Surrounded at dinner recently by six maverick women, ranging in age from their late 30’s into their 70’s, each dressed in the most creative, non-conformist, ensemble, how could it be that I was writing down the names of thrift stores? Each of these women looked like a million bucks, if not two or three.
We had all gathered at the invitation of Debra Rapoport, whose signature paper towel hats are the single most arresting piece of clothing I’ve seen in an age. (Both Merle and Debra are wearing them in the photos below.) I’d met Debra at a class that I took at the Museum of Arts and Design and we’d since become friends. The occasion was the book launch of Advanced Style at the iconic Strand bookstore in Greenwich Village, New York City.
Advanced Style features the photography and creative genius of Ari Seth Cohen, a handsome guy in his mid-30s whose childhood hero was his beloved grandmother. A model of zany elegance, she sported fun vintage jewelry; she and Ari discussed style.
Following her death, he’d come to New York, worked at a museum and started talking to women on the street who exuded the style and verve of his grandma. Conversations and photographs gave birth to a blog; the blog begat two books [we were there to celebrate the publication of the second] and a documentary. It’s a bona fide movement.
To get back to my six dinner companions: With their obvious attention to display and to detail, one could easily imagine an overshopper or two in the group. Yet, my strong impression is that there isn’t a compulsive buyer among them. Their pleasure is in combining, recombining, and stirring the pot of their accessory fashion instead of acquiring new. The gravitational pull of the thrift store may be, in roughly equal measure, about saving their money, saving their planet, and saving their souls.
Let them speak for themselves.
“I went bead shopping today. I found myself saying, will I really use this, do I really need it? Also, stopped in Uniqlo yesterday and ran into the 2 freaky guys with the polka dot head [referring to two men that had been at the book launch]. They helped me find these promotional designer t- shirts for $10. Again, I found myself asking how much do I really need xyz.”
Debra Rapoport (center), flanked by two young advanced fashionistas in training
“I don’t think I have an addictive personality. I do have a life style that is filled with creativity and to that I am “addicted”! I don’t need to shop but love going to thrift shops to see what treasures there might be. I love to shop in my closet as I know there is everything there that I love no matter how many decades I have owned it. I have been labeled “Gifted and Thrifted” as many people send me stuff regularly. What fun that is!
I only buy things that I love and I know my taste, for me and my body, won’t change. How I put them together changes and evolves….but it is always about color, texture and layering.
Going into stores is not enticing to me. A thrift shop is different…it is the hunt and the quest and knowing that if I make a purchase the money is going to a good cause. It is a win/win situation.
I often do this with my partner or friends as a social activity. My other motto is “Frugality is Fun!” and it is.
After 70+ years what do I really need…letting go perhaps of some stuff that I have been carrying around for a few decades, but I do use everything!”
“Advanced Style is a way of life for older women with a cultural message: we live by our own internal guidance, visible and free from cares about what the culture at large thinks about aging, women, fashion. We will be ourselves till we die. As we grow older and wiser, we realize that we have a natural style in creatively putting on our daily wear. We don’t need to shop for the latest and the greatest and the most expensive, because everything we need is in our own closet. Getting dressed is a creative art; our body is a canvas; our clothes and accessories are our paints and brushes. Juxtaposing our clothing in different colors and styles, shapes and patterns, decades and memories is part of the play of our lives. And if we want something different, we know where to go: thrift shopping, exchanging with friends, a pair of scissors for playful alterations, the back of our closets for orphaned article of clothing and drawers for old jewelry that can be refashioned into something reimagined.
Here is an example of those principles in action in my own life. In the photo on the left I’m wearing one of my own dress designs from Abrazos, my Slow Fashion fair trade clothing company in San Miguel de Allende (www.sanmigueldesigns.com). I just met this lovely Mayan woman who made the pom pom necklaces around my neck while on vacation in the Yucatan. By the time I got home, the necklaces had become hopelessly tangled so I cut them up and sewed them onto the bottom of a black linen skirt that I’ve owned for 20 years that I’m wearing in the second photo, at an Advanced Style fiesta in New York! Voila!”
“I think I can say that my view is very similar to Debra’s. When I worked, I was certainly hooked into shopping. Many years ago now.
I know what I like, what excites and stimulates, nurtures or brings joy. I know my style and my taste.
Life changes, our circumstances and values change. Mine changed by being medically retired in my fifties, having no income and having to adjust. All of that was testing, there was loss. Loss of earnings, loss of work colleagues, loss of opportunities to keep up with technology and skills. Loss of identity.
Then the revelation happens, and you find you can do without. That there is joy in less and great, huge, wonderful pleasure in the challenges of making the best life you can from virtually nothing. Post WWII baby. I grew up with parents dedicated to making ends meet, make do and mend was a favourite saying. My childhood gave me all the tools I needed to survive a life crash and to arrive at an entirely wholesome and wondrous place of adventures in thrift land! Bring it on! There can often be unforeseen blessings in loss.
There is probably a noticeable difference between spending because you are a collector of beautiful but useful textiles/objects of adornment that you know you can put to good use and apply and the shallow purchase of manufactured goods. I am also a dedicated de-clutter expert. I mean, seriously! Review all possessions regularly. If I find any thrift store purchases no longer satisfy my creativity or no longer have a use, I give them back to the thrift store and they make more money to help others.
While all are reading the 10 item wardrobe and the book on how to live with less, I have been doing it for 15 years and so wish I had the confidence to write those books first! Perhaps I could consider living with less over 60 as a new title?”
I have a very alone kind of life. I have all day. I am like Debra. I find the excitement of the thrift stores in England fill my hours well. I do not have to buy. I am big on needing visual stimulation. My life long love of art and textiles means that I can make discoveries every day. Nurture my needs and never have to spend anything.”
Having met these unusual women and gotten an introduction to advanced style through them, I wanted more hands on involvement.
What might it feel like to be one of them?
I’d been collecting preloved items that I hoped to repurpose and went to Debra’s studio with a small bag. I’d saved an old worn grey purse that had a great ruffled front in decent condition, and fabric from a pair of jeans that were too ripped at the knee to be able to patch, so I’d had them cut down and made into shorts. For inspiration, I’d also brought a choker made of silk covered balls that I love wearing, wondering if I might be able to make similar covered balls out of the left over denim.
Within a few minutes, we’d decided to cut out the ruffled floral front from the handbag. Debra playfully put it on her head in a variety of positions; voila, the focal point of a fabulous hat. We glued down the raw edges and finished it, using the lining of the handbag. Here’s a picture of Debra modeling it.
Turning our attention toward the fabric that was left over when I made the jeans into cutoffs, Debra was persuasive when she told me that denim was too thick to make into the same kind of balls from my treasured choker. Instead, she suggested sewing the two pieces of leftover denim together at both ends, making sure it would fit over my head. A hint of flower began to emerge at the center front, which we took to the next level by transforming it into a rose with a few well placed stitches, and tying off sections with assorted strips of fabric from Debra’s rag basket.
With a dash of creativity and Debra’s seasoned eye, without spending a dime, I had two one-of-a-kind stand-out accessories, several new ideas to apply to future castoffs, and a strong desire to advance my own style.
Please comment; we’re eager to hear what this Advanced Style blog post evokes in you.