seen our fill, we had to make our way back to the bus station. Several hours later, it seemed only appropriate to reward ourselves with cocktails on the roof of the Peninsula Hotel. But that's a story for another time - hopefully next week.

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We weren't able to take pictures, as we mentioned, but we did dig up this very tasty video review of the exhibition from the Boston Globe, which includes a number of great photos. Enjoy!

If you aren't able to get to the show, which closes July 31, you might want to check out the accompanying catalogue.

You can also hear Daniel Okrent, former New York Times editor, talk with Terry Gross about Prohibition, and how it led to a veritable cultural revolution in the United States. Okrent, who also worked with Ken Burns on his upcoming documentary series on Prohibition, was a guest speaker for Cocktail Culture. Among some of the fascinating historical details he reveals in the interview:

Prohibition would not have been possible without the introduction of income tax, as prior to that a large portion of the government's income came from taxes on liquor.

Prohibition would not have been possible without women's suffrage. Women voted against alcohol because men drank away their wages and abused their dependents. Women initially petitioned for the right to vote because as non-voters they were denied the right to speak at public meetings debating the consumption of alcohol.

One of the reasons Prohibition passed was that many breweries were linked to Germany, and anti-German sentiment ran high as a result of World War I.

Prohibition gave rise to speakeasies, and speakeasies promoted the social mingling of the sexes.

Prohibition encouraged traveling, because people who wished to drink could do so legally if they travelled outside the United States.

Jean is wearing: a 1980's woven flying saucer hat; Romeo & Juliet Couture shibori shawl top; linen harem pants made in India; Michael Stars t-shirt; Pataugus shoes; black and white striped earrings from Red; Lux De Ville purse; charm necklace.

Valerie is wearing: vintage 50s hat from Lord & Taylor, Jean's mom's earrings, Elvis Presley/Andy Warhol print 'gloves' (no fingers) cut from knee socks, Issey Miyake shirt, Joan Vass dress, Arche shoes.