Knitting and Noir

Since posting about my beginnings as a knitter last autumn, I’ve been quietly honing my technique and it now more than ever feels like a good decision to have learnt this new skill.  So far my catalogue of completed projects includes a striped scarf, a hat, a cardigan and a sweater.  All are wearable though far from perfect. 

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that I’m a tight tension knitter.  My cardigan was intended as a loose, oversized garment but has come out looking more like an eighteenth century fitted frock coat.  In fact this rather pleases me – its closer to my natural style to be more ‘Poldark’  than practical and it works beautifully, layered with shorter jackets in contrasting textures like denim and leather.

So, faced with an enforced indoors lifestyle, I picked up a new project.  I was lucky enough to be presented with a Wool and the Gang sweater kit last Christmas and now was the time to use it. The Sonic sweater was a dream to knit, the instructions simple and supported by some excellent online videos. I managed to knit it over 5 non-consecutive afternoons and the slow and steady pace was perfect for me. It is in a super thick yarn and knitted on very large needles (that will make excellent cricket stumps in the summer) but despite the open weave texture it is surprisingly warm. I had so much fun I’m already planning my next project – the Coco Sailor Sweater has caught my eye for summer.

I have also practised enough now that I am able to knit and watch a movie at the same time.  This is an excellent trick and I’ve been working my way through the Bogart and Bacall films noir, clicking away with my needles as Bogie shoots and Bacall smoulders through every frame.  Come to think of it, there may lie the explanation for my tension as a knitter.

Dressed for the Occasion

Normcore has a lot to answer for.  For at least a decade, this relaxed, dressed-down style has had us in its grip.  Its combination of preppy, peppy vigour with the essential comfort factor has made it almost irresistible.  What could be easier in the morning than to combine a pair of chinos with grey marl and gold sneakers?

Easy, for sure but when you walk out of your house and find that everyone else in the street had the same idea, then perhaps its a signal to change tack.

My wake-up call came recently and it came in the shape of a Vilshenko cape.  This garment is the opposite of ‘normcore’ in its purest form.  Where chinos and sweatshirt telegraph simplicity and practicality, an embroidered cape signals gratuitous joy in every stitch.  It won’t protect you from a snowstorm.  You can’t wear it to cook or do anything practical really.  It doesn’t have pockets.  

What it does have is instant impact.  Whenever I wear it I am suddenly conscious of eyes on me – even more so when I pair it with a Maison Michel fedora.  It never fails to attract comment and the very best kind of comment: those that remark on personal style rather than an overt enquiry about where something came from.

Clothes like this promote a different bearing.  Bette Davis and Joan Crawford knew the power of a pair of sharp shoulders to draw up the posture and streamline the silhouette.  They showed us the transformational power of a hat – even a simple beret: witness Bette in full Orry Kelly splendour, peeling off her gloves on arrival at Cascades in Now Voyager.  It is an unforgettable sight.

So goodbye normcore.  It was comfortable while it lasted and my feet are certainly grateful but now I need something more inspirational.  Let’s hope it doesn’t snow this year.

Dos a la mode – back in fashion at the Musee Galliera

Yohji Yamamoto RTW AW 96/97

The Palais Galliera is back (in all senses of the word) at the Musee Bourdelle for another thoughtful and inspiring exhibition, showing statuesque ensembles inside a sculptor’s studio. This time the theme is the back of the garment: for the most inventive designers the perfect place to show off virtuosic dressmaking and for the wearer the ultimate in making an exit. From the formality of court and bridal trains to structures that seem animal or bird-like, the Galliera considers the back from all angles.

The show mixes dress from the eighteenth century to the present, shown alongside stone and bronze sculptures that echo or contrast with the lines of draped and seamed cloth. 

The genius is in the mix: a Maggy Rouff bridal gown alongside a Jean Paul Gaultier ‘trench coat’ evening dress; Yohji Yamamoto’s deconstructed black and white felt dress (see top image) alongside an antique gold embroidered court train. It is thought-provoking and awe-inspiring. Some of the most interesting exhibits are slightly unsettling: two antique straight-jackets are displayed alongside a Jean Paul Gaultier lace corset (see below).

Some of the pieces on show defy photography – a Martin Margiela jumpsuit/gown is so sculptural it has to be seen in 3D to be appreciated. Also notable was the preponderance of black in the show – with clothes this structural, colour and pattern seem superfluous. Without doubt the piece I would take home with me if I could was an Alexander McQueen for Givenchy Haute Couture (SS 2001) jumpsuit ensemble, featuring a fierce black leather corset from which emerged a pair of opulently embroidered – what? Fins? Wings? You decide. A truly stunning piece.

Alexander McQueen for Givenchy Haute Couture SS 2001

It is another tour de force from Musee Galliera: sensual, thoughtful, artistic, disturbing and atmospheric. I left feeling gorged on beauty, my head spinning with ideas about my own wardobe and clothing choices. I’ll think carefully about the clothes I put on my back in future. 

See Dos a la Mode at Musee Bourdelle, 18 rue Antoine Bourdelle 75015 Paris and at http://www.palaisgalliera.paris.fr #BackSide until 17 November 2019.

Manolo Blahnik: shoe heaven in London and Paris

Wall of shoes in Manolo Blahnik’s new boutique in the Jardins du Palais Royal, Paris

Could it really have taken until 2019 for Manolo Blahnik to open a shop in Paris?  The first shop in Chelsea’s Church Street, opened in 1973 and was followed by a Madison Avenue store in New York in 1979.  But Parisiennes have had to wait until now for their own shop.  It was certainly worth waiting for.  The gem of a shop nestled in a corner of the secluded Jardins du Palais Royal occupies the historic site of the Cafe Corrazza, Jacobin HQ in pre- and post-revolutionary France.  The shop has been sensitively re-purposed, the original tiled floor the same one that Napoleon’s feet are said to have trod.

Now the revolutionaries have been replaced by walls of the most exquisite shoes, many in styles that would have delighted Marie Antoinette herself.  With shoes as delicate as confectionery, who needs cake?

Back in London’s Burlington Arcade, Mr Blahnik has taken possession of a former pen shop to open a man’s shop next to the ladies’ store.  A rainbow of suede brogues now sits on little fold-down shelves that once held a prism of coloured inks.  The till is housed in a pedestal and a steep winding staircase takes you up to discover two more floors of bliss.

Best of all: the mens’ range starts at size 5 (38) which makes them popular with many females who, like me, may adore high stilettos but appreciate even more the comfort of a lace-up.

So now Mr Blahnik bestrides the Channel – whether you are in London’s Burlington Arcade or Paris’s Jardins du Palais Royal you will never be far from shoe heaven.

Les Jardins du Palais Royal, Paris: home of the new Manolo Blahnik boutique

Best of all the Wallace Collection has just extended its Manolo Blahnik: An Enquiring Mind exhibition until 27 October, so there are many more opportunities ahead to view his beautiful creations.

http://www.manoloblahnik.com

The three-year cloche

Two summers ago, I spent my August bank holiday weekend making a leopard-print fedora, that I called the ‘three-day fedora’.  This summer I was similarly-employed but on a hat that’s been 3 years in the making.  Sometimes, these things just take longer because they do….

I bought the felt hood in August 2016 at Ultramod, Paris’s dream haberdashery.  I must have been possessed by late-summer colour frenzy because I immediately loved its fuzzy raspberry tone even though I had no idea what I would do with it.

A year later, I pulled it out again and started experimenting with shapes and trims, but now with a darker feel using antique jet fragments.  I could not make a decision so instead I made the leopard fedora.  The raspberry hood kept calling though and I got as far as stiffening the hood and preparing it for blocking before I again, got blocked and there it stayed for months.

Then, on the verge of giving it away, I changed my mind and started trying ribbon trims – teal, folkloric gold, blossom pink – before eventually coming back to black jet.  I had a recent market find: an antique fragment that had the perfect taper.

Once I got started, the hat chose the shape for itself.  While my leopard fedora fell naturally into its dimpled crown, this one stayed resolutely but softly, a cloche.  Sometimes the hat just tells you what to do with it if you let it.

The Most Beautiful Umbrellas in the World

It can take M Heurtault more than 300 hours to make one of his umbrellas or parasols, depending on the style and detailing, which could include antique lace, ostrich feathers, embroidery, jade or horn.

These umbrellas bear no resemblance to those that you might pick up in a convenience store during an unexpected shower. These are hand-crafted accessories, carefully calibrated to bathe the holder in a flattering glow and to sit beautifully balanced in the grip whether sheathed or open.

The silk twill is sourced from the same suppliers as the top fashion labels and treated to be fully waterproof and the whole umbrella is intended to be a life-long artefact not a disposable commodity. The mechanism is firm and sturdy in the hand: these umbrellas are built to stand wind and rain as well as to look stunning.

M Heurtault has been awarded France’s highest honour of artisanship: the Master of Arts, his workshop a Grand Atelier and you have probably seen his work in films and TV.

He sells his beautiful constructions at Galerie Fayet, a jewel of a shop in the picturesque Passage Jouffroy, only a few steps but a world away from the neon of the Boulevard Montmartre. Here in the shop, you enter a world in which a walking cane can hide an epee or a stiletto, or perhaps hold a minature picnic kit.

I found a wonderful umbrella here. It was a simple monochrome striped silk twill, sleek and light as a quill but with a steel frame strong as an exoskeleton. It was an accessory straight out of Cecil Beaton’s conjuring of Ascot races for My Fair Lady.

Now, equipped with my brolly and a rather natty Maison Michel black fedora, I’m ready for whatever weather the English autumn throws at me.

http://www.galerie-fayet.com
http://www.parasolerieheurtault.com

Styled by Design – textiles (and tractors) as fine art

tractor

A tractor on a silk scarf is an unlikely mixture: the industrial expressed as luxury. And it’s a woman driving the tractor.  The scarf is on exhibition at Gray MCA’s latest fashion-inspired exhibition, Styled by Design and I couldn’t take my eyes off it.  I loved the irony, I loved the modernist design but I really loved the colours – a rich mixture of oranges and teals.  Although it was in a glass frame, I was longing to wind it around my neck.

Inspired to find out more about the designer, Olga Nikich, I tracked down her website and found more exquisite designs.  They take inspiration from the soviet industrial ideal but infused with nostalgia.  So we have typewriters deconstructed with keys popping out of their case; a sparkling bullet train roars right out of the scarf; twinkling stars in the Moscow sky recall military decorations.  The colours are also wonderful – bright and vibrant and set in striking combinations of purples and teals and oranges.  I wanted them all.  Then I found to my absolute surprise and dismay that this talented artist has no London shops carrying her work. Find her instead on her own website at http://www.olganikich.com

Once again Gray MCA has succeeded in putting together a thought-provoking exhibition that gives us the best of fashion inspiration, draws us out ahead of the curve and reminds us what it looks like when fashion and art collide to bring us the truly exceptional but functional object. Alongside designs from contemporary artists there are historic pieces by Picasso, Henry Moore, Calder and Cocteau.

Gray MCA’s Styled by Design exhibition runs until Saturday 7 October at Gallery 8, 8 Duke Street St James’ in London.  I highly recommend a view: it will transform your perspective on textile art.

Kerry Taylor: a Passion for Fashion 14 June

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On 31 May at Christies’s Hong Kong bureau, a Himalaya Birkin bag broke records by selling for $300,000.  This is not just any second hand handbag and though not all vintage fashion items will attract such interest or financial value, it is a reminder that vintage fashion is big business, especially for items possessing a rarity and exceptional artisanship.

In London on 14 June, Kerry Taylor auctions will hold one of their Passion for Fashion auctions (view the catalogue here).  Headlines will be grabbed by memorabilia from the Duke & Duchess of Windsor (including a lovely brown alligator handbag), Madonna (an iconic Jean Paul Gaultier corset, and Bjork.  For me though, the jewels are always the couture pieces and the wonderful flapper dresses and evening coats.  Here are some of the treats to come this time around.

Top jewel has to be an extraordinary collection of 22 Dior ensembles of which 15 are haute couture, including a black silk faille ball gown, probably from the ‘Ailée’ collection of A/W 1948 (lot 99).  There are also haute couture pieces by Balenciaga, Balmain, Chanel, Callot Soeurs, Courrèges, Cardin, Charles James, Dessès, Galanos, Gernreich, Givenchy, Griffe, Lucile, Lanvin, Patou, Poiret, Piguet, Jenny, Madeleine de Rauch. It is truly a tour de force of couture.

There are also one or two true icons of twentieth century fashion.  There is a whole ensemble from Yves Saint Laurent’s ‘Ballets Russes’ collection, A/W 1976-77 (lot 226).  There is also a rare ‘Incroyables’ coat from John Galliano’s degree show collection of July 1984, crowning an impressive range of his other work including pieces from ‘The Ludic Game’ A/W 1985-86, his A/W 1987-88 collection and ‘Blanche Dubois’ S/S 1988.

As usual there is also a great showing of Japanese designers including de-constructed examples from Rei Kawakubo’s S/S 1983, A/W 1983-84 and A/W 1984-85 collections.

My choices?  I’m longing for the YSL lipstick print dress from 1971 (lot 211), a Lesage embroidered bodice for Dior(?) from the late 50s/early 60s (lot 133), a Balenciaga couture black Chantilly lace evening dress c1964 (lot 151), a Comme des Garcons grey flecked tweed suit AW 1986 (lot 299) and a 1930s Jeanne Lanvin conical hat (lot 96).

Aside from these, I’ll be watching the Chanel items, especially those currently less on-trend, as in the past these have gone for very competitive prices.  I will also be fascinated to see what price is fetched by an incredible Philip Treacy couture hat.  I expect it will be an object of heated bidding.  Though perhaps the record will rest with the Hermes Birkin a little longer.

Carol: a fashion lover’s dream on screen

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There has always been a symbiotic relationship between fashion and movies, each influencing the other.  December’s US Vogue includes an interesting piece about film director, Todd Haynes and costume designer, Sandy Powell’s visit to New York fashion week.  Haynes is the Director behind the film Carol, in which Cate Blanchett is utterly luminous as a mid-twentieth century socialite.  I walked out of the cinema after seeing it, wondering if this was the most beautiful film I had ever seen.  It seems to bask in a golden glow of winter lamplight and slanting sunshine.  In fact Sandy Powell tells Vogue that Haynes gives her guidance through colour alone: “He has a real clear idea of palettes”.

Haynes himself tells Vogue, “Clothes are really the iconic pieces of language that you have to keep in mind when you are entering the character.” and the clothes in Carol are something to behold.  What really struck me was that the mink coat, tweed suits, curvy dresses, stiletto heels and neat little pillbox hats that Cate Blanchett wears would be unexceptional individually, even matronly.  Seeing them presented in the context of the film though, and with the power and elegance imbued in them by the actress, they do indeed form an important element of the language of the film.

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It sent me back to pillbox hats and long, elegant gloves in a big way – Powell was apparently influenced by seeing the gloves featured in vintage Vogues from the 40s and 50s.  Inspired by the lustrous, shimmering Carol it suddenly felt right to be pairing a pillbox with a tweed coat and some sequins or teaming up some black velvet with a little spray of feathers.  If you are a fashion fan, don’t miss Carol it is an inspiring and gorgeous sartorial treat.

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Vintage Fashion Gold Standard

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On a recent trip to New York I discovered New York Vintage, deep in the heart of Chelsea and Manhattan’s garment district, steps away from the 26th St/6th Avenue fleamarket where I had been happily browsing for $5 vintage hats.  This is a revelation in vintage fashion: an extensive collection of museum quality pieces, available for direct purchase (or in some cases rental), presented in a high-end but chic boutique environment.  It is probably the best vintage fashion boutique I have encountered – scroll to the end to see my top 10.

When vintage clothing of this quality and preservation is available, why settle for a mass-manufactured high street buy of dubious quality and origins? Even better, what if that piece came with a story and a few mysteries of its own?  High street stores have become adept at using celebrity branding to hype and sell limited edition products.  Shoppers seem willing to overlook the discomfort of a long queue in the rain for a chance to surge through the shop doors in a crowd and take their chances in grabbing a piece of celebrity magic at a bargain price.

The vintage clothing market is a world away from this.  Recently, when I admired a stunning leopard print coat on a very glamorous lady, she told me she had acquired it long ago from a vintage dealer she visited regularly and who briefed her on the age and background of the pieces she bought.  She had no plans ever to relinquish her hold on this coat – it was a highly valued piece of her wardrobe, as much for its story and uniqueness as for its look.

So does provenance matter?  A resounding “yes” according to no less authority than the Musee Galliera: “…Fashion is not just a matter of clothes as such: knowledge of their provenance or of when they were worn is often essential to true appreciation” they declare on their website20150614_155523Provenance is also an essential element considered by auctioneers – Didier Ludot’s Couture auction with Sotheby’s in July included a number of items owned by luminaries like Lou Lou de la Falaise and Barbara Hutton.  In London, Kerry Taylor’s specialist fashion and textile auctions regularly feature items with interesting provenance.  At their October auction, a 1950s Christian Dior grey satin and tulle dress once worn by Scarlett Johansson sold for £7,500.  Provenance need not always mean celebrity connections: at the same sale a 1940s Utility suit reached a world record price of £1700, bought by a museum, keen to acquire a pristine example, unworn and with the original shop tag.

20130622_102304_1If we all started buying vintage what is the role for costume museums?  Already the most adventurous costume institutes and museums are changing the way they operate, prioritising their collections to seek specific items but also using their holdings to educate the public about the value of Haute Couture and artisan workmanship.  The Fashion Institute of Technology’s Museum in New York even publishes a wish list of the things it hopes to acquire that includes 1930s couture as well as work by Azzedine Alaia; Alber Elbaz for Lanvin; Bouchra Jarrar; Nicholas Ghesquire for Balenciaga; Alexander McQueen; Givenchy; Haider Ackermann; Jun Takahashi for Undercover; Junya Watanabe for Comme des Garcons; and Proenza Schouler.

Now we hear that the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris will collaborate with H&M next year on clothing and accessories inspired by their archive.  The collection will launch next spring as the museum opens a new exhibition: Fashion forward – Three centuries of fashion.

So does this bring us full circle?  Vintage fashion moves higher up the value chain into curated collections with museum quality garments, museums move into the mass market attempting to attract young fashion enthusiasts through their doors.  If it drives interest in the skills, artisanship and sheer hard work that has produced extraordinary examples of dress over the centuries then that has to be a good thing.

So which are the best vintage boutiques?  Here’s my list but what do you think?

  1. New York Vintage, 117 W 25th St, New York – crème de la crème in my view, top quality and incredible stock. Paradise.
  2. 20151121_112904The Gathering Goddess, by appointment in W London or online – a beautiful and varied collection including mid-twentieth century US designers less well-known in the UK alongside beautiful 70s pieces from YSL, Chloe, Lanvin and others.
  3. Pandora, Cheval Place, Knightsbridge, London – really a designer resale shop and great for clothes from the last few years, especially Chanel and Hermes.
  4. Les 3 Marches de Catherine B, 1 rue Guisarde, Paris – No true fan of Chanel and Hermes should miss this place, the ultimate place for bags and accessories.
  5. La Boutique, 1045 Madison Avenue, New York – great range of stock from recent resale to real vintage and a broad range of designers. I’ve found wonderful Rochas (Olivier Theyskens) pieces here as well as a good selection of costume jewellery
  6. A Second Chance, 1111 Lexington Avenue, New York – specialising in Chanel and Hermes, a great selection of high quality stock, including some beautiful camellia brooches last time I visited.
  7. Michael’s 1041 Madison Avenue, New York – stock includes some real treasures – landmark Mugler jackets from the 1980s, a good selection of Comme des Garcons and some stunning shoes.
  8. Fara, 6 Upper Tachbrook st, London – in fact a charity shop but with Chanel, Hermes, Dior and YSL originals nestling alongside the 70s psychedelia. Great for a curious rummage.
  9. Bang Bang, Goodge st and Drury lane, London – good for pieces from the last 2-3 decades including the more conceptual labels – Yohji Yamamoto, Comme des Garcons.
  10. La Double J, online – truly inspirational website showing vintage clothes styled with flair and imagination. Gorgeous and never fails to lift the spirits.

And the markets….

  1. 26th Street & 6th Avenue in New York – a double whammy here with an outdoor fleamarket at weekends opposite a covered market with dealers housed in their own space selling high end vintage. While there I spotted some amazing Chanel and Schiaparelli jewellery.
  2. Puces de Vanves and Puces de Clignancourt, Paris – Vanves better for a bargain but as ever, arrive early.
  3. Portobello road, London best on a Friday early as possible.
  4. Hammersmith Vintage Fair, first Sunday every month at Hammersmith Town Hall. Divine.
  5. Aix-en-Provence, go for antique clothing and textiles, crafts, antique watches. Best on a Thursday from early morning to dejeuner.