DG Q&A: Nicole Nelson And Barbara VanBok Of We Are Fragrances

Nicole-Nelson-Barbara-vanBok-WeAreFragrancesWhen we gave away a copy of Alyssa Harad's book Coming to My Senses: A Story of Perfume, Pleasure, and an Unlikely Bride (see the interview and excerpt below), the winner turned out to be a young perfume entrepreneur with an interesting story of her own: Nicole Nelson (left), the 27-year-old co-founder of Maine-based We Are Fragrances. She has teamed up with perfumer and aromatherapy consultant Barbara vanBok, 47, to create a line of fragrances, including both perfumes and wearable aromatherapy blends, made with essential oils and blended without alcohol.

We Are Fragrances launches its online store this Thursday with a fall collection of eight scents. The two co-founders talked with DG about the serendipity of how they met, the importance of creating scents in a “scrubbed and sanitized culture,” and how they're making a place for women of color in perfume culture. Plus perfume for newbies and the appealing scent of freshly turned-on air conditioning.

Be sure to register for We Are Fragrances' newsletter, and check back tomorrow to see how you can win a bottle of Turkish Embrace.

DG: What were your backgrounds before WAF? How did you meet?

Nicole Nelson: In October of 2012, I borrowed a book from a friend that held Barbara’s aromatherapy card as a bookmark. I was unfamiliar with aromatherapy, but intrigued. It wasn’t long before we started gathering for weekly meetings where Barbara would teach me about the healing qualities of essential oils. I instantly fell in love with them and the more we worked together, the more I realized the potential of bringing their incredible beauty and uplifting qualities to a new audience. I have always been enamoured with beauty, nature, and with using fashion as a means of self-expression. My background in art instilled my belief that beauty is precious and something that we should all have access to. I’ve always loved pampering and being girly so I was happy to find another avenue to do that while also using my creativity.

Barbara vanBok: I had been studying aromatherapy and perfumery for close to 20 years, but I had a background in the creative arts: dance, music, and I had my own graphics design business. Friends and family had been telling me for years it was time to start doing something with my fragrance knowledge. I had a humble side career, creating custom aromatherapy blends for a few clients and had three blends out there in the world. However, I wasn’t sure I had the energy to put into launching an actual fragrance business on my own. Like anything in life, timing is absolutely everything! Nicole showed up very much out-of-the-blue. I got an email from her saying she was interested in hearing more about essential oils and how to use them. She had found my perfumery/aromatherapy business card lodged in a book that a friend had loaned her. For a couple months we got together and talked in depth about the essential oils, their properties, and I had her take home samples to work with on her own. It wasn’t long before it morphed into a full-blown business idea.

DG: How did you get interested in fragrances?

NN: My first fragrance was Pur Desir de Lilas by Yves Rocher. I had gone to visit Bordeaux (France) and I wanted to bring home a beautiful souvenir. That was in 2007. I wore that fragrance exclusively for about one year. After that, I didn’t wear perfume again, mostly due to working in environments where fragrances weren’t allowed. Also, very few people I knew wore perfume—or if they did, it wasn’t discussed—so it wasn’t very top of mind at that time in my life. When I met Barbara, I rediscovered how uplifting and fascinating fragrances are. Now I wear perfume every day.

BV: It would probably be easier to talk about when I haven’t been interested in fragrances. I think there was a brief time in 1982 when I rebelled as a teen and dramatically decided that I wasn’t going to wear perfumes! That didn’t last long.

My mother loved Orientals—Emeraude, Tabu, Chantilly. I grew up sneaking dabs of her perfume whenever I could...and bless her, she had the kindness to look the other way. I was always very much aware of odors in general and had a real fascination for them. The art of perfumery was still kind of a secreted subject when I was in school though. I didn’t realize it was something I could do as a job until I was well out of school and ran across books on aromatherapy. Of course, the advent of the Internet really changed so much for me. I found special interest boards and lots of generous individuals who had plenty of opinions regarding fragrance and perfumes. It gave me incentive to sniff a lot more of the classics before many of them were reformulated.

DG: We Are Fragrances features both perfumes and essential oils. What’s the difference? How are they used?

BV: More accurately, We Are Fragrances features perfumes and aromatherapy blends created from essential oils. Essential oils are the building blocks. They differ from synthetically created aroma oils as they are natural and extracted from nature.

Perfumes have their roots in histories and rituals from many different cultures. Why people have liked to wear perfumes throughout the ages differs greatly from individual to individual. Generally though, people wear perfume to smell good, lift their spirits and appear attractive to others. The added benefit of using essential oils to create perfume is their luxurious, naturally softer odors that stay closer to the skin and make the perfume a truly personal experience.

Aromatherapy targets certain areas of life in an aromatic way. Are you generally stressed out and would like to relax more? Do you wish you could fall asleep more easily at night? Would you like to have a fragrance that balances you and at the same time adds an introspective touch during meditation practices? All this and more is possible through the gentle effects of aromatherapy. Aromatherapy is great because it’s non-habit forming and can be used safely along with other types of traditional and alternative therapies without interfering with them.


DG: How did you decide which fragrances to include in your initial line? Do you have a favorite?

Mostly it came down to following Barbara’s skill and intuition. I’d see her for our weekly meetings and she’d let me sniff a new fragrance she had been working on. Nearly all of those initial fragrances are now part of our current collection.

My favorite We Are Fragrances perfume is So Very Casablanca—probably because I named it (lol). Actually, what I find so intriguing about So Very Casablanca is its complexity and depth. It’s dark, smoky, dry, and gourmand all at the same time. When I first smelled it, I immediately got an image of Humphrey Bogart in a dark lounge with a dry desert background. It reminds me of something classic and romantic, a fragrance of a bygone era with a decidedly modern twist.

BV: I’m incredibly proud of all of our perfume blends and it’s awfully difficult for me to choose a favorite. We also have several other blends and products in the works that I’m excited about. At the moment I’ve been wearing a lot of Lotus Pose when I’m working. I love how it centers, calms and helps to bring me back to “the now” when I’m feeling overwhelmed with little details. It also gently wafts off my skin in this delightful way!

DG: How do natural fragrances differ from synthetics? Why do you prefer to use only naturals? Are you against synthetics as a general rule, or is this simply a personal, artistic preference?

NN: For me, whether to use naturals or synthetics comes down to how I feel when I use them. As I wear more natural fragrances, I find that synthetics often give me headaches, make me feel nauseous, or in the case of one I recently tried, I started to feel light-headed. That’s not to say that all synthetics cause such a strong reaction in me (and there are certainly many synthetics that I wear and love) but the point is, naturals just don’t. We created We Are Fragrances to use natural ingredients blended without alcohol that would allow for a personal and subtle experience while still being luxurious enough to attract people who are chemically sensitive but can’t stand the thought of giving up their perfumes. We Are Fragrances are a natural alternative.

BV: Simply stated, natural essential oils are the extracts of leaves, needles, petals, woods, barks, seeds, fruit rinds, grasses, resins, roots, rhizomes, etc. Synthetics are created by chemists in laboratories.

I’m not against synthetics at all. As a matter of fact I have an enormous collection of perfumes made with both synthetics and naturals and some of them I’m sure are composed completely of synthetics—just try and pry them out of my cold, dead fingers!

However there are several reasons I’ve decided to use only essential oils in my work. First of all they are gorgeous and natural. The palette nature has provided us with is exquisite, soft, and elegant. In this day and age when people are more and more encouraged to not perfume themselves because so many are chemically sensitive to synthetic odors, the essential oils offer a soft alternative. Scent is so very basic to all of us. It’s such a lovely, simple, human pleasure. We were meant to enjoy natural smells from nature. As we are pushed more and more to be a scrubbed and sanitized culture I can’t help questioning if we are losing much of our sensuality and humanity. I think that’s a very disturbing thought.

It’s cheering to me when someone who is chemically sensitive tells me how happy they are because they are able to wear and enjoy my perfumes without negative effects. Also, as long as we are replacing these natural resources as we use them, essential oils are friendly to the environment as well.

DG: What’s your favorite fragrance?

NN: My favorite scent is the smell of freshly cut lilacs. Not only do they remind me when my birthday is around the corner, but whenever I smell them, I am instantly taken back to walks in the gorgeous French countryside. There really is nothing like it. My perfume preferences change based on my mood and the seasons, but at the moment I’m split between our own So Very Casablanca and Daim Blond by Serge Lutens. They are two completely different fragrances. So Very Casablanca is used when I want to be cloaked in a warm, exotic, and mysterious perfume. I’ve found that on me, it wears really well in the dry heat of summer. I wear Daim Blond when I want something light and bubbly. The first note is so cheerful and it always makes me laugh. It’s such a magical fragrance.

BV: There are so many odors that I love, both simple and complex. I’m crazy about the Guerlain classic, Shalimar. It’s the ultimate Oriental perfume and sometimes I’ll admit I’ve gone overboard in putting it on, just because I do love it so much.

Another fragrance that’s terribly compelling for me would be considered more of an odor. It’s the smell of an air conditioning unit in very humid weather when it’s first turned on; after that first moment it’s gone. It’s kind of difficult to describe. The best I can do is to say that it’s the odor of humid air turning to cool, dry air—very elusive and ethereal.

DG: What’s your favorite fragrance story, either personal or historical?

BV: While the perfume isn’t for me, I love-love-love the story of L’heure Bleue. It’s said that one summer evening Jacques Guerlain was transfixed and overcome with emotion during the “The Blue Hour.” It’s the hour “when the sky has lost its sun but not yet found its stars.” Everything is draped in a soft, blue light. He tried to capture that melancholic emotion that he felt through his perfumery. Also, another interesting note that always gives me chills... It was said that since the bottles of L’heure Bleue and Mitsouko have the same design, the perfumes were meant to represent the beginning and the end of the First World War.

DG: What advice would you give to someone new who wants to learn about fragrances?

NN: Read as much as you can. Start with the blogs and small Internet communities like Bois de Jasmin, Osmoz, and Perfume Posse. They all do a great job of highlighting the best of perfume culture as well as providing tips for novice perfume lovers. Start with samples and decants and don’t EVER buy a full bottle of fragrance without first testing how it smells when you wear it.

BV: Honestly I’d say just dive in. This is not a time for restraint! Perfume is full of passion and imagination so go with abandon in the direction you are most pulled to start. There are plenty of wonderful blogs and so much general information on the Internet. Pick something you know you love, like a summertime bouquet or freshly crushed sage and lemon rind. Do a scent-search online. Once you have a diving off point, it’s easy to become immersed.

DG: How much of finding the “right” perfume is about your biochemistry and how much about your personality?

NN: I’d say choosing the right perfume is 50 percent personality and 50 percent biochemistry. Perfume is very much an extension of who you are. The wonderful thing about wearing perfume is that you can wear them according to your mood, the seasons, a particular occasion, etc. Certain fragrances suit different tastes and moods. But, when you put it on, whether or not it works on you is entirely up to nature.

BV: Whew! People have been engaged in lively discussion about this topic seemingly forever. I think it could be anyone’s guess. However if I have to take a stab at it, I’d say both biochemistry and personality play parts. I also think culture and time-frame have a lot to do with popularity when it comes to fragrances. Sometimes it might be difficult to find your “right” perfume because while the mainstream is into fruity, light-florals, your best perfumes are sultry chypres and at the moment, they happen to be out of favor. The best thing you can do is keep sampling and testing on your skin.

Pale-Yellow-Dahlia-&-Butterfly-&-Woman-1-ArtDG: You’ve described We Are Fragrances as “primarily, though not exclusively, targeted toward women of color.” How does that affect your marketing? Your product formulations (if at all)?

NN: The reason We Are Fragrances is aimed towards women of color is because, unlike the fashion and cosmetics industries, for some reason, black and Latina women have largely been ignored in the fragrance market. I want everyone to feel like perfume is for them, and if a woman of another race sees herself in our products then of course she should wear them. Still, being a black woman, I want to sell products that reflect me by using women of color as models and by creating products that would appeal to women like me. It is especially important for me to create a product line that puts women of color first instead of adding in a few “ethnic” products/models/colors, etc. as an afterthought.

This affects our marketing by showcasing women of color in our advertising and being a bit more sensual with our colors and imagery. Darker skin tones can get away with wearing brighter colors and we wanted to translate some of that playfulness into our website. We take some inspiration from Old World perfume traditions from places like Greece, Egypt, and Morocco. We also continue to research the best oils and fragrances for women of color but it’s an evolution. The biggest difference is seeing more women of color on our website. Our fragrances can definitely be worn by all skin types.

DG: Beyond the selection of models for ads, does traditional “perfume culture” exclude women of color and, if so, how?

NN: To answer this question, you have to think about what “perfume culture” means. When you look at today’s fragrance ads, there is a certain image that is being sold. There are generally two camps: either the woman is ultra-feminine, doe-eyed, and youthful or, she is sexy, mysterious, and slightly dangerous. Now, when you think about how women of color have historically been viewed in Western society, we really haven’t been allowed to enjoy our femininity or sexuality. Women of color have really had to create their own image of themselves because they don’t fit into commercial perfume advertising. Fragrance is so much about being authentic and there is still a lot of pressure to conform to a standard of beauty that is Western European. As a black woman, that’s just not me, so how can I wear those fragrances and feel authentic?

BV: Well, I don’t have as much emotional connection to this question since I’m Caucasian, so I’ll defer, emotionally speaking, to Nicole here. However I can say that historically the first recorded perfumes were made by a chemist in Mesopotamia and the art of perfumery has its origins in Egypt, later being refined in Rome, Persia and Arabia. Indian attars were recorded in the 7th century A.D. and the making of perfume and incense was also popular in Asian cultures early on. So, if we are discussing the earliest “perfume culture,” women of color were the first ones wearing perfumes before it spread to the Western world.

DG: When I went to the post office to mail your copy of Alyssa Harad’s book, instead of just the usual question about “anything liquid, perishable, or potentially hazardous,” the clerk specifically asked me whether the package contained perfume, explaining that it could explode in the air. Do you have any problems shipping fragrances? How do you deal with postal restrictions?

NN: We Are Fragrances are created without alcohol so we don’t have a problem shipping fragrances nationally or internationally. I would love to have an answer as to why it’s a problem to ship alcohol but I have not found a conclusive answer to that question yet.

DG: What have been your biggest surprises in starting a business? Your biggest challenges?

NN: Biggest surprise: How I suddenly gained new respect from friends, family, and acquaintances when I said I was starting a business. I think what has most impressed people has been that I’m actually following my passion and taking action on it. I feel like a lot of people wait until they retire to be happy or just let life happen without going after what they want. For many reasons I refuse to live my life like that. I’ve never been one to settle for second-best. Now I’m seen as a role model in my community, which is pretty awesome.

Biggest challenge: Waiting. As with any new company, it takes awhile to build followers and I’m impatient. Even though I’m enjoying the journey, I always want faster results. Today’s consumers have so much choice so it can be hard getting people to pay attention unless you suddenly get a lot of press. I absolutely believe in our products and philosophy so I know it’s just a matter of time before we become well known. Still, the waiting period and building a strong business structure can be challenging. Luckily, every week things get easier and more people find us.

BV: I’ve had businesses before, but this one has been the most challenging because there have been so many details to work out in a relatively short amount of time. I’m beginning to hear, “Just this one more thing,” in my sleep! However I feel an incredible reward because so many people have been genuinely enthusiastic when they try our perfumes. I know what wearing a beautiful fragrance does for me and how it lifts my mood. I’m truly excited and humbled to be able to bring that experience to others.

DG: What makes perfume—or a particular scent—glamorous to you?

NN: The experience of wearing perfume is one that instantly creates a pulled together and even more gorgeous image of myself. If it’s one of our own perfumes, I also get the pampering and uplifting qualities of the essential oils. As long as a fragrance can do that, then I feel it is glamorous.

BV: It has to be a fragrance that on the dry down smells smooth and silky to my nose. It can be a big perfume, an austere one or even one that is bright, light and bubbly, but it’s the final dryout, the last lingering notes on the skin and how they hang together, that makes a perfume glamorous to me.

DG Q&A: Author Alyssa Harad On The Allure Of Perfume

Alyssa HaradIn Coming to My Senses: A Story of Perfume, Pleasure, and an Unlikely Bride, Alyssa Harad tells the story of how she found herself obsessed with perfume and how, through that obsession, she came to integrate the sensory and creative sides of her personality into her intellectual life. The book recently came out in paperback, and Alyssa begins a West Coast book tour this Thursday in San Francisco, followed by L.A., Portland, and Seattle (details here). Tomorrow we'll be running an excerpt from the book, and you can enter to win a copy here. As an introduction, DG's Virginia Postrel talked to Alyssa by phone.

VP: I like perfume, but I find it somewhat intimidating. It’s like wine—it’s complicated, hard to learn about without a lot of investment and direct experience. You can’t just read about it or look at pictures and get a sense for it. In your memoir, you talk about going to a local smelling salon, which is not something most of us have access to. And you also do this great thing where you introduce friends to perfumes. You bring them over samples that you think they might like and you tell the stories of the perfumes and you let them try them. For people who don’t have either of those options, what do you recommend?

AH: I didn’t have either of those options when I started out. I began reading the blogs. And I started with Now Smell This, which is a very typical place for people to start, and Bois de Jasmin. Both of those blogs have archives that you can search by perfume and Bois de Jasmin has an archive you can search by note, so you can look for things that you think you like. Then I would take that new language and order some samples or you can go to a perfume counter, if you’re lucky enough to have one—I didn’t really have one—and try a few things. It does get pricey, but it’s a lot cheaper than wine, I can tell you that. If wine came in $3.00 samples, I would know a lot more about wine than I do right now.

Coming_to_my_senses_paperback_350pxVP: Three-dollar samples through the mail too…

AH: Exactly. For me it was very similar to learning about a new cuisine. The first time you have Thai food you’re just sort of dazzled by all the flavors. And then the third time you have it you learn that, oh, that thing you really like is called lemongrass. And then you go read a cookbook and you learn that all the creaminess comes from coconut milk. So each of these things has its own vocabulary, and I think maybe the reason perfume is intimidating to people, besides the fact that the industry has given us absolutely no way to organize and decipher what they produce...

VP: What do you mean?

AH: When you go to a wine shop it’s organized by region and type of wine, right? So you know you like cabernet, you go look at the cabernet section. But perfume is a branded commodity, so each brand is trying to sell you a little piece of its empire, and each brand has its own array of scents within the brand. And the myth, the fiction, is that you will find everything you need within a certain line and you’ll be loyal to that brand.

VP: Which is interesting, because fashion doesn’t work that way. The idea of a fashion brand is that the brand has a personality.

AH: The lines, when they’re good, do have personality, but there’s another way to view perfume beyond the brand, which is by of language of scent that’s common to perfume. So you might figure out that you really like the smell of vanilla or you really like the smell of vetiver, which you might even not know what that is or what that smells like until you start reading and smelling perfume. And then when you do, there’s really no way for you to go to a mainstream perfume counter and find all the vetiver perfume.

The genius of the Jo Malone brand is that they actually named the perfumes after the things they smelled like. And a few of the niche brands began with perfumes that were decipherable as photorealistic smells. If you knew it smelled like in the world you could match it to the perfume. The Demeter line, which is a super fun line that shows up in some high-end grocery stores and hip boutiques, has a whole bunch of very, very simple one-note perfumes that have names like Dirt and Play-doh—and that’s what they smell like.

I started with perfumes like that—that were easy to decipher. It’s so rare for most people to really think about smells that people feel sure they have no vocabulary, or even that they don’t smell anything at all, until you put it in front of them. So I have this experience all the time where I’ll tell somebody, “Smell this. It smells likes lemons and basil.” And they look at me like I’m crazy and then they smell it and they say, “Oh my god, it really smells like lemons and basil.” (laughter) They’re so shocked that they’re able to identify the scent. And I have to say, I have never seen someone have that experience more than once in a row and not want to have it again. It’s a very addictive experience to discover that you have this capacity to identify things in the world. And, you know, that’s the beginning of the end.

VP: One of the these things I found frustrating about your book is that you would talk about a scent but you would never give its name, and I wondered why that was.

AH: The main reason, as I do state in the author’s note, which is that the scents are discontinued and reformulated so quickly that I was genuinely afraid that I would describe things in the book and then people would go and find them and they would smell nothing like what I had described. I didn’t want people to be thinking, “She’s crazy. This doesn’t smell like that.” (laughter)

The more subtle reason was that there were so many brand names in the book that it began feel like an infomercial for perfume, and there were moments when I really wanted the reader to be thinking about whatever imaginary scents they were conjuring up in their head and the emotion of the theme, rather than writing something down on their shopping list.

Then the final reason is that some of these perfumes don’t smell that way to me anymore. So the perfume I’m describing to you is the perfume as I smelled it in that moment. The biggest one of these for me is the honey perfume that I talk about in chapter two.

BotyrisVP: The one your now-husband smells and says, “It smells like you.”

AH: That perfume—well, first of all, the name of that perfume is Botrytis, which you probably know from the wine world is the noble rot. It sounds like a disease, because that’s what it is. So I would have had this long explanation of why I fell in love with a perfume named after a disease in the middle of this touching love scene. (laughter) So, there was that sort of writerly problem.

Also I still really like it a lot, but it’s not quite the same thing to me now as it was when I first smelled it. I wanted a chance to explain that to people when I revealed the name. I assumed that the book would have an afterlife online and that it wouldn’t be the beginning and the end of the reader’s experience. So it didn’t seem too torturous to have people wait until I told them online what all the perfumes where.

I have been a little behind, of course, in putting them all in one place for the website. But in the meantime, if people really, really want to know something, they can just ask me. I tell people all the time.

VP: You kept discovering people who love perfume but never talk about it, or at least you didn’t know about it. I remember one of your husband’s super macho relatives was an example. Is this some kind of “don’t ask don’t tell” thing, or was it just that it hadn’t come up because you hadn’t been interested in perfume?

AH: Probably a little bit of both. I think for the people who collect it—who have more than one bottle or maybe more than 10 bottles—it’s kind of a don’t ask don’t tell thing. Unlike collecting art or even collecting wine or music, there’s no broader cultural context for collecting perfume. So it really is a genuinely odd thing to do right now, and I think in recent years perfume has almost become taboo. There’s been a lot of blowback I think, though people don’t wear perfume in the extravagant public way that they used to wear, say, in the ’80s when everybody could still smoke in public. So people might be wearing a lot of perfume, smoking, and wearing a lot of hairspray. (laughter) There was just a lot more olfactory noise going on. Now everybody is trying to be very clean, and there’s a lot of talk of allergies, and perfume is a very easy target. Most workplaces are scent-free. So it’s not something that people comment on.


“Unlike collecting art or even collecting wine or music, there’s no broader cultural context for collecting perfume. So it really is a genuinely odd thing to do right now, and I think in recent years perfume has almost become taboo.”


VP: When you say most workplaces are scent-free, do you mean they are de facto scent-free or they actually have “don’t wear perfume” policies?

AH: It depends on where you work. There’s definitely a lot of talk about the “office scent.” You can see that in the women’s magazines. If you’re going to wear a scent at the office, it’s presumed that you will wear something that’s very quiet and very clean and will not offend anybody. And many workplaces actually have a no-scent policy. If you work in any aspect of health care, for example. There are a lot of nurses in the perfume community and they’re full of these little tricks that they do to just have a tiny bit of scent to keep them going through the night shift.

VP: I first heard about the book by reading an excerpt in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which I thought was a brilliant place to put an excerpt because the book is only ostensibly about perfume. The bigger story, as the title suggests, is about an intellectual—specifically an intellectual woman, specifically a feminist intellectual woman—learning that it is OK to find pleasure and meaning in something that’s sensory and supposedly frivolous. Although we come from very different places, I identified with that.

I’m always struck by how people who would never dismiss music or food or even sex—it’s fine to talk about sex all day long—have so much trouble with visual or olfactory or tactile pleasures. One way to turn this rant into a question is to say one of your friends said, “I just don’t want to be the kind of woman who wears perfume.” What is that statement about? What is she getting at?

Bal des Petits Lits BlancsAH: Oh, god, you would have to ask her. I feel like I knew the answer to that question before I got into perfume, because I felt that way, and then somewhere along the line the number of people I knew who wore perfume and the ladies who wore it became so diverse that I had trouble conjuring up who that woman was that I was afraid of.

I know that for me it has a lot to do, not even so much with being intellectual, as there’s a certain kind of traditional femininity that I associate or that I associated—I’ve changed quite a bit on this—with things like blowing your hair dry on a regular basis and wearing high heels and wearing foundation makeup every day. A sort of very groomed, very high femme presentation that was very straight in all senses of the word.

It wasn’t so much that I didn’t like people like that—it was just that I had failed. (laughter) Growing up in Boise, Idaho, I was in the land of ladies who are very put together like that. And I always thought there was some kind of rulebook that I had missed out on. It wasn’t even that I was in rebellion—I was just sort of failing. (laughter) And so I had to go and look for other ways to be a girl and to be a woman, and they didn’t seem to come along with things like perfume. So this adventure, both with the perfume and dealing with becoming a bride, was my way of rethinking and feeling my way into that kind of femininity, and looking for all the ways it could be expanded and maybe all the ways that I had been wrong about it. And it turned out that a lot of it was actually very important to me and connected to creativity as well.

So for me this isn’t as much a story about going from academic work to creative work as it is about going from intellectuality to sensuality.

VP: People often say, “Why are shoes so popular for women? Why are they so meaningful?” and one answer is, “Well, the reason is women of all sizes and shapes can wear beautiful shoes.” Given my history with shoes, I’m not entirely sure that’s true…

AH: Me neither. (laughter)

VP: …but it’s sort of true. And the same thing is true of perfume. You don’t have to be a size two or even a size six to wear really wonderful perfume. Maybe some of the appeal is that because it is so intangible some of the constraints that women are used to thinking about are not there.

AH: I think that’s definitely true. I know that for me perfume is a way of embodying the kind of invisible selves that you carry around with you. It’s a way of making a fantasy self into something that’s present, although perhaps still invisible. But not maybe as invisible as it was when you were just thinking about it, because people do smell you and you smell yourself and you walk a different way, and you you present yourself to people a different way and you might, if you’re me, be inspired to make your outsides match those more tangible fantasies that you’re now having.

VP: Can you give us some examples of ways that you do that?

AH: With these sort of grand French perfumes that are very “night of the opera” perfumes, I can be fairly messy but be wearing vintage jewelry and some red lipstick, and I just feel dressed up. I no longer feel like a schlump (laughter) without necessarily having to fit into the clothes that might match that, or wear shoes that make my feet uncomfortable. It gives me a very easy way of trying on a whole new persona and carrying it around with me during the day.

I was just talking to the manager at Lucky Scents, the Scent Bar in L.A. When he shows people how to pick a perfume he tells them that you’ll recognize it because you’ll recognize a piece of yourself. You already know the scent—you just haven’t met it yet. (laughter) You haven’t met the scent that matches that piece of yourself that you’ve been carrying around. I think that’s a beautiful way of putting it. When you smell these perfumes that profoundly move you, it’s an experience of recognition. In the same way that you might recognize yourself in a book or a painting. There’s that piece of your experience that you didn’t think was possible to articulate.

VP: Are there any invisible selves that you’ve tried on this way where after a day you thought, “That is not me”?

AH: (laughter) Well, I have a few that aren’t very sustainable, where I wear the perfume very rarely and when I do it I very rarely wear it more than one day in a row. For me the best examples of that are these big, white flower scents. White flowers are the really rich, lush, heady flowers like lilies and jasmine and tuberose and gardenia. Jasmine now, I think, is very much a part of me, very comfortable. But there’s a tuberose scent called Carnal Flower by Frederic Malle, and I wear it when I want to be a diva. (laughter) And that doesn’t happen that often. Every now and then I want to feel like I own the spotlight.

Carnal Flower

VP: So picking one of the themes of my own book, which is coming out in November, one of the things I liked about your book was that you often refer to distinctive kinds of glamour—you actually use that term—that appeal to different longings and different ideals, which is a big theme of my book. You talk, for example, about a perfume with “a bookish, coffeehouse kind of glamour” that made you “feel like a hip, black-clad version of myself—thinner and longer-legged, with one of those rumpled haircuts and the black-framed glasses all the people who intimidated me in college used to wear.” I’m curious to what extent your intellectual life, or your career, has been shaped by glamour?

AH: Now that I think about it, that it’s absolutely central to my intellectual and creative life. I enjoy being dazzled, I’m an enthusiastic person, I like being a little overwhelmed and swept up but then because I know that about myself, I’m also suspicious of it. So I think I’ve spent a lot of time either being entranced by somebody and their ideas, because they have a kind of glamour for me or being on guard, reacting against glamour and trying to not be enchanted and besotted. (laughter) I think, you know, that arc that we were talking abour—from intellectual to sensual—part of what came along with that was allowing myself to be enchanted and enraptured without worrying too much about whether I was committing some kind of political or moral sin. And I now really, I think, have a much easier relationship to glamour and I have a lot more fun with it. I just admire the magic tricks that other people perform to produce their glamour. Even if I can’t myself, I really appreciate that in other people.

VP: I mean, I think there’s a rarely remarked upon glamour—the bookish coffee house kind of glamour. There’s a glamour of the intellectual life…

AH: Absolutely.

VP: …that has nothing to do with a specific person’s performance of it. It’s just very compelling, the same way a person with a different sort of personality might picture, say, the glamour of being a movie star.

AH: I was thinking about how glamorous my dissertation advisor was to me, and still is in many ways, and what she looked like and how she performed that glamour and how much we were all very crushed out on her. I think a lot of teachers have glamour, no matter what they look like or what they wear, just because of that relationship.

1933 Lanvin perfume ad Arpege ScandalVP: Going back to perfume, you wrote about the success of expensive perfumes—Joy and Scandal—during the Depression and you pointed out that they sold way too well to have just been bought by the rich. What do you think is the significance of luxuries like that in difficult times?

AH: If I can be a little bit obnoxious and quote myself, I say in the book that it’s a kind of promise. It’s a covenant kept with the idea that life should be about more than their survival. Luxuries, I think for many people who will never own a piece of art or anything that has been validated as being high culture, are a piece of beauty. I used to have these quarrels with the social workers in my life about the hierarchy of needs, where there’s this idea that people, first they have to have shelter and food and then they can start to think about the next thing and the next thing and the next thing.

A friend told me a story about this woman he knew who was homeless and was kind of traveling and sort of sleeping with people, so that she would have a place to stay. The first time she got some money she bought a bottle of perfume instead of buying food or putting that money down on a room to stay for the night. Because it was something that she could keep with her, and it was a piece of herself maybe that she didn’t have access to in that kind of extremity.

VP: You talk about how swapping “turned something that was supposed to be about conspicuous consumption into a gift economy.” That strikes me as kind of a defensive statement, as if there’s something wrong with buying and selling. I understand that it’s nice to get stuff cheap or free because you can go ahead and enjoy yourself more, but does this reflect a view that it’s OK to have beauty but not to pay for it? How do you feel about commerce?

AH: Many of these perfumes were made deliberately hard to access. They’re only available in a few outlets or maybe only one city. They are not as expensive as a pair of Manolos but they for regular folks, $150 to buy a perfume is a lot of money. I and many people I’ve spoken to feel the presence of invisible velvet ropes when they go into those really high-end boutiques and department stores. And so to me it’s this kind of joyful thing that the swapping culture just removed all of that.

When you’re getting these things in the mail, it’s not about the fancy bottle anymore and it’s not about the place where you bought it. It’s really only about the scent, and it’s coming to you wrapped in bubble paper. (laughter) It’s got a handwritten label on it, and so now suddenly it’s about people sharing things with each other. And I really love that inversion.

The bigger question about whether or not I’ve come to terms with commerce I think is an open one. I would hope that I have a much more nuanced relationship to it now than when I began. I think I had some kind of reflective grumpiness, from my long graduate school training, about things that were marketed to or created specifically for people who have a lot of cash and a lot of power, because I’m kind of always rooting of the underdog. Now I think of it in a much more complicated way. I think this kind of coveting and wanting a little piece of luxury is something that runs the socioeconomic gamut.

And also sometimes things that are very cheap are much more exploitative in terms of the labor structure behind them than things that are very expensive and being made by one person. So it’s complicated, but I think that as long as there’s serious economic injustice in the world I would hope that my relationship to consumerism is ambivalent and in progress. I hope that I would always sort of be questioning my ongoing relationship to that and how it works and what I’m buying into.


“For me perfume is a way of embodying the kind of invisible selves that you carry around with you. It’s a way of making a fantasy self into something that’s present, although perhaps still invisible.”


VP: My limited experience is that the perfume sales people in high-end places are not especially snooty compared to, say, how one might assume people selling similarly expensive dresses would be. Oddly enough I find it less intimidating to go to the Frederic Malle counter at Barney’s than to a counter in Macy’s.

AH: I think in order to sell perfume at that Barney’s counter, you have to really like perfume. So you have to like it and know it and enjoy it and be able to talk about it in a way that goes beyond making your commission.

Most of the people who work the mid-range or low-end counters in department stores are paid directly by the brand that they’re selling, and they’re often hired part-time. They’re rarely trained, and they often only know about the two or three things that they’re trying to push that have just been released.

The big exception to that in Nordstrom. Nordstrom’s has a special program that they train all their perfume people with. That’s also a place that you can go where it’s policy to make you a sample and they just sell it in a completely different way.

VP: Some perfume enthusiasts believe only natural fragrances are acceptable, what you call perfume’s original language. You don’t make that dichotomy. You embrace modern synthetic chemistry as well. Why is that? What is your philosophy?

AH: Because I really like perfume and I want as much good perfume as possible. And so I want perfumers to have the palette that they want to work with. Part of it is my personal aesthetic preference. When you work with synthetics it’s much easier to control the architecture of the perfume. It’s much easier to control the way the perfume unfolds on your skin and the amount of space there is between the different smells that you’re using to create the chords or the sort of melody of the perfume and you have a much wider range to work with. But really, it’s just because I’m a greedy hedonist. I just want as much good art as possible.

For details on Alyssa's appearances in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle, go here.

Enter to win a copy of the book here.

Vintage Week: DG Q&A With Vixen Vintage Blogger Solanah Cornell

Solanah pink wallAmong vintage enthusiasts, Vixen Vintage blogger Solanah Cornell is a first-name-only celebrity and a go-to source for advice on such lost arts as how to set your hair in pin curls and how to buy vintage lingerie. As a model for online vintage shops and a vintage-fashion blogger she's also famous for her ability to strike a vintage pose. 

DG: How do you define vintage?

Solanah: Everyone will give you a different answer, but I define it as anything made approximately 20-80 years from now. Antique is anything older than 80 years old, and newer than 20 is second hand.

DG: Who does wearing vintage appeal to?

Solanah: A variety of different people, whether they are interested in alternative fashion or want to outwardly express their interest in nostalgia.

DG: What do you think of mixing vintage and contemporary pieces? Do you ever wear contemporary outfits?

Solanah: I love it, and yes, I do! Though the farther I get into vintage fashion, the more difficult it is for me to mix decades. I admire it on other people, but often find myself feeling a bit “off”. Lately I’ve been trying for a more classic look by mixing vintage and modern garments. And I do wear modern jeans and cozy sweaters pretty regularly. I’ve been loving some classic/modern fashions lately and hope to balance some with my vintage wear.

Solanah-greendress-leopardDG: Beyond the character of any specific garment, is there something glamorous about the idea of “vintage”?

Solanah: There is something glamorous about vintage, and I think it reaches back to the image women used to live up to. It was very glam, very ideal, especially if you’re talking about the mid-century. Even in camping gear women were supposed to be perfectly coiffed and pretty. At that time it was oppressive, but I think women are starting to own glamorization again. They choose it because it makes them feel good, not because they are expected to be glamorous 24/7.

DG: You’ve said that you “love to be authentic” in your style. What makes your style authentic?

Solanah: For me it means “real.” Not so much about having all the items in an outfit perfect, right down to the correct dates, but more of wearing things the way women wore them originally. And wearing what they really wore, not what Hollywood portrayed. I love slacks, and sweaters with the sleeves rolled up, and comfortable shoes like loafers and flat boots. For me, that’s authentic, because I feel more connected to the everyday woman.

DG: Some people treat vintage as an overall fashion look, some as a lifestyle, and some as simply the characteristic of a given piece. What’s your approach?

Solanah: I would say a little of each! For me it can and often does take over my entire outfit, and others it’s and accent, or a nod to yesteryear. As far as lifestyle goes, I have adapted some old fashioned ways of life into the modern world.

Solanah croquet kerchiefDG: What does dressing in vintage mean to different groups of people? To you?

Solanah: It can mean very different and often opposing things to different people. Some people, mostly those in western religious communities, view it as a traditional, and modest form of dress. It re-enforces traditional gender rolls. This situation seems like a minority.

For the most part vintage is a rebellion against the negative aspects of modern society. Not to be confused with completely turning back the clock, but rather bringing forward the attractive, and leaving the negative behind. Lately fashion had quite a few hiccups, when viewed objectively it’s so confusing and really has no collective foundation. I think people crave clarity and originality, and vintage fulfills that. It’s also something that is obtainable for all social classes, it can be found in high end boutiques, or discount thrift stores.

DG: What are some of your favorite vintage garments?

Solanah: Casual wear is my favorite find. Slacks, denim, sweaters, and coat. Though I have a huge and never ending collection of 1940s hats, I just can’t say no to them.

DG: In 20 years, today’s clothes will be vintage, at least by some definitions. Can you imagine yourself wearing any of them in 2033?

Solanah: This is a really tough question, because on one hand we have so much in terms of clothing, it’s difficult to imagine it being treated the same way we treat vintage clothing today. Right now much of our decades of clothing is rare. It was made of natural fibers, which can decay and be recycled, these garments have an expiration date. But clothing today is completely different. The fibers are so synthesized or combined with natural fibers, there really is no organic circle of life for these garments. We’ll have them for much longer than what we’ve been previously accustomed to, and I think they may come back into our wardrobes as necessity more than anything. What else are we going to do with all these garments? They won’t die.

DG: Is wearing vintage more popular among younger people (however you want to define “younger”)? If so, why?

Solanah: I think simply because people don’t want to look like they’re still wearing fashions from their heyday. It can be difficult to pull off, but honestly I think the older you get, the better you can wear vintage! I’ll always remember an elderly woman I saw walking down the street who was dressed to the nines in a 60s suit, pillbox hat, and matching gloves, pumps, and purse. She was the best!

Solanah wwii jeep overalls
DG: What’s your favorite era? Is that because of the styles, the history, the culture, or some combination?

Solanah: My favorite era can be defined as the years controlled by the second world war. It appeals to me for so many reasons, much of it not being fashion related. Mostly to do with the short taste of liberation women experienced, and the strength they showcased before being forced back into the home. I admire what they did with what little they had, and how they dealt with the hardships and tragedies. This was reflected in the styles adapted, I really love the make do and mend and DIY aspect of the war era, as it’s something I can be creative with.

Solanah victory sweater
DG: You’re well known not only for writing about vintage fashion but for modeling it in fashion shoots on your own site and also for the store you used to work for (that’s actually how I first became aware of you). What’s the secret to a good vintage fashion picture? How important are the poses you strike to how you feel about the outfit?

Solanah: In our shoots we tried to emulate a lot of original fashion portraits from magazines and ads. They really showcased the garments well, and I think there’s a certain strength in “striking a pose”, rather than the very casual, candid poses we see a lot of today.

DG: What do people who wear vintage fashion have in common (if anything)?

Solanah: The most obvious is a love for the past, but I have found many vintage enthusiasts are very involved in various forms of fantasy, fiction, and escapism. Or “geeky” interests, if I could put it simply. Fantastical television shows and movies, comic books, anything that diverts away from the confines of the modern world. I think it has to do with how different people deal with the pressures of modern living, there are those who adapt well and embrace it, and those who need to step back and slow down.

Solanah hair taking curls out

DG: Wearing vintage every day seems like a lot of work--just for the hair styling alone. What’s the most challenging part? Time-consuming? Satisfying?

Solanah: It can look as though that’s the case, but compared to a modern woman’s beauty regimen, it probably takes about the same amount of time and effort. Most vintage wearing women do wet sets at night and wake up with curls. Whereas a non-vintage woman might spend most of her morning curling or straightening her hair with a heat device. When I do that it takes me about a minute or two to do my hair in the morning, but looks like it took an hour. It takes the same amount of time to get dressed comparatively, and I keep my makeup simple: tinted moisturizer, eyeliner, powder, lipstick. I do love getting dressed up, in stockings and hats, and heels for lunch with friends or a cocktail party. Feeling that kind of glamorous is nice every now and then, the kind where you really put in effort and it shows.

Solanah eating breakfastDG: Who inspires your look?

Solanah: Fellow vintage lovers, WWII women workers, old family photos, really any “real” people. I don’t take much inspiration from the airbrushed publicity shots of movie stars, because that type of style just isn’t a huge part of my lifestyle.

DG: Who do you consider glamorous?

Solanah: The type of women who has a certain something alluring and enchanting. She doesn’t necessarily have to look glamorous, or live a glamorous life, but she does hold her head high and has the confidence of an individual in charge of their own life and loving it.

DG: What’s your most glamorous place?

Solanah: My dressing table is my most glamorous place. It’s where the magic happens.

[Photos courtesy of Solanah at Vixen Vintage.]

DG Q&A: Soolip's Wanda Wen On Wedding Glamour And The Seductions Of Fine Paper


1) Angelina Jolie or Cate Blanchett? Cate Blanchett

2) Paris or Venice? Paris

3) New York or Los Angeles? New York

4) Princess Diana or Princess Grace? Princess Grace

5) Tokyo or Kyoto? Kyoto

6) Boots or stilettos? Stilletos

7) Art Deco or Art Nouveau? Art Nouveau

8) Jaguar or Astin Martin? Aston Martin

9) Armani or Versace? Armani

10) Diana Vreeland or Anna Wintour? Diana Vreeland

11) Champagne or single malt? Single Malt

12) 1960s or 1980s? 1980s

13) Diamonds or pearls? Diamonds

14) Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell? Naomi Campbell

15) Sean Connery or Daniel Craig? Sean Connery

DG Q&A: Interiors Stylist Adam Fortner

Fortner_Adam_byStephenKarlisch When I asked my Facebook friends to recommend photographers or stylists who could talk knowledgeably about hiding lamp cords, someone gave me a great tip: call Adam Fortner. An Austin-based stylist, Adam started on the editorial side of the profession, as the art director for Texas Architect magazine, later moving to Western Interiors & Design Magazine. In 2007, he founded Creative & Sons, which does photo styling of interiors and objects for editorial and commercial photographers, as well as art direction and production services. (He also has a cool blog, where you can find posts on subjects like decaying Victorian Lego houses and how stylists compose faux grocery lists.) We had such an interesting conversation, moving from lamp cords to other forms of styling magic, that I asked him to share some thoughts and experiences with DeepGlamour readers.

DG: How is styling interiors different from being an interior designer?

Adam Fortner: An interior designer creates spaces that are functional, and we show them off. The main difference is in the format our work takes. An interior designer creates a space that is meant to be experienced in three dimensions. The photographer and stylist’s job is to take that three-dimensional, fluid space and present it in a two-dimensional static photograph within a limited frame. Everything we do serves the photo, which can mean eliminating or moving things so they look best on camera, not necessarily so they function in the space. I tell people you can’t live in a styled room: the chairs are all at odd angles and the coffee table might be three inches from the couch; but look at the photograph and it’s magically transformed from what you see around you.

Photo by Casey Dunn

DG: How is a room different when it's been styled for a magazine photo shoot compared to the way it might look if the owner had cleaned it up for visitors?

AF: For the most part we try to leave the room as we found it, but once we’ve found the angle and framing of the final photograph, adjustments have to be made. At that point a stylist’s job becomes editing. It might be a simple tweak to accommodate the perspective of the camera and show off one detail or another, or filling spaces that might have become visual voids in the frame, or even removing or adjusting things to avoid overlaps or add the appearance of depth. In some cases the accessories or pieces that the designer or client chose just won’t work for a photo and you have to change it. A dark, rich duvet cover may look and feel luxurious in person, but it may fall flat in camera. I am careful to reassure homeowners or clients that it’s not about their personal taste, it’s about the composition and quality of the photo.

Casey Dunn kitchen

Photo by Casey Dunn

My favorite exchange about styling comes from a short-lived sitcom and goes like this:

– Who wants their room photographed anyway so everyone knows what their stuff looks like?
– They don’t photograph your stuff; they bring in their own stuff.
– Well why don’t we just have them come in and finish the room?
– Because if your stuff doesn’t look fabulous in the first place then they don’t want to come in and change it!

DG: What's the purpose of styling a room for a magazine photo? What's the effect you're trying to achieve?

AF: Styling is often called the “hidden profession.” A lot of people don’t know it is even a career, and in fact, to be good at it, that’s the whole point: not to be noticed. So you have to find a balance of studied naturalness. A lot of it is also about aspiration. You want to create a space that people want to be in, one that exemplifies the way people want to live, not necessarily the way they actually live. Honestly, how many people wake up to a vase of flowers, a cup of tea and The New York Times perfectly folded on their nightstand?

CaseyDunn2 Photo by Casey Dunn

DG: How does styling for architects differ from styling for interiors magazines or advertising?

AF: The architect is creating or defining a space, so showing off their work takes a different form. Architects understand and experience spaces in a different way. For them, an open and unadorned space is beautiful in and of itself. They appreciate the clean lines, textures, and light in a room. When styling a space for an architect, you often only need minimal adornments, and what you do use really needs to highlight the architecture. That doesn’t always sell the public, though. Empty spaces can look cold and uninviting at first glance, and it takes a little more time and effort to see the details. A magazine or advertisement doesn’t have that luxury; it needs to grab a viewers’ attention in a split-second. I try to recommend this approach to architects. By creating images that capture people’s attention, they then have the opportunity to guide clients deeper into the details, and have a better chance of communicating their thoughts and ideas.

Casey Dunn bathroom boots

DG: You've recently done some styling work for shoots done in photo studios rather than real interiors. How is styling different when you build from scratch? What does it teach you about styling in the “real world”?

AF: I think of styling as storytelling. When you work in someone’s home, the story is already there. They’ve created their own world with their own tastes: their books, their art, their furniture; we’re mainly there to enhance and document it. When working in a studio, you’re starting with a blank slate. You have to create the entire story–start to finish–and the sky’s the limit so that allows you a lot more freedom. I’ve been working with an excellent production designer who has taught me so much about that. I’ve taken those lessons back to the houses I work on give myself a little more room to create atmosphere, especially when faced with more challenging, less engaging spaces.

DG: When you see a photo of a room in a catalog or interiors magazine, do you think about how it’s been styled? What do you notice that a layperson wouldn’t?

SpectraStudios bar glasses AF: I can’t look at magazines or catalogs without noticing how they’re styled. I hardly look at the products in catalogs. In fact, I’m usually looking at the objects that aren’t for sale. Similarly, in magazines, I’m looking for those small touches that give the space personality. I also look at not only what is in the photo, but also how it’s placed, and why that composition works.

The DG Dozen

1) How do you define glamour?

Glamour is a magic combination of confidence, beauty, and ease that create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. The word always conjures a flash of light in my mind’s eye… whether it be flashbulbs, the sparkle of a diamond, the sheen of beautiful fabric, or just that glint in the eye of someone at ease with themselves. But I also think that glamour is something ascribed, not inherent. Things are only glamorous because someone else thinks they are.

2) Who or what is your glamorous icon?

Alexander McQueen. A very good friend of mine gave me a book of his work for my birthday, and while I knew of him and some of his work, I was impressed/amazed by the range and drama and sophistication of what I saw from start to finish.

3) Is glamour a luxury or a necessity?

For basic survival glamour is a luxury, but like the fine arts, it’s an unknown quantity that can’t be measured or explained, yet somehow makes life more enjoyable.

4) Favorite glamorous movie?

Auntie Mame. The interiors of her apartment are just amazing. In fact, it was those sets that got me interested in interior design. If I could pick just a scene from a movie, it would be the “Ascot Gavotte” scene from My Fair Lady. The amazing black-and-white dresses and hats against the simple, white, paper-like buildings (all dreamed up by Cecil Beaton) along with the stilted movements and poses are just brilliant.

5) What was your most glamorous moment?

When I was working for a magazine in Los Angeles we hosted a tour of the Case Study houses in Pacific Palisades, which was amazing enough, but in the evening they opened up the Eames house and lit up the lawn with strings of lights. I stood there taking in the crisp night air coming in off the ocean and thinking that I never could have dreamed I’d be there, yet there I was.

6) Favorite glamorous object (car, accessory, electronic gadget, etc.)?

A Cartier Tank Américaine Flying Tourbillon watch. With a name like that, how can it not be glamorous?

7) Most glamorous place?

Not any one specifically, but an old house filled with lots of history.

8) Most glamorous job?

Is there a glamorous job? I think there are a lot of jobs that seem glamorous, but that’s because we don’t do them. If something looks easy and glamorous, it’s probably because there’s a lot of hard work behind it.

9) Something or someone that other people find glamorous and you don't

Working in the publishing industry. Like before, it often gets glorified in movies and on TV, and really it’s mostly hard work. Yes, there are moments of fun and excitement—that happens anywhere when you love what you’re doing—but there’s also the other 90 percent of the time that you are working and planning and coordinating to make that moment happen. But even I forget that sometimes.

10) Something or someone that you find glamorous whose glamour is unrecognized.

Space. Not the final frontier, but the absence of stuff. Space to do whatever you want: an empty room, an open field. It can be anything and everything.

11) Can glamour survive?

I didn’t know it was in danger! I think the world needs glamour, whether to embrace or rail against, depending on the mood, so it will be around for quite some time.

12) Is glamour something you're born with?

I don’t think so. It’s something that you achieve, intentionally or otherwise.


1) Angelina Jolie or Cate Blanchett?
Cate Blanchett, no question.
2) Paris or Venice?
3) New York or Los Angeles?
New York (but LA for the lifestyle)
4) Princess Diana or Princess Grace?
Princes Grace
5) Tokyo or Kyoto?
6) Boots or stilettos?
7) Art Deco or Art Nouveau?
Art Deco
8) Jaguar or Aston Martin?
Aston Martin
9) Armani or Versace?
10) Diana Vreeland or Anna Wintour?
Diana Vreeland
11) Champagne or single malt?
Champagne, it makes anything a celebration
12) 1960s or 1980s?
13) Diamonds or pearls?
Diamonds. Can’t beat the sparkle.
14) Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell?
15) Sean Connery or Daniel Craig?
Sean Connery

[Photo of Adam Fortner by Stephen Karlisch. Bathroom with boots photo by Casey Dunn. Bar photo by Spectra Studios.]


DG Q&A: Photographer Ejen Chuang On Cosplay In America (and A Book Giveaway Contest)

Cosplay in America book cover © Ejen Chuang When I went to the 2009 Anime Expo to talk to cosplayers about the appeal of dressing up as anime and manga characters, I was struck by how important posing for photographs is to that appeal. Yet most of the picture-taking at anime conventions happens with lousy lighting and lots of fans in the way—hardly the ideal way to record the costumes on which players lavish so much time and ingenuity.

Fortunately, L.A. photographer Ejen Chuang, whom I met at that same convention, has now given American cosplayers a worthy visual record: a beautifully produced 272-page book called Cosplay in America. The product of a year spent traveling to conventions around the country (and a maxed-out credit card), plus countless hours of selecting and retouching photos, the book features 270 cosplayers.

Naming it the Best Art Book of 2010Deb Aoki, About.com’s Manga expert, declared that Cosplay in Ameria “captures the spirit of fun, camaraderie and creativity of the North American cosplay community.” Liz Ohanesian of the LA Weekly praised the “slick and beautiful tome,” which “showcases the diversity and creativity within the anime fandom,” later declaring on BoingBoing that “Chuang did what I hope more people will do in the future, portrayed cosplay as art.”

Ejen is still on the convention circuit, selling his book and giving cosplayers a chance to have their latest handiwork immortalized with professional polish. He’ll next be at Anime Los Angeles January 7-9. In between cons—and his regular work as a production stills photographer—he was kind enough to answer some questions about what he's learned from his experience photographing cosplayers. (To see more of his photos, including new shots and web exclusives, check out the CosplayinAmerica Flickr stream.)

See the end of the interview for information on how you can enter our Cosplay in America giveaway and have a chance to win a free copy of Ejen's book.

DG: Your book is called Cosplay in America. What is cosplay and how is it different in America?

EC: Cosplay is short for “costume-play” which is basically dressing up as characters based off anime, manga, and video games, though the term has become mainstream in the past few years and now applies to any source such as films, American cartoons, music icons, even products—I’ve seen a few Nintendo Wiis running around conventions.

From what I gathered (as I’ve never been to an event in Japan), Americans have a very do-it-yourself attitude. While there are shops in Japan to purchase cosplays, that necessarily isn't so here in the States. You almost have to be MacGyver to pull together many disciplines from sewing to prop making. Some make it from scratch, others purchase parts and put it together. It is the process of creating the outfit that is part of the fun and not necessarily just wearing the outfit.

DG: What inspired you to do a book of cosplayer portraits?

EC: I haven’t really seen a book done specifically done about American cosplay and I thought I'll tackle it myself. The culture has been growing for the past 20 years and is definitely getting larger in thanks to conventions and the internet.

Cosplay in America Jo (Southern California) © Ejen Chuang

DG: What’s the difference between cosplay and dressing up for Halloween?

EC: Cosplay usually refers to a specific character. For example, dressing as Capt. Jack Sparrow is cosplaying. Dressing up as a pirate is just.... dressing up as a pirate! In the broadest sense, you can say that when your father dresses up as Santa during Christmas, he is in fact, cosplaying.

DG: What’s the relationship between photography (whether professional or amateur) and cosplay?

EC: There’s an interesting relationship between the two. Obviously from a photographer’s perspective, the extravaganza of colorful costumes and makeup of the cosplayer is attractive to the lens, while on the cosplayer side, it is a chance to be in the limelight and have their work appreciated.

DG: How do cosplayers decide what characters to portray?

EC: Cosplayers generally portray characters they feel very strongly about. Talking to many, I understand they felt if they were to put that amount of work into a cosplay, they rather pick characters they feel a strong emotional response to. As many cosplayers tend to be in their teens to mid-20s, my thoughts are in addition to having fun, stretch their creative skills and hanging out with friends at cons, cosplay can be a way for them to try out different “personalities” of their source characters wherever if either male or female. Obviously it is easier for women to dress as male characters than males to dress as female characters.

Cosplay in America Jason (CA) © Ejen Chuang DG: You took more than 1,600 photos. How did you decide on which ones to publish?

EC: In my youth I was into anime but until I embarked on my project, the last convention I visited was Anime Expo in 2000. In the years between then and 2009 when I started the project, I had been out of the scene so perhaps 90 percent of cosplayers I’ve photographed, I don’t know which series they are from. In a way, it is liberating. I have no bias or preconception about any series or character. I could choose based on their personality and pose. I specifically looked for something about that cosplayer that grabs me. From an edited collection of around 1,000 cosplayers, it took six months to narrow it down to the 260 cosplayers in the book.

DG: One of the cosplayers you interviewed called cosplay “a chance to escape that which binds us, holds us down in our everyday lives, and [it] gives us chance to let our imaginary spirits soar high above all that makes us feel weak. We can shed our everyday lives and feel free to express ourselves.” Another one said it’s “just a dorky little hobby where people play dress up.” What would you say is the appeal of cosplay?

EC: For the younger attendees, it is a chance to let loose and have fun, another layer to add to the convention experience. As a teenager, the need to fit in is strong and so in a way, this allows them to join a community.

For those older ones, it is just a release mechanism. Obviously in life we have our jobs, relationships, school and so forth and to take a vacation from that for one weekend is to take a moment out of the worries of bills, and other adult concerns. I spoke to several cosplayers who have graduated college and move to their working life—and use conventions as a chance to meet up with old friends—similar to a reunion.

For others, it is a chance to test out their abilities to create and personalize to their own individual tastes. For example, at one convention in Florida, I noticed a character whose outfit was filled with beads. The original character’s outfit did not include that large amount of beads but because the cosplayer so loved beads, she weaved her passion into it. In the end it still worked—the character is identifiable and the cosplayer has a chance to personalized the work.

DG: You’re still taking photos as you go to conventions to sell your book. Do you have any favorites to share with our readers?

Streetfighter girls hammer Ejen Chuang AnimeFEST 2010 Cosplay in America

EC: Truthfully, my favorite photos are the ones where I’m interacting with the cosplayer. So many folks have photos of themselves standing next to a cosplayer. For me, I like it if they point their weapon at me, or they are jabbing me, or something of that nature. Here I am at AnimeFest in Texas getting hammered by the gals of Street Fighter.

Bender attacks Ejen Chuang Otakon Cosplay in America This was taken at Otakon, the largest anime con on the East Coast where Bender from Futurama chokes me—I didn’t have any beer with me and you know Bender loves beer!

Red Skull executes Ejen Chuang Cosplay in America SuperCon 2010 This one is from Miami where Red Skull, a supervillian from the Capt. America comic books is about to execute me.

Despite all the work that goes into the book and the tour, it is definitely a life-changing experience! I plan to be at another 20 conventions next year and after that start working on other books related to cosplay but not necessarily about cosplay. Thanks for the interview!

Order your own copy of Cosplay in America here.

We're happy to offer a free copy of Cosplay in America to one lucky reader. To enter, please leave a comment telling us a character you'd like to dress up as and why. (Don't worry about practical considerations; we won't make you model the costume.) The contest deadline is midnight Pacific Time on January 10, and the winner will be selected using Random.org. Contest open to U.S. residents only.

[All photos copyright Ejen Chuang and used by permission.]

DG Q&A: Artist Ria Brodell On Heroes And Self Portraits

Rbrodell-palmsBoston-based artist Ria Brodell doesn’t think of her work as glamorous, but when I happened upon her “Self Portraits” exhibit at the Kopeikin Gallery in West Hollywood, her drawings struck me as perfectly expressing the way glamour works as an imaginative process. Her drawings capture how she projected her ideal self onto slightly mysterious, impossibly graceful figures—in this case, male icons ranging from classic movie stars like Gene Kelly and Cary Grant to Catholic saints and children’s toys. Like her very different “Distant Lands” drawings, which depict strange and whimsical animals, the portraits are at once charming, sweet, and slightly subversive. (This YouTube video shows Ria at work on her Distant Lands creatures.) Her exhibit will be open until March 6.

DG: How did you select the figures you depicted yourself as in “Self-Portraits”? Why these particular men?

Ria Brodell: The figures I chose were all men I connected with in some way as a kid. If I could have grown up to be a man, I would have been a man like them. Sometimes it was their style, the way they dressed, their hair, the way they carried themselves. Sometimes it was their über masculinity. Of course, in regards to the movie stars, all of this came from their depictions in the movies and not necessarily their real selves.

Ria Brodell 3 self-portraits
Self-Portrait as a Mountain Man (2008), Self-Portrait in a Fedora (2009), Self-Portrait as a Coastal Man (2009)
© Ria Brodell, used with permission of the artist

As far as the more general portraits, such as “Self-Portrait as a Mountain Man” or “Self-Portrait in a Fedora,” I am connecting with a type or style of masculinity, the rugged outdoorsman or the dapper gentleman.

As a kid I desperately wanted a fedora, but growing up in Idaho, the closest thing I could ever find was an “outback” hat. Which is not very close at all. He-Man and St. Michael Find They Have a Lot in Common

DG: Icons like Cary Grant and Gene Kelly—and even Ken and your “Miami Vice Dude”—have an obvious Hollywood sort of glamour. But you also draw on traditional images of Catholic saints. In last year's exhibit, “The Handsome & the Holy,” one of the most charming drawings was called “He-Man and St. Michael Find They Have A Lot in Common.” What do they have in common? What unites movie stars, saints, and toys like G.I. Joe and He-Man?

RB: When I began this series I remembered a drawing I made for my First Reconciliation book in second grade (I went to Catholic school). I had drawn a picture of St. Michael that I was very proud of and I showed it to my Grandma. She told me he looked more like He-Man. I remember feeling ashamed for some reason, perhaps knowing I should have shown St. Michael more reverence. I used to draw He-Man all the time, practicing over and over until his muscles looked right. Looking back now, He-Man and St. Michael had a similar appeal to me, strong warriors, fighting for good. As far as what unites movie stars, saints, and toys like G.I. Joe and He-Man, for me they all represented an ideal, whether it was physical aesthetics or moral values. In combining them all for “The Handsome & The Holy” I was hoping to unite my “queer side” with my religious background because they are equally present in my life. DG: Your drawings have been described as “achingly sincere,” “both earnest and humorous,” and “intently self-aware schmaltz.” Their humor is gentle and sweet, not ironic—juxtaposing He-Man and St. Michael is funny, but you are, at the same time, owning up to your desires to be like them. Is it hard for a contemporary artist to portray desire and identification without using irony to maintain your cool? Does glamour risk condemnation as kitsch? Self-Portrait as Miami Vice Dude  RB: I don’t think I’m intentionally trying to be funny in all the drawings. I’m trying to be completely honest, but I think the juxtaposition of some of these subjects is just naturally odd and therefore funny. Sexuality, gender identity, and religion can be very serious, often complicated subjects. I want to create work that deals with these subjects in a simple and not heavy-handed way. Of course there is always a risk of the work having unintended consequences, such as being deemed “kitsch.” With this work there is a bit of background information needed. On the surface they can appear to be just glamorous self-portraits or “dress-up” but my hope is that people look further than that and begin to think about gender identity and sexuality outside of our society’s strict definitions.

DG: One of your drawings is called “A Picnic With Audrey Hepburn.” It shows Audrey from the back, but there is no one with her. A critic described it as “a picture of mythic femininity, here elusive.” But the title suggests the perspective not of Audrey but of her unseen date, inviting viewers to project themselves into the scene. What inspired this drawing? What does Audrey Hepburn mean to you?

RB: As a teenager I became slightly obsessed with Audrey Hepburn after seeing her in “My Fair Lady.” She was not only beautiful and glamorous but also a humanitarian. For me, this drawing represents the complexity of figuring out ones sexuality, especially queer sexuality, the desire and simultaneous shame I felt. How could I possibly desire a woman and not just any woman, but Audrey Hepburn? Feeling unworthy of her, I chicken-out on our date.

A Picnic with Audrey Hepburn
A Picnic with Audrey Hepburn, 2009, gouache on paper
© Ria Brodell and used with permission

DG: For The Superheroes Project to promote Boston-based artists, you chose The Flash (one of my favorites) as your alter ego. Why did you pick him? RB: I picked The Flash, both because of his awesome costume and because he’s so simplified. It’s just him. He doesn’t need any weapons or a tool belt or gadgets. There’s something nice about that. No extra baggage. Brodell_FreddievsMagnum  DG: When Freddie and Magnum arm-wrestle, who wins? RB: I’m not sure if either of them “wins.” I think of this drawing as sort of a back and forth. Both Freddie and Magnum as male icons flirting with the signifiers of heterosexuality and homosexuality at the same time. But, if I had to pick someone to root for it would be Freddie. [All images © Ria Brodell and used with permission.]

DG Q&A: Karen Karbo On Coco Chanel

Karen-Karbo-BW3 When Karen Karbo was a kid, she wanted to be a large-animal veterinarian and a movie director. Instead, she became a remarkably prolific author. Her well-received oeuvre includes three novels for adults, the Minerva Clark series of juvenile mysteries, and a book on Katharine Hepburn. Her newest title, The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons from the World's Most Elegant Woman, is a witty biography-cum-advice-book starring one of the 20th century's most influential innovators. DG will feature excerpts from the book tomorrow through Thursday (here, here, and here), followed by a special Top 10 from Karen (and Coco) on Friday.

DeepGlamour: You previously wrote a book called How to Hepburn: Lessons on Living from Kate the Great, about Katharine Hepburn. What drew you to Hepburn and Chanel? How much do they have in common?

Karen Karbo: My connections with Hepburn were largely personal. Katharine Hepburn was a household saint; my mother was said to look like her and she introduced me to her movies. I’d known about Chanel because I hail from designers. My grandmother was a couturiere in Los Angeles in the ’40s and ’50s; she designed pieces for the wives of movie moguls. My father was an industrial designer. He designed the hood ornament for the Lincoln Town Car, that iconic cross inside a square. Anyway, I started thinking about Coco and her life when I was writing the Hepburn book and came across Coco, the 1969 musical starring Hepburn. One thing lead to the next.


Despite the fact that one was a classic New England Yankee from a WASPy, relatively wealthy family and the other was a scrappy French peasant born in a poorhouse, the two women had a surprising amount of personality traits in common: both women were confident, hardworking, and fearless, except when it came to people finding out secrets about their past. They both discovered their individual style and talents young, and worked them for their entire lives. They were both bossy. They liked to instruct. They both always thought they were right about everything. And, they demanded that they be comfortable in their clothes!

DG: How would you define “Chanel style”? Does it require Chanel clothes?

KK: Chanel style is a philosophy. In its purest form it holds that luxury is a necessity, and true luxury is about feeling absolutely comfortable in your clothes (and thus, in your skin.) Chanel style means wearing simple pieces that skim the body. There is no unnecessary extra fabric, nor is anything so tight you can’t move. I’m sure ultra low-rise jeans would have driven her mad. Indeed, being able to move through the world easily and with comfort was one of Chanel’s main tenets. I don’t think this requires Chanel clothes, but it requires the wearing of clothes with a Chanelian attitude: only wear what suits you. When Chanel was just starting out, when she was Coco before Chanel, the fussy, overly complicated gowns of the Belle Époque were not simply beyond her reach financially, they looked ridiculous on her. She found what flattered her the most and stuck with it until the end of her days.

DG: You write, “Style has always been about money, and it always will be.” That’s a pretty depressing thought. Do you really believe it? How, aside from making your own Chanel-inspired suit, do you deal with it as a middle-class writer?

KK: I agree a hundred percent: it is a depressing thought. But it’s also a reality. To believe otherwise is to live at the mercy of the fashion industry which, in order to survive, needs women, rich and poor and in between, to buy a lot of clothes at all different price points as frequently as possible. “Style” is synonymous with variety in our culture; to be chic and stylish Carrie Bradshaw required a closet full of Manolos.

I have a friend who’s very rich and his clothes are the epitome of simplicity: he likes to wear jeans, loafers and cashmere sweaters, bespoke shirts and Armani jackets. The fabrics are astonishing in their color, their softness. The cut of everything he slips into is perfect and flawless. So is his style.

There are clothes that give a shout-out to style. They boast the of-the-moment neckline or cuff; they’re made of cheap fabric and slapped together by shockingly underpaid workers in Indonesia and China. That’s another discussion for another time, but the point is, from a Chanelian point-of-view, that style is luxury, and luxury means a garment is as beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside. Plus, it has to fit, and cheap clothes just don’t fit that well, generally speaking.

25 shoes bandita Flickr Both variety and quality cost money. Or, more money than a writer makes. J. Crew has been my reliable go-to catalogue for decades. Which is not to say I don’t own a few stylish pieces. Up the street from me there’s an extraordinary consignment store I visit once a week. I just snagged a Ralph Lauren Black Label top for $18. I wear jeans, boots, and jackets a lot, and I have some great jewelry that belonged to my grandmother. As long as I don’t decide to become a socialite who needs to look fantastic five nights a week, I’m set.

DG: You write that Chanel’s attitude toward her past made her “seem completely modern.” What was her attitude and how did it inform her work and her persona?

KK: Chanel lied about her past, and then rewrote the lies. She created a past for herself that suited her. She was, in a lot of ways, one of the early practitioners of spin. France is a family-centric country, and the French tend to honor their heritage. To invent yourself, to make yourself, the way Chanel did was a 20th-century maneuver. It was an American maneuver. We Americans understood what Chanel was about long before the French did. We loved her message of ease and freedom immediately.

DG: Chanel was a master of self-promotion, yet you also note that she was “shrewd enough to make her unavailable to her customers.” What can she teach contemporary figures about balancing publicity and mystery?

KK: A salesman has no mystique. TMI extinguishes allure. Chanel said, “People should guess you,” and so they should. She understood intuitively that inviting her clients and her public to participate in the creation of her allure was to capture their attention. She put enough out there to create a screen for their projection. She understood that self-promotion was also seduction. She was also extraordinarily lucky; she was able to create a desire for her pieces, for her look and way of life, and then recede into the shadows.

Chanel-5-lg DG: Coco Chanel was elegant and chic, but was she glamorous? If so, to whom?

KK: Chanel’s most glamorous move was to replace the real jewels given her by her lover, the Duke of Westminster, then the richest man in the world, with poured glass. At a time of great prosperity she invented costume jewelry and during the Depression she insisted women wear diamonds they could sell in order to eat. She was a revolutionary disguised as a fashionista. Can it possibly get more glamorous than that?

DG: How would Coco Chanel fare on Project Runway?

KK: I’m sure she would have nothing to do with it. She would find another way to succeed. When the dazzling Elsa Schiaparelli stole Coco’s thunder in the ’30s (as well as some of her best clients), Chanel’s response was to completely ignore her.

The DG Dozen

1) How do you define glamour? Chanel said “art is imperfection” and the same can be said of glamour. To be glamorous is be aware of one’s flaws worthy of envy. Barbara Stanwyck comes to mind. A glamorous item is usually a fetish item that few people have but everyone wants. The iPhone was glamorous for about 48 hours, once upon a time.

Christiane_amanpour 2) Who or what is your glamorous icon? I worship Christiane Amanpour. She’s brilliant, chic, and courageous, with that devastatingly fabulous accent and weird, thick fringe of hair.

3) Is glamour a luxury or a necessity? Absolute necessity. When glamour goes, so does creativity and hope.

4) Favorite glamorous movie? Double Indemnity. Also, Chinatown. Any movie in which people can’t overcome their own worst impulses while wearing sunglasses.

5) What was your most glamorous moment? Sipping Lagavulin single malt scotch aboard the Four Seasons Explorer in the Maldives, after a scuba dive in which I’d encountered a hammerhead shark.

6) Favorite glamorous object (car, accessory, electronic gadget, etc.)? A black and white cocktail dress designed by my grandmother for the 1948 Oscars. Her client ran off to Mexico with her lover two days before the awards ceremony and never claimed the dress.

7) Most glamorous place? The Hemingway Bar at the Ritz

8) Most glamorous job? Photojournalist avant digital.

9) Something or someone that other people find glamorous and you don't. Making a movie. I went to film school at USC and learned pretty quickly that filmmaking is both hard work and deadly dull. The days are long, the egos are huge, and there’s a lot of waiting around. There’s a great saying: the most exciting day of your life is the first day on the set; the most boring day of your life is the second day on the set.

10) Something or someone that you find glamorous whose glamour is unrecognized. Exercise rider for a great race horse.

11) Can glamour survive? Only if women stop giving press conferences about their preferred method of hair removal.

12) Is glamour something you're born with? Nope, it’s entirely self-generated. It helps if you have some killer quality that distinguishes you from the pack, like very long legs, a nice head of hair, or a huge fortune.


1) Angelina Jolie or Cate Blanchett? Cate

2) Paris or Venice? Paris

3) New York or Los Angeles? My heart says LA, my brain says NY.

4) Princess Diana or Princess Grace? Princess Grace

5) Tokyo or Kyoto? Lost in Translation

6) Boots or stilettos? Boots, particularly my own black steel-toed Luccheses.

7) Art Deco or Art Nouveau? Deco

8) Jaguar or Astin Martin? Astin Martin

9) Armani or Versace? Armani

10) Diana Vreeland or Anna Wintour? Diana

11) Champagne or single malt? Single malt

12) 1960s or 1980s? Is this a lesser of two evils question?

13) Diamonds or pearls? Diamonds

14) Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell? Kate

15) Sean Connery or Daniel Craig? Daniel

["25 shoes" photo by Flickr user bandita, who believes a woman should have as many pairs of shoes as she has years of age, under Creative Commons license.]

--Buy Karen Karbo's book here--

DG Q&A: Art Jeweler Margaux Lange

Overeager makeover artists, devilish little brothers, and occasional Dexter fans have long enjoyed dismembering the world’s favorite doll. By contrast, Brooklyn artist Margaux Lange, 30, describes herself as “an Art jeweler who re-Members Barbie fondly.” She doesn’t tear up dolls for the sake of destruction, or for anti-Barbie social commentary. Rather, she reassembles Barbie parts into joyful jewelry: heart pendants made of Barbie busts, earrings from eyes or smiles.

In December, Lange will have a solo exhibition of her one-of-a-kind pieces at the Luke and Eloy Gallery in Pittsburgh. She sells production designs through Etsy and blogs here. The strange charm of her work has attracted attention from Rob Walker in the NYT Magazine and, most recently, TimeOut New York, where she appears surrounded by translucent bins filled with mostly headless Barbies.

New Yorkers can visit Margaux's studio this Saturday night, September 26, as part of the Morgan Arts Building Open Studio event featuring more than 25 artists (and an open bar). For details see Margaux's blog.

Margaux Lange Barbie Ken-yes-neckpiece

DG: You credit Barbie with fueling your creative life growing up—an unusually positive way of writing about an often-controversial plaything. What did Barbie mean to you as a child?

Margaux Lange: I used to be obsessed with Barbie dolls as a kid. They played a pivotal role in my development as a tool for acting out and exploring the human relationships in my own life, as well as the fantasy lives I imagined. My experience with Barbie was uniquely positive in this way. Barbie can be a source of empowerment through exploration and imagination. Each child's experience with the doll is unique and I believe there's a value in that.

I would spend hours crafting many precious details for my Barbie dolls and their miniature worlds, such as: pillows, stone fireplaces, food items, clothing, accessories, etc. Playing with Barbie dolls helped to develop my dexterity and strengthened my attention to small detail: skills imperative to the art of jewelry making.

DG: How did you get started “fondly re-membering” Barbies?

ML: Barbie made her debut in my artwork in high school and then again in various incarnations throughout college where I studied fine Art (The Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, MD.) I started to focus more on jewelry making during my junior year, and I became interested in incorporating found objects into my metal work. Because I had done artwork with Barbie in the past (drawings, sculptures, etc) it felt natural to try her out in the jewelry realm. It was an unusual idea with a strong personal connection for me, so it felt right. The Plastic Body Series Jewelry Collection continued to grow from there.

Margaux Lange Barbie smile earrings

DG: How has your relationship with Barbie changed since you played with her as a child?

ML: I had no desire to cut up all my Barbies as a kid, thatʼs for sure! So that has certainly changed. As a child, I would look at a doll and she would instantly transform in my mind into the imaginary personality I had dreamed up for her.

Now I look at a doll as I would any other material: I think about how that piece of plastic is going to be transformed in an interesting, wearable way.

Iʼm also able to intellectually step back and examine the impact Barbie has had on our society from all angles now. I certainly didnʼt think about any of that as a child so of course that has changed as well.

DG: What do you think makes Barbie glamorous?

Barbie is a quintessential icon of glamour. Sheʼs intriguing and appealing on many levels, not to mention she owns the biggest wardrobe on the planet, has a multitude of cars, shoes and accessories, and has had every possible career you can imagine. I think that makes her pretty glamorous.

DG: How has the changing face of Barbie over the years influenced your work? When Mattel alters Barbieʼs face or body, do you relate to Barbie in a different way?

ML: No, I wouldnʼt say that the way I relate to Barbie changes when Mattel rolls out a new style, but it does change my work. For example, Mattel made some major changes to Barbieʼs body in the year 2000 when they introduced the new “belly-button models” which had wider hips, a more shapely bum, and for the first time, a belly button and a smaller chest. Because her new bust size was smaller than the original Barbieʼs, it happened to be the perfect size and shape for making my Have-a-Heart Necklaces, which are now a prominent piece in my production line.

Margaux Lange Barbie boobs heart necklaces

DG: Barbie is the quintessential blue-eyed blonde, but some of your pieces (the bust hearts, for instance) play with different skin tones. Is Barbie actually more varied than we think of her?

Barbie is a lot more varied than people assume. There is quite a lot of difference in skin tones, body styles, hair colors and facial features as well. Itʼs interesting however, that when we think of “Barbie: the icon” an image of blonde hair and blue eyes is what comes to mind.

DG: When talking about your work, you mention the vast impact that Barbie has had on our society. What do you think is the most important impact Barbie has had over the last 50 years? Do you think her impact has been more positive or negative?

The most important impact she has had has probably been on the millions of little girls who have been drawn to Barbie as a way to understand, what is to them, a very abstract notion of “Womanhood.” Barbie is very unlike us as little girls, and yet under our complete control to manipulate and project onto her “adult-hood” in whatever way we wish. There is enormous power in that type of imaginary play.

However, thatʼs not to say thereʼs nothing to examine regarding Barbie as an ideology. Barbieʼs life of excess has certainly had its negative implications. Particularly the dollʼs emphasis on materialism, beauty, and fashion. We are a nation obsessed with beauty and youth, and Barbie is a direct reflection of our cultural impulses in this way. Plastic and forever youthful, she remains relevant and in-vogue. With each generation, she is re-invented as we see fit to define her. I wouldnʼt be surprised if she sticks around for another 50 years because of this.

Margaux Lange Barbie Smiley Necklace on Torque

DG: Other artists have made Barbie-inspired work, particularly work that deconstructs or takes Barbie apart, often in violent ways. Why do you think we have this urge to deconstruct Barbie?

Barbie is the most beloved and maligned of playthings. Rarely do we feel indifferent about her. I think the urge to destroy Barbie comes from this polarization. To some, she represents oppression in the form of unattainable perfection and unrealistic beauty standards. Thereʼs something cathartic about deconstructing a symbol of those ideals.

At times, my work has dealt with utilizing the doll as an archetype for critiquing beauty, materialism, and prescribed gender roles often associated with women in our society. Sometimes I aim to distance myself and critically evaluate pop culture in this way, and other times I wish to engage and participate in it. Much like my own experience with womanhood as a feminist: a series of rejecting and embracing.

Margaux Lange Barbie lips ring

DG: Who buys your work and why?

The Plastic Body Series is sought after by Art Jewelry collectors, Barbie nostalgics, and bold individuals who arenʼt afraid to wear jewelry that sparks a conversation. Some people respond to its humor and think itʼs clever and fun, or it feeds a sense of nostalgia for them. Some wear it as a feminist statement and others simply appreciate it because itʼs bizarre and unique.

I love that everyone brings his or her own baggage and reaction to the work. Itʼs indicative of their own relationship with, or feelings about the icon, as well as how an individual defines wearable jewelry. My goal has been to create Art that a broad range of people can relate to and I feel Iʼve been successful with this.

A background in fine Art gave me the foundation necessary for conceptual exploration in my jewelry work, however, it is my personal connection with Barbie that I credit for the success of this series. It's ironic that what I adored as a child has become the focus of my career as an adult.

Margaux Lange Barbie-bubblegum-pop-neckpiece

DG: Where do you get your components? Do you buy used Barbies? New Barbies in bulk?

ML: I acquire all the dolls as second-hand objects; usually from yard sales, thrift stores, and Ebay. I also have a few friends across the country that are always on the lookout for me. I have thousands of “previously owned” Barbie dolls and parts in my studio from which to choose. It’s important to me that the dolls have had a previous life in the hands of a child. It's a crucial part of the story, the love, and the conceptual basis for the work. I also really like the idea that the dolls are being repurposed after they’re discarded and are contributing to Art, not landfills.

The DG Dozen

1) How do you define glamour?

Glamour is something or someone that exudes a particular allure, an air of confidence, style, uniqueness, distinction, beauty, and grace.

2) Who or what is your glamorous icon?

Besides Barbie? My grandmother was always very glamourous to me growing up. For instance, she would never dream of putting a carton of milk on the table as is, it always went into a “proper” carafe or something first. This seemed very glamorous to me.

3) Is glamour a luxury or a necessity? Luxury.

4) Favorite glamorous movie? I canʼt think of any... I tend to like horror flicks and indie films. Amelie is a favorite movie of mine, and glamorous in its own unique way I think, perhaps because itʼs French.

5) What was your most glamorous moment? My first New York gallery exhibition at Julie Artisansʼ Gallery on Madison Ave.

6) Favorite glamorous object (car, accessory, electronic gadget, etc.)?

My engagement ring! Itʼs made with raw diamonds and yellow gold. Itʼs totally glamorous because thereʼs a big cluster of diamonds on the top and yet because raw diamonds look rough when theyʼre not faceted, it feels humble at the same time, almost like large grains of sparkling sand. Itʼs so unusual, and so me, I just love it.

7) Most glamorous place? Mendocino, California. I went there with my fiancé and we stayed in this amazing bed & breakfast overlooking the ocean. It was incredibly romantic and glamorous for us!

8) Most glamorous job?

Oh dear, I could provide you with a very long list of all the non-glamorous jobs Iʼve had! Picking the most glamorous is a bit harder. I guess Iʼd have to say that being a self-employed artist has been the most glamorous. Even though itʼs difficult at times, I love what I do and I know Iʼm really fortunate to be able to pursue my passion full time.

9) Something or someone that other people find glamorous and you donʼt? Smoking. Yuck!

10) Something or someone that you find glamorous whose glamour is unrecognized? A jewelry artist who is also a dear friend of mine, Kate Cusack: www.katecusack.com

11) Can glamour survive? I think there will always be glamour, although I think the way each generation defines it will continue to shift and change.

12) Is glamour something you're born with? No, of course not. All weʼre born with is our birthday suit!

[Jewelry photos © Margaux Lange. Margaux Lange portrait © David Balogh.]