When I graduated from college, with my newly minted degree in International relations, I was convinced that I was going to work for the United Nations in New York. I thought it would be something like a cross between a Hollywood thriller (like this), and a really interesting term paper on some arcane piece of aid legislation. What I didn’t realize was that the likelihood of me actually getting a job in any field related to international relations was pretty close to zero. I didn’t have connections, I didn’t belong to any particularly under-represented ethnic group, and I wasn’t really ‘special’ enough.
So I did something else entirely. I went to work in fashion. It wasn’t anything I was particularly qualified for, but it was something I understood fairly well and was very interested in. In the roughly 5 years that I lived in New York, I worked for firms that touched on fragrance, clothing, accessories, and design. I learned all about advertising in print, radio and TV (this before the Internet… yes, I AM that old), I learned about the mechanics of working in an office (which is a course that I believe should definitely be offered to anyone who will ever work in such an environment, but which, to the best of my knowledge, doesn’t exist), and I learned that no matter how crazy and cut-throat the fashion world is, I loved everything about it.
Like most little girls, I used to sneak into my mother’s makeup box and put on lipstick, sometimes steal into the closet to try on high heels, and I loved watching Mom get dressed up to go out to dinner or the theater.
When I started working for a firm that did business with Oscar de la Renta and Perry Ellis, I felt so glamorous and accomplished: it was as if Mr. De la Renta’s refinement and elegance rubbed off on anyone who came within 10 feet of him. Gracious, unfailingly polite and remarkably talented, this man had the ability to make a woman – any woman (even a young lady who might share an elevator with him) feel as if she was in the presence of a real gentleman… a throwback to an era of gallantry, hands presented to be kissed and cocktails at 5 in the afternoon.
I worked for a company called Parfums Stern, the licensee of Oscar’s signature fragrance (disclosure: now the scent of this heady mix of strong florals makes me gag – I was surrounded by it for so long, and in so many forms that I can no longer stand it). We marketed the fragrance as an aspirational purchase: even if you couldn’t afford to buy one of Oscar’s dresses (and most women couldn’t), you could have a piece of the dream buy wearing his perfume. That idea wasn’t new – we have cartons of perfume ads from the 1920s at L’Affichiste – but fashion marketing was beginning to take on a life of it’s own in the 1980s, and companies like Parfums Stern were at the forefront of magnificent, costly advertising campaigns which plastered billboard, magazines and TV.
I very clearly remember being present for the shoot of a TV ad for Oscar in the late 1980s. It was organized at a New York landmark called the Harkness House, and it involved a bevy of beautiful supermodels, all wearing Oscar gowns (of course), and music and and and… I cant find it on line, but it had some of the allure of this recent Chanel show.
As I write this, I am planning a brief trip – with Kristina, my very fashionable second-in-command at L’Affichiste – to New York to soak in Fashion Week in September. We are planning to sneak into as many shows as we can, and even if we don’t run into Mr. de la Renta, I am sure we will come back invigorated, inspired, and full of the vim and vinegar which makes New York famous. It will be fun to go back into that world – and even more fun to come home!