Friday, March 30, 2012

The Wizards of Oudh

One week ago I was waking up in my cozy book filled brownstone in Brooklyn Heights only to hurriedly pack my bags and find my way to JFK. At midnight I would board the Qatar Express and awake on the other side of the world in the Gulf state of Qatar. There’s no easy way to prepare for a journey like this other than to pack warm weather clothes, plenty of deodorant and power plugs for the phone and computer. My mission was to come to the university here in Doha and act as critic and professor for the graduating class of the fashion design department. The students have 2 weeks left to finish their final thesis collections, which will go before a jury, of which I am also a member, to be selected for the all important fashion show. The show is easily one of the largest and most glamorous of social events for the entire year.

As Qatar is one of the Arab Emirates it is the richest of all the oil-drenched countries on the Arabian Gulf. That statement, alone, pales to the reality of this place. Imagine the fantasy world of Oz, shot full of steroids with a city that is more diamond than emerald, bustling with robed, jeweled women and men in Bentleys, Maseratis, Rolls Royce and every luxury car imaginable, with villas, palaces and sprawling compounds everywhere you look and that begins to describe the visuals one sees everywhere, every moment of every day. Then multiply that all by 1000 and you begin to get a picture.

What I’ve just described are the more obvious details I noticed. What is less obvious are all the layers of life and society here that make up this extraordinary feast for the eyes. In the classroom, the playing field is relatively level in the sense that all of the students have the normal challenges of expressing their ideas, meeting deadlines and doing their best to create interesting work. Though the age range is anywhere from 19 -40 years old, their personalities are surprisingly innocent. Cynicism and jadedness is almost completely absent. They hunger for knowledge and for a window onto the fashion scenes of Europe and the U.S. Bringing the Gospel according to Seventh Avenue falls on shockingly receptive ears, so my job is a happy and satisfying one. There are even princesses and cousins of the royal family, the Al-Thani, in class but you’d never know. So their mystique stays firmly in place. I’ve digressed a bit, but needed to give you the back-story before winding my way back to the point of this tale….

As a visual person, I have been barraged with people, places and things that have stopped me in my tracks again and again. Walking through several malls like the Pearl and the Villagio, which is an approximation of the Shops at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas complete with frescoed ceilings, walls that shoot skyward designed to look like palazzos along the canals of Venice and actual canals with gondolas with costumed gondoliers ferrying people about, another of my senses was absolutely overwhelmed. It wasn’t my sense of taste because I passed on KFC, McDonald’s, Applebee’s, Krispy Kreme, and Dean and Deluca among hordes of other familiar food court players, or the sound of song birds that were chirping everywhere, but my sense of smell.

Time and again an elegant woman dressed in a jeweled and embroidered abaya (the floor length black silk robe) and shayla (the equally elegant shawl that wraps around her head or in some cases covers her face completely) would float past me. I say float because they do not rush. They move slowly, elegantly and soundlessly with perfect posture. As they passed, a subtle cloud of perfume would linger in the air that was one of the most intoxicating scents I’ve ever encountered. After it happened about 50 times I asked my guide what it was I smelled. He said, “Oh, that’s Oudh”. There were subtle variations to the scent but in general it was essentially the same. It is impossible to describe except to say it is exotic, much more elemental than musk and the most seductive scent on the planet. Apparently, it comes from a very rare wood, Agar wood which is more precious than gold, literally. Its value is 1.5 times the value of gold and is considered the most expensive oil on the market. Many refer to it as liquid gold. The wood produces a resin that is distilled to create this essence with a few choice goodies tossed in for good measure. Very few scents in the west incorporate the essence beyond one by Commes de Garcon called Daphne.

I am on the hunt for it now to bring home as gifts if I can find the strength to let it go. I think I’m more likely to discretely spray it at home in the evening as I conjure scenes from a 1000 and 1 Arabian nights. I’ll share more discoveries with you all soon…Inshallah (means god willing)! But now I'm late for school, like I was as a student.....

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Style Illustrated : Jolain Bowen, the new girl in class!

Let's face it. The blogosphere is a very crowded corner with everybody and his mother fighting for a shred of space to spill their guts. Too often there's little worth listening to and even less worth looking at. So imagine my surprise when I came upon a fantastic new addition to the fashion blogging world (for lack of a better description) with Style Illustrated. Jolain Bowen is that rare creature who is a world class designer having had her own eponymous collection for several years before working alongside Calvin Klein, Carolyne Roehm, Joseph Abboud and Oscar de La Renta.The evocative illustration she creates to head her stories just begins to give you an idea of her talent. Her eye for the telling detail, gesture and subtlety of nuance is such a pleasure to behold. I, for one, will anxiously await her stories. There's something great to be learned in the art of connecting dots in this confusing game. Below, you'll see the second of her posts with one of my favorite subjects in fashion and social history who has shaped so much of what we see today. Wallis, Duchess of Windsor was one hell of a gal with whom the world never tires. Bravo Jolain!!!

Friday, March 9, 2012

Dark Duchess

Illustration by Jolain

Couture fittings, daily manicures and appointments with Alexandre, her coiffeur for twenty years, filled the Duchess of Windsor’s days. High style was her lifestyle. Though rigid by today’s standard, her aesthetic was apparent in the fall collections, most notably when imbued with a subversive edge hinting at a dark side.

Here’s what I deem Dark Duchess worthy.

Bottega Veneta

Bottega Veneta

Bottega Veneta

Aquilano Rimondi

Aquilano Rimondi

Nina Ricci

Nina Ricci Pre-fall

Nina Ricci Pre-fall

Nina Ricci Pre-fall

Stella McCartney


Alberta Ferretti

Chado Ralph Rucci

Carolina Herrera

Above images from

Michael Volbracht (1989) Acrylic painting
Available now at

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Chado Ralph Rucci Fall2012: As Stars Fell

William Ackerman is one of those virtuoso Guitarists who creates music that is at once complex and almost heavy with a back story of experience, artistic experimentation and triumphs. Listening to his melodies can be almost an ecstatic experience. The strings, chords, the incidental harmonics all woven with voices like a choir chanting and repeating phrases transports you. In a matter of moments or in the length of a song you're taken away. It's all so personal that no two people go to the same place because that place is most likely your past or a dream of somewhere else. The beauty is in the fact that he provides the vehicle and many portals for you to choose. And what does this have to do with fashion, a season or Ralph Rucci? Depending on you, nothing or everything.

Ralph Rucci's Fall collection has a very similar effect. The work has a very clear and distinct voice of its own. Looking at it on a rack, not even on the runway, though a model was showing looks for a photographer as I walked through, spoke clearly with little need for music accompaniment, lights, an audience of preening somnambulists or explanation. From the first, I was aware of their unique history. It's a bit like walking into a barn and going up to a horse that's just won the World Cup, silenced a stadium as it performed a flawless test at the Olympics and now he's standing there letting you pat his warm elegant head and run your fingers through his mane. The collection's impressive pedigree by any one's standards makes you stop and think. Rucci's almost legendary status as a master couturier, able to manipulate the most precious fabrics, creating embellishment, textures, re-imagining the nature of furs as garments, creating volumes and re-forming things as utilitarian as a sleeve, in essence re-inventing the shape and language of clothing and changing the face of what many of us see as contemporary fashion is something larger than dressmaking. The effect of past ready to wear collections and the couture (hell, it's all couture) he showed in Paris a few years back all have the overwhelming quality of being aesthetically and conceptually beyond the scope of even the very richest of women. Money doesn't make one fabulous, it just gives you a financial edge. Style has a different sort of price point. In the past one needed to step up to the plate to wear these clothes without looking like you were trying. My definition of trying too hard: think Daphne Guinness in just about everything she owns, and you get my drift.

With this collection, Ralph has done something unexpected. Without a conscious effort he has presented a collection of supreme simplicity. He moves from A to Z without so much as a blink of his eye. The volumes are there, the language that he created and whose nuances he's expanded on and added to is all there but now it stands before you as an invitation. Instead of commanding, "look at me" it whispers,"come with me". That's a huge difference. Decoration is less intense, less fraught with a brilliance that was at times over bearing. A sable cardigan is knitted and is as plush inside as out. He found a way to make sable "double-faced" with none of the structure or weight of a fur coat. The sweater has become a fur, stealing the thunder of cashmere and almost apologetically so. He prints on double face cashmere what appears to be the image of ruined fabric like artifacts found from some lost civilization. There's more than a shred of irony in his choice. Fisher, a poor man's sable is used beautifully to create a tiny jacket of ribs held together with strips of leather braiding. That elimination of structure also applies to his "Infanta" gowns near the collection's end. In the past, these dresses which were the showstoppers were wonders of construction with layer upon layer of precious detail, sweeping trains, wildly intricate and as dramatic as a complete opera in one dress. This time, it was like the first few bars of an overture, a magnificent melody laying out a theme, suggesting a story of love, loss and redemption but with only two layers: a column of copper patinated sequins with a gazar scrim of a different shape layered over top. On that scrim was a large Orientalist image that changed the hue and texture of the sequins below like a story told from different voices. And yet, it was as light as a feather requiring a single pair of hands to put on and take off.

Beautiful treatments of alpaca lined in Mongolian lamb, black heavy gaged knit dresses with a single front zip and artful rib placement were the ultimate day to night dresses. Double faced cashmere suits with trousers in wool, cashmere or leathers were smart without being clever. The high luxe pieces were there for those whose lifestyles demand the grand gesture, but there were many more styles that quietly spoke volumes. There is an annoying misconception out on the street where people think that these clothes are for a "mature" customer. That means old lady clothes. Sure, there are some very visible older women out there making their presence known conspicuously dressed in Chado. That is more occupational hazard than a statement of the limitations of the clothes. They(the clothes) also cost a fair amount of money making them accessible to women of means, most of whom tend to skew older. The fact is that they are not old clothes and they look fantastic on a woman in her 20's to 40's and equally great on a woman in her 60's and above. By pigeon holing them as old is unfair and short sighted. The press who consistently short sheets Rucci on the beauty and breadth of his offerings does little to change the minds of the public. Perhaps his resistance to play jester to the court of the press doesn't help his cause. When the New York Times gives him 3 or 4 sentences of a review and the other Ralph 3 whole columns, there is something off balance. Anna Wintour's complete lack of attention and unwillingness to editorialize any of the collection is just beyond the pale. It's not so much conspiracy theory as it is conspiracy fact. Jason Wu or Chado? You choose. All the press about musical chairs at the big houses in Paris. Its a lot of talk to take the focus away from what is.

Fortunately, there is much more to life and success in fashion than a page in Vogue or a pat on the head by the cloven hooves of its principals. Making the client happy, making women look and feel better than they did before you touched their lives and the journey from one's imagination to a place on the world stage can be reward enough. Take a long look at this collection and see if the music in it does more than make you tap your foot. It's a melody I can't get out of my head. As stars fall so does the night sky become illuminated. Just look up and see.