From the Archives: Dust with Jeans On

This year for Lent, I am considering wearing some variation of the same outfit from Ash Wednesday to Easter. I am probably not brave enough to do this alone, though, so here’s a dare for you: join me.

1.     Choose one outfit to wear this Lent.

2.     Don’t buy any new clothes for seven weeks.

3.     Be creative. Prepare for resurrection.

This experiment with dressing simply is an attempt to live toward Christianity’s highest feast, the feast of Easter. It is an attempt to begin to pay gracious attention – to ourselves, our bodies, to others and their bodies, and to Creation. It’s not about heroics; it is about receiving the graciousness and generosity of God, the way the dust and mud of Eden received God’s breath, and the way a tree on a riverbank receives water and light and bears fruit. What would it look like to live in the generosity of God rather than in the guilt of our own failure? What would it mean to be free to notice that God is making the world new and that joining in that newness is a gift, and not a crushing burden?

Lent is seven weeks. The “one outfit” recommendation is flexible – this is a creative challenge. Perhaps wear the same pants and same shirt, or the same dress, but different scarves. What about jackets? Hats? Shoes? I’m not proposing no laundry for seven weeks; wash the clothes. I’m also not proposing that you go the gym in dress shoes, or sleep in jeans, or that you freeze during cold snaps and sweat through your shirt when it’s warm. What I am proposing is that we keep some significant part of our clothing stable in a way we wouldn’t normally. And then – from there – we can improvise. Maybe we can follow in the high Church tradition, in which Sundays don’t count as part of Lent. Sundays are the Lord’s Day and therefore they are always feast days, never fast days. Maybe we can wear one basic outfit, like a canvas, as a stable backdrop for a whole variety of appearances. Or maybe we keep one striking item constant, and let the rest of our clothing move around that fixed center.

Editor, philosopher, and teacher Gideon Strauss once said that clothing is an act of generosity toward other people. For him, I think this means sometimes wearing colors other than black. As I think of my own clothes-wearing practices, I wonder: have I ever considered my clothing in terms of generosity? What would that even mean? Clothes have had a lot of meanings for me. Over the years, the decision of what to wear has centered around my fear, around self-expression, hiding, guilt, or my desire to fit in. The labels in my shirts name me as a hopelessly privileged person – as an oppressor. Jeans sizes have at times felt like existential labels; the cut of them, or the brands, have been about proving I’m not one of those people, or that I am; clothes have been about proving that I know who I am, and that who I am is different but not freakish. Any part of embodied existence can become a physical language through which I must prove that I deserve to be alive.

What if, in wearing clothing, I were free to be generous? Generous to myself, to my own body, and free to begin uncoiling from my self-obsession? What if I were free not to think of what it says about me that my clothes were made in sweatshops, but instead to begin to think about the hands that made them, and consider the bodies and souls that go with those hands?

Jeff McSwain, who founded the Reality Center in downtown Durham, North Carolina, recently told me about his understanding of the difference between cooperation with God and participation. Cooperation, for him, means that God has done the lion’s share of the work, but that the tiny fragment we have to do is necessary; if we don’t do it, the world will be incomplete. No matter how small our part is, we can still fail horribly by not doing it. Participation, by contrast, means that we are invited to be involved with a God who makes space for us and for our creativity, but does not existentially depend on us. God is inviting us to work within the already-accomplished reality of creation and re-creation. We can be a meaningful part of the triumph, but we are incapable of causing ultimate failure. The Kingdom of God has come, and we live in it or deny it, but we can’t wreck it.

This is a claim that comes out of a deep, gracious theology of what it means for us to live in God’s creation and to work with God in restoring the world. Our work is real, and yet it is work within a reality that God has already brought into being. Participating with God is not about constructing new realities; it is about giving up on our denial of what is most deeply true. Participating with God does not mean inventing the kingdom of God. It means listening, and paying attention, and realizing that the kingdom of God is here, that it is real, that it is a place we can live, right now. God has made the world new in Christ. God has made us new. It is finished, and it will be completed.

And so this one-outfit idea is about giving in to reality. It is, for me, about reading the tags in my clothing rather than trying to forget that they say, Made in ChinaIndonesia, or the Philippines. It is about making a beginning with honesty, and trusting that God can show up. No: even more, it is about trusting that God has shown up.

Poet Mark Strand begins his poem “Keeping Things Whole” with the lines, “In a field / I am the absence / of field.” The poem follows the speaker moving through the world, understanding himself always as a negative, displacing presence. Everywhere, he is the absence of whatever was seamless until he came. The poem ends with the line, “I move / to keep things whole.”

This Lent, stop moving to keep things whole. Early in his Institutes, Calvin writes that the Spirit with “tender care supported the confused matter of heaven and earth until beauty and order were added” (1.13.22). Either that is what the Spirit is still doing, as God makes the broken world new in Christ, or we are desolate and beyond hope. In either case, we are not the ones making anything whole. Not by our pretense, our heroics, or anything we’ve ever done or ever will do.

In colder climates, Lent is the time of year when the bare ground slowly wakes up.  This is the premise, I think, of the “fasts” the church calendar encourages us to practice during the days of Lent. Fasting is not negation; it is the space of new green shoots, the bare ground unfreezing and growing fertile again. Luther, in writing of our life in Christ, draws on the biblical image of a tree. What we do in God, he says in “On the Freedom of the Christian,” is like the growth of a tree. And what we do without God is, by implication, as useless as trying to build a tree out of scrapwood. Another image Luther uses is of dry ground waiting for rain. We are like that ground: we can no more produce life than cracked mud can produce plants. But once the rain comes, all sorts of new life is possible.

So what if it’s true? What if God’s tenderness, drawing the tips of plants up out of the ground, is the deepest source of reality? What if that tenderness is where all true beauty and order have their source? Then we can pray for Egypt and Libya. We can pray for Iraq and Afghanistan and the United States and Mexico. We can pray for the L.A. police force. For AIDS victims in Uganda. We can pray for downtown Durham. We can go to these places, in thought, in spirit, in tears, in laughter, and in body. We can pray for ourselves, our families and churches, and the friendships and communities where much has died and is dying. We can pray in spite of words we can’t take back. We can pray in spite of cancer, in spite of divorce. We can live. We can die (protesting nonviolently among bombs, or sleeping in beds in a neighborhood from which you can’t hear bombs). We can die the small deaths of the everyday as well as the physical death of which Lent reminds us – a death that goes through the Cross, into the ground, and rises into a life that is truly life.

Wearing one outfit all of Lent is not going to answer all my questions about what I mean in this body, what this body means in the world, or how I might begin living faithfully toward other bodies. But this Lent, as I consider my wardrobe, I am going to practice living on the premise that when God looked at creation and said, “this is good,” that meant me too. It means me, and you, and billions of yous whose names I don’t know. I can groan with the waiting creation, rather than plugging my ears because that groaning makes me feel so guilty. God has something more to say to me than that I’ve failed, again, at living this resurrected life.

Let’s think of our one outfit as the garment in which Christ clothes us, our humanity made whole again. Then it can help us remember that we are free to stop pretending that we are anything other than dust held together by the breath of God.

Credit where it’s due: This idea was partly inspired by a story told of a woman at Ched Meyers’ Sabbath Economics conference last fall, who only buys one dress every twelve months, and partly by Gideon Strauss’s daughters Hannah and Tala, who, every October, “along with several hundred of their closest friends,” choose one dress and wear it for the month, for the sheer fun of it, a project previously chronicled in The Curator.

A Seersucker Manifesto

This article was first published in April of 2011.

No more dangerous fabric has ever been woven, washed, and worn in the history of mankind than seersucker.

Simple yet deadly, this cotton killer has condemned more fellows’ fashionableness than Fidel. (Is there anything less dapper than Castro’s garish garb?) Countless gents every spring, emboldened by the sun’s reviving rays, adorn themselves in crinkled colors and warbled white from head to toe. Confident in their comfort they step and strut not knowing this selection will forever blemish the veritableness of their future vestments.

Of course some men possess enough panache to pull it off. They know who they are.

But to the rest of Mandom I issue a strong warning.

Be wary of this weave.

First, it is nearly impossible to wear seersucker without irony or nostalgia.

Nothing calamities classiness more than donning duds with irony. I am speaking not of the juvenile, ironic t-shirt, rather of when the very essence of an outfit oozes mockery and self-awareness. “Hey everyone look at me! Doesn’t my attire make me look witty? I am wearing a garbage bag and used, holey penny loafers, and I haven’t shaved or showered since Groundhog Day. This style is called Derelicte.”

There’s nothing attractive or creative about such sardonic irreverence. Nor is there anything gentlemanly about such contempt-filled costumery.

Ironically (wink, wink) the seersucker is contemporarily associated with southern gentlemanliness. And, even more interesting are its origins in the United States as wears for the poor.

In a 2006 article about seersucker in the New York Times, David Colman writes:

“Widely considered patrician, seersucker was a 19th-century workingman’s fabric, a cheap American cotton version of a luxurious Indian silk. In the 1920’s stylish undergraduates, in a spirit of reverse snobbery, took up the thin puckered fabric for summer wear. That edge was still sharp in 1945, when Damon Runyon wrote that his new penchant for wearing seersucker was “causing much confusion among my friends.”

“They cannot decide whether I am broke or just setting a new vogue,” he wrote dryly.

Seersucker’s origins are not lost on clothing designers whose ads convince guys this is apparel that will garner respect – or babes – while keeping you looking and feeling “cool.” Seersucker certainly feels cool in the temperature sense, but in the end most guys look like tools of the fashion industry when they stuff themselves into a too tight pair of sucker shorts with a rolled-sleeve sucker blazer and a v-neck t-shirt. Unless you own a yacht and beach house in The Hamptons — where you retreat with Ralph Lauren and toast with Tommy Hilfiger — you’re being ironic and annoying.

The second major concern is that even without irony, seersucker is a very difficult fabric to wear well. Countless images of chiseled models wearing sucker suits give the appearance of a crisp, clean drape. And while the fabric may be manipulated to hold that sharp shape, the natural lay of seersucker is more slackened and supple. This isn’t a problem for skinny dudes with straight, square body types. But for curvy gents, athletes, or miscellaneous, oddly shaped beaux, it’s difficult to slip on the seer without looking like one has slipped on pajamas.

Fit is king. Fabric is second. If one’s habit hangs well, it hardly matters who made it, or how much it cost. However, of what it is made has a huge implication for how it fits. This is where seersucker threads tread toward troubled waters. It is a weave not woven to hold a pristine pressing, but rather revel in rumpled relaxation; wrinkly raiment is the usually the reserve of dressed-down denim and t-shirts, not of more formal finery. Such a juxtaposition contained embroidered into the cotton itself can careen a chap quickly into accoutrement catastrophe. Combine that with the aforementioned connotations and cultural implications, and seersucker can dive a dude into douchebaggery faster than smoking a cheap pipe and wearing a Target-brand fedora, brand-new trenchcoat, and a clip-on bow tie.

If you’re going to wear seersucker, you MUST know exactly how and why. Every small detail needs to be carefully considered. What width and color of striping? What color shoes? Oxfords or loafers? Clean shaven face or stubbly one? No tie, tie or bowtie? Belt or suspenders? Button down shirt or polo? The list could go on and on.

One slight misstep and a fellow might find himself being mistaken as the fifth man in a barbershop quartet, handed a red, white, and blue boater, and hauled off against his will to the International Barbershop Quartet Convention in Kansas City, MO. (Confession: I love barbershop quartet music, but would rather avoid being incorrectly thought to sing in one.)

More than anything, to wear seersucker well you have to believe in it — own it 100%. No hesitation; no waffling; no backpedaling. If you walk into an H&M, see a seersucker jacket and think, I’m gonna buy that; it looks cool, then you are in for a world of regret.

Fashion is a lot like cuisine. You can rain salt onto a bland dish to season it. Or, you can take the time and care to season it well while cooking so the finished creation is saline and alive with flavor from the inside and not the out. In a recent email conversation on this Rob Hays wrote, “a bow tie can be worn like it’s just another tie, or like it should be part of a face paint and clown nose ensemble; a seersucker suit can be worn like it’s just another suit, or like you’re auditioning for the role of Atticus Finch.”

I’ve known only one man north of the Mason-Dixon line to wear a seersucker suit and look like he was born to do it. I marveled at how he accomplished this astounding act. And as I considered all the mitigating factors I realized his very day-to-day life was preparation for parading such panoply.

Zack Hickman wearing a cowboy suit.

Zack Hickman, born in Lynchburg, VA, lives outside Boston, plays the upright bass, tours with Josh Ritter, sings about his handlebar moustache, performs music by Schoolhouse Rock, has degrees in English and music, and is tall. He is described thusly by the laudatory Jake Armerding:

“One of the few for whom superlatives truly fail. Resident general, fire marshal, ringmaster and power behind the throne. Maintains these offices with the help of one of the nation’s great moustaches, carefully cultivated with the use of beeswax harvested from his father’s hives. (A venture into retail, Dr. Zachariah’s Mustache Conditioning Wax and Gravity Suppressant, was, sadly, short-lived.) Buys used boots in bulk from various online vendors. Owns Z-shaped belt buckle. Has successfully roasted and served turducken. Featured in the Improper Bostonian and Stuff Boston. Swears loudly and creatively, often as part of pre-show warm-up routine. Plays the bass as if someone were going to take it away from him. (For a more visual analogy, picture the Bengal tiger from Swiss Family Robinson.)

This man defines a seersucker-worthy lifestyle.

I can’t match that. So, I don’t wear seersucker. I can’t pull it off, and I know I can’t. In fact, my playing the saxophone immediately disqualifies me from even attempting.

So men, know your limits; there’s no shame in that.

And for those who sincerely sport seersucker, I salute you.

Intercessory Models

I guessed who she was before I saw her wearing mimosa tweed. On my way up the stairs I looked and she was there, tall and blond. She smiled a slight, quick smile. Her face was avian.  Her nose reminded me of Oriane Guermantes, and France was present in the drooping corners of her lips. It created an ambiguity from her smile not so much alluring as bashful. She wore a gray wool skirt with black leggings disappearing into slim, black leather boots. She wore a tiny belt with a shining buckle. A black satchel sat across her shoulders, over a long-sleeved, black shirt. The Neiman Marcus taxonomy put her clothes into the paradoxical category of designer sportswear. If modeling is a sport, these were her warm up sweats.

I spent the next hour forgetting our encounter. I boxed up the cosmetics: Bvlgari aftershave, Bobbi Brown lipstick, Dior bronzing spray. I was half asleep when the announcement for the morning meeting summoned me to the Chanel boutique on The Plaza.

The Plaza is Neiman’s bottom floor and devoted to women’s clothes. Its lighting is perfectly artificial and exposes every thread. Small squares emerge from the walls: glass partitions their congregations. The faithful would be mute except for the light that makes their fabric sing. The names are in silver above each boutique, chapels on The Plaza’s nave: Jil Sander, Georgio Armani, Armani Collezioni, Akris, Escada, Etro, Donna Karan, Loro Piana, Brunello Cucinelli, and Chanel. I walked to Chanel alongside sales associates clicking across the marble in heels and wooden soles. It made a sound like the release of a firing pin with no round to fire. Thirty games of Russian Roulette converging.

It was October, but Chanel had decided it was high summer on the French Riviera in 1950. The touring representative explained that the prêt-a-porter clothes and accessories were an intentional nostalgia for Rita Hayworth and her court. I heard the click of heels and looked up.

Instead of the black and gray, she wore a yellow jacket, white underpinning and skirt. We were informed the yellow was, in fact, mimosa. The jacket sat perfectly on her slim shoulders, and its sleeves tapered down her arms toward a chic revelation of wrist. The skirt reached past her knees while accentuating her hips. Somehow it had more to do with geometry than sensuality. She smiled the slight smile. I was beginning to understand that clothing can be realized, finished art only when it is worn.

The representative announced that Chanel burns its tweed patterns every year in order to force the creative effort of the next. She also wore Chanel. Her leggings were a second, sheer black skin; let up and padded just enough in the front. I noticed this as she explained Mr. Lagerfeld’s belief that the shoulder is the sexiest part of a woman’s body. The low cut of her taut underpinning beneath the high cut of her knit blazer, whose edge grazed the curve of her round, sable rear indicated that such givens are not always free. In defiance of the revelations, the model’s bare shoulders and her careful, searching eyes remained transcendent. The quest for profit had turned, for a moment, into the discovery of a new world. The lecture from the old one resumed as soon as the model disappeared into the changing room.

“Can anyone tell me about the Promenade de Croisette?” the representative asked our little class.

The model returned. She wore a high-cut white, knit sweater left unbuttoned to show the black single piece bathing suit beneath it. Crystals glared in oblique patterns against it. She moved like a bird that thinks it is alone, with comfortable grace. I wanted to know what was shining through her, feel the supple reality of being the way I felt the black silk of the Balenciaga dresses I had packed that morning. We long for sense perception of the things we know to be outside the range of empirical experience. The representative made sure we knew the swimsuit was strictly for poolsides.

The model appeared for a third time. She wore a black and white evening gown. The white hugged her body, the black draped over it and fish tailed in the back: a dress within a dress. When she turned, the white plunged in a V. Her right shoulder blade had a small mole on it. As she walked back and forth, the sales associates applauded. She turned and walked into the dressing room. I never heard her speak. I had six hours of packaging clothes to consider what her performance might mean.

1. The genius of a designer lies in his ability to see the complete word he is building. He is like a painter, but a painter only needs his model once for a portrait. Without the constant intercession of a body, a word communicating its idea or at least as much of it as possible, clothing is only pieces of fabric. I realized what silhouette means to fashion. Without her, the gown was inanimate, expensive fabric. It made no difference whether it was rolled, folded, piled, or hung, but on this woman it became art. It takes humanity to give form to clothes before they can give any definition to humanity.

2. On the runway haute couture nears pure form, and pure form always requires sacrifice. The most recognizable is that the clothes are not usually functional and rarely look comfortable. But that realization leads to the deeper question of what the model needs to do in order to make the clothes beautiful. Hence the intercession: the model must be mute and her perfect movements must speak for her, the designer, and the pieces. She cannot speak for herself. The sacrifice is to conformity for the sake of a novelty that, in the best cases, leads to beauty. The models must present similar silhouettes; they must be uniform in order for the designs to have their effect. Form gives birth to beauty, which in turn gives birth to form. I realized that just as a text must be subject to grammar and word placement before it can become a poem, fashion requires submission to rules.

3. Fashion, as text, can never separate itself from its model just as poetry requires a reader, and a score requires an orchestra. To experience fashion as text, we have to see it worn, whereas, with a poem, we can read it to ourselves without the poet present. Full perception of a silhouette never permits us to be the designer or the model in the same way a poem opens itself up to interpretations. A designer deploying models is choosing and placing single words with strict referents. To best perceive the piece requires seeing it modeled. Our motives and perceptions are never pure enough when we are dressing ourselves.

4.  I was after both physical presence and form, i.e. an ideal of beauty to be communicated in reality. My anti-realism restricted her to being a text. My idealism required her to be a concept. I needed her to be both, and I wanted proof. But what is beauty in a game that most of us regard as sexual or power driven? I conceived of it as an ethical category: loyalty to a set of common perceptions that requires a sacrifice of models before iPhones and cameras. Mute flesh and blood silhouettes marching away from themselves toward a form that eludes them precisely because it is pursuing an individual beauty in the varied pieces each unique body has created. Each model in her gown is the best word the designer can find for the poem he is trying to create. But each model cannot help being a poem in herself.

5. Of course, it may be that the only general ethic involved is the fear of breaking laws about indecent exposure while getting as close as possible. Any true deconstructionist would have to advocate nudity. Then suicide. I thought briefly of Alexander McQueen. Fashion so quickly dissipates into cycles of kitsch and money. I felt guilty looking for transcendence in a sales pitch.

6. Here was another problem. Can the model take the silhouette to a place beyond commodity? Fashion off the rack is expensive reification; but humanity, no matter how muted, is not a thing. A salesperson might define a human being as a thing to be clothed and nothing else. But fashion, in quest of beauty, especially if it is original, cannot afford to bypass actual humanity. At its best, it acknowledges the place where clothes, physical presence and personality are indistinguishable. The price tag is meaningless because such interplay is beyond material wealth. And it starts to become play instead of poetry the moment money is involved. The beauty of even our daily wear is measured by the degree to which we can sacrifice our personal desire for money, sex, and power and still maintain conformity with form, our body, as an expression of originality.



photo by:

An Entrepreneurial Idea

The arts, I have long believed, are all interconnected, and, in turn, the great web of interdisciplinary arts is inextricably entangled with history, religion, technology, and science.

Another way to put that is to say: Everything relates to everything else.

Another way for me to put it is to tell you a story; and perhaps to inspire you to take an entrepreneurial leap into a previously unexplored business proposition that unites the beauty industry to art, music, coffee, and culture.

Back in February, I was getting a manicure at the local cosmetology academy. I like to keep conversation going with the stylist, and usually start by asking her or (less frequently) him about post-graduation plans. As they all do, this young lady dreams of opening up her own salon.

Now, this particular student manicurist has a bit of a difference in her dream, which is what got my own ever-busy idea-machine cranking. She sports a few tasteful tattoos, a couple more than your grandmother’s piercings. Nothing ostentatious; and that’s kind of her edge: she wants to open a salon that caters to the bodily ornamented as well as the upwardly-mobile corporate femmes anonymized by the requisite platinum blonde hairdo and frenchified fingernails. She doesn’t want to alienate the lady CEOs; just to invite in the artsy, black-laced, torn jeans, purple-headed crowd as well. She has a personal mission to ease acceptance of visible tattoos into the mainstream workplace. And if her own professional-plus-a-touch-of-henna look is any indication, I think she could succeed.

And then I had an Archimedean moment. As happens about, oh, every couple of days, I got a compelling vision of a completed project, standing complex and vibrant in its future existence.

I saw her salon. And it was stylish, let me tell you.

This new salon has two rooms: the kind of long, narrow rooms that occur behind the storefronts of every shop in Manhattan, where we crowd ’em in along the street, then reach way back into the unnamed alleys behind. The two rooms open into one another, sharing the generous sunlight of their double window-fronts. One is the typical hair-cuttery setup: mirrors, chairs, sinks, etc. But the décor side is unique. The mirrors have heavy gold scroll-work for frames. The chairs are fancy faux-Georgian. The walls are dark maroon, with gilt crown molding. The ceiling boasts intricate plaster scroll-work and an impressive Victorian central medallion.

The other room is where this all gets wild. It’s a combination of waiting room, café, art gallery, and music venue. There’s a tiny raised area at the back, set in triangulation to the room, with all the amps and cords and pedals and jacks and sound board just waiting for a band to appear and plug in. And the walls are heavy with art.

Every month, this salon-gallery-hall hosts a “First Friday.” The staff has gathered over the previous few weeks to choose from among the many local artists and musicians who have submitted their work for consideration. The hair stylists and manicurists and the one tattoo artist have joined with the owner and the full-time cultural consultant on staff to discuss, debate over, and vote for their favorite painter or photographer, the best musical acts. Then they brought in the part-timers who help take down last month’s show and hang the new one. The curator of the local art museum volunteers a couple of hours to give her professional opinion. The top band is called. And then the place opens in full swing!

For three or four hours on a Friday evening, then, the cultural elites join the beatniks and punks at what has become the most unlikely hot spot in town: the barbershop. The band plays. It’s a different style of music every First Friday, carefully chosen to complement the visual aesthetic of the new-hung walls. Grungier rock for some black-and-white war photographs. Classical guitar with portraits of deceased politicians. A string quartet with abstract renderings of dancers in flight. An a capella Gospel choir with metal-and-glasswork installations. A dark flock of moaning youth on exotic instruments with haunting close-ups of drug-ravaged celebrities. Travel photography, still lifes, action shots, 2-D sculpture, piano recitals, operatic solos, Broadway renditions, barbershop quartets. Each is tinged with the darker colors of its genre, easing towards the melancholy, the macabre.

The music goes on during the week, too, of course. That’s the whole idea: you look at the art while you wait for your haircut, listen to the music between clacks of the shears, stay and have tea for another song or two, and maybe bring home an original oil painting along with a new look.

And there’s one aesthetic that binds it all together. When I call it “emo” or “goth,” don’t get scared away. Don’t think drugs, knives, and suicide: think Gothic architecture. Think Gothic literature—well, maybe not, since there are plenty of drugs, knives, and suicide there! Stick with the Gothic arches, columns, stained glass, and flying buttresses. To make more sense out of this, come on down another tangent with me.

My local art museum in Allentown, Pennsylvania has a fascinating exhibit at the moment. It’s tiny: just one room. It’s called Gothic to Goth: Embracing the Dark Side. The largest items in the room are Victorian mourning gowns: black, lacy, elaborate dresses worn by young widows. There are paintings, fans, jewelry, gloves. Some are from the middle of the 19th century. Some are brand-new. And I defy you to tell the difference!

It was a pair of gloves that struck me. There, in a glass case, was a pair of gloves I would have sworn were bought last week at Claire’s or Hot Topic. But, nope, there on the tag: they were tatted in the 1840s. As the exhibit’s website explains, in the 1780s, “As literature with macabre gothic overtones gained popularity, emotional expressions of sentimentality, melancholy, and even horror and terror became commonplace” and then “the late nineteenth century became widely known for its prominence of elaborate and ostentatious mourning fashion. Almost a hundred years later, the silhouettes and styles of Victorian mourning wear made a vigorous reappearance with the emergence of the Goth subculture in the late 1970s.” This subculture, it goes on to explain, has now become mainstream—has become, I would argue, beautified again. Beautiful again. Beauty again.

And that’s what binds together the music, art, and fashion in my imaginary salon: the Victorian Gothic. Whether you are a hard-working corporate woman who wears Victoria’s Secret under your business suit, or a tattooed guitar player masquerading as a barista, the Gothic has a kind of beauty to enrich your own. One of the designers from whom the museum borrowed items advertises “Darkly Elegant Designs for Femme Fatales and Decadent Gentlemen.” Another announces “Fine Jewelry Finally Has A Dark Side.” Lace and laces; eyes with long lashes; gloves or garters; button-down blouses; blue notes and sad songs; gilted and guilty; chokers and chocolate; beads and body art; coffee and tea. Come and visit.

Now, let me close off by saying that it turns out I did not invent this idea. Like Chesterton, who independently imagined an entire system of doctrine, then discovered that the Catholic Church had been teaching it for centuries—OK, so not exactly like Chesterton at all, really—I googled “hair salon and art gallery” and found out there are plenty of them. There’s EDO Salon in San Francisco, which “merges fashion, design and art. One part boutique hair salon, one part speakeasy gallery.” There’s Mogi’z in Nashua, New Hampshire, where “hair meets art,” where “hair styling and art found a home together.” There’s EXO Salon in Allen Park, Michigan that “features art work from various local artists as well as pieces of some of the most prominent figures within the art community.” There’s Right Angle in Oakland, California, where “the salon walls become a fabulous stage for displaying the art works of local artists seeking space to show their work.” And

San Francisco's EDO Salon

there’s Zion Hair Salon & Art Gallery in Madison, New Jersey, “combining a hair salon and art gallery.” This one even has a “first Saturday” opening night, “where collectors, friends and family …can come and enjoy an evening out and meet the artist.”

So it’s a new idea, an old idea, a fresh and hot idea. Wouldn’t you love to tie together yet another set of arts—hair, art, music, and coffee? Wouldn’t you love to get a haircut while you’re sitting at a concert? Wouldn’t you like to drink tea and look at paintings while you wait for your wife to get her hair done? Or wouldn’t you like to take this entrepreneurial idea and run with it in your hometown? I hope my young manicurist does it here soon. And I hope you try it out in yours, too. Let me know if you do!


The Imagination of Alexander McQueen

Credit: Solve Sundsbo/Art & Commerce for the Metropolitan Museum of Art

One Saturday evening this month, I attended the Savage Beauty, an exhibition of the work of late fashion designer Alexander McQueen, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (The Met). This specific Saturday evening happened to be the second to last day before the exhibit would officially close at the Met. Upon my arrival, as someone who was just beginning to learn about Alexander McQueen, I began to feel the weight of his cultural influence well before I stepped into the museum. Amongst hundreds of others, I waited outside the building for a good hour and a half in a line that stretched well beyond the doors of the Met. Once inside, patrons had to wait another two hours in line to make it up to the McQueen exhibition. The wait itself told me that this was not just another exhibition to attend, and that the cultural impact of McQueen’s design must have been extraordinary to say the least. The communal experience of waiting with so many people just to see the same exhibition made the wait well worth it. There was the feeling that we were a part of a moment in cultural and artistic history at the Met.

Credit: Solve Sundsbo/Art & Commerce for the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The McQueen Exhibition, Savage Beauty, was the eighth most visited exhibition in the history of the museum, attracting close to 700,000 people. The line worked its way through most of the major sections of the museum before we reached the McQueen exhibition. This gave me the chance to soak in and briefly appreciate the collection as the line for the McQueen exhibition gradually moved forward. To be honest there were moments while waiting in line when, after my legs went numb from standing, I thought about turning around and leaving, but the fact that I made it so far, and the pure curiosity of wanting to see what I was waiting so long for, kept me in line. Once I arrived at the McQueen exhibition, and the reality set in that I was about to walk in, the long wait immediately felt worth it.

I admit I lack an extensive knowledge of Alexander McQueen and his work. I had only been briefly exposed to his work in the past, having stumbled across one of his books in a clothing store, seen some of his designs on blogs, and every once in a while, I would hear his name brought up in a discussion of culture & fashion. Visiting this exhibit was an opportunity for me not only to be exposed to the work of Alexander McQueen, but to also learn more of the cultural impact and importance of fashion and design.

After hearing the stories from friends and family, and reading reviews of the exhibit, I came genuinely curious, hoping that in my visit I would have a unique experience, and my own story to tell.

Credit: Solve Sundsbo/Art & Commerce for the Metropolitan Museum of Art

One word that I heard repeatedly about McQueen’s work was “powerful.” I did not quite fully understand what others meant until I saw some of his pieces for myself.  Immediately as I walked into the exhibit I noticed the bold and expressive nature of McQueen’s work. The environment of the installation enhanced the power of his clothing, and the use of color and scenery of the surroundings brought the garments to life. The careful attention to detail in the change of music and ambiance as I walked through the exhibition helped make the experience even more immediate. Each themed section of the exhibition was its own engaging experience, which helped viewers emotionally connect to the work. The mood created by the environs and music of the exhibit was just as important as the clothing, creating a lasting impression of McQueen’s work.

As I read the provided background and descriptions of each piece, I was impressed by the designer’s thought process. I was amazed by amount of social and cultural commentary that was present in his clothing as well. To have such progressive and groundbreaking fashion design combined with a thought provoking message was compelling, and spoke to the complexity of McQueen as a person. This helped me see and respect fashion as an art form that can speak to the state of society, provoke serious and contemplative thought, and create its own cultural outlook and environment.

In most of his pieces I was intrigued by his ability to master and respect the traditional techniques of fashion while breaking free to create his own new rules. Probably the most memorable aspect for me in was McQueen’s ability to capture the imagination in his work. He was a true artist in his ability to capture and express his own imagination in his own unique and powerful way, while also capturing and encouraging the imagination of the viewers of his pieces.

Credit: Solve Sundsbo/Art & Commerce for the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Artists often establish connection with their audience by emotionally engaging and sparking the imagination of those who experience their work. Visiting the McQueen Exhibit has given me a deeper appreciation for fashion and design, and opened my eyes to the importance of fashion as art form that shapes culture.


Diesel Wants You to “Be Stupid”

Like balloons, we’re filled with hopes and dreams. But over time a single sentence creeps into our lives. Don’t be stupid. It’s the crusher of possibility. It’s the world’s greatest deflator. The world is full of smart people doing all kinds of smart things… That’s smart. Well, we’re with stupid. Stupid is the relentless pursuit of a regret free life. Smart may have the brains, but stupid has the balls. The smart might recognize things for how they are, but the stupid see things for how they could be. Smart critiques. Stupid creates. The fact is if we didn’t have stupid thoughts, we’d have no interesting thoughts at all. Smart may have the plans, but stupid has the stories. Smart may have the authority, but stupid has one heck of a hangover. It’s not smart to take risks; it’s stupid. To be stupid is to be brave. The stupid aren’t afraid to fail. The stupid know there are worse things than failure–like not even trying. Smart had one good idea, and that idea was stupid. You can’t outsmart stupid, so don’t even try. Remember only stupid can be truly brilliant.



Pitch Meeting with Diesel Execs and Anomaly Ad Agency

Setting: the top floor of a high-rise office building

DIESEL: Just to reiterate, we’re looking for something edgy here for our new global ad campaign. We sell jeans– jeans with attitude, and the world needs to know. Show us what you’ve got.

AD MAN: Ok, so let me tell you what we came up with. Let’s just start off with what I think is a crackerjack idea. What do you think of this: “Be an a-hole. Diesel.”

DIESEL: “Be an a-hole?”

AD MAN: Yes.

DIESEL: That’s it?

AD MAN: That’s it. “Be an a-hole.”

DIESEL: Hmmm. Maybe. What else do you got?

AD MAN: “Drop out of school.” Diesel.

DIESEL: Ok. What’s next?

AD MAN: “Don’t eat breakfast.” Diesel.

DIESEL: I kind of like breakfast.

AD MAN: “Pee your pants.” Diesel.

DIESEL: Ehhhh, it’s a little too visceral.

AD MAN: “Burn a book.” Diesel.

DIESEL: Interesting. GETTING WARMER, but no.

AD MAN: “Voting is lame. Diesel is not lame. Diesel. Not as lame as voting. Loser.”

DIESEL: Too long.

AD MAN: “Drink Diesel.”

DIESEL: Like gasoline?

AD MAN: Sure.

DIESEL: Or like our company?

AD MAN: Either way.

DIESEL: Could be hazardous. LAWSUIT POTENTIAL.

AD MAN: “Spill Diesel.”

DIESEL: Ok, now I’m just not tracking. Are you talking about jeans or fuel?

AD MAN: “Pour Diesel in your eyes.”

DIESEL: You do know that we sell jeans, right?

AD MAN: “Just do it.”


AD MAN: “Just do it.”

DIESEL: Are you telling me to “just do something,” or is that your slogan?

AD MAN: Which would you prefer?

DIESEL: I can’t tell if you’re being sardonic or if you’ve just run out of ideas.

AD MAN: “Be nothing.”

DIESEL: Ok, I think you’ve just run out of ideas.

(The DIESEL EXECS starts to exit the room.)

AD MAN: Wait! I do have one last idea. Last night, when I was procrastinating for this job because I was busy being spontaneous all over the place, I came up with something I think you might like. It was 2am, and I had just broken into a day care because I was really craving some Nilla Wafers. I got home, pounded a fifth of Schnapps, vomited over my fire escape, and wrote this.

(He hands a crumpled up napkin with the “Be Stupid Philosophy” written in crayon to the DIESEL executive.)

DIESEL: “Be stupid”?

AD MAN: “Be Stupid.” It’s not just a horrible slogan, it’s a philosophy.

DIESEL: Hmmm. Keep going.

AD MAN: Be stupid! All your life you’ve been told, “Don’t touch a hot stove!” Well maybe you should touch a hot stove! Just to see what its like! All your life you’ve been told, “Don’t drink water out of swamps!”  Well, maybe that water tastes great and I just want to find out for myself! To be stupid is to be brave. The stupid aren’t afraid to fail. The stupid know there are worse things than failure, like not even trying, or death, or not being able to afford really expensive jeans, or losing your allowance when you’re 28, or having a warrant out for your arrest for breaking into a day care for a couple of stale cookies and some gummy bears that you found glued to a piece of construction paper. Be stupid. That’s my pitch to you. If you don’t like it, fine! That’s smart. But we want you to be stupid. “BE STUPID!”

DIESEL: I can’t tell if you’re being ironic or if you’re actually telling me to be stupid.

AD MAN: Neither can I!

DIESEL: So do you even know what you’re actually trying to say?

AD MAN: Does a bear cut down trees with a hammer?


AD MAN: Exactly!

DIESEL: I think I like it. It’s so stupid it’s confusing, which makes me want to know more, which would be the exact opposite of being stupid, which brings me back to being confused.

AD MAN: Yeah, ideally we’d like for people to just “Be stupid” and not look into it any further.

DIESEL: Why is that?

AD MAN: Well, you do sell $200 jeans right?

DIESEL: Touche. So, what does this look like? What sort of images are we talking about here?

AD MAN: I’m thinking we get a bunch of models doing stupid things.

DIESEL: Oh, ok. (Pause.) So, just to be clear, we are or aren’t being ironic here?

AD MAN: Yes. We get a bunch of models doing stupid things with dangerous animals. We could have a guy taunting a pack of wolves. We could have a girl in a bikini about to feed an angry lion or something. You know, stuff like that.

DIESEL: Oh, so you mean people actually “being stupid.” Like, you’re really telling people to “be stupid.”

AD MAN: Sure.

DIESEL: Not an ounce of sarcasm?

AD MAN: I honestly can’t even remember what that actually is.

DIESEL: Sarcasm?

AD MAN: No, thank you. I just ate.

DIESEL: Let’s get back to the project.

AD MAN: Right.

DIESEL: Despite an alarming sense of confusion, emptiness, distrust, and utter darkness, I’ve got a good feeling about this. You’re no Don Draper, but I like where your head is at. Or where it’s not at, or, you know, where it is.  Anyway, I just have one last question.

AD MAN: Shoot.

DIESEL: What if people respond negatively to being told to “Be stupid?”  What if people are smart enough to realize that we have no clue what we’re actually saying, and as a result become entirely disgusted by our product? Since we plan on putting these ads in teen magazines, what if we get some parents that are concerned about their kids “being stupid” from our ads that tell them to “be stupid”? What if spontaneity isn’t always the best choice? What if our culture is actually fed up with recklessness and sensationalism? What if people are more interested in a virtuous way of life where advertising enhances the product, the customer, and the culture? What if this whole thing backfires? What if we’re on the wrong side of a big joke?

(The AD MAN stares at the DIESEL executive. Silence.)

AD MAN: To be honest with you, I didn’t hear a word of what you just said.

The Message is the T-Shirt

When I was very young, my aunt and uncle gave me a ponderous elephant pendant necklace on a heavy silver chain. It was a necklace befitting a 45-year-old portly professional – the kind of necklace that would go well with an expansive plush suit in a matronly hue.

“We thought of you when we saw this,” they said. I looked at it and said, “Thanks.”

They said this because I made everyone think about elephants. I brought elephants to the mind because I wore shirts that said “W. for President” and had a red-white-and-blue George W. Bush campaign tote bag. I had a collection of small elephant figurines because elderly relatives kept buying them and saying, “We saw this and thought of you.” I was the kind of child who walked her precinct during Republican primaries and attended state Republican party conventions on weekends. I woke up at 8:00 on Saturday morning to attend county GOP meetings. I was accompanied to these meetings by frail old Republican women who wore tapestry suits woven with elephant patterns and dangly elephant earrings. By anyone’s account it was my destiny to one day become a frail old Republican woman in an elephant-patterned suit, in which case the pendulous necklace would serve my wardrobe well.

I did not become that woman, but I have never – even in seasons of political ambivalence – stopped wearing political t-shirts. When a friend of mine said the other day that she would have nowhere to wear a political t-shirt, it startled me. To me, the only wrong place to wear a political t-shirt is church.

In 2008 I was, for the first time, an undecided voter. Never mind the journey that took me from George W. Bush tote bags to a crisis of political faith, but for the first time I felt myself pulled in two different directions. At first I decided not to vote at all, just for the principle of the thing – because it seemed unfair that I should have to choose between so many principles I held equally. But then one bright Sunday I walked through Union Square, which was brimming with campaign regalia from New York’s hippest artists. I could have bought twenty fashionista political t-shirts but my eye lit upon a light blue one with darker blue lettering that said “Blondes for …” Well, I’ll let you guess.


It was perfect. It said, “I am a blonde and I am my own special interest group, like lesbian Latinas or gun-toting Irishmen. This is my vote and while I am confident enough to advertise my vote on my boobs, there is a part of me that realizes if I have chosen wrongly it won’t be the end of the world; but still I am actually making my choice.”

Or maybe I just thought it was cute and I wanted to buy it as a companion for my “Blondes not Bombs” t-shirt. But I bought it – and the moment of buying the t-shirt and the moment of final decision were almost one and the same. My friend said, “Well I guess you’ve made up your mind then.” And I realized I had.

I wear political t-shirts both to make friends and make enemies. It’s my way of stubbornly standing up for myself when I feel stifled, and finding out who’s standing with me. I bought a t-shirt from Brooklyn Industries that showed Sarah Palin crowning a beatifically smiling Hillary Clinton Miss America. The artistry was ambiguous. (Hillary Clinton was hotter on the t-shirt than she was in real life). The message was somewhat ambiguous, too: Was Sarah Palin crowning Hillary Clinton the next woman in the White House because Palin had already won the White House? Or was Palin ceding First Female President to Hillary Clinton? I gave it my own interpretation. I bought it, loved it, got into arguments over it and lost it when I went to a primarily Republican wedding in Ohio – a memory that still makes me bitter as I search eBay for a replacement I have not yet been able to find.

Sometimes I like to buy my t-shirts a little to the left or right of where I actually am. My latest acquisition is a little pink vintage number that says, “Vote Democrat: A clean sweep.” I am not a Democrat, but I wear it to be a little perverse when I meet up with friends who campaign for Scott Brown. I want a t-shirt with a Jimmy Carter slogan of a grinning peanut, but Jimmy Carter is so lame that I’m torn. Perhaps a McGovern t-shirt with a dove of peace instead: obscure enough that pretty much no one will get it but relevant to today.

I wore that “Blondes” shirt right up until and on Election Day. Campaigners loved it. Elderly black women loved it. A boy staggering drunkenly through the West Village on Election Night also loved it. It’s ratty now but I still wear it to the gym, where nobody comments on it anymore. The big 2008 moment has passed. The hope is all tired and worn out – like my shirt – and no one will care to wear political t-shirts until 2012. Except me.

Read My Pins

Ask Sarah Palin after everyone learned she spent $150,000 on clothes. Ask Cindy McCain after the media slammed her for wearing an outfit that totaled $300,000. Ask Hillary Clinton when the media needled her for restlessly changing her hair style again and again. Ask Michelle Obama after Robin Givhan gushed that when Obama “bounded onto the stage in her sleeveless dresses, with her muscular post-Title IX arms in full view, the definition of a strong woman changed.”

It matters what a woman in politics wears. Every sartorial choice has significance-painting a political woman as shallow or thoughtless or mannish or callous or strong or rebellious or docile. But while women in politics should know all of this, the choices they make are often either thoughtless (wearing a $300,000 outfit while your husband tries to brand his opponent as an elitist) or carefully constrained by the rigid roles the country expects them to play.

The messages are either clumsy and wrong or so subtle that people find in them what they will. For instance, after XX Factor’s Hanna Rosin saw a picture of Obama delicately plying a shovel while wearing a long belted sweater and stylish boots, Rosin said, “I’m beginning to think Michelle rebels against the strictures offirst lady life silently, through her outfits, the sartorial equivalents of a middle finger.” A fashion analyst wondered if Obama wore her famous purple sheath dress at the convention because purple is a mix of red and blue. But who knows?

However, a display at the Museum of Art and Design shows a leader who walks a bold but dainty path in female political fashion. These fashion choices are bold. The messages they send are clear, but they’re also whimsical and utterly feminine.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was the first female Secretary of State and famous for using her collection of costume jewelry pins to send gentle diplomatic prods. The display shows over 200 of her signature pins. Some of them are delicate but most of them are ponderous-the kind of pins you would need a very serious, sober suit to sustain-and so big that they tore holes in Albright’s serious suits, which she then covered with larger pins.

She began using pins to send messages after the state-run Iraqi press called her a serpent in a cunningly titled poem, “To Madeleine Albright, Without Greetings.” It went something like this: “Albright, Albright, all right, all right, you are the worst in this night.” The writer went on to weave in a menagerie of animal imagery, penning, “Albright, no one can block the road to Jerusalem with a frigate, a ghost, or an elephant” and calling Albright an “unparalleled serpent.” The next time she went to Iraq she wore a jeweled serpent entwined around a stick, with a diamond hanging down for its tongue. When the media asked her why, she said it was because the Iraqis thought she was a snake.

She wore wasps when she wanted to send a message with a bit of a sting. She wore a jeweled bug, made of amethyst, chalcedony and gold, to Russia after a Russian official bugged the State Department. She used turtles to complain about the slow progress of peace. She wore balloons to symbolize satisfaction when talks were going well.

When she met with Vladimir Putin and wanted to send a message about Russia ignoring human rights violations in Chechnya, she wore three chubby, Buddha-like monkeys miming “hear no evil,” “see no evil,” “speak no evil.” When she met to navigate talks about nuclear arms, she wore an abstract representation of an arrow, made of anodized aluminum. A diplomat looked down at her pin and said, “Is this one of your interceptor missiles?” She told him, “Yes, and as you can see, we know how to make them very small. So you’d better be ready to negotiate.”

She seems to wear them with a knowledge too many women in politics forget-the knowledge that’s she’s a woman and not a man, and that any disadvantages to being a woman are best deflected with a sly sense of humor instead of acting like a man. A foreign minister mistakenly told reporters that he enjoyed hugging Albright because of her “firm breasts.” Of course outrage followed, which Albright deflected when reporters asked what she thought and she quipped, “Well, I’ve got to have somewhere to put those pins.” Then, of course, she bought a red fox pin-for when she was feeling flirty-to commemorate the occasion.

She told Newsweek, “I love being a woman and I was not one of these women who rose through professional life by wearing men’s clothes or looking masculine. I loved wearing bright colors and being who I am.” It’s an intentional, dignified use of femininity to send a political message that’s bold and clear. It’s fashion that bends the rigidity of female roles, while at the same time not sacrificing the femininity it’s absolutely just that female leaders keep.

Stripe painters may not wear stripes

From n+1: How artists must dress.

Artists must first of all distinguish themselves from members of the adjacent professional classes typically present at art world events: dealers, critics, curators, and caterers. They must second of all take care not to look like artists. This double negation founds the generative logic of artists’ fashion.

The relationship between an artist’s work and attire should not take the form of a direct visual analogy. A stripe painter may not wear stripes.

Another 365-Days Dress Project

From the Times Magazine: This Year’s Model.

What’s immediately striking about clicking through the day-by-day photos on the Uniform Project is that two months into wearing the same thing every day, Matheiken is still way more stylish than you are. Part of this owes to the dress: while it’s in the basic mold of a little black number, it was custom designed by Matheiken’s friend Eliza Starbuck with this project in mind. The garment (actually, there are seven identical versions of it) can be worn with the buttons facing front or back, or open, as a kind of jacket. In some cases, wearing the dress in its tuniclike form over a completely different outfit reduces the garment itself to a sort of accent piece. Add to that her penchant for adventurous accessorizing, and sometimes it’s not even obvious that there’s a uniform involved here at all.

Fashion Designer Academic
Interview with Made By Rachel


When I met Rachel Chaffee, we were both in college. I would be her successor as editor of the school’s newspaper. She graduated that year, and we didn’t meet again until graduate school in a creative nonfiction class. We spent a semester carpooling to class and having semiserious chats about feminism, academia, and our classmates. But when Facebook’s suggestive connecting of old friends put us back in touch, I learned that Rachel had started a Ph.D. program in Education: Teaching, Curriculum, and Change at the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York, and had set up her own sewing business, Made By Rachel. Struck by Rachel’s ambition, I was delighted when she agreed to share a bit about her passion for creating, her new collection, and how she balances her academic and creative lives.

How did Made By Rachel get started?

I had been sewing for myself for years and I started getting requests for custom-made handbags. At first, I only did custom work through word of mouth, but once I had a small pile of vintage fabrics going, I decided to sew my first collection and sell it online and in stores. While I was sewing vintage handbags, I also did a small collection of totes and needle and notions cases for knitters, which I sold across the U.S. and in Canada for a year. I still get requests from knitters, but I’ve moved on from sewing handbags. As much as I love a great bag, I was getting bored, so I started sewing clothing collections starting in the summer of 2007.

What inspires you, and where do you get ideas for your creations?

I’ve always been inspired by things that have had other “lives” before I found them. For example, I’m a little nuts about vintage buttons. One of my favorite things is finding tins of old buttons in antique shops. Every Christmas, my mom and my brother put individually wrapped old buttons in my stocking; it’s my favorite part of Christmas morning.

I’m the sort of person who likes to occasionally go through all of her buttons and vintage fabrics, lay them out, and see if they speak to me. I’m also the kind of person who looks at a lot of design blogs multiple times a week and spends too much time on Etsy. (Etsy is dangerous for people who like buttons.)

For the last two years, a lot of my ideas for collections have come from looking at mixed media work. When I was a teenager, I used to make a lot of collages out of tiny pieces of paper, and I can see that emerging in how I think creatively fifteen years later. Last summer’s dress collection had a tiny bit of mixed stuff going on, but the leather accessory collection I’m working on now has more elements of that side of things-I’m trying to combine leather, thread, yarn, snaps, and so on. A lot of guys who find out that I’m making leather cuffs have given me a lot of input on what they would love to see but can’t find anywhere, so their thoughts motivate me to try something different.

What is a typical day like when you’re working on a collection?

I recently made a conscious decision to work on my next collection in a totally different way. I used to design a collection and then work nonstop, morning to night, for days until it was done. I realized this spring that being a full-time Ph.D. student leaves you exhausted at the end of the academic year, so I’m trying to take things down a notch and go at this summer’s collection a bit differently. My goal for June is to give myself some decompression time and try to be less intense. A typical day looks like this: I spend my morning either running (I’m training for my first half marathon!) or reading and writing for my comprehensive exams (coming up this fall). If I’m lucky, I grab lunch with my husband and then spend the afternoon sewing with all the windows open. The key will be to try to balance working on the leather collection and working on our house renovations. We bought a circa 1862 house last year and we’ve ripped out the entire upstairs. As soon as the upstairs is done, we’re gutting the downstairs. It’s a bit tight right now, but soon I’ll be able to work in my studio upstairs rather than at the dining room table.

Part of the goal of The Curator is to uncover signs of “the world that ought to be” as we find it in our midst. What part do you think your creations have in building that world?

I’m really committed to designing with as much recycled material as possible. I’m also doing my best to support the handmade community that has grown immensely in the last few years by buying handmade. The friends I’ve found in that community have been instrumental in keeping me focused on the importance of keeping things simple by buying handmade rather than cheap, mass produced materials. This is easier said than done. When talented women like Anna Marie Horner are designing amazing fabrics, it’s hard not to buy yards of every design. However, I also want to support the women (and men) who, through their creative work, have inspired me to appreciate the process of making something.

We who are Americans, I think, are very detached from the people who make what we consume, whether that’s a skirt I wear or fabric I buy to sew myself a skirt. I think we ought to be more conscious of the decisions we make when we consume. For me, this process has included consciously trying to find a balance: it’s not that I don’t love a new piece of fabric, but it serves a different purpose for me. When I buy materials that are recycled, I think of them as having a different sort of history-one more traveled. It’s been interesting to try to find recycled leather for my current project, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by what I have discovered in random places.

Where are your collections available for purchase?

Since I started my Ph.D., I’ve decided to only work on collections in the summer when I’m not in the middle of coursework and keep the availability limited to Thread, a local boutique in my neighborhood in Rochester, New York. I support Thread for multiple reasons: They were the first (and still the only) store of their type in my neighborhood (and in my city), and the owners (Sandy and Mike) are invested in supporting independent and local designers. I might expand online or in other stores once I’ve finished my degree, but I’m only halfway through, so Thread is it for now.

What other creative endeavors have you been part of?

I used to design knitting patterns with my friend Lucinda at Modalura, but that was a short-lived endeavor. I still knit, but I don’t have time to continue designing patterns. I also volunteer on the advisory board for my local farmer’s market, the South Wedge Farmer’s Market, and volunteer on its marketing committee. My friend and fellow artist Shanna Murray does all the creative design and I work with a few other people to support the design and marketing work for the market. It’s an exciting process to be in a supporting position for the local food movement where I live. It’s enabled me to meet so many creative people and farmers in Western New York.

How do you balance your personal, academic, and creative lives?

I thought I was a really good person when it came to balancing things, but I recently discovered that the last two years of buying and renovating a house, being a full-time graduate student, working in academics, being married, volunteering in my community, and trying to push out collections has been way too much for me! Fortunately, I’m married to a wonderful guy who is a designer and my most important source of encouragement – creatively, academically, and otherwise. It’s been hard to slow down my creative life so that I can get through my Ph.D. program, but limiting my collections to the summer months has helped me carve out space all year so that I can do both.

What does the future hold for Made By Rachel?

I can honestly say that I don’t know! Once the current summer collection is done, I’m going to take some time to sew for myself because I miss making things for me. I also want to make things for our first house, so I’ll probably continue to do some custom work through the fall. I’m not sure about next year’s collection, but that’s the way I like it. This is the first time I’ve worked with leather and haven’t sewn clothes. It has been interesting and fun to challenge myself to learn something new: new tools, new materials, new hardware. I’m open to doing something completely different next summer. I didn’t decide on doing the leather collection until March of this year, so who knows what I’ll be making a year from now. I think it’s more fun that way.