In all my 54 years I never even dreamed of traveling to other parts of the world. But two weeks ago I was pinching myself blue trying to believe I really was walking the streets of London, Amsterdam, and Paris. I stood below the Eiffel tower saying- “yes, that’s really it, I’m not in Vegas, I’m really in France!” With wide-eyed wonder, I was immediately aware of just how many people might be on the planet, and how our little country is so young in the scheme of things. Two years ago when I visited Rome, the first thing I noticed was stepping out of the taxi from the airport onto cobblestones that had been in place hundreds of years before America was even established. History rushed over me at every turn.
There are so many things I could say about the trip and the initial impressions it left on me, but for the sake of brevity I will try to stay on the topic of style and how the trip inspired me to change my work. Culture seemed to be everywhere we looked. In the architecture, but mostly in the museums and the exhibits we viewed. I jokingly posted on Facebook- “if I have to look at one more Renoir today, I’m going to throw a hissy fit”. To stand face to face with every painting I had seen in Art and Fashion History books was just overwhelming.
During this tour, I saw three important items that created a theme: The Rosetta Stone in London, the spot in front of Notre Dame in Paris where mileage originates, and Christian Dior’s “New Look”. Also, we were near Greenwich, where time begins. If you can’t quite see the theme, let me explain. Before we left, I looked into what kind of fashion exhibits were there, and the one I was most excited about seeing was at the Palais Galliera entitled “The Mode in France, 1947-1957”. It covered the ten-year period when restrictions that had been placed on the amount of fabric, buttons and details used in a garment had been lifted after World War II, and Haute Coutre became the rage, with Dior’s New Look as its point of departure. If the Rosetta stone was the origin of communication, certainly much of 20th century fashion could be traced to this one iconic outfit. Although we were not allowed to photograph, we saw the New Look on display twice in museums, and oddly enough, a replica was used as a costume in a production of “Evita” in London.
The exhibit was breathtaking. Clearly I was in the presence of the Gods- Balenciaga, Schiaparelli, Chanel. I remember walking into one room that must have had forty outfits displayed in a row, and having to sit on a bench where I could scan everything at a distance and collect myself before I could walk close enough to begin to study the details of the designs. As I stepped up to each one I really felt as if I were approaching an altar. All the coats, dresses and gowns I had only seen in books, suddenly close enough to look at every seam, texture, and color. A friend told me before I left on the trip that I would never be the same after Paris, and this was the moment that made me know what she meant.
Another stellar moment I want to share is this cosmic little story of finding my parallel universe, only four doors north of where we were staying. We arrived in Paris by train around four in the afternoon, got settled into our apartment, and headed out to explore the Marais district. Immediately I spotted a little shop with beautiful clothes in the windows. Upon closer look, I suspected they might be locally produced, so I went in to take a look. I muttered my badly-pronounced “Bon Jour” to the owner, and with her friendly return greeting, I noticed she had walked out of a workroom lined with shelves of fabric where she had been at a sewing machine. After I looked around a while, having seen no two gorgeous items alike, I got brave enough to ask if she spoke any English, to which she replied, “Oh, absolutely, I’m actually English.” What’s amazing about this is that she may have been the only local we encountered that had enough English to converse as deeply as we did, so I was clearly meant to meet her.
As it turns out, everything in the store was designed, patterned, cut and sewn in the room, all by her and only her. I began to light up and ask if she did a line of Ready-to-wear, which is the staple of Regalia. She pointed to a smaller rack and explained that she began her thirty year career with only ready-to-wear, but had to come to a major decision to walk away from it, despite her fears of losing regular clients and regular income. I began to tingle. She said at one time she had several seamstresses working with her, but could no longer bear the idea of standing at her cutting table all day long cutting and stacking garments for them to sew when what she really wanted to be doing was working out an idea into something really special, despite the fact it might not sell. Yet there we stood, in the middle of a room filled with what I considered incredibly special items that my clients would love to see. She even had a shop dog, Frisbee.
Five days later we stopped in again to thank Lea-Anne for the visit and the recommendations of where to shop for fabric. She asked if I had heard the news that Jean-Paul Gautlier had announced he would be closing all his ready-to-wear stores worldwide and focus solely on One-of-a-kind. I figured if it was good enough for him and Lea-Anne, it might be good enough for me. See Lea-Anne’s work at www.heaven-paris.com
Now, please don’t misunderstand how much I love what I do. There is nothing wrong with cranking out garment after garment, especially if they sell and pay the rent. I also love the fact that there are talented seamstresses who are willing to share their talent with me to do the work I don’t have time to do. It’s a system that has served us all well, and I have no intention of walking away from it. But circumstances are dictating I scale the system back a bit anyway, so now is the time to seize the opportunity to bring the next ten years into a sharper focus and become more creative and more individual. What I learned from Lea-Anne is that I can trust that I will not fail as long as I am true to my talent and my love of the craft. So I now challenge myself to free all those designs from the sketchbook that never quite got made, and bombard the world with what I can do.
My last story is about shopping in Europe. What I learned in Italy years ago was that there are no bargains to be had. When you enter the country, you trade lots of dollars for little Euro, and there is no point thinking about what you are really spending, just focus on the price at hand. So I arrived in the Montmartre district, at the base of the church Sacre-Coure facing several buildings that were five floors of fabric and beyond them, another hundred or so fabric stores. Daunting, but I had a plan, as well as two extra suitcases. I was determined to buy only fabrics I knew I would not find in America, and try to keep within the budget. Well, the plan shattered when I entered the first shop and laid eyes on some gorgeous silk brocades. I think a photo exists of me crying on the price tag of a piece of pale blue silk satin embroidered with chartreuse and gold peonies.
Luckily for me, Paris has stores that deal exclusively with what are called “coupons”- three-meter, pre-cut pieces already tagged with price and content. They are neatly lined up on edge in bins along the sidewalk and inside the store, and you thumb through them the way you would look at the spines of books in a bargain bin. Although still not a bargain, they made the task less daunting- I did not have to decide how much to buy, and have it cut. I looked at the tag saying how much I was paying for how many meters, put them on the counter and paid. Easy! But let me tell you, they added up fast. Also, I was most drawn to cashmere and mohair coat wools, so when it came time to pack for home I felt like we were stealing blankets from a hotel.
Steve and I made it home, unpacked the pile of fabrics from Paris, the cards of vintage buttons I scored in the street markets of Amsterdam and Paris, and about 50 brightly painted souvenir Eiffel tower keychains that are crying out to become jewelry. Now time will tell. I look forward to seeing what issues forth from all this inspiration, and I hope do too. Thanks for reading!