THE BRITISH BUTTERFLIES OF FASHION
My husband was once in the fashion business; he designed and sold clothes from his shop in London’s West End where he hosted many luminaries in the worlds of politics, entertainment, advertising, and so on. Although its outreach is global, the fashion business is a small town. Twice a year one tends to see the same people in Milan, Florence, Paris, Berlin, and London. They take the same airline, stay in the same hotels, eat in the same restaurants and find time to shop in the same stores when they’re not scurrying around to appointments.
My husband never did that. After his buying appointments, or after a big show, he drifted to out-of-the-way cafes in less desirable areas of town. You haven’t lived until you’ve lined up at the Hare Krishna cafeteria in Milan, or discovered the only vegetarian restaurant in Florence. A museum was more inspirational to him than the newest club or bar. And he usually shopped for antiques or furniture rather than spend moments of stolen time off in a clothing store, the pastime for the fashionista. He grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the Marais before anyone else would be seen dead there. At first my head turned towards the glitz and glamour of St. Germaine, but I soon began to look forward to the unusual.
The first time I went with him to Florence he forgot to warn me about the cobblestones and the long hours of standing and walking. I almost crippled myself wearing the wrong shoes. He also forgot to tell me that smoking was allowed in all of the buildings, offices and showrooms and that I would reek of it for a week. I came near to passing out from dehydration for lack of water and fresh air. The water was my fault.
Dog-tired at the end of a crazily packed day, there was nothing more exquisite than to sit at a table in a noisy but baronial restaurant with the fine aroma of juicy grilled portabella mushrooms served by career waiters who seemed to have nothing else on their minds other than their desire to see us beautifully fed. I held back from plopping my entire face into a bowl of lemon infused pasta made by the hands of an Italian mamma. To then further indulge in a plate of profiteroles smothered in chocolate sauce so delicious that I still remember the first bite, well… damn.
However, the habits of eating and sleeping came a lowly second to the rituals of clothes designing, buying appointments and the planning of a new season. The clothes my husband designed and sold were not cheap. But ten, twenty years ago more people could afford better quality clothes. And clothes were designed to be perennial. The new coat would pass fashion muster for more than one season. Labels were discreet. People desired to express their personality and weren’t swallowed up into a large corporate brand.
After he left the business to strike new stakes, there have been times when I have sorely missed those days of high fashion and the pleasure of the touch of hundreds of the finest fabrics. To have such luxury at one’s fingertips is a privilege. One of those nostalgic moments hit me solidly in the face when I found myself in Primark. I swore a private oath that I would never give in and step across the threshold. But I did. How do they do it? How can they sell clothes so cheaply? I bought a sweater for £3.97. I don’t think I’ll do that again. Surely and sadly there must be child slaves sewing away in some god-forsaken warehouse. Where is the Jamie Oliver of the rag trade? I don’t mean to single out Primark. There are plenty of wholesalers and retailers who sell their souls for a buck, a pound, a Euro.
So as this unexpected wave of nostalgia washes over me I give you circa 1820 drawings taken from a private collection. Unfortunately, not mine.