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 Finale: DG Q&A With Cameron Silver Of Decades

Cameron Silver DecadesCameron Silver in Decades

Cameron Silver, the owner of the L.A. luxury vintage shop Decades, is known for dressing Hollywood stars for the red carpet, using a remarkable eye for seeing contemporary style in vintage clothing. With his book Decades: A Century of Fashion, he demonstrates the sophisticated knowledge of fashion history that undergirds his success as a retailer and stylist. A survey of 20th-century women’s fashion, the book is beautiful, but it’s also smart, recalling styles often written out of fashion chronicles. Its history of the 1970s, for instance, includes not just the sexy “satin-skinned beauties” of Studio 54 but also the “prairie-chic sensibility” of Laura Ashley's maxi dresses. Contrasting muses—Cheryl Tiegs versus Bianca Jagger, for example, or Joan Crawford's tough-minded “Consumer” versus Rita Hayworth's eye-candy “Consumed”—add further nuance, reminding readers that decades do not come with simple, one-note themes. (Google Books offers some limited previews of the book.)

Silver is also, inevitably, the co-star of a Bravo reality show called Dukes of Melrose, whose dramatic tension derives primarily from the conflict between his big-spending ways and his budget-conscious business partner Christos Garkinos. Silver thinks like a museum curator, justifying expensive purchase by their rarity and long-term potential, Garkinos like a merchant, wanting rapid stock turns. On shopping expeditions, Silver also indulges his somewhat outré personal style, picking up things like a mink sweatshirt as well as merchandise for the store. (For examples of his personal style, see Silver's Coveteur page.) I talked to Cameron Silver by phone in late February, shortly before the show's debut.

DG: What makes a garment vintage?

Decades A Century of Fashion by Cameron Silver cover photo

Cameron Silver: That's the million dollar question. Originally it was a garment that was at least 15 or 20 years old. But now with the change in fashion and designers retiring or dying or jumping ship, fashion becomes collectible much faster and can be considered vintage in a much shorter period of time.

DG: What is special about vintage fashion?

Cameron Silver: I think vintage is desirable because it is fashion with history. It is one of a kind and in a world where everything is ubiquitous, it gives you something that no one else can have. And truthfully, almost everything modern is derived from the past.

DG: There is a very literal style divide: If you were in the 1930s, you couldn't have worn clothes that were 40 years old. It would have looked absurd. But someone today can wear anything from the '20s on.

Cameron Silver: It is true. In the 21st century, we are able to look at the 20th century in a very modern way, which is one of the points of the book. You can wear anything from the last 100 years and look contemporary with the way you style it. And that is a really interesting point that you make, that one could never have done that in the 1930s. I think that is a cool point.

DG: A dress or suit or jacket can be glamorous, but aside from the specifics of a given garment, is the idea of vintage glamorous itself?

Cameron Silver: I think it is in the eye of the beholder and it really depends on what you are attracted to. My personal aesthetic is that I believe in the democratization of glamour and I like everything glamorous day to evening, and that is really what we do in the store. But just because it is vintage doesn’t mean it's glamorous. There are plenty of things from the past that would be 180 degrees from glamour.

DG: I was getting not so much at the idea that anything old would be glamorous, but whether this sort of concept of “the vintage” has itself become glamorous, at least in the eyes of certain audiences.

Cameron Silver: I think that the notion of saying something is vintage as opposed to just used gives it a certain panache. I think that is one of the reasons why the period when something is called vintage keeps getting closer and closer to present day. There is a little extra validity in saying, “This is vintage” as opposed to just saying, “This is old” or “This is used.” It doesn't necessarily mean it is glamorous, but it makes people feel like it is glamorous.

DG: Why has the popularity or at least the visibility of vintage fashion—whether it is high-end very glamorous sort of couture gowns that you would find at Decades or the sort of more everyday clothes that somebody might sell on Etsy—increased so much? What is the appeal?

Cameron Silver: For lack of a better definition, it is just—it is cool. It makes you seem like an insider. People who wear vintage tend to be the fashion leaders, not the followers.

I think that is the reason why so many celebs were interested in vintage initially, especially like the late '90s, early 2000s. It separated them from the pack of generic, fashionable stars. They were the ones that found and discovered something one-of-a-kind and unique, with history. A celeb in vintage really owns her style as opposed to a celeb in something borrowed from a designer. It's like, “Where did she find that dress? Who is this designer? When was it made?” It becomes a much more, in a sense, glamorous story.


“Vintage is desirable because it is fashion with history. It is one of a kind and in a world where everything is ubiquitous, it gives you something that no one else can have."


DG: Do you have favorite examples of that?

Cameron Silver: I’d say specifically Nicole Kidman, because she was an early supporter of Decades and I had felt that she really defined her persona very effectively following her divorce from Tom Cruise by wearing vintage designer clothing. We dressed her, famously, for the New York premiere of Moulin Rouge and she word this great vintage white Azzaro jersey dress and it was a brand that people had not heard of in a long time. It really sparked interest in Nicole Kidman as not just a fashionista, but as an insider, as an icon. I think vintage is very successful in pushing people's credibility in the fashion world.

DG: Is that because if you go wrong with vintage, maybe you go more wrong? Is it riskier, so that when you pull it off, you look better?

Cameron Silver: I am going to say if it was right 50 years ago, it's right today. I mean, if you are looking at vintage in a modern way. I think there are more risks in wearing modern designer clothing. You rarely see a celeb ripped to shreds in something vintage. It happens way more often when it's someone trying too hard to wear something very editorial that is off the runway.

DG: So vintage has a kind of timeless quality. Is there a generational divide? Is wearing vintage more popular with younger people?

Cameron Silver: I think a lot of people initially get that assumption that it is for the kids. But our clientele is very broad, from teen to well into their 80s. I think that it knows no age barrier. I think the notion that if you wear something that you could have worn 40 years ago that it looks wrong, I don't think that is necessarily the case.

A stylish woman can wear something that has been in her closet 40 or 50 years. And quite often, we have customers who come into the store and they're like, "I had that 30 years ago!" And they like it again. They wish they had kept it or they'd had the money to buy it then. Obviously I don't want to see an 85-year old woman in a micro-mini Alaïa, but I would love to see her in an Alaïa trench coat. Just because it is an Alaïa trench coat from the '80s doesn't mean that she can't wear it. When we are looking at vintage clothing in a very modern way, it makes it easier for any generation to shop with us.

Decades Norman Norrell window

DG: You write in your book, “I participate in the creation of effortless seeming glamour, acknowledging that the illusion of perfection doesn't come naturally to everybody.” The idea of the effortless is very important to the idea of glamour. What is it that people don't see?

Cameron Silver: For example, I am, on Sunday, fitting an actress who is starting a new show on ABC and we are doing like a zillion different fittings. There is so much going on. We're going to try something like 200 dresses, I bet, for four or five appearances. Things will get altered, and we are going to use every secret weapon we have. Obviously your undergarments are more important than your outer garments. So today I was schlepping, picking up stuff from stores and showrooms. The process is not necessarily glamorous. The results can be. But it takes a lot of work.

That is also a very American approach to glamour. I always look at my Parisian friends who will go to a black-tie gala and they will just wear—like woman will wear a pair of black tux pants and a little tank top and a marabou-feathered jacket and put her hair back and some sexy heels and lipstick. We are a little bit regimented in America with our glamour.

DG: I wonder how much of that is worrying about things that are going to be recorded photographically.

Cameron Silver: Yes. I have a friend Sarah DeAnna who has got a book called, Supermodel YOU. She is a very successful model and the book is about using techniques that supermodels use in every walk of your life. As we were talking about ideas for when her book comes out and marketing, I said, "Everyone is a model now because everything gets documented" in the sense that Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. Everyone needs to know how to give their best face. Nothing is candid any more. It doesn't matter who you are. If you are getting photographed, it is going to end up in some social media.

So imagine what it is like when it is ending up on a social media with 2,000 or 3,000 photographers at the Oscars. It takes a lot of extra work to kind of enter the storm.

DG: Speaking of behind the scenes, you now have a reality show, Dukes of Melrose, on Bravo. What made you want to do the show?

Cameron Silver: I agreed to do it at a very vulnerable moment. [Chuckles]

I was super burnt out. I was like, “OK, I'll do it.” I still question why I agreed to do it, to be perfectly honest [chuckles]. But I am hopeful that the show will ultimately be a great example of infotainment, giving an insider's experience of the world of Decades and fashion, fashion history and also be entertaining. It is also the way the industry works now. I want to keep growing, I kind of have to do it. Michael Kors did his show, Rachel Zoe has done her show.

DG: Reality shows all thrive on conflict, as does any drama, which is the opposite of effortlessness. Have you had any concerns about whether revealing that behind-the-scenes stuff, or even playing it up, would damage the glamour of Decades and the looks that you create?

Cameron Silver: For sure I have reservations about it. I'm not a producer on the show. I won't watch any of the episodes. Whatever I did, I did authentically. I am sure there will be many, many moments where I am not seen in my best light. But I think true glamour reveals its underside. And I think that, as Marlene Dietrich said, “Want to buy some illusions?” It is all illusions.

DG: Right.

Cameron Silver: And when you go behind the white swinging doors of Decades to the back office that is where sort of the Wizard of Oz bag of tricks gets revealed.

And I don't really mind that. I always liked the storm of being in the backroom. Or the fact that when you go behind the doors of Cartier, or where I used to work at Boucheron, it is not as perfect as it is on the sales floor. The beauty and magic of retail is that then you get on the floor everything is supposed to look seemingly perfect.

DG: Mystery is another key element of glamour. How does wearing vintage create mystery?

Cameron Silver: I think primarily because you just don't know what it is. The fashion pundits can't predict what you are wearing when you step out of that limo. It breeds individuality. I love the idea that all these fashion pundits at the Oscars have no idea what this actress is wearing. There is something rather intoxicating about not knowing the answers right away.

DG: In the book you tell a story about how once you were at one of these vintage shows full of, as you put it tactfully, “decidedly unspectacular merchandise” at the Santa Monica Convention Center and you found this perfect black velvet Halston gown. How often today do you find such buried treasures? Or now has the market gotten so developed that you do most of your scouting in closets of people you know have great taste?

Cameron Silver: I was at that same show at the Santa Monica Civic about two weeks ago. And I found the most gorgeous gold, sequined early '30s mermaid gown. I found the most amazing custom couture I. Magnin dress that was really like a bonded sample of Dior. I still have that eye that no one else has. So I may not find everything at that show, but I always find some gems that not everyone's eye might be accustomed to.

But I think that this gold sequined dress is the most amazing dress. It is so good. And we have a picture—it was purchased by the dealer--with the original owner, who was a radio personality, wearing it. It is so cool. And it was hanging on a hanger and I noticed it is actually extremely sexy and I couldn't believe that no one had picked up on the dress. But, you know, they just—not everyone can find the gem.

DG: So I was going to ask you whether the vintage market has developed so much that you can't find such treasures, but obviously you can.

Cameron Silver: You still can. I don't know if the layperson can do it as easily. It is not like you are going into a thrift store and finding the dress for $25. But it is still possible to find good things.

DG: Do you have to be really small to wear great vintage fashion?

Cameron Silver: Not at all. Again, I believe in the democratization of glamour. I also believe in democratization of being sexy. It is a little bit more difficult with older pieces because I think that if somebody was larger, that the clothes weren't really offered for a woman to wear of a broader size range. Nowadays it is completely different and there are so many options for a woman. I dressed Melissa McCarthy for the Oscars last year. We made a custom dress with Marina Rinaldi.

If you dress your decade, there are certain body types that work better for certain decades. Adele wears quite a bit of vintage and she is not a stick. She is deliciously curvy.

DG: You write that the '30s “made fashion unapologetically effortless” and you contrast them to the '20s. You write that “in the 1920s the rebels all looked alike,” which is interesting, but “in the 1930s, getting dressed became a mode of self-expression.” What was so special about the 1930s?

Cameron Silver: I think it's just '30s are really synonymous with the bias cut. The beauty of the bias cut is it has kind of no construction. That is one of the most effortless ways to dress. You just lift your arms in the air and let the dress slide down your body. Wear your hair up; wear your hair down. I love those '30s gowns. They are so modern looking.

Decades Halston window

DG: Do you have a favorite fashion period?

Cameron Silver: I'm very 1970s. I love it for several reasons. It is really the acceptance of American sportswear having an international audience after the great fashion showdown at Versailles 1973. American designers suddenly had an international forum to sell. I love the minimalism of the '70s. I'm a very Halston—that's very much my aesthetic. But at the same time I love Saint Laurent Russian collection. And it's really what everyone references still today, is all of those great '70s look.

DG: Is that the aesthetics of the clothes or something about their social and cultural meaning?

Cameron Silver: I love the fantasy of the '70s because it's kind of a return to Weimar, Germany. It is super decadent--you're thinking of the Studio 54 culture. It is sort of like people are acting like it is the end of the world. In a sense, to some degree, it was because the '80s came and AIDS and Reagan. Fashion in the '70s is really flamboyant yet it is often really pure.

If you look at American sportswear and in the early '70s you still have a lot of the countercultural effects of the past and then the late '70s start to be about the beginning of power dressing. I grew up in the '70s and I completely relate to them.

DG: At the conclusion of your book, you write, “As designers demonstrated over and over again via self-referential homage, they just don't make fashion the way they used to. Thank goodness they don't or I would be out of business.”

Cameron Silver: Very true.

DG: What do you mean by, “They don't make fashion like they used to”?

Cameron Silver: We live in a world of immediacy and disposable fashion, and the quality isn't there. The quality is so inconsistent. I am just amazed when I am wearing some expensive suit by an Italian or French brand and the button falls off the jacket the first time I’ve ever worn it. I think it is just crazy. So I think that quality is the main thing and also the exclusivity. It is just everything is everywhere. Every department store to me feels like I am shopping in a duty free. Shopping Barney’s in New York, the ground floor, looks no different to me than Terminal 4 at Heathrow.

DG: Is there anything that you would like to say about anything about glamour?

Cameron Silver: I have this philosophy that everyone should live their life like they are walking on a red carpet. That is not to say you need to be in a gown all the time, but there is just a certain confidence and certain—I’m trying to think—there is just a certain—I don’t know. I just think that glamour is democratic and everyone should have a little glamour in their life. It makes the world a little bit more beautiful.

Dita Von Teese is glamorous when she works out. It is possible to be glamorous all the time. You always—you will certainly attract attention if you live your life a little bit more glamorously.

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.]

Vintage Week: DG Q&A With Liza D. Of Better Dresses Vintage

BWSundressTwirl-VFGBorn in 1965, Liza D., the proprietor of the two-year-old online shop Better Dresses Vintage, grew up in the New York suburbs as the daughter of an advertising copywriter (“a real-life ‘Mad Man,’” she says). “Growing up,” she says, “the emphasis was on education, the arts, and manners. My mom was a very strong influence. She taught me about taste, and all aspects of etiquette.” An accomplished seamstress, her mother also taught Liza how to recognize and appreciate quality garments—knowledge that she now turns to hunting for vintage treasures. (Here she wears a 1950s sundress at home.)

DG: How did you get into the vintage business?

Liza: My lifelong appreciation of all things lovely, old-fashioned, and well-made led me to buy and wear vintage clothing. Not exclusively or every day, but enough to seek it out as both superior to, and more affordable than, most modern options.

Better Dresses Vintage logo

After having my first child, I left my full-time position as a medical journalist at WebMD, and began doing part-time contract writing and editing from home. I'm also a ballet teacher, although I haven't taught for a while and miss it terribly. Anyway, as I continued to shop for and enjoy vintage clothing, I noticed the growing popular interest, and realized I could turn my longtime hobby into a business. I was fortunate enough to be able to reduce my contract work, and focus on researching all aspects of starting up an online shop. Of course, the best part of the process was acquiring the stock! Everybody loves treasure hunting. And I enjoy meeting people and hearing their stories.

DG: Who are your customers?

Liza: I'd say there are two main groups, with plenty of overlap: the youngsters who think vintage clothes are "cooler," and the oldsters (including me) who know vintage clothes are "better." The younger customer wants to be hip. The older customer wants to recapture a look and feel which they may, in fact, have never experienced firsthand. But they know there's a certain sense of elegance, of propriety, of beauty, that you cannot get from a "Real Housewives" dress. They are looking for glamour.

My customers range in age from tweens to retirees, with the bulk falling somewhere in the middle (college- to middle-age). What I find most wonderful is that they come from around the world, with half of my sold items heading to the UK, Scandinavia, Europe, Asia, and Australia.

DG: How do you define vintage?

Liza: Good question! And one that generates heated debate among those of us who deal with, and in, vintage! I think we agree that the defining factor is the generational difference. Items from an earlier generation are vintage, items from the current one are not. But what's a generation? That depends which dictionary you consult. Sure, it's the span between parents and their children, but is that 20, 25, or 30 years? For me, it would be 35-40+ years!

Personally, I consider true vintage to be at least 25 years old. Online selling venues (eBay, Etsy, et al.) use a more liberal definition. Some venues, in an attempt to cash in on its recent surge in popularity, are suggesting vintage be defined as 10 years or older! But these venues are using the term as just another key word—a tag meant to generate search-engine hits and increase profits. The more they can lower the standard and expand the definition, the better for their bottom line. Sure, we sellers want to make money, but those of us who appreciate the difference between true vintage and old clothes are using the word "vintage" differently. For us, it's a meaningful descriptor, not merely a search term.

DG: Whom does wearing vintage appeal to?

Liza: 1) Those who appreciate quality. Most, if not all, garments produced a generation (or more) ago were of superior quality to those produced today. Even the most pedestrian items, intended for and marketed to working-class people, were made to last. If a dress or skirt or shirt has survived wearing and washing for 50 years, there's a very good chance it will survive a good while more, without too much effort or special care. If you have $60 to spend on an outfit, how should you spend it? You can buy the hot new trend at the mall or local big box, and wear it a few times until it falls apart, or starts to look weird because the seams have shifted or the fabric pilled in the wash. Or, you can take that money and buy yourself the vintage version—one that not only inspired the current trend, but will probably be around, looking just as good, the next time that trend rolls around.

2)Those who value individuality. It's everyone's fashion fear—showing up at an event in the same outfit as someone else. With vintage clothing, the chances of this happening are very slim, indeed. In a way, wearing vintage is like having your own unique, custom-made wardrobe—only much more affordable. And savvy vintage shoppers know that you can be "on-trend" in vintage as easily as you can in cheaply made, or prohibitively expensive, modern equivalents. Check out the Vintage Fashion Guild's Vintage Inspiration series to see how today's hottest trends are inspired by vintage.

3) Those who appreciate designer quality, but not designer prices. Most of us can't afford a couture gown or even a ready-to-wear designer outfit. But if it's style and quality, not conspicuous consumption, you're after, then vintage is a terrific option. Yes, it's true that label-conscious vintage shoppers have upped the demand for certain vintage brands to the point they are no longer affordable to the average buyer. But there is still plenty of top-notch vintage to go around. And if you're willing to look beyond a particular label, logo, or designer, you can get the quality and craftsmanship you seek at a fraction of the cost.

4) Those concerned about the environment and social justice. Vintage is the embodiment of "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle." Why buy new, when you can get a better-quality, made-to-last garment that's uniquely yours (and, more often than not, was Union-made under fair labor laws right here in the U.S.A.)? Time and again we hear about the deplorable conditions in overseas garment factories. Who wants to wear something made by underpaid, overworked children? Not me. And not my customers. Vintage clothing is entirely guilt free.

DG: What inspired the name and logo for Better Dresses?

Liza: Oh, that's easy. The entire story is on my "About Us" page. Here’s the relevant portion [slightly edited because the photos were rearranged—vp]:

50s department stores Better Dresses Vintage

Wondering where the store got its name? Well, some of you may be too young to remember, but not that long ago, any fine store that sold a variety of goods had a Better Dresses department. A few still do. Here are mid-century photographs, peering into the better dresses department at two different stores. The one on the left is  somewhere is in suburban New Jersey, the one on the right in the mid-west. Neither a location associated with the finer things in life. Yet each, to me, could be a glimpse into heaven.

Better Dresses Vintage inspirationOur logo was inspired by this photo of a fashionable young woman walking in front of the famous Barbizon Hotel in Manhattan (having stayed there myself I can tell you, you need a waistline that tiny to fit comfortably in their rooms)

I have no idea who she is, where she's headed, or why she's there. But she perfectly captured the mid-century look and feel I wanted for my shop, so I based my logo around her.

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

Liza: I’d say that the more recent decades are most popular with younger customers, probably because, as mentioned above, those years just before they were born are seen as "the good old days" and carry a certain cache or hipness as a result. And of course, popular TV series such as Mad Men (60s) and Downton Abbey(10s), and movies such as Titanic (10s) and The Great Gatsby(20s) have a strong influence on current trends. No one likes to be trendy more than young people, and the more adventurous, and savvy, among them want the real thing. So they seek out what could be called "trendy vintage."

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

In general, I'd say that most people who wear vintage fashion have a respect for and curiosity about history beyond their own generation, and a desire to be different and stand out from the crowd (not necessarily in a "look at me" or outrageous sort of way). For example, the prom dress buyers. They might be looking for something a bit more modest than what's available at the mall, or they might want that extra bit of confidence from knowing that no classmate will show up in an identical dress.

DG: Beyond the character of any specific garment, is there something glamorous about the idea of “vintage”?

Liza: Absolutely. Vintage, particularly mid-century and earlier, connotes glamour—both real and imagined. Every generation romanticizes the past. And not just any past, but very specifically, the time just before we were born. Those years, we argue, were "the good old days." And while the idealized version of the 1950s, say, may not stand up to scrutiny when it comes to politics or social justice, the clothes actually were better. You'd be hard pressed to find a garment today, at any price, that compares in quality with a utilitarian mid-century garment from your hometown Sears. So when we see a 1950s advertisement of a wasp-waisted model impeccably dressed and impossibly poised, we may be misguided in romanticizing her mid-century life as glamorous, but we're dead on about the superiority of her clothes. They really were spectacular. They were glamorous. Today's offerings just don't compare.

DG: Whom do you consider glamorous?

The usual iconic old-Hollywood movie stars, of course. Greta Garbo, Grace Kelly and Cary Grant all come immediately to mind. But for me, my mom, with her elegance, poise, and style, has always been the embodiment of glamour.

Liza's glamorous mom
Liza's glamorous mom

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?

Liza: Well, as I mention in this blog post, I caution against head-to-toe vintage. Sure, we're free to dress as we see fit, but personally, I do not want to look like an out-of-work actress seeking a role in a 40s film noir or a 70s Blaxploitation film. My simple solution? Mix vintage with modern, or wear all vintage but keep the grooming and accessories current. For example, if you're wearing a 1940s dress and shoes, I'd probably steer clear of bright red lipstick and a victory rolls hairstyle. People are consistently surprised when I tell them that the dress or skirt I'm wearing is vintage. When it's mixed with modern pieces and contemporary styling, they don't know it's vintage, they just know they like it.

As for a vintage lifestyle, I'm not sure what that means. If it's about graceful living and gracious manners, and an emphasis on analog over digital interactions, I'm all for it. If it's about eschewing equal rights or avoiding Novocaine, count me out. I have no great desire to wash my family's clothes on a washboard, nor am I ready to give up my remote control or my right to vote. I could easily live without my cell phone, but I'm not ready to isolate myself from modern society and popular culture, or to actually live in the 1950s.

DG: What’s your personal style?

Liza: I wish I had one! Truth is, I like several different looks, from flowy and feminine to traditional and tailored. I suppose that my overall goal is to look polished. I can usually pull it off when I dress up, taking the time to get things just so. But day-to-day, in jeans and a fitted t-shirt, it's tougher. And the older I get, the more challenging it becomes. I can no longer jump straight into enhancement. These day, I find I'm spending a good deal of time on triage.

I admire people who, regardless of the particular fashions they prefer, manage to always look appropriate, and somehow effortlessly “done.” My mom used to comment on this. Her favorite example was Johnny Carson, whom she described as looking as if he'd just been dry-cleaned.

The key, of course, is tailoring. If your body is reined in appropriately (think “foundation garments”), and your clothes fit perfectly, you’ll look pulled together. Price, labels, none of that matters. And never underestimate the power of good posture.

DG: You have a wall of customer photos on your site. What’s their purpose? How do you choose them?

Liza: The main purpose is to show potential customers that real people, living normal lives, can and do incorporate vintage clothing into their modern wardrobes with great success. But mostly, I just love to see the clothes on happy customers, and I think they like to see themselves there, as well. The only photos I don't post are ones that for whatever reason would be inappropriate in some manner, or potentially counterproductive. Here's a perfect example that didn't make the customer photos wall, but got its own blog post.

DG: What’s the biggest challenge to buying or wearing vintage clothes?

It's the same challenge we face in buying and wearing modern clothes—the fit. With vintage, you start at an advantage, as vintage clothing was made to flatter the body, not to present well on a hanger. But, you still need to know your measurements. Not the ones you wish you had, or think you have, but the ones you actually have.

Next, you must realize that unless you happen to have identical proportions to the manufacturer's fit model, nothing you buy off the rack—vintage or modern—will fit perfectly. It can happen, but it's unlikely. With certain garments—those with lots of stretch or meant to fit loosely—it's not an issue. But with anything tailored, a precision fit is key. It's the difference between you wearing the clothes, and the clothes wearing you. It's how you achieve that polished look.

You need to know your body—both the measurements and the proportions (long torso? narrow shoulders? wide hips?). And you need to know the basics of what can and can't be altered at reasonable cost by your local seamstress or tailor. This is crucial, because knowing that certain garments can be altered to fit you perfectly really changes the way you feel about shopping. Many of the things you might love, but wouldn't have bought because the measurements were slightly off, now become possibilities. And given the comparatively low cost of vintage clothing, even adding in some pricier alterations won't undo the savings.

I have nearly everything I buy (both vintage and modern) altered to fit me better. The difference it makes, for not much money, is incredible. Take my advice, and go have every dowdy, straight skirt in your closet pegged. It will set you back $5-$10 a pop, and you'll instantly look and feel like a million bucks. You can read about that here. Same goes for baggy jackets, or dresses with an unflattering hemline or sleeve length.

DG: What do you look for when you’re scouting for items for your shop?

Liza: I look for age, condition, quality, uniqueness, and desirability. I've become increasingly choosy over time, and I now can easily leave behind items I might have taken with me in the past. I buy lots of things that are not necessarily personal favorites, but that I can easily imagine on a friend or former customer. If it's interesting, fun, unusual, or just a great example of a particular era, I'll get it for the shops. If not, I'll leave it for someone else. I am not motivated by labels. Sometimes a label is a sure indicator of quality. More often, it's a sure indicator that you're paying too much, and are being taken advantage of. I know quality when I see it. It doesn't necessarily come with a particular label attached.

DG: Any stories of great finds?

Liza: Lots! But more than individual items, my stories are about the experiences I've had while on the hunt. Sure, I've found a true gem here and there—a well-known label or particularly desirable item. But I am much more enamored of the people I've encountered, and the stories I've heard, than of any individual item. I've blogged about a couple of these already, and intend to write more in the future. Here are a couple of the stories: Queen of the 60s Shift Dress and That's About It for the Clothes, Do You Want to See My Donkeys?

Still to come is the tale of my time spent with Mrs. H, the Woman With 400 Long-Sleeved Blouses, and my most recent encounter with a fun and wacky local vintage seller moving out of state and wanting to offload her mountains of stock. I bought 99 items from her, and barely made a dent.

DG: What are some of your favorite vintage garments?

Liza: Well, my all-time favorite is this pink dress, which I will never sell. In my shop, there's this 1950s polka dot dress and wool coat set which may be my single favorite item I have for sale. Another personal favorite is this beautiful 1910s armistice blouse, a long-sleeved version of the one worn by Lady Mary Crawley on Downton Abbey.

Downton Abbey armistice blouse

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

Liza: I have two favorite fashion eras: 1) late 1870s to early 1880s, with the smooth, princess silhouette and minimal bustle:

19th century dresses

Midcentury Bergdorf Goodman ad2) the late 1940s to early 1960s (mid-century, from New Look to Mad Men):

As for culture, I’d welcome a return to a more mannered, and even a slower-paced way of life. And remember not having to worry that anything and everything we say and do can be made instantaneously and irretrievably public? Today, you have to be on guard in a way that's entirely new, and more than a little anxiety provoking. Everyone makes mistakes. We fall down, we say stupid things, we do foolish things in our youth (and beyond). But nowadays, these gaffes, which until fairly recently would simply vanish with the passage of time and lack of a permanent record, are eternal, and can easily end a career or ruin a life.

The notion that previous eras were culturally or historically superior, however, with no real problems of consequence, is pure fantasy. No, I don’t want to live in a time of slavery, or when women were considered chattel, or when it was a crime to be gay. This is just scratching the surface, of course, but the good old days weren’t all good. The clothes were great, yes, but I can still wear them. And if you can sew, you can make them. We needn’t go backward.

No, I’d rather stay in the present. I would, however, like it very much if these three things could be undone:

1) the new and misguided educational tenet that self-esteem is more important than service to and respect for others

2) the policy change that shifted network news from a public service to a revenue stream, resulting in “if it bleeds it leads” and creating the terrifying illusion that we live in constant danger, culminating in today’s over-supervised, perpetually dependent children and that most loathsome of all modern phrases: “play date”

3) 9/11

That would be just about perfect.

DG: What’s your most glamorous place?

FiaeabdiI love Bergdorf Goodman. It's elegant, sparkly, serene. It's luxurious, but not ostentatious. [In the photo to the right, Liza tries on an $8,000 gown at Bergdorf's, just for fun.] Much of Manhattan is glamorous. Even the grittier areas are made glamorous by the constant, purposeful bustle of industry. More places: The Waldorf Astoria. The Chrysler Building. The lobby of the Woolworth Building. Just exquisite. Oh, and the TWA terminal at JFK (if you can just imagine out the sweats-and-Crocs-clad modern travelers). These are places where you should feel uncomfortable if you're not nicely dressed. Oh, and Paris, of course.

On a personal note, the single most glamorous place I have ever been is the kitchen of a friend's parents' home, many years ago, in the late evening. Everything in the uncluttered, darkened space spoke of a life of incomparable glamour and privilege. The Lear Jet catalog on the otherwise empty counter. The pristine, sparklingly bright refrigerator, containing only a large, cut-crystal bowl of fruit salad, a bottle of champagne, a jar of capers, and waiting for the maid on the top shelf, a silver tray holding a bowl of raisin bran and a tiny pitcher of milk. With no other options, we were forced to drink the champagne.

Blitz Kid Glamour: A Profile Of Alejandro Gocast

Alejandro Gocast

Glamour icon? London-based model, DJ, and scene-maker Alejandro Gocast is making an impressive go at that status. I first stumbled across Gocast on Facebook, as part of the revived New Romantic club scene in London that I’ve long admired and written about here on DeepGlamour. Arising in the early 1980s, the New Romantics represented a creative, dressed-to-impress music and style movement, post-punk, post-disco. Now, more than 30 years later, Gocast is one of a new generation of New Romantic club kids. And he cuts a spectacular image in modeling and club photos. I interviewed him exclusively for DeepGlamour.

CH: How do you describe what you do? I think of you as a model, a glamorous nightclub personality, and a DJ.  But give DG a fuller picture of what you do?

Gocast: I would describe my career as an eclectic one. As well as being known for what you have mentioned in the London scene, I also have a career in luxury events management. My life is not a simple one. It can be challenging at times keeping up with schedules, appointments, club nights, friends, family—the list is endless, but then again life is for the living.  

CH: Where are you from? Your Model Mayhem profile says you are from Latin America, with parents of Mexican and German descent, respectively. How old were you when you moved to Britain?

Gocast: That is one tricky question. I am actually British, although I was born in Mexico. I have lived in London since a very young age. However, my mother language is Spanish, therefore (unfortunately) I do not have the honor of speaking with an English accent. My “genetic” background has indeed German from my dad’s side and Mexican from my mother’s. I hope this all makes sense.

Alejandro Gocast by Peter AshworthCH: You have such a distinct look, one that I would describe as exotic and androgynous.  Not what most people might think of as a typical male model. How would you describe your style image? And how did you discover and develop that image? (Did you get started in the new New Romantic club scene in London, or was it some other inspiration?)

Gocast: My image definitely started in the London club scene. I used to go out to “normal” clubs and bars, but always feeling that I was not quite suitable for them, I started to look for a more arty environment and played around with different looks, which I still do. Since I have always had a thing for the New Romantic style, I decided to become “re-born” into a new way, more in sync with my inner personality and my personal opinion in life, which is a very simple one: be who you are. 

CH: What are the Blitz Kids?

Gocast: The Blitz Kids were a group of young people who frequented the Blitz nightclub in Covent Garden, London in the very early 1980s and are credited with launching the New Romantic cultural movement. Among their number is a good friend of mine, Steve Strange, also Boy George and his friends Marilyn and Alice Temple, Perri Lister, Princess Julia, Philip Sallon, Carl Teper and Martin Degville (later to be the frontman of Tony James's Sigue Sigue Sputnik). The club was known for its outrageous style of clothes and make-up for both sexes, while it was also the birthplace of several pop groups. There is an official website for this, on which I actually also feature, you can visit it here.

CH: What musicians and bands are atop your current playlist? What musicians and bands are lifelong favorites?

Gocast: I have a wide range of taste when it comes down to music, and also quite extreme. I go from hardcore metal to Kate Bush. My personal music player is full of extremes. I do not really focus my attention to one artist or band. Since you asked, a few on my playlists at the moment are Garbage, JLo, Amanda Lear, Tribal House, Korn, Dead or Alive, Donna Summer, Kate Bush, Siouxie and the Banshees… see what I mean?

CH: You've worked with numerous artists and designers. Perhaps one of my favorite of your collaborations has been with Marko Mitanovski, a favorite designer of Lady Gaga. When I first viewed his fashions, I was truly astonished - they are strange and intriguing and elegant. Anthropomorphic creatures in black and white. How did you come to model for Mitanovski?

Gocast: I met Marko at one of my clubs, “THE FACE.” He was a guest there, and the moment we met we knew we would be working together. It was the right chemistry and we also get along really well. It is indeed a pleasure to work with him. I can’t wait for his next collection!  I love his dramatic design style.

CH:  Is there a designer you wear most often right now?

Gocast: I wear a lot of pieces from various artists, and it is just a question of blending and matching them to create my night-out style. I recently worked with Dane Goulding, who designed for the Spice Girls. He has some truly amazing pieces.

CH: You've been in a few fashion-art short films. I thought "The Dionysian" released in 2011 was really beautiful, and you looked darkly enchanting wearing lace and a high collar. And enormous spidery eyelashes. What was that experience like? What sort of direction were you given in the film, in terms of posing or projecting a certain image?

Gocast: This film was shot in London, in December. It was a very cold night and the director knew exactly what he wanted. Since we shared the same vision, I fit perfectly in the film. This film is going to an exhibition in Paris this year. I have worked behind and in front and the camera for a few years now, and the experience is always the same for me, exciting and always looking forward to seeing the final creation. 

CH: You starred in another fashion/art film called "Perform Nijinsky," which was produced by the very talented cabaret performer Mr. Pustra. Clearly the film was something of an homage to the early 20th-century Ballet Russes legend, Vaslav Nijinsky. Can you tell DG more about that film project?

Gocast: Pustra is a good friend and I am also an admirer of his work. Together with Dorota Mulczynska, the vision of a morphed early 20th Century Ballet Russes was created into a short film, celebrating and honoring Nijinsky. 

CH: Do you often do your own make up for photo shoots and club nights? Or do you more often work with a make up artist?

Gocast: For photo shoots I do work closely with Stephanie Stokkvik, a Norwegian high fashion make up artist. I have learned so much from her. If you have time, have a look for her on the net—she is amazing! When I go out, I normally “paint my face” on my own.

CH: Who is your top style icon?

Gocast: I am afraid I do not have one.

CH: When you travel around on everyday errands, to the grocery and laundromat and whatnot, how do you look and dress?

Gocast: You would not recognize me, that’s all I call say. I try to go under the radar when out and about on my personal life in order to give some space to myself and my close friends and family.

CH: When you aren't working, what do you do for fun?

Gocast: I am a bit of a geek. I own a PS3 and a whole bunch of games. I enjoy also watching horror movies with friends.

CH: What is your dream vacation destination?

Gocast: My other half loves traveling, and I have been lucky to have been to and seen some amazing tropical paradises. My favorite places.

CH: Do you have favorite perfumes/colognes?

Gocast: Yes, I am currently about to finish “Un Jardin Sur Le Nil” by Hermès, and my next fragrance will be from Diptyque Paris.

Alejandro Gocast 4CH: What are your go-to make up and skin care products?

Gocast: Any good moisturizer does, really, not any favorites in particular.

CH: What professional goals do you set for yourself? Are there particular photographers, artists, or designers you long to work with? Or, do you have something else in mind quite different from what you are doing now?

Gocast: I am shooting a few more fashion films this upcoming year and planning on starting some sketches for my own collection. However, I must keep this under wraps. I am pretty much open to work with anyone - as long as the chemistry is there, anything is possible.  

CH: What are your New Years Eve plans?

Gocast: I am spending New Years Eve with a good friend of mine. She runs a club in Bricklane, from which I will also be throwing another infamous club night soon. It is a very intimate space with limited capacity, which is just what I like.

LAST DAY to enter our special Makeover Week giveaway of IntésivEye eye-makeup remover pads. Deadline is midnight Pacific Time 1/31/012. Details at the post below.

Makeover Week: DG Q&A With Makeover Artist Diane Gardner

Diane Gardner photo

These days, hairdressers tend to concentrate either on cutting and styling or on color--and they certainly don't do makeup. But Diane Gardner knew at an early age that she wanted to do it all. "I thought that in order to transform someone you had to do all three services," she says. "Because you have a vision, and then someone else takes it away from you when they do one of the other services." 

At 19, she moved from New Jersey to Manhattan to hone her skills. She started with color, training at Louis Licari's La Coupe salon on Madison Avenue. With Licari's grudging permission, she then "moved downstairs" to apprentice with Antonio da Costa Rocha, who, she says, not only taught her how to cut but "how to style in a very glamorous way."

The trick, then, was to learn makeup. Fortunately, Trish McEvoy, then an aesthetician, was a La Coupe client. She offered to teach Diane makeup in exchange for doing her staff's hair. After that beginning, Diane apprenticed with makeup artist Sandra Bocas (now also a fine artist). "Sandra took me into a lot of places I never could have gotten into," she says. "I started doing TV commercials and runway makeup with her, and I loved it."

But, she recalls, "now that I had all three [skills] nobody would hire me, because I wanted to do all three." She started her own salon in New Jersey and later, at the urging of clients who were socialites from La Jolla, moved there, eventually migrating north to Los Angeles. In 2002, she set up her website at MakeoverSpecialist.com--just in time to catch the makeover-TV show craze. She did some work for shows like Movie and a Makeover and Fashion Emergency, but mostly she pulled in new clients who'd Googled "makeover" after watching their favorite shows. At the peak of the craze, she might do 42 makeovers a week.

Nowadays, most of her clients are regulars, but she still gets one or two makeover Googlers a week. During a break in my own makeover (which you can read about later in the week), I interviewed Diane about her experiences.

Virginia Postrel: Where do your makeover customers come from? Are they brides?

Diane Gardner: Weddings are a big part, but not the majority. The majority come from the Internet. I put my website up in 2002, and that was the peak of the makeover TV shows, so everybody started Googling “makeover,” and that’s how people have found me.

VP: So when people come to you for makeovers, what are they picturing?

Diane Gardner: Usually they don’t have a vision in their mind. They don’t know how they could look their best, but they want to trust me to give them what looks best. The number one request is to look natural. Everybody wants to look natural. And youthful.

VP: So why would they come to you for a makeover as opposed to say going to their usual hair stylist, or going to the MAC counter at Bloomingdale’s?

Diane Gardner: They usually come because they want to treat themselves. Sometimes a life-changing event has occurred. Sometimes it’s just that the kids have gone off to college and now it’s time for them, the women. Or it could be a young girl that’s coming out of college and now she wants to look like a young professional. Sometimes men will come for a makeover because they want to meet girls and want to look their best.

VP: How is the sort of makeover you do in real life different from a movie makeover or a reality show makeover?

Diane Gardner: I teach people to sustain the new look that I’ve given them. It could be in the form of regular color services. The makeup regimen is something that they can repeat over and over again and know that it’s going to look the same every time they do it themselves. And they can come back to me for regular haircuts.

VP: In real life, do people usually keep the look?

Diane Gardner: They usually keep it. A lot of times they’ll come back to me and say, “How does my makeup look? Am I doing the right thing? Does my skin look as good as it could? What do you recommend?” Or sometimes they’ll come back and say, “I love what you did. Let’s try something a little different,” usually in the form of a haircut.

VP: How often do you do makeovers?

Diane Gardner: A new client will come to me for a first-time makeover a minimum of once a week, and that’s someone that will find me on the Internet, on Yelp. There was a time when I was in Beverly Hills and the makeover shows were running where I would book 42 makeovers in a week.

VP: What spurred that interest? What were they looking for?

Diane Gardner: I think it’s the glamour. I really do. Because when you were watching those shows—and there are still some of them on television—they go from Plain Jane—of course they start with no hair, no makeup, no hair color—to looking absolutely glamorous.

VP: Right. And they think, “That could be me.” So having this expert treatment is part of the glamour of it.

Diane Gardner: And the enjoyment. I think it’s an indulgence, because a lot of women really don’t take care of themselves, they take care of other people first.

VP: Are there any particularly memorable makeovers that you’ve done that you can talk about?

Diane Gardner: When I moved to L.A. in 2000, I sought out a wedding coordinator I found in the Yellow Pages. She said to me, “I don’t hire new people. You’re from out of town. I don’t know your talent.” And I said, “But you have to give me a shot, you have to give me a chance. I know what I’m doing.” Finally she booked me a bride. She sent me up to Malibu, and she never told me that the bride had had her face burned and had missing eyelashes and part of a missing eyebrow with the burn scar. I walked in the door, and I thought, “Oh, I know what she’s doing.” [laughs] So I did this girl’s hair and makeup, and put on eyelashes and painted in some brows, and did her hair and made her feel absolutely stunning and gorgeous and beautiful, and she was so happy.

VP: So you passed the test.

Diane Gardner: Another of my most memorable moments was in March 2006. I got a call from that same wedding coordinator, and she said, “You have to come to this home in Beverly Hills. Drop what you’re doing, drop your client, you have to come here now. Her Majesty Queen Noor is here for a fundraiser. She’s coming from Larry King’s studio, and I know that you know the difference between television makeup. And she’s greeting 200 guests tonight.” And she goes, “But I don’t know how to tell her that.” So I told my client, “Listen, do you mind if I run?” And my client understood.

I get to this particular residence and I’m briefed by awoman who tells me what the protocol is. She introduces me to the queen, tells me I have to refer to her as “Your Majesty,” and of course you don’t speak unless you’re spoken to. Well, I took one look at her and she had pancake makeup on. And she’s one of the most stunning women I’ve ever seen. But her hair was heavily sprayed, and her makeup was way too heavy to be greeting guests in person. So it was difficult for me to say, but I did it anyway. She came in and she said, “Oh, I’m sorry. I know they hired you, but my hair and makeup is done.” And I said, “Your Majesty, I see that, but it’s television hair and makeup, and so I’d like to—” And she looked at me and at first she was taken back by that. And I said, “It’s just that you’re presenting yourself to the public face-to-face, and television makeup’s completely different.” And then she just turned around and said, “OK, do what you want.” But then she questioned me about every little thing I was doing. As a queen would. So this is my most memorable makeover, because it was done within a one-hour period of time. She looked absolutely stunning afterwards. And when she looked in the mirror she understood.

Don't forget to enter our special Makeover Week giveaway of IntésivEye eye-makeup remover pads. Details at the post below.

DG Q&A: Fix Beauty Bar Founders Karol Markowicz And Michelle Breskin

Michelle Breskin's EITHER/OR

1) Angelina Jolie or Cate Blanchett? Cate

2) Paris or Venice? Venice

3) New York or Los Angeles? New York

4) Princess Diana or Princess Grace? Both!

5) Tokyo or Kyoto? Tokyo

6) Boots or stilettos? Boots

7) Art Deco or Art Nouveau? Art Deco

8) Jaguar or Astin Martin? Astin!!!

9) Armani or Versace? Armani

10) Diana Vreeland or Anna Wintour? Anna Wintour

11) Champagne or single malt? Champagne

12) 1960s or 1980s? 60's

13) Diamonds or pearls? Diamonds

14) Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell? Naomi

15) Sean Connery or Daniel Craig? Daniel Craig

Karol Markowicz's EITHER/OR

1) Angelina Jolie or Cate Blanchett? Angelina.

2) Paris or Venice? Venice is magic but Paris is glamour.

3) New York or Los Angeles? New York.

4) Princess Diana or Princess Grace? Princess Grace.

5) Tokyo or Kyoto? Tokyo

6) Boots or stilettos? Stilettos.

7) Art Deco or Art Nouveau? Art Nouveau

8) Jaguar or Astin Martin? Astin

9) Armani or Versace? Versace

10) Diana Vreeland or Anna Wintour? Diana Vreeland

11) Champagne or single malt? I could write 3 paragraphs on this but single malt all the way.

12) 1960s or 1980s? 1980's

13) Diamonds or pearls? Diamonds.

14) Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell? Kate Moss

15) Sean Connery or Daniel Craig? Sean Connery

Manolo The Shoeblogger On Why People Love To Talk About Shoes

When I was researching this Bloomberg View column on why people love to talk about shoes, I interviewed Manolo the Shoeblogger via email. His answers were great, but they didn't make it into the column. So, with his permission, I'm posting the interview here:

Q: Why are people so interested in shoes?

A: Because shoes have magic in them:  Our fairy tales are filled with stories of fantasy shoes: glass slippers, hundred league boots, ruby slippers, shoes in which old women reside, boots for sword fighting cats, shoes made by elvish cobbles at night, red ballet shoes which cause the wearer to dance incessantly, and on, and on.

Every child knows that shoes are magic. It is one of the first things you learn. Shoes are magic.

To be barefeeted in literature and in life is to be the pitiable creature. To have the shoes, even the most humble, is to be the person of some substance. When you put on the pair of the beautiful, well-made shoes that fit, you are filled with satisfaction and contentment; you look better, you stand taller, and you are more confident. Thus shoes work transformative magic. We all know this to be true, because we have all experienced it ourselves.

Even our modern shoes, in which the magic is usually latent, can be frequently beautiful. And when we buy beautiful shoes we believe we can imbue ourselves with some of this beauty. Pants are pants. Dresses are dresses. But it is only with the shoes on our feet that we are fully dressed. The ball gown, no matter how beautiful, is not complete until the dancing shoes have been put on.

Shoes are the one item of clothing that allows the widest range of personal and artistic expression. You would perhaps look foolish wearing the blue, bejeweled, suede dress. But give that same material to Giuseppe Zanotti and you would have shoes fit for the queen of the world.  Outrageous colors (purple!) and material (snakeskin!) can be made into the most captivating shoes. And shoes have structure and architecture, and can molded into fascinating wearable forms that other types of clothing cannot be. Yes, hats are similar. But hats are optional, shoes are mandatory. 

Finally, shoes are the one item of high fashion that does not discriminate based on size or age. The stylish plus-sized lady can wear Louboutins if she can master the heels. The elderly woman of spirit can be at home in the pair of Blahniks.   

Q: Why are they so interested in shoes now?

A: For whatever reason, we are in the Golden Age of Shoes. There are more talented designers than ever before; women are more adventurous in what they will wear than ever before; and the market is able to deliver beautiful shoes to more places than ever before.

The question is, why now?  The best answer is that we are the impossibly rich society, and that even despite the Great Recession we still have plenty of money to spend, and much of it, for the first time, is in the hands of women, who are working at greater rates and earning more money than ever before.  

And because of the rise of the internet, and concurrent democratization of fashion, shoes, which are the easily sized and quickly transported commodity, were at the forefront of the shopping boom that followed these two trends. The aspirational woman in Montana can now buy Louboutin pumps from Saks online, and have them on her feets in two days (one, if she pays for overnight shipping). This is the dramatic change in how we live our lives. In the past, our Montana lady would have had to go where to find her shoes? Salt Lake City?  Seattle? And when she got there, after great effort the selection of styles would have been limited, the sizes haphazard.  And for all of this world, we owe Zappos the enormous debt of gratitude, for pioneering this way of shopping, for it is as radical as anything the internet has done.

DG Q&A: Electra Lang Founders On "Sensible Chic" Clothing For Real Bodies

4) Favorite glamorous movie? Breakfast at Tiffany’s

5) What was your most glamorous moment?

Electra: Living large at the Ritz in Paris

Kristi: My wedding day. I felt beautiful, confident and on top of the world.

Laura: New York City to see my friend, Patricia Heaton’s play on Broadway. I had lucked out earlier in the day when I found a perfect Marc Jacobs 40s style dress and a pair of Dolce & Gabbana Mary Janes with lamb edges!! We had dinner at Babbo, saw the play, had drinks with the actors afterward in the theater district, then ended the night at Marie’s Crisis—I felt so tall and pretty and slender…

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

 Electra: My old 3.0 CS leftover from when I was swingle.

Kristi: My Missoni silk pajamas

Laura: My gold and pearl cuff from Sonya Ooten that my husband gave to me on Valentine’s Day 2009.

7) Most glamorous place?

Electra: Lounging the Chateau Marçay in my Julian caftan

Kristi: Lunching at the La Colombe d'Or, in St-Paul-de-Vence, France

Laura: Positano, Italy—my Jane tunic with Capri pants, gladiators, big sunglasses and my huge straw hat---I feel like Jackie “O”

8) Most glamorous job?

Electra: Salesgirl at Fiorucci in 1976 with Joey Arais as manager!

Kristi: Being an Electra Lang partner.

Laura: Fashion Designer of course!!

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

Electra: Plastic Surgery

Kristi: Buying only designer labels

Laura: Living in LA, I see young women heading to clubs at night in their ubiquitous uniform: skin-tight super short black dress with stilettos. It’s boring and cheap looking.

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

Laura: A mother pushing her child on a swing in the park, laughing and enjoying the moment.

Electra: How can I top that answer!

Kristi: Agree with Laura, a mother’s love and adoration to her child is priceless!!!

11) Can glamour survive?

Kristi: Absolutely

Laura: As long as women want to feel attractive, there will be glamour—we can’t help it!

Electra: In spite of children!

12) Is glamour something you're born with?

 Electra: Yes, if you were born before 1930. For the rest of us, we have to work at it.

Kristi: For some it comes naturally.

Laura: You can definitely be born with a great eye, but it takes a bit of work to cultivate it.

1) Angelina Jolie or Cate Blanchett? CB
2) Paris or Venice? How can you choose between two lovers?
3) New York or Los Angeles? Los Angeles
4) Princess Diana or Princess Grace? Grace
5) Tokyo or Kyoto? Kyoto
6) Boots or stilettos? Boots!!! (I [Electra] have ten pairs..)
7) Art Deco or Art Nouveau? Nouveau
8) Jaguar or Aston Martin? Aston Martin
9) Armani or Versace? Armani
10) Diana Vreeland or Anna Wintour? Vreeland
11) Champagne or single malt? Some days I need BOTH.
12) 1960s or 1980s? 60s
13) Diamonds or pearls? Pearls
14) Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell? Moss
15) Sean Connery or Daniel Craig? Connery (loyal, handsome, ages well, sense of humor)

[Photos courtesy of Electra Lang: Sensible Chic]