What Happens when a Fashion Svengali Meets a Real Live Dress-Up Doll?
In 1993, Esquire Magazine nominated my husband as one of The 25 Best-Dressed Men (Living or Dead). His full-page photo (mismatched glasses frames, beret, silk cravats and vest made from different scraps of striped hunting silks) faced the Duke of Windsor’s quarter of a page. The Esquire editors were quite right; in the netherworld of the visually literate, he was a savant. Stylist, collector, designer, and sometime shop-keeper, he was a magnet for odd types who crawled out of the woodwork from everywhere to talk to him about …. shirts. And every English band that every appeared in The Face shopped in our closet when visiting New York.
We met in Toronto in our early twenties. He was on one of his lightning shopping trips to the city. I was finishing a graduate degree in arts administration at York University. He was enchanting, a mixture of Pee-wee Herman and Nicholas Cage, sputtering with enthusiasm, a Catherine Wheel of non-stop fun. I never had to think a coherent thought with him, which I loved, no doubt unwisely. For him I was a dress-up doll with an empty closet and an imagination tripped by a lifetime of Vogue subscriptions. I’d wear pretty much anything.
He always arrived with presents, an ecstasy beyond my wildest imaginings: suitcases full of vintage leopard print or Parisian samples from Mugler or Gaultier, Walter Steiger orange pumps, leather palazzo pants, couture Comme from Tokyo, a Liberty paisley wool challis dressing gown, silk capris in every colour of the rainbow, a 1950’s pony handbag. I remember crossing Balmuto Street one day in the rain a few months after I’d met him, looking down at my Maud Frizon leopard-print pony oxfords and thinking, “I will never be this happy again.”
He waited for me to graduate and we moved to a TriBeCa loft, where he insisted on a lot of dressing up and going to nightclubs. I had a job, and I’d crawl out of bed mornings to find that before he’d gone to sleep, he’d curated an outfit for me. Jacket, tie, pocket handkerchief, shirt, trousers, stockings were all carefully aligned on a hanger. Earrings clipped onto a pocket. Him still in bed, sleeping the sleep of the beautiful.
He taught me how to look at things. That’s right, that’s wrong, that’s so wrong. I learned that meaning had absolutely nothing to do with whether something looked good. Okay, not okay. Those were the key words. Meaning scurried to catch up – my discovery of which was greeted with his sigh of harried bemusement.
Our first years in New York we shopped together, though clothing continued to appear every evening as if by magic. On Saturday mornings he’d drag me uptown to the sixth floor of Bloomingdale’s, where we’d stalk the right bathroom cabinet, the right pots and pans, the right mirror, the right end table. It took hours and hours and I learned to pack a book and slide off into a corner till he’d root me out and drag me into a new fascinated contemplation. We looked at a Terence Conran sofa for eight months before we actually bought it. I began to understand the heretofore unforeseen pleasure of excruciating delay, a critical element in the gratification of the aesthete.
When I started to sneak off to Bergdorf’s and buy simple black dresses, our marriage was shaky. I wanted to look normal. I wanted to be normal. I was sick of being defined by my clothes. I guess I had started to grow up.
I moved to London and became a journalist. Even though the marriage was over, he used to come and stay and poke fun at my antics in the real world. For the first while he’d suggest what to wear, but finally he threw up his hands. I was his best student, he said. I had learned to use clothing a weapon, tool of seduction and protective covering. He could retire to the country and sell antiques out of his barn in upstate New York. His work was done.