Dress For Succsess

How do you decide what to buy, and by extension, what to wear? You may choose an item of clothing based on fit, color or the latest trends. But even before you make that decision, before you step into that dressing room, or pick a hanger from a rack you see a blazer on a mannequin or in the window. Where in the store, how a sweater is displayed or what those jeans are paired with impacts what you pick up, try on and inevitably purchase. And who decided where and how things are arranged in the store? A visual merchandiser.

I got the opportunity to spend a day with the great Wayne Hirst, the National Visual Manager for the Italian fashion house Salvatore Ferragamo. Yep, he’s big time. After focusing on interior design at the University of Rhode Island, Wayne cut his teeth as merchandiser at Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodmanbefore joining Ferragamo. Wayne provides direction to those who run Ferragamo stores on brand standards for boutique windows and the interior displays. If we boil that down, he helps guide stores on how Ferragamo boutiques should look; how they design their windows and how they display the clothes and accessories. “Looks” come down the Ferragamo runway, and those looks should remain consistent in the boutiques around the world. Visual merchandisers help decide what items you see in a shop and what they are paired with.

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Wayne, who is based in New York, was in New England to visit the stores in Massachusetts and I met up with him at the Ferragamo outlet in Wrentham, MA. Outlets are an even bigger challenge, Wayne told me, because they do not get every item that came down the runway. To create a “look” that is consistent with brand standards and the way it was presented at either a fall or spring show may not be possible, so some structured improvising is necessary.

Wayne and I started by attacking the mannequins in the shop’s window. Don’t worry, we were gentle when we broke off their arms to better fit the clothing on to their lanky frames. Wayne, who has an unbelievable knowledge of each Ferragamo line from season to season, set out to create looks that were either on the runway, or when a piece of clothing was not at the store, found the closest thing to remain consistent with the original look.

Wayne putting the finishing touches on the look

Wayne putting the finishing touches on the look

I know the mannequins were not real people, but working with them was one of the hardest parts of the day. I was being too gentle with them. I was delicately tugging these very expensive items made out of the finest materials over their heads and shoulders as if they were toddlers I didn’t want to hurt or annoy too much. I was just as concerned with the clothes as the dummies. That’s when Wayne encouraged me to take off their arms and just get into it.  The message was received and I worked much faster after that.

It was so interesting to see and hear (Wayne was great about telling me everything that was going through his head as he tried to assemble these new looks), what goes into creating these looks. If the actual bag that was shown with the outfit could not be found in the outlet, then Wayne would mentally rundown the other looks shown side-by-side with that looks on the runway. It was fascinating.

Once we had the window in shape we tackled the nearly full wall of the store that was men’s shoes. When we arrived the shoes had been arranged to allow for a portion of the wall designated for a sale. Wayne took the approach that the entire wall should be organized by type of shoe (sneaker, driving loafer, hard-soled dress shoe, etc.). I started at one end of the wall and he started at the other. I was surprised that Wayne let me do this on my own, and I was really concerned that I would not do it right and he would have to re-do my work. Wayne shared with me some general rules (shoes should be grouped in twos and threes with pairs that have similar stitching or color, some should point out, some to the side), but I had been doing this for exactly…well, five minutes. I was almost panicked…then I was disappointed…in myself. Hadn’t I gotten over this need to be perfect? Wayne knew I had never done this before; he was not expecting me to be a wiz right out of the gate.

Part of our shoe wall

Part of our shoe wall

Wayne put my mind at easy by telling me that there is no real right or wrong answer, because it is very subjective (not counting the brad standards). Feeling liberated, I got back to work. At the end it really turned into a puzzle. If I had five shoes left but four had the same stitching along the toe, but they had to be in groups of two or three… You get the idea. It was like high fashion Sudoku.

I created a stand-alone table for sneakers

I created a stand-alone table for sneakers

Our shoe wall turned out pretty great if you ask this novice.  Then we moved on to women’s shoes and bags and I got more confident with each project. And as we wrapped up our day Wayne said that it was fun to work with me, because its great to hear other people’s ideas on what shapes, sizes or colors go together.

Women's shoes

Women’s shoes

Handbags

Handbags

As I walked out of Ferragamo at the end of the day, I was struck, not just by how much fun I had with Wayne, and how amazing it was to play with all these gorgeous pieces, but how much I learned. It was reinforced for the ump-teenth time that I should not be so focused on getting it “right.” And also I had a realization of just how much influence professional merchandizers, like Wayne, have over the decisions that consumers make. They are single-handedly the biggest factor in determining what you end up wearing whether at the high-end of Ferragamo, to your local J Crew or even displays at Target stores.

I didn’t see that lesson coming.

I’d like to thank Wayne Hirst and the folks at the Ferragamo Outlet for letting me spend the day with them. I was not compensated in any way for this post.

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Inspiring…and Certainly Not Saggy

Periodically on this blog I take time out from my own adventures to tell you about someone who has followed their passion until it paid off. This helps remind me—and I hope you as well –that if you stick with it (whatever your “it” is) it will pay off one way or another.

A few weeks back I had the opportunity to interview Andy Dunn, the co-founder and CEO of Bonobos, at the party to celebrate the retailor’s new brick and mortar “guideshop” right off of Boston’s Newbury Street. Boston was the site of the company’s first physical presence for getting up close and personal (not to mention trying on) with their wares (you still have to make a purchase online), having operated solely via e-commerce until about a year ago.

The scene at the guideshop party

The scene at the guideshop party

Dunn started Bonobos (named after particularly promiscuous primate, I’m going to leave that alone) by making a commitment to better fitting pants for men. “Fit” is a fashion buzz word most commonly associated with women’s attire.  Some would argue that men’s jeans and khakis don’t really “fit” at all; they sag and hang lifelessly from their owners’ bodies, suspended somewhere below their wastes (and sometimes even below their butts) by a hardworking belt.  That ended in 2007 when Dunn’s co-founder and business school classmate, Brian Spaly, started altering his pants after getting fed-up with their ill-fitting construction. That’s when the two friends started following their passion to create a better fitting pant, and embarked on their mission to — the in the words of The New York Times — “banish the saggy bottom.” (Dunn and Spaly parted ways in 2009 amid creative differences. Spaly has gone on to create Trunk Club).

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Dunn addressing guests at the Boston guideshop party

Speaking with Dunn in a corner of the bustling party, it was clear that he’s truly passionate about the company, its employees and its line of menswear that has expanded to include not only chinos, but also jeans, button-down shirts, suits, blazers, T-shirts, ties and a host of accessories. Pocket square anyone? Dunn’s face and tone emits the enthusiasm he has for his company and its products.

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Bonobos are great fitting and come in tons of fabulous colors

Bonobos made a name for itself not only based on great fit, but also on customer service. As an e-commerce site, their business model relied heavily on a generous lifetime return policy and knowledgeable personnel to provide assistance purchasing a product online that arguably everyone would prefer to see in person and try on. Their customer service representatives, known as “style ninjas,” are available via email, phone and twitter.

Dunn and I spoke about the difficulty of following your passion when there’s no guarantee that it will pay off or even get off the ground. “The leap is scary, but empowering,” he said, describing the initial venture. Contrary to what I would have thought, he said  it hasn’t become any less scary as the company has grown, despite its mounting success. Now he has 120 employees who depend on him and the company.

“Both our customers and employees love the product and love the company,” he said referring to being named one of the Top 50 Best Places to work by Crain’s New York Business. “So I know we’re doing something right.” By any measure, Bonobos is a success. In addition to $8 million in initial funding cobbled together from 100 angel investors, Dunn and company just went through s second round of financing totaling $30 million, including more than $16 million from Nordstrom, where Bonobos are now also available.

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Dunn said he learned a very important lesson on a trip to a Kenyan village towards the end of business school, and it’s stayed with him ever since. “It’s not risky to do what you love, it’s risky not to.” That idea really resonated with me (not that this blog is all about me…well…I guess it is) and has stayed with me even weeks later. It doesn’t matter if 500 people read this blog, or 5,000. I’m not doing this for you (no offense). I am doing it for me, and the fact that hundreds of you enjoy reading about my escapades–and appreciate my honesty when I’m having a “crisis” (of varying degrees)–is just a big ‘ol perk, but not one that I take for granted. The leap I am taking though this blog is bound to impact my life (and already has) in some unexpected ways, and as Dunn says, it’s much riskier for me not to do it than to jump in head first.

Thanks to Andy Dunn and all the lovely folks at Bonobos. You can see, feel and try on Bonobos by making an appointment at their guideshop on Dartmouth and Newbury, or at one of their five other locations, and make a purchase at www.bonobos.com. I was not compensated in any way for this post (But full disclosure, if they made women’s clothes I may have asked to be. Just kidding. Sort of).

Kenneth Jay Lane Part II

Full disclosure: I have a thing for older men.

Get your mind out of the gutter! I have a thing for talking to older men.

During college I would always visit my government professors during their office hours to discuss a recent lecture or assignment. But I would secretly hope that our conversation would meander on to other topics; topics they knew a lot about…and that I wanted to know a lot about. One English professor, who became a dear friend, Charlie Bassett, was frequently described as a cranky old man, but I saw someone who was fully engaged in his life and who had the perspective and the stories to prove it. And I wanted to hear all of them.

I felt the same way during my fascinating afternoon with famed jewelry designer Kenneth Jay Lane (if you missed my first installment on Lane you can read it here). As he charges into his eighth decade, behind him is a thoroughly lived life, filled with creative endeavors, travel and famous and fabulous friends. He’s also had a front row seat (in pretty amazing company) to many of the events and that shaped the last half century of fashion and New York life. He is a living, breathing fashion history book and I was riveted by every word that came out of his mouth.

Lane was welcoming and generous with his time. We sat down to begin our discussion and he ordered us Chinese take-out. Yes, Chinese! And it was the very best Chinese food I have ever eaten. We were joined for lunch by Freddie, who has been with Lane for fifty years. Freddie started out as his driver, and is now head of production. It was obvious that loyalty is one of Lane’s many virtues. He addressed many of the people who work for him as “Darling,” (which I loved) and interrupted our interview to greet and chat with the mailman. If I had expected him to be slightly curmudgeonly, it quickly became obvious that I had been wrong.

Our winding conversation covered diverse topics including his childhood, career, friends and legacy (which I thought, as an octogenarian, would be on his mind. He quickly corrected me). We spoke about his first trip to New York as a teen. He was a self-described “precocious” 15 year-old and had read up on The City, and had planned what he and his mother would do, see and eat (thanks to her subscription to Gourmet). He saw “Street Car Named Desire” starring a young Marlon Brando. What a way to be introduced to New York! Later, after attending the Rhode Island School of Design he moved to New York, but spent a great deal of time in Paris while designing shoes for Dior.

Lane with his dear friend Diana Vreeland. Photo courtesy of dianavreeland.com

Lane with his dear friend Diana Vreeland. Photo courtesy of dianavreeland.com

Lane began his company in the early 1960’s because the legendary editor Diana Vreeland encouraged him to give jewelry a try. He did not sketch designs, he played with materials and stones with his hands. He became great friends with Oscar de la Renta because they both worked in the Elizabeth Arden building on 5th Avenue and used to check out each other’s tailoring in the elevator. “We dressed much more formally back then,” he explained. They were both up-and-comers, and they forged a friendship that has lasted over fifty years. It was exciting to hear him talk about his friends, just the way I would describe mine, but his were…and are…fashion luminaries.

Oscar de la Renta (left) with KJL and Annette de la Renta (far right). Photo courtesy of New York Social Diary

Oscar de la Renta (left) with KJL and Annette de la Renta (far right). Photo courtesy of New York Social Diary

He has also had many friends who were part of New York society, back in a time when there were actual society pages. Times have indeed changed. “I don’t know anyone on Page Six anymore,” he told me, in reference to the notorious New York Post gossip page. Reality stars are now center stage. We mused about how there was a certain sense of modesty exhibited in those days that does not exist today. Members of Manhattan’s elite employed PR representatives “to keep their names out of the paper,” he observed. “Not to get them on the front page,” as they do today.

When did the expression “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” develop? Certainly not in Lane’s hey-day (I would use the term “prime,” but I’m not convinced that it’s not still ahead of him). The formality of dress and the fact that people tried not to attract a certain type of attention are just two small ways in which the world has changed before his eyes.

He said he has no real regrets. Everything he’s done has helped deliver him to this point in his life: he is still having fun creating beautiful things which women all over the world love and are still buying. His longevity itself is amazing, especially in an industry that measures careers in “seasons.”

He also told me that he doesn’t spend much time thinking about his legacy, or immortality. He has better things to do (although when we spoke about immortality, he said that if he were a Greek god he would be Bacchus, the god of wine. As if I needed another reason to love him!). But he is slowly giving away his vast collection of art to the MET, something he describes as “quite fun.” The pieces that he has collected and treasured over the years will be treasured by generations to come in the Kenneth Jay Lane Gallery.

“I’ve been very lucky in my life,” he said. “I have met amazing people, had amazing friends.” It just so happens that those friends where some of the most fashionable people of their time. He admitted that it’s sad that many of those dear friends have passed away, but he spoke with love about his many godchildren and the fact that he has been able to “select” his family, a close-knit group of friends. Kenneth Jay Lane seems comfortable with all that he as experienced and accomplished, but he’s still pushing to create beautiful pieces for a new generation of fans who can’t wait to see what he does next.

Our conversation was truly a unique experience. I have never interviewed someone whom I am such a fan of before. And to my delight, this interview morphed into more of a conversation, so I could imagine what it may be like to be friends with this fascinating figure. Our conversation was so fun, yet so surreal, that I am not sure I can do it justice in this post, but it’s amazing to me that little old blog has brought me face to face (literally) with this fashion icon. If I accomplish nothing else with it, The Great Wide Open has already given me so much more than I had ever dreamed it would. But I will follow the sage advice Lane offered (of course it was advice meant for young designers who experience sudden success, not bloggers, but it’s great advice for anyone): I will not rest on my laurels. Like Lane, I will continue to follow my passion, push to create more, experience more, write and entertain you more.

But seriously, how do I top this?

Me and KJL 2

I cannot begin to thank Mr. Lane enough for taking the time to meet with me, not to mention the delicious Chinese food. I would also like to thank Vicki Grapsas and the entire KJL team for having me. I was not compensated in any way for this post.

Kenneth Jay Lane Part I

Sometimes when there is a lot of anticipation surrounding an event, you end up disappointed when it doesn’t live up to your mile-high expectations. I find that New Years Eve and birthday parties are prime examples of this phenomenon. Meeting jewelry designer Kenneth Jay Lane was the antithesis.

I arrived at Lane’s showroom on 37th Street in New York’s Fashion District to find him sitting at a round table in the middle of the action. As he stood to greet me I felt more nervous than any other interview I have ever conducted in my career. Journalists must remain objective about their sources, but as my career has morphed from journalist to blogger, I have been able to relax those stringent rules drilled into my head in J School and just have fun. Last Friday I was able to be interviewer and admirer at the same time. Lane and I spoke about his career, his fabulous friends, how the business (not to mention the world) has changed in the fifty years he has been in the jewelry business. This week I’m writing about his work and company, next week will be about about the man himself.

(I am breaking the posts up for several reasons: I have two hours of audio recordings to transcribe and my post about our conversation means a tremendous amount to me. I don’t want to rush the writing of it. This also gives readers who are not as obsessed with Lane as I am valuable background before we dive into our incredible personal conversation).

Lane, who just turned 80, looked dapper in a double-breasted navy blazer, a blue button-down shirt and jeans. He grew up in Michigan, but speaks with the sophisticated inflection of an East Coast patrician. He moved east to attend Rhode Island School of Design, and then to Manhattan. I am a huge fan of his work, and was incredibly curious about what he would be like. I was also a little worried that I may be disappointed by meeting the man behind the animal bangles. What if he was not all that I thought he would be? I had no reason to be worried. In real life Lane is kind and was very generous with his time. He was also funnier than I had expected. As we took our seats at the table I took a moment to soak in my surroundings.  His showroom is filled with his designs, every wall, shelf and surface is covered in rings, animal cuffs and his iconic statement pearl necklaces. This is where buyers from around the world come to choose the Kenneth Jay Lane items that they want to feature in their stores. The different sectioned-off nooks of the showroom are organized by style, color and material.

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And then we started talking…our conversation was easy and engaging, punctuated with laughs, cigarettes and Chinese take out.

Lane said he never expected to be a jewelry designer. He fell into it — he refers to his jewelry career “this funny thing” — in the early 1960’s. He had been designing shoes for Dior when his friend, the legendary Bazaar and Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, suggested he try jewelry. And with that small nudge, a legend was born. Within a month his pieces were in department stores and boutiques up and down Fifth Avenue. One month! That’s a testament not only to his vision, but also his friends and supporters, who, in addition to Vreeland, included the upper echelon of fashion and New York society.

The showroom was filled with Lane's beautiful creation like these bracelets

The showroom was filled with Lane’s beautiful creations

Could this type of over-night success happen in today’s internet age? Probably. One mention by personalities such as Oprah can mean millions of dollars in sales, but there is something so organic about Lane’s speedy success. He came into his own at a more modest time. He observed that in his heyday individuals employed PR representatives “to keep their names out of the paper, not to get them on the front page” as they do today.

Lane speaks about his lengthy career as I imagine any octogenarian would: he is comfortable with what he’s done and all he has accomplished. He said he has no real regrets. It’s a perspective that must come from time and experience. It’s clear that Lane does – and designs – what he likes, and doesn’t seem all that concerned with what other people think. As it so happens, other people love what he designs. He says that “jewelry should be fun,” and his is. From the animal cuffs, to his Art Deco pendants (Art Deco is his favorite styles), to the elaborate gold pieces inspired by his travels to Egypt. His pieces are as popular and relevant as they were decades ago.

One of Lane's newest creations

One of Lane’s newest creations

Lane is a perfectionist. The bracelet above took about a year and a half to get just right, from the shade of the stones (he special orders glass and semi-precious stones from Germany) to their exact placement. His is an artistic process, “But the joy you get from getting it right,” Lane observed, “is quite fun.”

99% of Kenneth Jay Lane jewelry is manufactured in the U.S.A., specifically in a studio off of the showroom. I was able to spend some time in the workshop with the dozens of artisans and support staff who string the pearls and solder the stones (specially chosen for the exact shade). It was incredible not only to see all the beautiful pieces on display, but also see where and how they are made.

Scenes from Lane's Workshop

Scenes from Lane’s workshop

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Stringing pearls

Lane comes to the office every day and remains the company’s only designer. While still extremely popular in the U.S. fifty years after he started, he is also a favorite of women across the globe. In an age when, as a nation, we are so concerned with “keeping up with China,” Kenneth Jay Lane is one of the few brands that exports “Made in America” products to Asia. His pieces are also extremely popular in Japan, Turkey and Almaty, Kazakhstan which is experiencing a major economic boom. Who would have guessed?

Lane does not rest on his laurels. Although you can still buy many of his iconic pieces that shot to popularity decades ago — and remain on-trend today — he continues to develop new products and categories. In August he will launch a line of watches, which he gave me a sneak peek of. One watch in the collection is modeled after the very watch that Lane himself wears. He also took the time to show me a new line of scarves that he is working on. He is 80-years-old and is still inspired to create fresh, new, fanciful pieces of wearable art.

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Kenneth Jay Lane watched, available in August 2013

Kenneth Jay Lane watches, available in August 2013

As with most things related to this blog, my conversation with Lane eventually turned to the discussion of his passion in life, specifically whether designing jewelry is that passion. His answer was simple in its practicality. “Jewelry doesn’t hurt anyone,” the former shoe designer observed. “Shoes can have fit problems,” which is the most polite way to describe women struggling to walk gracefully in uncomfortable heels. Jewelry, especially Kenneth Jay Lane’s, is fun.

When I asked him if designing is more fun now than it was in the 1960’s he did not miss a beat. “Much more fun now,” he explained. “I have much more money now and I don’t mind spending it on experimenting.”

Fifty years later Kenneth Jay Lane is still experimenting, to the great benefit of his fans all over the world, including this one.

Look at that goofy smile on my face. Can you tell I'm excited?

Look at that goofy smile on my face. Can you tell I’m excited?

Stay tuned for next week’s post on my personal conversation with Kenneth Jay Lane in which we covered everything from the idea of celebrity, his famous friends and admirers, how society – and the society pages – have changed over the years and his legacy.

Dreams Really Do Come True

All of you who have come along on this adventure with me know that this blog has brought me a great deal in a very short time. It has brought me to a place where I am more adventurous, more comfortable in my own skin, more appreciative of my strengths, and (probably most importantly) more accepting of my weaknesses. On Friday this blog will bring me to a place that I never dreamed: face to face with the legendary jewelry designer Kenneth Jay Lane.

Courtesy of Kenneth Jay Lane

Courtesy of Kenneth Jay Lane

For those of you who aren’t familiar with this master’s work, get ready to have your socks knocked off! Mr. Lane, or KJL as many of his fans refer to him, has been designing his own jewelry collection since 1962, and his pieces have been worn by famous (and famously fashionable) women such as Wallis Simpson, (the Duchess of Windsor), Jackie Kennedy and Elizabeth Taylor. Remember Barbara Bush’s signature three-strand pearl choker. Yep, that was JKL.

The Duchess of Windsor in KJL necklaces. Photo by Patrick Lichfield, Vogue 1967

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor in KJL necklaces. Photo by Patrick Lichfield, Vogue, 1967

His jewelry is also loved by a new generation of fashionistas as diverse as Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Michelle Obama (yes, it’s a stretch, but I include myself in this category as well) who love is colorful pieces, many of them animal inspired, covered in lacquer or semi-precious stones. And on Friday I will have the rare and exclusive opportunity to meet and interview the legend himself, learning how he followed his passion for fashion and created an amazing career and life out of it. I will be taking notes hoping that I can learn lessons to apply to my own passion-chasing adventure. I will also be spending time in his studio to see if making jewelry is my life’s next passion.

Michelle Obama in vintage Kenneth Jay Lane earrings

Michelle Obama in vintage Kenneth Jay Lane earrings. Photo by Saul Loeb

I can’t even begin to express how excited I am for this adventure. I am a huge fan. I own several KJL pieces, and love them dearly. Like any good journalist, I have been preparing for the interview of my life intensely.  I have read Mr. Lane’s book (a must read, the pictures are gorgeous and it is a who’s-who of fashion and society), and researched his life.  And you can get in on the action as well. If you have a question you are dying for me to ask Mr. Lane let me know. Leave a comment, email me or tweet me. I will choose a handful and will include the answers in my post.

Tune in next week for my two-part post on the man, and his work. I am filled with butterflies in anticipation of whatever Friday will bring, but one thing is for sure…as he told me himself, via twitter, I will not know what hit me.

KJL Tweet

These Boots were Made for Walk’n

After learning all about the art of shaping cowboy hats while in Wyoming a few weeks ago, I was struck by all the innate elements of life in parts of our country that I know nothing about. When the idea of “traveling” comes up, I don’t think I am the only person who automatically thinks of wandering through ancient cities abroad as opposed to exploring this diverse country of ours. So when I found myself in Austin, Texas this past weekend, I sought out another local institution to get an education on an item that is a staple in many areas across the nation: the cowboy boot.

It didn’t take much time or effort to identify the perfect spot for my boot-u-cation: Allen’s Boots has been the place to go for boots for over 30 years. To say that their selection is extensive is an understatement; Allen’s has over 10,000 pairs on display at any given time. The incredible knowledgeable sales staff can also help you create custom designed boots through Lucchese, the legendary Texas boot-maker.

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Two of Allen’s best, Andrea and Carole, gave me a history lesson on cowboy boots before helping me find my own perfect pair; my first pair ever. I learned that cowboy boots evolved organically. After the Civil War, Americans traveled west where cattle roamed the plains. The traditional Wellington style of boot worn by soldiers morphed into the cowboy boot we all recognize today out of practicality. For example, the heel allowed a better grip for the foot while in the stirrup, and the leather sole made it easier to get out of that stirrup quickly. Today, cowboy boots are still worn for practical purposes, but also for fashion reasons. Cowboy boots come in a variety of colors, with elaborately stitched designs, including studded versions that are better suited for a strutting down a catwalk than tending to cattle.

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As I wandered up and down the aisles in a trance-like state, I didn’t know where to begin, so I do what I do best: talk to strangers. I decided what I needed — in addition to the experts at Allen’s – was advice from my fellow-shoppers; smart and savvy ladies who have picked out boots before. One woman urged me to choose based on comfort, nothing is worse than boots that hurt. Another wise sage recommended I wait until a pair “spoke to me.” So tried to channel my inner boot whisperer to make contact with my perfect pair of boots.

And it worked, I found them! They were gorgeous; supple buffalo hide in a shade of auburn the color of port with leather embellishment along the toe. They fit perfectly, and felt incredibly comfortable as I sauntered up and down the aisle. Then I checked the price tag. Of course, the boots that spoke to me were $1,500 Lucchese masterpieces. I decided that I could not speak back to this particular pair. I quickly yanked them off my feet before I fell deeper in love. No need to waste my time on something that will never work out (words to live by in many areas of life, don’t you think?). I had to balance my love with both fiscal responsibility as well as the practicality of the situation. I live in Boston, not fertile soil for cowboy boots. Maybe simple was the way to go for my first pair, to ease into the trend, and see how I incorporate them into my urban wardrobe.

The Beautiful Lucchese's, they only run $1,500

The Beautiful Lucchese’s, they only run $1,500

In far less dramatic fashion I chose an all-black pair of Ariats. The brand was founded by two former Reebok employees who brought their knowledge of sneaker technology to cowboy boots in the form of an athletic show insole. And they did feel like slipping into a pair of broken-in running shoes. Now, I know what you are thinking, practical, shmactical. If I am going to get a pair of cowboy boots, why not go big or go home? Well, it is  precisely because of the fact that I do have to go home (to Boston) that I wanted to get a pair that I may actually wear, as opposed to just collect dust in my closet. The boots I decided on are simple enough that I feel confident I will be able to integrate them into my existing wardrobe, which leans more toward colorfully refined than country rugged.

The practical choice

The practical choice

This is where you come in, I hope. I’d love to hear how you suggest I wear my new cowboy boots! Leave a comment below, send an email, tweet or tag me in an instagram picture bringing your suggestion to life. I will try out some of the suggestions and post pictures. Giddy up!

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Texas Forever

Texas Forever

Many thanks to Andrea and Carole, and all the wonderful people at Allen’s Boots, who were so generous with their time and knowledge during my cowboy boot education session. If you find yourself in Austin, you need to visit Allen’s Boots. It’s a must!

Cowboy Country

I recently traveled to a different kind of “great wide open” by visiting Wyoming for the first time. While I was pretty busy with work while there, I did manage to squeeze in an hour-long adventure of learning a skill…one might even call it an art…that is unique to this part of the west: hat shaping. You can probably guess the type of hat that I learned to shape? Yes, a Cowboy hat.

Just a sampling of the hats available at The Wrangler

Just a sampling of the hats available at The Wrangler

Having lived my entire life up and down (but mostly up) the east coast I thought “cowboys” only lived in Texas. Boy was I wrong. Cheyenne, Wyoming is thought of as the rodeo capital of America, and they have the event to prove it. To further demonstrate my naiveté to all things west of the Mississippi, I was also unaware that cowboy hats were shaped differently, nor did I understand that the shape of one’s hat can offer clues as to where its owner is from. Needless to say, I received quite an education when I walked into The Wrangler in downtown Cheyenne. The Wrangler is local institution, and one of the few places that still shapes hats. In addition, they sell all sorts of western ware and fashions indigenous to this part of the country. I have never seen so many cowboy boots in my life.

Courtesy of Jeff Allen

Jeff Mullins working a hat. Photo courtesy of Jeff Allen

Jeff Mullins is The Wrangler’s resident hat shaper. He started shaping hats at the age of five, in his native Texas, and was kind enough to give me a lesson on this dying art. While the fact that cowboy hats are shaped was a surprise to me, the technique used was not. To shape the wool or felt (two common materials, sometimes supplemented with beaver or rabbit fur), Jeff uses steam to make the material malleable, then he works it into the desired shape with his hands. This is the same technique that Marie Galvin used to shape the beret we created together on my day as a milliner. I was pleasantly surprised that this skill was actually coming in handy for a second time! Like so many of the experts I learn from as part of this blog, Jeff is self-taught. While he now uses a steam machine to heat the material before shaping, he started out using steam from a tea pot on his family’s stove.

Courtesy of Jeff Allen

Lots of steam. Courtesy of Jeff Allen

Cowboy hats are initially shaped to satisfy the style and shape requests of a customer. All hats initially come with a full, round, dome-like top and a perfectly flat brim. To steam the material Jeff held the hat close to the steam machine, at times moving his hand away when it got too hot (burning digits is an occupational hazard, he explained). As the material got softer, he used his hands to shape the brim (the curve of a brim should start in line with the wearer’s temples) and used his fingers to create creases and dimples in the top of the hat. There are three popular shapes: cattleman’s crown (which accounts for 65% of all hats sales), “brick top,” and “Gus.” After an initial purchase, hats can also be re-shaped throughout their lifetime to maintain its shape, change its shape, or if it gets squashed when you are bucked off a bronco (it seems that happens more often than an east-coaster would think).

Courtesy of Jeff Allen

It’s almost like getting a facial. Photo courtesy of Jeff Allen

During our lesson, Jeff also explained how certain shaped hats are popular in different parts of the country. This fact allows experts like Jeff to identify where someone is from (Texas, Colorado, or Wyoming for example) by the shape of his or her hat. Jeff said he gets lots of people who comment that he is not from Wyoming, which is true. He is from Texas and wears his hat accordingly.

As with all things there is a right way and a wrong way to shape a hat. But to be honest, the differences in the curve of a brim can be so subtle that it seemed that a novice (like me) could make up their own shape and style and have it look pretty o.k. But of course, if I did that, no self-respecting cowboy would dare wear it so I guess that would defeat the purpose.

I did a little shaping, but this is one thing I am smart enough to leave to experts like Jeff. But I may have to bring the cowboy hat look back to Boston. I look pretty good, no?

Courtesy of Jeff Allen

Courtesy of Jeff Allen

 Many thanks to Jeff Mullin for taking the time out of his day to show me how real cowboys shape their hats. I’d also like to thank Pam and Lacy for letting me take over the hat shop at The Wrangler. It’s a must-see if you find yourself in Cheyenne. Thanks also go out to the talented Jeff Allen — who is quickly becoming a regular on this blog — for documenting my lesson. Here are some pictures I took on my trip into the other great wide open. Enjoy!

Jeff

Photographer Jeff Allen on top of the world

sunset

Wyoming has amazing sunsets

buford

I single-handedly doubled the population of Buford, WY

photo shoot

Wyoming photo shoot

wind

And this is another great sunset shot courtesy of Jeff Allen

And this is another great sunset shot courtesy of Jeff Allen

(Helping You) Shop ‘Til You Drop

There are only three shopping days left before Christmas, and everyone, including myself is in the shop ‘til you drop mindset. This is surely the most challenge time of year to work in retail; the number of customers is high and their patience is low. In the spirit of, “go big or go home,” what better time is there to see if I can cut it in sales? I have a passion for shopping; maybe I could develop a passion for helping others shop.

The lovely ladies at North River Outfitters, on Charles Street in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston were kind enough to let me help them out on a recent Saturday. They have just moved into a new space (right next door from the former incarnation of NRO) that allows for more space to display their well-edited collection for men and women that includes Tory Burch, Elizabeth McKay, Vineyard Vines and Barbour. They are also one of the few retailers of Alden shoes, the New England cobblers. The day I was there they were hosting an Elizabeth McKay trunk show, so I wore my favorite silk blouse of hers so that I would look the part of retail goddess.

The beautiful Elizabeth McKay trunk show items

The beautiful Elizabeth McKay trunk show items

Kathleen Godbold, the manager of this NRO store (there are two other NRO stores on Charles Street, as well as on Martha’s Vineyard), started out by walking me around, and giving me some retail tips. The first one made me feel as if I may really be cut out for retail. When Kathleen said, “We always want things to look neat,” I dorked-out and I felt a goofy grin spread across my face. I too like things to be neat, so walking around the store straightening piles of fleeces and making sure the spines of the beautiful books on display here line up completely evenly sounded more of a treat than a chore. I thought that I may be just Type-A enough to succeed at this.

Do you need a tie? NRO has the perfect one

Do you need a tie? NRO has the perfect one

Then just as quickly, my perfectionist status betrayed me. The store got very busy, customers were finding treasurers for their family and friends, and logic dictated that I should approach one of them and ask if they needed any help. But I knew that unless they had a subjective question (Do I get the green or black Barbour motorcycle jacket?) for which I could rely on my style acumen, I wouldn’t really be able to help them. I didn’t know if there were additional sizes in the back, and I didn’t know exactly how the merchandise was organized, if the price was not clearly marked on an item, I would not know how to find out how much it cost without asking someone else.

If I asked someone if they needed help, and they took me up on that offer, what was I going to say? “Hold on just a moment and I will find the answer to that question for you.” Well, yes, that would have been the perfectly acceptable answer, but for some reason I felt embarrassed to let customers know that I didn’t know what I was doing. When I realized this emotion rising up in me was insecurity, I felt ashamed. Why was I concerned if someone knew that I am not a seasoned retail professional? Couldn’t I just explain that I am a blogger who tires different jobs and activities on the search for my next passion in life? I could call it grassroots marketing for The Great Wide Open. My perfectionist tendencies seem to be hard to shake off.

Helping a satisfied "customer"

Helping a satisfied customer

I was lucky to have some dear friends come in to shop early on, so I got to warm up with friendly faces and then I just had to jump into the deep end. The amazing NRO ladies, Kathleen, Josie and Maggie, where so helpful throughout the afternoon and we were able to seamlessly tag team with customers when I needed their help. I managed to help one woman, and while I waited to ring her up (the last time I worked in customer service, during college, cash registers were the standard, now everything is on computers, and I am not good with computers, so I needed a lot of assistance) I grew concerned that she was getting impatient, so I explained that it was taking a while because I had been working retail for exactly 45 minutes. It turns out she was not impatient at all. She laughed and complemented me on my courage to take on this challenge in late December. We started chatting about this blog, and her daughter’s upcoming wedding. It turns out that, like me, she attended Colby, and on top of that, I knew her daughter from college! Instead of feeling ashamed about being slow at ringing her up, I ended up reveling in my extra time with her.

Kathleen teaching me to ring someone up

Kathleen teaching me to ring someone up. I look very concerned.

After that sale, I was buoyed with newfound confidence. I approached many more customers, showed them to fitting rooms, offered fashion advice, found them different sizes, I even pulled items off the mannequins in the window when it caught someone’s eye. Yes, I had to ask a lot of questions, but I become more comfortable with that as well. Everyone was so nice, I could see exactly why Kathleen says the best part of her job is her customers.

By the end of the day I felt silly for being so embarrassed about my status as the newest member of the NRO team. This blog has been a great vehicle for me to slough off my perfectionist ways, but it seems my Type-A rehabilitation is a marathon, not a sprint. I will keep trying new and different things, searching for what I am passionate about, and (slowly) becoming a mellower version of myself in the process.

NRO is in the holiday spirit

NRO is in the holiday spirit

If you live in Boston and are in need of the perfect last-minute gift, scoot on over to the NRO shops (NRO, NRO Kids and NRO Sport), they have an amazing collection of apparel and accessories for everyone on your list from: from newborn to parents, fashionistas to adventurers. I must thank Marie, Kathleen, Josie and Maggie for being so kind and patient with me. I would also like to thank all of NRO’s customers who were equally patient. I was not compensated in any way for this post.

I hope each and ever one of you have a wonderful holiday season, I’ll be back in the new year!

Great Expectations

So, as I have hyped over the last week, I attended my first fashion show in New York over the weekend, a true fashion adventure. As it turns out my expectations were a little too high. Don’t worry, armed with all of your great suggestions I managed to create a killer outfit (more on that later). My dear friend Jenna and I did our research. That is to be expected, of course, she is an accomplished journalist and I have not quite been able to truly shake that habit yet. We examined fall trends and the shows from last week. We even enlisted the advice of stylists, both of the professional variety as well as you, my citizen fashionistas. We were ready!

Our killer shoes

Honestly, getting ready for the show may have been more fun than the actual show. Closet fashion shows with girlfriends are tough to beat, aren’t they? We rolled up to the Waldorf and took our seats, not in the front row, but in the second (not to shabby).

With the show featuring couture, I expected the type of hyper-stylized and eclectic looks that we saw come down the runway. What I did not expect were the eclectic outfits of our fellow audience members. The ratio of fashionista to fashion victim was slanted in the wrong direction. I even spotted a banana clip with bejeweled interlocking “Cs.” Neither Coco Chanel nor Karl Lagerfeld OK’d that! Judging from the crowd you would think we had walked into an episode of “The Real Housewives of New Jersey.” It was a people-watcher’s dream.

We saw the work of three international designers. First up was Wendy Luzon whose work included sparkly chains dangling from bedazzled shoulder pads.

A good shot of the offending banana clip

Isabel Zapardiez showed some elaborate wedding gowns in hues of ivory and blush with distinct headwear that at times looked like tiny birds were taking up residence in the model’s nest-like hair styles.

Last up was Giovanni LoPresti, who dressed his models in masks and funky night club-worthy pieces incorporating leather and sequins. This was couture, so I don’t think anyone is supposed to wear the looks exactly the way they were presented on the runway, and that’s probably a good thing.

My first fashion show was a great experience, even if it didn’t quite live up to my Oscar de la Renta fantasies. I had been a little nervous about being overdressed, underdressed, or not dressed just right, but I was also expecting a scene out of “The Devil Wears Prada,” with stick-thin stylists and editors fighting over seats in the front row. This was certainly not that, but I didn’t know that until we got inside. Outside the Waldorf, my anticipation gnawed at me as my heart beat faster and faster. But walking in with my friend, I put on a confident smile, added a little strut to my steps and sauntered in like I belonged…then exhaled in relief as we sat down — the realization sinking in that we were not the ones who should to feel self-conscious.

Crazy fashion show lighting, but our smiles are obvious

Now to the good part, my outfit: the dress was my own, by tibi. My leather sash and clutch came from the closet of Whitney Dayton Brunet and those amazing shoes are Luxury Rebel courtesy of Jenna Lee, my date for the evening. Thank you for all your suggestions, I incorporated many of them into this ensemble.

I can’t express enough appreciation for Molly Galler and Wheeler del Toro for sending me to my first fashion show. It was quite an experience and I am now prepared for when Oscar invites me to his spring 2013 show in February (pretty please).

Front Row or Bust

My celebration of Fashion Week rolls on with a surprise opportunity. Thanks to Molly Galler, the great blogger behind PopBopShop, and Wheeler Del Toro of 3 Scoops in Brighton, MA I will be going to a Couture Fashion Week show on Saturday. What more could a fashionista like me wish for?

The picture that won me Fashion Week tickets. Courtesy of Kara Kochalko

These tickets were part of a giveaway that Molly hosted. To win we had to submit a picture of ourselves in our most front-row-worthy outfit. As you all know, I never do anything half way, so I took this as a challenge. I grabbed an armful of fun items from my closet and pleaded with the talented Kara Kochalko to capture me doing my best Anna Wintour impersonation, minus the bangs. The result you can see here, and the rest, as they say, is history.

This is going to be a challenge of confidence as opposed to the majority of my other escapades which tend to be challenges in a physical or emotional sense. I have to strut into the Waldorf Astoria (hopefully on a carpet in some shade of red) looking like I belong there. Now, I know and love fashion, but couture? Each of these pieces will be made to order for its future owner who will no doubt spend thousands of dollars on each piece. I, on the other hand, will be spending $25 on a Bolt Bus ticket to NYC.

I always think about what I am going to wear on my adventures, but this time it actually matters!  Black is always safe in New York, but for the theatrics of a couture show, a little extra may be necessary…maybe one of Marie Galvin’s fascinators? The clock is ticking for me to perfect my double air kiss and to find the ultimate Fashion Week ensemble.

Here’s where you come in: I need your help and will take any and all suggestions on what to wear. Leave me a comment, send me an email, tweet, instagram a picture, send a carrier pigeon, anything! I will be headed to NYC on Friday afternoon so be sure to weigh in before then. Keep in mind that if I fall in love with your idea, I have to be able to find it in Boston this week, or with little time to spare in Manhattan on Saturday afternoon.

I will, of course, document every moment of my fashionable adventure so you will get to see whose suggestions I take. Ciao Darlings (I am practicing already)!

Many thanks to Kara Kochalko for being generous with her time and her camera. She also took my profile picture, so as you can see she is very talented. Thanks also go out to Molly Galler and Wheeler Del Toro of 3 Scoops for making this would-be fashionista’s style dream come true.