Fashion is nothing, if not cyclical, and we are now blissfully ensconced in a fashion cycle where “More is more”. Simply put, we are about as far away from minimalism as we possibly can be. It is- and has been for quite some time now- ‘all about’ the embellished, ornamental, embroidered, bejeweled, and richly textured- those elements that have long been associated with the rarified world of couture, or custom made to order. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that all of the above were there in glorious over the top abundance at the latest rounds of couture shows in Paris, where designers unveiled their fall/winter collections.
The insular, very precious, highly unaffordable and seemingly unattainable world of made to order and couture has always been about in-your-face, unabashed luxury, incredible fabrication, flawless tailoring, precision cuts, and details, details, details. As they say, God is in the details. Designers like Oscar de la Renta, Valentino, Donatella Versace, Karl Lagerfeld, and Jean Paul Gaultier, have traditionally infused elements of couture within their ready to wear collections- nothing new about that. What HAS changed though is the embrace of couture elements by a whole new crop of young designers, which has added a welcome and new dimension to the fashion landscape. The result is a rekindled appreciation for dressing up, and, a hunger and thirst for couture like- details, amongst an entire generation that had been weaned on jeans and t- shirts. Couture is not dead- it is very much alive and well thank you very much, and quite frankly, though very few of us will ever be able to afford it, couture has never looked so good. It also sets a certain high standard.
One of the world’s most influential designers, Miuccia Prada, who is always looked upon for direction, seems to be on a couture path. Her last several collections (particularly fall/winter 2004) were notable for their youthful, intellectual, and modern approach to couture, as seen in her jewel -encrusted belts, bejeweled frocks, appliqués, dip- dyed, hand- dyed textiles and knitwear. And many of the fashion world’s newest stars have all seemingly been bitten by the couture bug as well. Zac Posen, who just won Swarovski’s Perry Ellis Award for Ready-to-Wear, continues to exhibit a very grown up couture sensibility within his collections; Derek Lam, a nominee for the CFDA Swarovski Perry Ellis Award for Ready-to-Wear, got Anna Wintour’s attention and gained her support owing to his refined and chic couture based craftsmanship, opulent brocades and lames, jewel embellished strapless dresses, and wonderful attention to detail; Nicolas Guesquiere, one of fashion’s true darlings, helped modernize the legendary house of Balenciaga; and Olivier Theyskens gained much acclaim after imbuing his first several collections for the venerable house of Rochas with youthful verve and exuberance.
This has set the stage for an awareness of- and appreciation for- all those things that have come to symbolize made to order, couture, and custom order. In the same way the customer has been educated about the world of vintage, she is now well aware of the rewards and satisfaction that comes with finding unique, out of the ordinary, highly expressive, personal, and individual pieces.
What has followed is nothing short of an explosion in customization: personalizing and monogramming (EVERYTHING) has seen a rebirth; plugged in and forward thinking designers like Catherine Malandrino have added limited edition and custom made pieces to their collections (she is even selling customized pillows and bedding in her Easthampton shop); there are custom made sneakers (Adidas and Nike) and customized Levis. Indeed, customization has been brought to the masses.
No, “mass customization is not a contradiction”. Remember that now famous Burger King jingle, “Have it your way”? The fast food chain further invited their customers to “Customize. Reinvent. Add extra. Hold what you like. Mix this with that. You live as you choose to live.” My sentiments exactly, except I’m not talking about hamburgers, but your wardrobe and your style.
And in an article in WWD, July 14th, “Mass Retailers Find Custom Clothing Fits Them Just Fine”, they spoke about the way in which bread and butter companies who have a wide reach, are able to bring personalization and custom ordered clothing to that large segment of the population who will never hop a plane over to Paris for the couture shows in order to place an order for a $30,000 suit or $150,000 evening gown. The article pointed out that “Levi Strauss was actually the first company to offer mass customization with its Personal Pair jeans in 1995”, and thanks to the new technology, specifically, the internet, Lands’ End is offering custom made shirts online (the highest price, $49, will get you a custom made shirt in the finest of fabrics). Even J.C. Penney has an online “custom-clothing program” which invites customers to “build your own” engagement ring, or order custom made men’s shirts, men’s and women’s cotton twill pants. They promise more selections to come in the future.
But leave it to Isaac Mizrahi to seize the moment, and perfectly fuse the two worlds (mass AND custom). In his recent and well- attended fashion show (Diane Sawyer with hubby Mike Nichols, Candace Bergen, and Iman were amongst the celebrity front rowers) held at Cipriani 42nd street, Isaac went public with his bi-polar shopping disorder, which is illustrated by his penchant for mixing ‘high’ and ‘low’. This is what he billed his show, and it is precisely what he did on the runway: pairing elements from his made to order collection- which is sold exclusively at Bergdorf Goodman, with elements from his Target line.
He proudly noted that the prices ranged from $9.99 to $19,999, and I must admit, it was often hard to discern which was which- even for the most trained eye. Of course, NOBODY could possibly mistake his amazing $16,000 heavy canvas hand painted field coats, which were shown in several different styles and colors, for the ‘real deal’. They have instantly become ‘must haves’ for some of the city’s best-dressed A-list, social set.
So, what’s a girl to do if she craves couture- like elements, such as hand painting, but does not have the corresponding bank account? The good news is that you don’t have to spend well into the 5 figures for a customized, hand painted coat. For only $350, the very enterprising, talented, creative artist PJ Cobbs will hand- paint one of your coats: she is offering three different abstract designs- one of which bears an uncanny resemblance to a Jackson Pollack- in four colors, and it will take about one week. I personally love the idea of using a crisp and classic Burberry trench or tan Mac as the ‘canvas’ for her artwork. PJ also has a selection of vintage coats, found on her travels, that she has already hand painted ($750). Contact information: Pjcobbsarts@aol.com; Mailing address: Patricia Jacobs, PO Box 125, Peter Stuyvesant Station, New York, N.Y. 10009.
French born textile artists, Astrid de Saint Anthost and Vanessa Morel, the duo behind Le Studio Anthost, www.lestudioanthost.com, 2179A 24th Street, Astoria Queens, 718 267 9807, will also turn anything you desire into a true work of art for an unbelievably reasonable price ($80 to $200). They have lent their artistic expertise and talents to such designers as Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Vera Wang, and most recently, Carolina Herrera, where they recently hand- painted embossed velvet dresses for the award-winning designer’s spring 2004 collection.
Another solution can be found at the 8 month- old store, 30 Vandam (30 Vandam Street, 212 929 5224) which is a ‘laboratory’ for approximately 55 emerging designers, one of whom is FIT graduate, Rina Shah. Ms. Shah, who works with shells, Swarovski crystals, and semiprecious stones, has customized bejeweled jeans for some high profile customers (who prefer their identities to be kept a secret), and you too can enlist her formidable talents. All you have to do is give her any item that is ‘embroider-able’, and she will have her Bombay workshop customize it for you within two to three weeks. You can contact her directly at 646 769 0978 or through the shop.
Of course, if you are creative and imaginative, and long to be your OWN designer, all you really need is a wonderful notions store. Luckily, Manhattan is filled with them, but the ‘granddaddy’ of them all is M&J Trimming, 1000-1008 Sixth Avenue, 212 2049595, www.mjtrim.com. They offer a downright dizzying assortment and selection of everything and anything you may need- and then some- in order to fulfill your own fantasies and customize and personalize your favorite and reliable pieces of clothing: buttons, appliqués, flowers, fringe and beaded fringe, braided trim, beaded trim, iron on trim (including Swarovski crystals and gems), fur and feathers, tassels, ribbons, nail heads, buckles, and more. And best of all, if you are handy and so inclined, they even sell the tools and glue so you can do it yourself. If not, you can easily take it to your trusted tailor, and for a rather small price, anything can be sewn on.
And don’t underestimate how positively transforming the act of simply changing buttons can be. Great, distinctive buttons are highly statement- making and can be every bit as dramatic as jewelry-, adding shine, glitter, color, punch, dimension, and personality to that coat, jacket, blazer, or cardigan. Picture how your standard black cardigan is instantly given new life by taking off the dreary black buttons, and replacing with, say, couture- like little rhinestone flowers, jeweled domes, or Chanel-worthy gold and pearls?
And what about that tried and true- if not a bit tired- standard navy blazer? With all things classic, preppy and nautical being the absolute height of fashion right now, some of the most influential designers are rediscovering the natty crested navy blazer, complete with brass buttons (such as Karl Lagerfeld, who recently filled his resort 2005 runway for Chanel with a complete lineup of them). Guess what? You don’t have to go out and buy a new blazer- simply update the one that’s already hanging in your closet by adding some swell buttons and a regal crest.
One of the most famous button shops anywhere around is the legendary Tender Buttons, which has been a fixture at 143 East 62nd street, 212 758 7004 for over 30 years. The owner, Millicent Safro, has every manner of button you can possibly imagine, at every price range as well, and as she pointed out, her selection goes “from the sublime to the ridiculous”. Well, I would hardly call it ridiculous, but she does stock buttons that run the gamut from those well suited for everyday, (like the chic heavy gold, gold and pearl, gold and navy buttons which are produced in the very same factory in France that makes Chanel’s signature buttons and range in price from about $7 to $12); to those that would be considered highly rare collector’s items and range in price from $2,000 and up. In this category are such rarities as the 18th century paintings in ivory under glass; a “small collection” of commemorative copper buttons made in honor of George Washington’s first and second Inaugurations; and brass military buttons from the Civil War. As a result, she claims to appeal to everybody from fashion buffs to history buffs, and those that are a combination of the two and really know their fashion history.
When I asked Ms. Safro what customers seem to be ‘into’ these days, she was quick to say, “huge buttons”- the kind of large buttons that we last saw in the 30’s. Hmmm, sounds very Marc Jacobs to me. And of course, Geoffrey Beene has always been known to make a statement with large oversized buttons. On the other side of the coin, the other popular trend seems to be for timeless, sporty classics: horn and mother of pearl buttons that never go out of style.
Tender Buttons also sells highly collectible antique, period and Victorian men’s cufflinks (that are perfect for women as well and can REALLY transform the look of that trusty crisp white shirt). Oh, and by the way, her blazer crests are all $40.
And then there are pins, which are THE accessory of the season. But beware- since you want to look modern and youthful rather than dowager-y, don’t just wear ONE, be bold and wear multiples. Add a cluster of pins (in combinations of metal, rhinestone, semi-precious stones, and pearl) anywhere you desire, and you have instantly customized and transformed your shirt, sweater, jacket, coat, t-shirt into something special. You can even put a pin or two on the waistband of your pants, or add to a belt, for an impromptu, jeweled buckle (which will instantly ‘up’ the glitter quotient). What’s great about pins is that they are easy to put on and take off (since they are not permanently affixed or sewn on), which enables you to try different things and easily change your mind.
But because pins can be expensive, buying them in multiples may be prohibitive, so my solution is to hunt them down in flea markets and thrift stores, where you get the best buys. My most recent find is a vendor who sells the absolute best pins in the city, especially given her reasonable prices. Marjorie Mortensen can be found every Sunday from 10 am to 6 pm, at the Greenflea Market on Columbus Avenue and 77th Street, and you can’t miss her booth. Just look for the unusual assortment of well priced new (not vintage) pins that range from colorful jeweled butterflies and dragonflies, to surrealistic rhinestone hands complete with red ‘ruby’ manicures, and her assorted lacquer red lips- some which have ‘pearl’ teeth ($8). That should give you something to smile about!
And speaking of personalization and customization, how about this for a fabulous idea whose time has come? Jennifer George, the Parsons’ graduate who burst on the scene in the early 80’s and made a name for herself with her classic American sportswear, has added jewelry designer to her resume. Her collection of ‘Memory Bracelets’ incorporate some of your own jewelry- like those favorite sentimental pieces that you were never quite sure what to do with (single lost earrings and family heirlooms that are languishing in your jewelry box and drawers) along with her own amazing assortment of fabulous vintage finds.
All you have to do is bring your ‘stache’ to Jennifer, and she will select a base chain, and artistically fill in the gaps with vintage bits and pieces she has collected through the years. The result is a customized, highly personal and individual, chic, double wrap bracelet that is much more important looking, more sophisticated, and not as childish as the more ordinary single strand charm bracelet you may have worn decades ago. Prices range from about $400 and up, and you can contact her at 917 657 2267, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or check out her website, www.jennifergeorgenyc.com. You’ll be charmed, I’m sure.