Tag Archives: new york

The Web We Weave

Last night at the Loomstate party, I told someone I was a journalist.

“Who do you work for?” he asked.

“I’m independent,” I replied, which is funny, because in many ways, nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, my stories are my own and I have no editor to answer to, but lately I get overwhelmed thinking about everyone pitching in to help me with the completion of a website about sustainable style, based on my recent trip to Sweden.

I’ll limit my example to yesterday alone. I’ve asked two of the Swedish designers I’m writing about for additional photographs for the site. One simply sent me a login to peruse her server as I pleased, and the other emailed me selected favorites, including the one below, of her colleague weaving wool in Scotland. I tend to have my Sweden emails in the morning, thanks to the time difference, and these were particularly lovely to wake up to.

But it was time to get down to business. One of my mounting challenges in writing about sustainability, as I’ve noted, is the tremendous task of defining the word. Recently, a Huffington Post reader called Denis Ethier alerted me on Twitter (I get it now!) that he had just left a comment under my article. Indeed, dear Denis had advised  me that in using the term “sustainable growth,” I had employed an oxymoron, and directed me to Dr. Albert Bartlett’s Laws of Sustainability.

Dr. Bartlett, who holds a PhD in Nuclear Physics from Harvard, has been writing and lecturing about sustainability for forty years, and I found his papers to be at once helpful and harrowing.

“The greatest shortcoming of the human race,” Dr. Bartlett once famously said, “is our inability to understand the exponential function.” (That’s the green one.) I was experiencing an inability to understand a great number of things, but I was able to perceive an exponentially increasing portion of panic. So I did what any perplexed fashion enthusiast would do, and directly contacted a nuclear physicist. Within moments Dr. Bartlett replied to my email, with his home telephone number and a warning he knew nothing “about fashions.” We had an enlightening chat, which you’ll be able to read about once the Sweden site is done.

New Source: Dr. Al Bartlett

By the time we said goodbye, Loomstate’s Earth Day party was about to begin. Commemorating Earth Day in a basement beneath midtown seemed a little counterintuitive until I walked into the sprawling room and saw Pemba Sherpa, one of my absolute favorite souls on this planet. Edun, my previous employer, was once housed in the same SoHo apartment as fashion brands Rogan and Loomstate. Things have since grown and separated a bit (exponentially? I’m not sure.), and Pemba remains the single employee all three labels share. This speaks to their intelligence, because any place blessed with Pemba’s presence on a daily basis will find their employees learning daily lessons about patient kindness from his example.

Old Friend: Pemba Sherpa (on my last day at Edun)

He used to be a guide in the Himalayas (now he treks between Edun, Rogan and Loomstate’s Tribeca offices, handling all things logistical), so Pemba’s appreciation for the planet comes from a uniquely elevated perspective. He knows I love stories from his native Nepal, and he recently returned, but this time his most exciting revelation was not about the mountains, but about an unplanned pregnancy in his community, which resulted in an unplanned adoption, and now Pemba is the proud papa of Arbin Tshering Dorjee Sherpa. I thought of Dr. Bartlett’s famous lecture on population growth, and how heartily he might approve of Pemba’s adoption strategy. It also occurred to me that if I’m ever reborn, Pemba’s family might be a good one to go for.

Just then, 40 drummers filed in, and took their seats at a mishmash of sets under a white pyramid in the center of the cavernous space. Cymbals began to shimmer. A pelican in slow-motion flight was projected onto the pyramid; and Pemba stood beside me, taking pictures. Before long, a strong reverberation took over the room, and it became nearly impossible to distinguish between the beats of the different drummers. Before they started playing Scott Hahn had introduced the program saying they intended to “shatter the illusion that we’re all separate.” Indeed.

When I got home, I checked my email, and found a message from a reader who had sent a question about organic concert tee shirts a few weeks ago. We’ve never met in person, but he asked if I had been at the Loomstate party, and then later on the L-train! He had recognized me from those seemingly gratuitous photos I post of myself, and even asked if I was free tonight, as he’s found himself with an extra ticket to the opera. I loved the idea of meeting up for the opera, but am previously engaged for a pow-wow with the Sweden site’s new designer/developer –a young lady called Grace, whose surname, incidentally, is derived from the German for one who weaves.

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Fashionable Transport

My wheels, pictured below in the illustrious pavilion behind my building. This classic cruiser is sort of an iteration of the dress I wrote about yesterday: retro, red, reliable.  

I bought that dress in 2000 in Santa Barbara, the city that showed me the meaning of riding in style. This weekend, I cycled back, via an interview for Bike by the Sea.

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Operation Fairy Dust

Is it just me, or is Jim Dwyer going through a fashion phase? First, it was H&M, then The New York Clothing Bank and in Sunday’s Metro section, The New York Times columnist highlighted Operation Fairy Dust, a program for distributing pre-loved prom dresses to girls in need. Dwyer referred to “the fancy dress: usually worn once for a few hours, then retired from active duty.”

How does Dwyer know? Does he have a closet-full of said dresses? I love the idea of Operation Fairy Dust, (and wonder if they still need volunteer personal shoppers) but had the columnist looked further, he might have found not all girls ferret away their formalwear when the dance is done.

You bet your bustle that as soon as the snow began to melt in high school, I was wondering what to wear to the prom.

Image from Wgirls.org

Senior year, my original plan had been to wear a dress that belonged to my friend Laura (or was it Molly?), who was a year ahead of me in school. It was an Uma-inspired slippery number, if memory serves. I think I was getting dressed in my mom’s bedroom. My hair was done, my makeup on; I pulled the dress  over my head and turned around to show my mom. Her face fell, and she pointed to a large spot on the front, like a water stain over the right thigh. The dress was periwinkle sand-washed silk–oh my, it’s coming back to me now–there was nothing that could be done. My mom drew in a deep breath, likely flashing back to the violent fashion crises that nearly kept me home several mornings in the second grade. 

But all was not lost. We had inspiration. It was 1999, and Gwyneth Paltrow had worn a silvery ball gown skirt and strapless top to the Golden Globes. I had a skirt like that. I even had a tube top, albeit a cotton spandex one. I put it on. It looked like cotton spandex. I think that by that point my date, Jimmy Kerley, might have actually been downstairs. Mom went into the closet for reinforcements (sound familiar?) and emerged with a black negligee. I was confused. I was scandalized. I was…relieved. I pulled it on over the tube top and tucked it into my skirt. Done!

There I am on the right. My friends Kate and Katie, in the middle, chose dresses that were not too prom-specific to be worn again. Jessica, on the left, was likely inspired by the same muse I was, and I bet either she or her older sister has worn at least one piece of that outfit again too. But, I’m sure we all have at least one one-night wonder that might be better off relegated to a cycle of rebirth at various proms, and it’s great that NYC has organizations like Operation Fairy Dust for those glamorous gowns. 

However, that silvery skirt is still hanging in my closet (next to the hand-me-down prom dress I wore Day 2 of Fashion Week) as I type, and I’m contemplating what I might be able to wear it with for spring. It could be cute with a grey tee shirt  and a jean jacket. I’m sure photographer and stylist Kristen Joy Watts will have an idea or two when she helps purge my closet this weekend. Maybe there’s still some fairy dust left in there. 

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Bags, Tags and Automobiles

This is my favorite purse. It’s by Jerome Dreyfuss. I got it in Paris four years ago, and to replace it at the designer’s new store in SoHo today would probably cost close to $800. Although it cost a little less then, it is still the most expensive accessory I’ve ever owned. (It was a different place and time, when I traveled to France for fabric shows, and designers subsidized my purchases so they could examine my choices.)

If you’re gasping at the price-tag, consider this: Most women in New York City do not drive cars. Sure, we ride the subway, but in many ways, our purses are our vehicles. They carry our valuables, they are with us everywhere we go and might be one of the first things someone notices about us (depressing, as it is with cars, however true).

image from Chicago Classic Cars

Therefore, like a car, bags must be reliable, comfortable, functional, and ideally, beautiful. But reliability is of utmost importance, lest you end up like Malika Ritchie, who I met during Fashion Week. Malika had traveled from Seattle to work dressing models backstage, and this was after the Karen Walker show, midway through her week:

I’ve had better luck with my Jerome Dreyfuss. I would estimate I carried it every day for the first two years I owned it, and then for the following two, gave it temporary breaks until occasions like Fashion Week or travel required the convenience and convertibility offered by the bag’s design details: the genius key-leash (long enough that you don’t need to detach them), the outer and inner pockets for passports and pens and the inner straps that let you gather it up small when it’s empty-ish, and expand it to hold a notebook when necessary.


That’s not a bad record, when you calculate the price per wear. But then just yesterday, as pictured above, a strap gave way. The bag didn’t come crashing down, no cell phones skipped down stairs. It happened quietly, the strap held strong by reinforcements and buckles until I could knot the end in a temporary fix.

I brought the bag to Sweden last week, where all my cameras, recorders, notebooks and cosmetics likely did it in. That’s also where I met Mike Schragger, at Stockholm’s Sustainable Fashion Academy. There, he proposed an interesting solution: leasing, rather than purchasing clothing. That way companies would be compelled to make their products more durable, since they would be responsible for the maintenance. He compared it to leasing a washing machine from Electrolux–a concept as foreign to a New York City girl as automobile ownership, but compelling nonetheless.

You might be thinking you already heard this idea, from Jennifer Hudson’s character in the Sex and the City movie.

But Schragger’s proposal sounds different–more like making a purchase from a company reliable for repairs and returns like Patagonia, rather than renting a patchwork Louis Vuitton until the trend passes. The benefit, of course, would be that rather than dropping $800 on a new bag (or $1800 in the Vuitton case), you could make smaller payments over the long-term, either working towards ownership, or returning it for a new ride when the time is right.

For the moment I’ll have to take of my own bag maintenance–although there is an updated model at Jerome Dreyfuss’ new downtown dealership I’d love to take for a test-drive.

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Weekend Reading

The New Yorker’s style issue is out this week, with a fascinating look at Polyvore by Alexandra Jacobs. If technology’s democratization of designer culture interests you, you might also like New York Magazine’s undressing of Gilt Groupe last month.

So much to read, write, wear and repair (just dropped four pairs of shoes off), so little time! How about a website to clean my closet?

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Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: Workers’ Rights 99 Years Later

Yesterday marked 99 years since the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burned on New York’s Lower East Side, killing 146 of its 500 workers, who were locked inside the building.The fire, and the campaign and reform for garment workers’ rights to follow, is well chronicled in Cornell’s Triangle Factory Fire online exhibit, where you can find photos, letters and original articles from 1911. It’s well worth a look, especially since nearly 100 years later, garment workers around the world still have to fight for a living wage, the right to organize and even their basic safety.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, Photographer Unknown

Earlier this year, 21 workers were trapped and killed in Bangladesh when a fire swept through the Garib & Garib Sweater Factory, which made clothing for companies like H&M. The factory had been audited just months before, but clearly key safety issues had been missed. (Ken Silverstein touched upon the issue of ineffective audits in his Harper’s piece “Shopping for Sweat,” which I linked to in January.)

This past Tuesday, in Stockholm, I met Malin Eriksson, who coordinates the Clean Clothes Campaign, a worldwide network committed to improving working conditions in clothing factories. She talked about how a well organized workforce could essentially serve as an in-house audit team on a daily basis. But that barely seems realistic when most of these workers have no job security and can’t afford to jeopardize their income by protesting unfair conditions. (Another CCC representative estimated that in countries where the organization is active, less than 5% of the garment workforce is unionized.)

When I asked Malin about Nicholas Kristof’s argument that abominable work conditions in a factory are better than no work at all, she explained that’s why the CCC’s urgent actions, which directly implement workers’ wishes usually involve letter-writing campaigns, rather than boycotts of the garments they produce.

In the case of the Garib & Garib fire, CCC has organized campaigns to demand medical care for injured workers, compensation for deceased workers’ families, a criminal investigation of the fire (CCC claims it wasn’t only preventable, it was predictable) and the direct support of these demands from brands doing business with the factory.

H&M Corporate Social Responsibility Manager Ingrid Schullström announced today that the company would donate 1 million Swedish Krona (about US $135,000) for preventative safety measures at factories in Bangladesh, and that they are waiting for reports commissioned from Save the Children and Incidin Bangladesh before deciding on further reparations for bereaved families.

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Access, Art and Engineering

A positive experience at New York Fashion Week is all about access.

41st Street, as seen from the entrance to the Bryant Park Tents

Ariel Kaminer, The New York Times’ City Critic, wrote a column (and made a video) about trying to talk her way into the Bryant Park tents. She posed as an earnest fan and didn’t invoke the name of her newspaper, but I would surmise that her stiletto heels and personal swagger certainly helped her successful attempts at entry. (Tory Burch: no; Nanette Lepore: yes) Thankfully, I have my post at Dossier to get me in the door at the shows I cover each season, so I didn’t have to do any fancy talking.

Well, almost any.

This season, I covered (these link to my reviews) John Patrick Organic, Rachel Comey, Cynthia Rowley, Karen Walker, Lorick, Simon Spurr, A Détacher, Bibhu Mohapatra, Sophie Theallet, 3.1 Philip Lim, and Alexandre Herchovitch, all in the name of Dossier. There was one more show, on a tentative spot at the end of my schedule, but my editor noted it was “pending confirmation,” meaning, we hadn’t received our official invitation: J Mendel. Sorry, she told me. She knew how much I wanted to see it.

I spent my final semester of journalism school reporting a story that took place largely behind the doors of Mr. Mendel’s Seventh Avenue atelier, primarily with one of his designers, and I was dying to see the fruits of her labor on the runway. I haven’t gotten permission to publish all I saw during my visits, but I think this little snippet from Mr. Mendel’s sample room should be okay:

The workers continued—pushing dresses delicately through sewing machines like giant wilted flowers, leaning over paper, rulers and pencils, and circumnavigating dress-forms, considering each angle of the dress they worked on. The dresses, even in this unforgiving blast of florescent lighting, hanging like skeletons in a science lab, made me forget all about my notebook, my class, my story, my graduation.

They were just beautiful.

A short-sleeved one the color of sand, covered in tiny silver beads that made the whole length shimmer, was suspended from hanger on a high rack, overseeing the scene like a glamorous ghost from the 1920s. A dress-form planted firmly on the ground wore a column—or two columns, rather, that met at the waist to become one, of feathery spice-colored silk chiffon, with pink ribbon fastening its layers at the shoulders.

And the blue one. I looked at it, stunned, then remembered my notebook. Storm cloud, I scribbled. And it was like a storm cloud, this deep marine gray gown standing in the stark white corner, enveloping the dress-form in swirls and layers so simultaneously wild and organic, it seemed they should only have occurred in nature. It was diaphanous and strong, fragile and commanding. It was absolutely beautiful.

“That,” said the designer, “was my baby for this collection.”

Just a half an hour before the show was scheduled to begin, I sat working at a computer at CUNY, telling myself I could always find the collection on Style.com later; that I didn’t really need to see that stormy blue gown in person. I kicked myself for not calling the designers directly. I tried to work on another review. I looked at the clock. Finally I couldn’t take it anymore, pulled on my coat, and walked the two blocks to the tents. No invitation. No credential. No nothing.

It was crowded, very crowded. And there were two lines to enter the salon where J Mendel would show his collection. In the first, invitations were being checked against a list, and  small cards with invitees names were issued. In the second, said cards were collected as the crowd entered. No one would be admitted, I learned, without a little card.

“Just make it easy,” a barrel-chested fellow in a black tee shirt told me. “If you don’t have a ticket, leave.”

I did not.

I smiled, turned on my heel, and went to the first line. I told a man behind a table my name and affiliation. He told me I wasn’t on the list. (I already knew that.) I told him I didn’t have my invitation (true) but I believed we were meant to cover the collection (true) and that there was no other editor from Dossier present (true.) He spoke into his little earphone for backup. I was imagining holding my elbows stiff to make a forced removal as dignified as possible when an authoritative woman–maybe she had a clipboard–arrived. I told her my name, my plight, and spelled D-O-S-S-I-E-R. She left. I waited. She came back, scrawled my name onto a little card, and sent me into the second line, where I waited again. This time, my barrel-chested friend waved me through.

I was in. The girls all stood still on the runway, allowing editors, buyers and very special customers to get a closer look.

In the crowd, I found the designers who helped with my reporting in the Fall. While socialites shopped and models mugged for the cameras, Mendel’s fur designer opened up one of their vests to show me the strips of fur sewn inside with gold thread.

I loved my behind-the-seams look at the showpiece, but it was nothing compared to finding the blue dress I had met months before, when it was pinned on a dress form in Mr. Mendel’s sample room.

I don’t know whether to call this a work of art or engineering.

Sometimes, like in the Wizard of Oz, a look behind the curtain can dissolve all the amazement. Lately, I’m finding just the opposite. It’s a little overwhelming, thinking about how all these materials, people and designs piece together, and how best to present it to you readers.

But rest assured, I’ve got loads of reporting, and I’m working on it.

If all goes well, with some fancy feats of access, art and engineering, I’ll be able to share it all with you in such a way that you, like me, can find the “wonder” in wondering what to wear.

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