Of Dinosaurs and Bras

I have a little obsession here in Madrid.

There are these peculiar stores that are like nothing else in the US and they’ve taken my attention for awhile. This is mostly because I came to discover that what I thought was one type of store is actually more nuanced than I realized.  So, after chatting with a few owners who gave me the lowdown, there seems to be three inconsistent, unenforced, and somewhat overlapping categories:  “mercerías” (haberdashery), and “lencerías” (lingerie and sleepwear), and “corseterías” (bras and girdles).

Big bras
Big bras, bibs, and buttons.

The first one I went into was Mercería Lolita that has been around for 56 years. I was greeted by the owners Elia and Pedro who told me all about their family business.  It’s a cozy, clean shop with tons of small boxes of t-shirts, pajamas, and underwear stacked in cabinets and on shelves. She’ll happily guide you through your shopping experience.  She’ll climb up her trusty stepladder, find your underwear, unbox it, unwrap it, unfold, present & discuss, and then put it all back if it’s not what you’re looking for. As an American “solitary shopper” I just can’t imagine having to tell someone over and over again that the underwear they’re showing me isn’t big enough.  “Lo siento Señora, pero mi culo requiere más tela.”

No Quickbooks here.
No Quickbooks here.

They’re quite aware that the business is a dying breed so they make it very clear that all of their products are hecho en España: their main selling point.  They’re not as in the dark ages as you might think though. Astonishingly, they whatsapped me a youtube video and an article about their business.  Really nice folks. And there’s a warm, comforting feeling about just buying a simple t-shirt or pair of underpants.  No sexy brands or photoshopping. No red and white bull’s eye distracting you with aggression.

Lydia...the tattooed lady.
Lidya…the tattooed lady.

I moved on to a lencería called Lidya’s (can we acknowledge the names for a second?! Love them!) down the block but you’ll quickly notice that it also has “mercería” on the awning but this is just for the ladies. No matter, I was so high from how nice the Lolita owners were and how well we communicated that I was determined to see every beige bra in the city.  Unfortunately, I was a little overconfident and pulled a rookie blogger move when I walked in and forgot to ask if I could take pictures. It will probably take me ten years to get over how she glared at me and bluntly said, “Dime” (talk to me).  I nervously apologized and told her my lame story and then she warmed up.

Let me get that for you.
Let me get that for you.

They’ve been around for 44 years.  That’s just about as long as Zara has been in business. Both operations started similarly but clearly had devastatingly different trajectories and levels of ambition.  Perhaps Amancio Ortega wanted a little bit more control of the product. 😉

I have to admit I was shocked at the price for a “made in China” polyester nightgown: 71 euros. But they had some fancy, lacy hosiery on sale.  I was looking for something white because it’s Spring but La Señora would have none of it.  She made it clear to me that white was for children and first communion.  My American fashion individuality conflicts with such a homogenous country.

Dancing Lady Underpants.

On to Berta’s (mercería and corsetería) who has been around for 26 years and, lo and behold, has a website. Again, lots of boxes, lots of service, and lots of unique merchandising:

Magnificent merchandising
This contraption can only hold socks called “El Ejecutivo.”

So this one had kids stuff too. And I thought these socks were darling.

Someone special back home is getting these.
Someone special back home is getting these.

Finally, we get to round this out with the well-known, very old, Almacén Pontejos (Warehouse on Pontejos). It’s under construction right so I couldn’t go but it’s existence raises some questions. I’m no retail historian but traditionally a haberdashery = sewing supplies, and a mercery = textiles.  These guys sell sewing supplies, not apparel, but they also call themselves a mercería. Go figure and I’m tired now. So for your viewing pleasure, I’ve created a (by no means exhaustive) visual explanation:

 

By no means exhaustive.

I’m probably making too much of a deal about this but I have a special place in my heart for them now. I hope these beautiful, analog, institutions of historic merchandising stick around a little while longer. It’s important to get to know the person who sells you your underpants.

 

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Que Valiente Without Proof

This isn’t a street style blog at all.

In fact, I’m only going to post one, kinda lame, picture from my kitchen floor.  It’s of the skirt I wore today. It’s a Martha Sleeper fiesta skirt I bought in Santa Fe, New Mexico at Doubletake.

2016-02-29 21.49.59
That’s a frog motif!!

But little back story first:

Last month, I was with my mom and my sister outside Colette in Paris. It’s a cool, concept store but it’s such a scene and way too packed. (I did convince my mom to get some expensive, fancy perfume there. ;-))  We were just getting finished taking a selfie outside when I looked across the street and there was Mr. Scott Schulman from the Sartorialist leaning against a building with his camera, waiting for someone to catch his discerning eye. I’m totally starstruck when I see even a D-list celebrity and, ironically, Mr. Schulman actually makes his living photographing others. Of course, only I knew who he was, but it was still exciting for me. I wasn’t quite ready for my street style debut in late January as a tourist: big, black, puffy coat (but with a vintage Dries skirt underneath to redeem it all!) with worn, black boots, and a reasonable, pilled, vinyl bag with a hand sewn strap. I made us unnecessarily cross the street and walk right past him so maybe he caught a glimpse of how cool I was and how cute the three of us were together in Paris after 35 years. (We reenacted a picture in front of the Eiffel Tower!) Well, we weren’t cool/distinct/blog-worthy enough because he didn’t stop and ask, but I imagine if he did it would be out of concern and go something like: “Can I take your picture? You look so tired and average. Have you had any l’eau?”

But now today, in Madrid, I was walking down the street and a senior gentleman with just a cane was walking toward me. As I passed him he stopped me and excitedly said something along the lines of, “What you’re wearing is a very traditional look! ¡Que valiente!!”  I smiled and spun around for him and asked if he liked it. He said yes and nodded his head emphatically. Then I said thank you and went on my way.

I’m a total sucker for sartorial affirmation especially from random, non-fashiony strangers. I asked around and got several translations of “que valiente”  but it seems best to translate to “so brave” or “very bold.”

As it should be. Right?

I think being called brave is a lovely compliment and it’s something I needed to hear these days. Being brave has much more to do with a mentality and taking a risk and going ahead even if you’re not sure.  Admittedly, I was ready for some stares but I didn’t think it was necessarily brave. (Have you met Michele Lamy?)  I knew people would look at me like I was weird but that’s fine since I’m a tall, pale guiri anyway.    

So, gracias señor por sus comentarios.  You made me rethink the possibilities of fashion and I hope you’re not reading this and you don’t care at all. (But I would totally read your blog if you had one.)

Madrid Es Moda

Madrid just had their fashion week. (#MBFWMadrid in case you didn’t know.)

Events beget events in fashion. Living off the momentum of MBFWM,  Madrid Es Moda is the city wide event that brings the fashion from the runway to the rest of us. Fashion pops up not just in window displays, but in museums, hotels, design and art exhibits, open studios, bookstores, parties, movie screenings, fashion contests, and other cross-collaborations.  There are even specially themed tapas you can order at over 25 restaurants. They are proven to help you fit sample size.

These fashion moments are not the main event.  They’re cursory or something to glance at while you’re eating your pulpo. I went to the lovely Hotel Gran Melia Fenix to get a closer look at the designs of Amaya Arzuaga, the mistress of undulating shapes; Jorge Acuña, jeweltones and silk charmeuse;  Moisés Nieto, the king of mesh; and my new favorite, Devota & Lomba, my fellow lovers of red, black, and white.  The concierge looked at me like I was a freak for explicitly coming to see these.

(Sigh.  I´m still adjusting.  It took me 15 minutes to figure out how to add an accent to the “e” and then do an upside-down exclamation point on this keyboard.)

There was also a free event at El Museo Cerralbo called  “La Mujer Ochoa: Modernisma y Modernidad.”  Ochoa was an artist and illustrator that has been said to simultaneously be a part of Art Deco, Surrealism, Pre-Raphaelites, Abstract art and Gesturalism. Not bad. These mujers are fantastic and so inspiring. You can almost hear the the scratchy record playing in the background as he painted them.

This seemed to be a more casually organized idea and I don´t think the ticket ladies actually knew what I was talking about (or they probably didn’t care).  They wrote something down and waved me in the right direction.

The always recognizable Desigual had a “Street Takeover!”:

I signed up to see a screening of “La Modista/The Dressmaker” (tagline: Revenge is Back in Fashion—mwwaahahahaha!) with Kate Winslet.  The directions were to send an email to a random address to get on the list.  We shall see what happens!

Here’s a beautiful and I think particularly seamless store display that I just happened to walk by and realize it was part of the happenings as well.  Store: Florin Antiques;  Dress: Ion Fiz:

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Muy elegante.

There was something called “Designers´Rooms Fashion Bits” that was a presentation of…well, honestly, it took me awhile to figure it out. Something about online showrooms and 100% Made in Spain!…There were so many ideas and events and collaborations and then throw a little language barrier in there and I was lost sometimes.  I think universally, fashion suffers from “event fatigue.” These opportunities are seductive but they can become a thorn in the side of any designer and make them do a quick cost-benefit analysis. Some cool stuff though:

Last thing. Davidelfin and IKB 191 Collab:

Some bleak drama courtesy of
“Inferno” meets Mid-century Modern. Why not?

So here’s the deal so far:  I average 5 miles a day walking around the city looking, talking, and thinking.  Is there something inherently Spanish that I can discern?  Why am I always the only one here looking at this?  I hesitate to summarize yet but I’m certainly past the knee-jerk assumptions of Spanish designers being inspired by warm weather and bullfighting. (Nor did I ever go there!!)  I think it’s pretty damn cool to have Ochoa’s art in the zeitgeist.  And to see fashion incorporated so homogeneously everywhere. (Especially my two favorite things that aren’t often paired, food and fashion.) And to that point, that designers and businesses collaborate so willingly, and goodness gracious, SO MUCH. The breadth of the events is staggering.  I didn’t even go to 1/4 of them. Need to meet the folks who organized this.

Madrid is really doing their own thing and their fashion week is not a separate, isolated event. Fashion is relevant to everyone and a reflection of what’s going on. So I really get it when they called it “Madrid es Moda” because they truly made it their city full of fashion.

 

 

An Ode to El Corte Inglés

Let’s just take a moment to gaze at that glorious typeface.  It makes me so happy.

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El Corte Inglés on Calle Princesa ready to serve you.

And it’s green!! A solid, classic green. When was the last time you saw a department store with a kermit the frog green sign? Stein Mart, maybe?

 

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Green is the color of money, luck, earthiness, health, and nature. It makes me wonder what bounty lingers behind the concrete facade of this, the most prevalent and important of Spanish department stores? (Quickly, El Corte Inglés is the main department store in Spain and well, I find myself there quite a bit. The end.)

So it deserves an ode. That dignified name demands it: The English Court!  An ode to department stores and their elephantine yet historically game-changing ways, their shiny and chrome yet intoxicating perfume and jewelry counters, and their definite promise of satisfaction but disorienting path to obtain it.

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A little Roman inspiration in this door handle?

From Dillard’s to Hecht’s, from Wanamaker’s to Macy’s, department stores have ushered my sister and I through every awful back-to-school, Christmas, and swimsuit shopping season, but I love them. I love their breathtaking selection of pantyhose, their hefty, manual credit card machines (in days of yore), the enormous registers and particle board cash wraps, the dressing rooms with burgundy curtains and off-gassing, beige carpets, and the ever present ladies shuffling around with their name tags, clicking pens, and spiral keychains wrapped around their biceps.

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Stand to the right in all cultures.

We can talk about merchandise assortment, price point, and positioning, but I think the defining detail of a real department store is the presence of an escalator. You can’t have a department store without one and the experience is just not complete if you don’t have a mini panic attack in your stifling, puffy coat, carrying your bundles, dying for water, whilst stepping precariously onto the people mover.  It’s the same everywhere, I swear it. Preferably, there are two sets of them to keep things exciting.

Fortunately, at El Corte Inglés near Callao, if you get through all the floors with your bundles, there’s something special waiting for you at the top. This isn’t a food blog, but man, the Spanish sure know how to do a food court.  A nice way to shop.

Let’s regroup.  This place has everything. You can get shoes and shirts but also purchase insurance, plan your vacation, get a spa treatment, go to the grocery store and the pharmacy, and play the lottery!

They even cater to plus sizes and first communion.

There’s a Corte Inglés for every market too: books, housewares, furniture, electronic equipment, home improvement. It reminds me of Harrod’s (another green logo) tagline: “All Things for All People, Everywhere.”

So the flagship, fancy store is at Calle de Raimundo Fernández Villaverde. Clearly, they cater to tourists because the signage is multilingual and all the normal luxury brands are represented.  I don’t normally poke around in these parts but the lady at the Chanel counter was more than happy to give me a free sample of Bel Respiro. (I know, I know. It’s French.)   

Finally, they’re celebrating their 75th Anniversary.  They designed a special website so that customers can share stories and memories of shopping there over the decades.  Like many apparel brands do, it started as a tailor’s shop and then grew, and adjusted its sails through tumultuous times and changing hemlines.  Here we are today. It’s unbelievable to me that there are still a few of these beasts of enterprise that have held on.  They technically shouldn’t be here given the ease and efficiency we have with digital and mobile shopping. Maybe people still go because they secretly like the elevators, perfume counters, and piped smooth jazz.  I still remember the perfectly coordinated “travel outfit” my mom and I picked out at Dillard’s before we moved to Germany in the 80’s: creased, navy slacks, a light blue cable knit v-neck sweater, and a plaid, button-up shirt with blue and gold accent threads and puff sleeves that brought the ensemble together. I felt ready for the big journey. It was such a big deal to go there, experience that.

You can’t get that on the internet. Not yet anyway.

Dames!
Dames!

 

 

And Away We Go

Well, that was hard.  And it’s likely just one of many hard things that I’ll be doing in the next few months.  This man here just set me up like a queen though.  Here, he’s rearranging the dishes in a more sensible way.  Now, he’s far away.  That’s all I’ll say about that.

That's not where you put plates.
“That’s not where you put plates.”

I won’t give you the whole story now but here’s the quick and dirty version: I was in Paris for the month of January as a co-director of a study abroad trip.  That’s done.  Now, I’m in Madrid, Spain for four months because I was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship.  I’m a very lucky gal.  I’m sorting things out still.  Namely, how to reframe my beloved blog.  Is this about teaching? Fashion? Spain? Does it matter?

Well, I’m no Rick Steves.  I won’t tell you where to get a churro or why a plaza is named what it is.  I will tell you about fashion and Spain and the sensory things though.  It’s my duty now.  I’m here to research and lecture on fashion and communication these days. One way I like to examine communication is through the five senses so that’s what I’ll do here.

Spain smells good.  Like laundry detergent from long ago when it was okay that it was scented. And that smell is mixed with a neutral, cologne-y smell that I’m guessing CK One was inspired by. There’s fair amount of unapologetic smoking but I get just a whiff here and there and it reminds me of my rebellious days.

hhhh
Just your average store brand washing detergent mixed with….
2016-02-08 16.44.05
Alvarez Gomez “Agua de Colonia Concentrada” Eau de Cologne

I have “crappy” (you’ll get it in a second) internet but the landlady and I are working on it.  Until then, the bathroom has the best connection so I get a whole new olfactory experience from the old plumbing when I’m checking emails.

Not so great smells.
Not so great smells.

No surprise here but Madrid is yellow to me. All shades of yellow.  From the canary yellow on the flag to a buttery yellow to gold leafed wrought iron.  It’s everywhere.  The buildings are short by American standards but seem to stand up straighter, pose proudly.  They’re all punctuated with a sculpture or spire on top and seem to say, “I am here!” In Paris, they wind around and are creamy and white to me and say “I don’t need you.” In Rome, they have nooks and crannies and are extremes of gray and white and seem to say “Screw you”.

See. Told you.
See. Told you. (Photo collage by me.)

This is stretch in terms of touch, but this is a clever foot thing to open the door to my building.

Sin manos!
Sin manos!

This is the best tasting bubbly water I’ve ever had.  It’s like the bottle is tainted with briny vermouth.

I chug this stuff.
I chug this stuff.

They do have ice.  It’s perfect and it’s shaped like jumbo marshmallows. It comes like this:

Eggs for scale.
Eggs for scale. Isn’t the bedspread cute?

Ham. Ham is plentiful. Yes. Tapas. We all know tapas. Will discuss later.

The old radiators in my apartment are workhorses and have been painted 42,000 times.  I takes a special house call with a special wrench to turn the knob.  (“Either on or off, Señora!!”)  So, I’m a little warm. I’ll figure it out after I figure out everything else.

No clanging though.
No clanging though.

So, sounds.  I love the word “bricolaje.” It sounds just like what it is: a store with household stuff in it. 

It has yellow too.
It has yellow too.

I haven’t witnessed the oft-spoken of lively 10 o’clock dinners yet.  It’s pretty damn quiet here.  I only hear a distant phone ringing or murmuring of Spanish TV or plates being stacked.  The buzzer to my apartment gives me a heart attack though. It sounds like a big, mean bumblebee coughing. 

I'll imitate it for you when I see you again.
I’ll imitate it for you when I see you again.

That’s it for the standard senses.  I’ll have to be here a while longer to get an idea of non-traditional senses and ESP.  There’s a lot to experience and share.  Aside from the gentleman in the first picture, there are many people to thank for their support and encouragement.  I didn’t get here alone and I truly appreciate the advice, positivity, and for shoveling the sidewalk.  I hope to see you soon.  Until then, abrazos!!! xoxoxoxo

 

 

 

 

 

“This site/blog (enter site’s title and address) is not an official Fulbright Program site. The views expressed on this site are entirely those of its author (or insert name here) and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations.”

A Room Of One’s Own

What's a studio without a pile of laundry to greet you?
What’s a studio without a pile of laundry to greet you?

I actually never read that essay.  I just did some lazy internet research and realized it’s way more of a feminist statement than I intended. I really meant to say that you just need your own room. You need your own space. Basically, a designer needs their own studio.

A studio for small and/or short designers.
A studio for small and/or short designers.

As I shuffle between freelance to teaching to home, I’ve been thinking a lot about the space in which I get my work/daydreaming/grading/puttering done (Yes, I’ve been daydreaming about the sensual and mystical topic of work areas). My “space” is everywhere. I have a small studio at home, an office at school and can make myself comfortable almost anywhere to talk with clients. I have a laptop, an iPhone, an iPad and iMac (don’t rob me), apps for life hacking and productivity, software for creating and destroying, access to three libraries and a car with hands free. All I’m missing is a jump drive port fused into my neck.

In trying to find that “place”, I have made it everyplace and that’s not good.

I realized this issue when I gave my students time to work in class. “Work in class,” I said. That’s what it’s called. You’re here, you have work to do, do it now. Work. In. Class. They were paralyzed at the opportunity and alarmed at my doggedness (I can be intense). I could tell they were thinking, “I just want to get home and have all my stuff and then I’ll be able to concentrate and be inspired and that’s when I’ll really get it done. That, or I’ll do it at the last minute and I’ll stay up all night.”

Oh, no. Oh, nonononononononono. Nope. Here. Here is where you’re doing it. Here is perfect.

When they realized it was going to happen at that moment, they focused quickly and soon all I could hear were dainty mouse clicks furiously drafting vector images and the pop sounds of Lady Gaga seeping out of their headphones. I think it also helped that I hovered over them and analyzed their work like a good art director.  The “space” we look for is also in our heads so I try to teach students (and myself) to be able to work, doodle, and play even when they think they aren’t ready.   Mentally preparing for work, creative work is a luxury.

An army of dressforms patiently waiting.
An army of dressforms patiently waiting.

Full disclosure: getting fashion work done isn’t really a reasonable task. It’s kind of impossible. I had a teacher rather simply say, “There’s never enough time and never enough money” and I think about that every time I buy a t-shirt and know they’ve engineered it to take 5 minutes to sew. An average day in the studio is filled with interruptions and non-work activity: set up, go to the bathroom, get a phone call, answer someone’s question, get something to eat, answer a text, refill the meter, get really thirsty and angry, frustrated, stuck. They’re all minimal distractions but getting into and pulled out of pattern making/design brain is like going in and out of seeing a 3-D IMAX movie.  It’s a struggle.

That’s why you need a physical space too. One to leave all your design crap out. One to let things sit, process, and simmer while you’re away so you can pick it right back up when you have only two hours to get something done. Setting up is a bitch.

Sometimes you create things in the dining room.
Sometimes you create things in the dining room.

I’m going to make you gag by ending this post with a quote by Picasso: “Inspiration exists but it has to find you working.” I like to tell myself this when I think I need a better setup to get work done. It’s important to fan your flames and be able to work anywhere, even when you’re not ready, or interrupted or don’t have all your stuff, but you should stop yourself from working everywhere.

A Room, er, Studio, With a View.  (Never read that either. :/)
A Room, er, Studio, With a View. (Never read that either. :/)

If you have to cry, go outside

I quoted a past professor the other day: “I asked what you think, not what you like.”  We were looking at color.  Color.  Big deal, right?  Well, it wasn’t until I saw them placating one another.  “That’s cool.”  “It’s pretty.”  “I like it.”

Placating is infectious.  And critiquing is a skill.  Tom Ford (successful, smart, savvy, experienced, good-looking, white, male) said, “I think the women’s fashion business is probably the hardest, toughest business in the world.”

“It’s pretty” just won’t cut it.

20131003-191801.jpg

I admit I found myself placating, getting lazy with my observations after 10 or so critiques. I tried to find something new to say, something outside of what I usually say to young designers who make the same journeys and therefore, the same “mistakes.” I want to say something that I can learn from too, create a discussion for god’s sake.

Because I still need to learn how to accept a critique as well.

So, two quotes to think about.  Let’s start with a whopper from Aristotle (I’m SO smart): “There is only one way to avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.” Yeeeeeoooouucchhh!

"I'd buy that skirt."
“Cute skirt.”

And then I heard this doozy from Alrik Koudenburg (cool, Dutch, designer whose website takes a long time to load): “To be outstanding, get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”  All of a sudden those sweaty, awkward, and painful moments hanging out in Eka Pada Rajakapotasana make sense.

Hearing those things makes me want to either hide or “be tough” but we know that neither choice is effective in designing, fittings, sewing a french seam, or even emptying the litterbox or standing in line at the DMV.  I’ve been trying to cultivate a sense of equanimity, choice-less awareness.  Finding that balance between toughness and mushiness is essential, but even though I entered the endless world of critiques and feedback long ago, I still think the experience will play out as follows:

1. I show my work.

2. They like my work.

3. I leave.

But you get an "F" for clip art.
But you get an “F” for clip art.

It’s crazy that I still have an instinct to think like this because my critique experiences really run the gamut and depend on so many factors:

  • Once I had a critique and I cried (sleep deprivation and relief it was over).
  • Once it went “really well” (I worked really hard).
  • Once I could CARE LESS about what they said (I hated the project but the work was decent).
  • Once I realized later they said nothing of value (the critic was esoteric and my work wasn’t up to par).
  • Once I could tell that he didn’t want to be there and he couldn’t critique (I liked the project, was proud of my work, and felt cheated).

But what if I loved the project, I wasn’t tired, I made strong choices and I genuinely liked and respected the critic and their feedback and I wasn’t being tough OR mushy, BUT I still felt wounded?  It wasn’t like I was hearing it from Kelly Cutrone.  What happens then?  You take the amazing and intelligent insight, apply it, and then take the credit when everyone loves it.

So here goes, my respected friends whose opinions I deeply value.  I finished a mini-collection for a collaboration for Design Philadelphia.  This is what it looks like.  What do you think?

Stay gold, Ponyboy.
Stay gold, Ponyboy.