Friday, January 29, 2010

Begin Again

Like a dirty joke with no punch line, or a rhyme with no matching pair, a bikini cannot be separated into a top and bottom and then mixed and rematched with any other separate.

A bikini is a bonded duality: it is always top plus bottom, it is never just a top or just a bottom.

However, it gives me great pleasure to imagine unexpected combinations of top and bottom. The fabric, pattern, texture and style could be varied to create a new thought—a Frankenstein’s monster or admixture that is as clever and shocking as seeing the beginning of one word attached to the end of another.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Never Odd or Even

I have a trained crow, which somehow learned to talk. Most people know that parrots can speak, and that mockingbirds can emulate the sounds cascading from almost anything, but few people know that a crow can learn words as easily as a bleach-bottle blonde can ignore his or her own dark eyebrows.

There are birds at sea, of course, but they tend to be only a certain type of bird, interested in surviving the vastness of the ocean, and less concerned with discourse or the arts.

On land (as I have been since dry-docking the floating atelier and holing up in my studio), the birds are different. They are no longer just trying to survive, but instead are busy cultivating their own lives. Social, musical, and industrious, birds of the land are ever active.

I first found my trained pet while trying to sketch a set of five looks for a countess from somewhere old fashioned who wanted to look new without appearing as if she was trying too hard. In her world, no one appreciates a striver; when you lack for nothing, you start to find other ways to come up short. Ambition, for her, went out the window the second she stopped needing to check the price before purchasing.

She was a great client—calm, patient, and willing to sit through the number of fittings required to nail the difficulties of micro pleated textured silk without yawning or complaining. She had typical bones, a slightly short torso, and marginally irregular shoulders (one just a touch wider than the other). She had taught herself to turn when facing someone so that her shoulder line always appeared straight and symmetrical through the subtle foreshortening. I encouraged her instead to exploit the irregularity as a calling card and trust the long shoulder forward, magnifying its elongation and embracing the louche overtones of its extension.

Grateful to find a way to enjoy her own form rather than try to hide it, she immediately adopted the change. Now, whenever someone takes a photo of her, she always appears in motion: at once alight and at rest. She mastered the new stance instantly, and I admired her willingness to go all the way for a look, right down to calculating her appearance from the point of view of others while still maintaining her individuality as a unique body and original form.

She also had a dreamy, drifting personality that often allowed her to say utterly banal pleasantries one moment and then irrevocably strange conspicuities the next. Odd comments came from nowhere with no warning or warm-up, and then disappeared again within the murmur of polite conversation. So I did not even flinch when she explained to me that on her way in she had seen a crow that could speak.

After fitting her all afternoon, chalking and re-pinning muslin, and sketching out how the whole look would come together, we took a break and went to the open-air esplanade that runs off of the back of the studio. Instead of strolling, she sat. I sat near her and was busy looking across her shoulder line, not to see down her blouse, but to calculate the radian of the circle I would use to cut a particularly tricky single-piece folding wrap jacket (like Cristobal Balenciaga’s no seam shoulder folds) as a way for her to layer her total look. In my preoccupation, I missed seeing the bird walk up. It waddled over and started squawking.

At first I could not make out what it was saying, but then the words were clearly present. He could say individual words, such as “level” “racecar” and “bob” and then would also say longer phrases such as “Never odd or even” and “No lemon, no melon.”

My client looked up at me and said, “How sad - he only speaks in palindromes.”

When I asked her why it was sad, because I thought it was rather remarkable, she explained that after every sentence, no matter how far he goes, he was back to where he had started. She gave a small smile, and then drifted away again to the vagaries of the event she was attending that evening.

The bird followed us back to the edge of the studio and stayed at the window while we worked. Hours later it was still there. Long after the countess left, the bird remained perched near the window.

The next morning, there was no ceremony to it; I simply opened the door and the bird walked into my atelier. It was as if he had been my pet all along, and I had simply not realized it until now.

How luxurious are the feathers of a crow—black and iridescent with the oil stained float of bubbles and shine. I found I could stare at him for hours, his twitching, robotic wildness easing into domesticity only to jump back to the lightening state with the crack of a door or the ring of the phone.

I started to wonder who had taught him to speak only certain phrases and not others. It would either mean only speaking in palindromes yourself, or that the bird had the option to say other words, but chose palindromes for his own personal reasons.

Conversations with him were both lunacy and genius:

Mr. Owl ate my metal worm.
I prefer pi.
No lemon, no melon.
Rise to vote, sir.
So many dynamos!
Never odd or even.
A man, a plan, a canal, Panama!

and then, at some point it became madness and I had no choice but to try to communicate rather than to merely listen. I was exasperated by the time I finally asked him why a crow would speak only in palindromes. He responded:

Do geese see God?

Sunday, January 17, 2010


I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t book my own clients. My second assistant used to do it, but he’s proven too valuable as a cutter to pull him off patterns, so instead the new intern books the calls.

She is certainly smart enough and seemingly well qualified – Princeton English major, previous internship at Carolina Herrera, father was an Olympic hurdler, mother was an opera singer, sister works at the UN, brother is in some famous downtown band—but she is a little too kind. The clients tend to push her around a bit and cause her endless headaches with scheduling conflicts and special requests.

We never refuse a client request. We are clearly in the service of our clients, but there is a gentle way to guide a client that can actually make the experience feel even more exclusive; no one respects a pushover, and everyone loves a velvet rope – just as long as they are standing on the correct side. So the trick is to be just firm enough to illustrate the presence of the velvet rope, but then to yield at the right moment to ensure the client feels an undeniable rush of inclusion and select status. If all of this sounds calculated, it is. I am certain my clients wouldn’t want it any other way. My clients are buying swimwear fastened together with diamonds nearly the size of coconuts, with hand-carved clasps that are mini-Michelangelos, and straps that do not adjust because the suits were cut for only them and have no need to fit to any other body. My clients expect a certain amount of ritual to be performed during the preparation of a new commissioned piece. Much like a tea ceremony, the actual final act of consumption is only part of the experience.

This is all to say that I never know who is coming in each morning. Sometimes the client is an old friend and I’ll get a phone call in advance, but usually it is a surprise.

Today the client was new, unexpected and started off as a total disaster.

She wanted a way to let everyone know that she’d arrived in society and had the means to afford a bespoke Serg Riva suit. Most of my clients do not care to advertise that they work with me – those in the know simply already know. To the trained eye, my suits are identifiable across the room. Not even Kamali can match it. (She is wonderful, but like most designers today she no longer runs a couture shop. Instead, she does a high-low mix, sometimes Browns, sometimes Walmart).

I wasn’t sure how to respond to the client’s request that my suit advertise its own making in any way other than through the quality of its design. The client insisted that some type of signature print, or logo, or label would make the whole thing much better. I was in a pickle. Logo blasting is not really my style. So I began to think – how could I take this idea and go all the way? A logo is déclassé, but if something is knowingly brazen enough, it becomes genius.

I had my goldsmith forge the letters to my name one at a time into thin, perfect block letters. I then constructed a rather plain looking white bikini, made of solar-translucent fabric (the kind that the sun can pass through to avoid any tan lines). I then stitched the letters into place behind the fabric, so that they were unseen from the outside, but served as a solar block against the skin.

At first she was disappointed. All she could see was a rather basic, but beautifully made plain white bikini. Then I explained that after wearing the suit all day, her body would be tan, but the letters of my name would be written across her posterior as a type of suntan tattoo (tanttoo?). She jumped with happiness – she loved the idea! It gave her great satisfaction to imagine showing the tanttoo to friends to prove her naughtiness while demonstrating her wealth. Did I give the client what she wanted? I think so. Every day is different at a couture atelier.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Menswear Consequent

Shaking the shadows out of my hair, I stepped into the atelier early this morning and didn’t come out until nine at night. My first action was to sweep my desk clean. It had become a barnacled humpback of mementos, bad ideas, half-drawn sketches, wistful clippings, half-crossed out to-do lists, empty promises, last year’s ideas, coffee ringed notepads, and every other type of misguided thought heavy with the microscopic dust of the old. Now is not the time for mildew and yearning, now is the time for the new.

It was thrilling to see my bare desk again - a blank piece of ancient driftwood - waxed, sanded and planed flat enough for detailed drawing, but warped enough to always set you on edge. Never too comfortable with a completely even surface, I can rest easy on this desk; its hollows and hillsides hold my pencil and cradle my forearms as I stretch across it to draw.

I draw two ways. The first is on paper like everyone else, except that I don’t technically use a pencil. Instead I use a Caran d’Ache “lead holder” which looks like a mechanical pencil, but doesn’t click in the same way, and holds a thick fat tube of graphite. The second way I draw is on the body: pinning, cutting, and whip-stitching fabric on a dress-form (or even on the client herself) composing a new shape or new secret volume right there in the moment. It takes a nimble hand to stitch while the garment is still being worn - careful fingers and fast thinking won't make up for a pricked client if I miss. Like a surgeon, every stitch counts when working this way. It is my favorite way to compose a cover-up or beach-wrap that could double as a dress. I think it is thrilling for the client too, as they can see the volume take shape in front of their eyes, on their own body, rather than through the abstraction of a pattern or a fit model.

I spent the day carving up paper with new ideas and pinning muslin to the sounds of my own spinning thoughts. When I was done, I was soaking with sweat. I had forgotten to turn down the heat and the atelier climbed in temperature as the day turned to night. I took off my shirt to cool off and just stood there for a minute looking at the shirt in my hand, turning it over and thinking about its simple, yet iconic architecture - then I got an idea. I pinned my shirt inside out on the dress form, and studied the yoke and shoulders and collar. I could construct a woman's garment from the pieces of my shirt that would be retain the vocabulary of menswear, without any of the utility. Does this make sense? I could capture the utterance, but eliminate the language. I grabbed my shears and picked out the stitching, pinning and whip-stitching the pieces that held the most clearly designed "nouns" of menswear: the cuffs, the collar, the yoke, and the placket.

Three hours later I had a new design. It was a skeleton, a ghost. It was the burnt rubber left on the road after a drag race, it was the tracks in the snow left by a rabbit, hunted by a fox. It was the echo of a consequent, without the antecedent.

I'll post a photo of the finished design soon, I want to see it on an actual body before I share it with the world. Until then, here is a shot of me in the heat of the moment.

Friday, January 08, 2010


In my dreams I am returning to the same swimsuit, unable to fix certain problems of drape and contour. The body changes as I stitch, the shape morphs into another form, and my ability to be precise becomes as elusive as the Elysian Fields. My fingers turn to butter and I cannot hold my needle and thread. The model grows enormous and then shrinks beneath my touch only to return again to normal size. I am searching for the solution and attempting to see an answer, but the shape and structure drift. When I grip the fabric it turns to sand.

Anxiety dreams come every night. The only cure is to get back in the Atelier and get to work. My mind clearly wants to work, and invents problems where there are none.

The dream returns. In the distant sand I can see a figure. It is feminine, walking with each foot exactly in line with the last so that the hips swing like the rolling waves of the sea. The figure is carrying something. It is a long rope. She drags the rope this way and that, making some sort of arrangement in the sand. She comes closer but gets more blurry and indistinct. I cannot see her clearly, but I am sure she is a messenger.

I take off my glasses to get a better view. I cannot see at all. Blowing sand is everywhere.

Alone now in the desert, looking down on myself, there's a message in the sand. The rope carried by the figure spells out something poetic, short, but certain. I can barely read it. I start tracing the letters one at a time.


Tuesday, January 05, 2010

New Year's Eve

What started out as a simple New Year’s Eve party ended up out of control, on the streets, and in the gossip columns. My second assistant was jailed, the new interns were asked to do truly unthinkable tasks on their first day in the atelier, and Tako ended up running down the avenue in a vintage Dior gown originally worn in Godard’s À bout de souffle, temporarily on loan (but now clearly missing) from the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I would go on and on about what happened. But New Year's Eve is so last year, non?

If I ever write a book, I'll include the whole story. Until then, let's get back to business...