Influences: Arts & Crafts

Detail from Anna Sui Fall 2010 with Rycroft Tile necklaceFashion, like art, repeats itself over and over. A cultural thermometer of sorts, the fashion world reflects and responds to the social climate faster than any other produced consumable product. Designers reflect our own fears and uncertainties and mix these with a heady cocktail of beauty, luxury, and desire.

It’s clear that with the current economic and social outlook, the era of bling and the gaudy counterfeit it created have faded away (thankfully). In its place there seems to be an inherent appreciation of craftsmanship and creativity. At its most obvious, this appreciation is found in the collections of Anna Sui and Duro Olowu, both of whom found inspiration in the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th & early 20th Centuries.

A reaction against the Victorian era’s penchant for “reviving” historical styles and the soulless production of the Industrial Revolution, the Arts & Crafts Movement sought artistic reform, both in its process and product. Aesthetically, the movement sought simplicity of form without superfluous decoration, often exposing the construction of an item. As many of the studios were in rural areas, Arts and Crafts motifs were inspired by the flora and fauna found out of doors.  Seeking an “equality of arts”, the movement revived traditional crafts, and created the role of the “master craftsman” at the heart of production and design. Ironically, by placing greater importance on handicraft, the resulting products were too expensive to be purchased by anyone but the very rich.

Anna Sui Fall 2010. Images from

Perhaps designers’ looking to this era and design philosophy portends a resurgence of true luxury goods? I doubt that this idealism will trickle down to the Canal Street shoppers, but it’s nice to know that it’s there.

“If you cannot learn to love real art at least learn to hate sham art.” – William Morris

For her part, Anna Sui took her inspiration in the design motifs and crafts of the Arts & Crafts Movement. Citing the artistic furniture of Charles Rohlfs, her Fall collection was adorned in architectural, but colorful, floral prints and geometrics. Small Roycroft tiles mixed with natural wood to create simple necklaces, all designed by Erickson Beamon. The result was classic Anna Sui hippy girl, but with a dash of sophisticated craft.

Duro Olowu Fall 2010. Images from

With a more modern take, Duro Olowu drew inspiration from Hidcote Manor, home of England’s great Arts & Crafts garden, which is now part of the British National Trust. Hidcote’s lavish topiaries and outdoor rooms led to cozy knitwear, mod geometrics, and just a whiff of floral print. 

I realize that these are but two designers among hundreds, and while fashion is always looking to the aesthetic movements of the past, I found it interesting that the Arts & Crafts Movement in particular found its way onto the runways at just this time. Going by the fashion thermometer, it seems we need more simple luxury, beauty, and craftsmanship in our lives. What do you think?

TV: The Look of SyFy's "Alice"

Cathy Bates & Colm Meaney as The Queen & King of HeartsThis week the SyFy channel played a two-night mini series entitled Alice. In case you missed it, it's a modern version of the Alice in Wonderland story from director Nick Willing who had done a classic telling of the story just a few years ago. I thought that the program could and should have been stretched into a third segment to alleviate the rushed feeling of the conclusion, but overall it was great entertainment. And, while there were other flaws in the story and acting here and there, the aesthetics of the program were simply fantastic.

As with most stories in science-fiction genre, the bad guys are slick and polished while the good guys are organic, cluttered, and darkly lit to indicate the secretive nature of their resistance. As the director said, the Hearts in this version are like "posh gangsters", which is totally appropriate. Their sets are mod and gleaming, full of streamlined furniture and pops of red and black.

Alice meets Mad March and the 10 of Clubs

I also appreciated how the classic characters were given clever updates. For instance, The Duchess is a glam go-go girl, Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum are evil manipulators, and the March Hare has been made into a chiling assassin called "Mad March". Even the goofy Walrus and Carpenter have been reduxed into scientists at the center of the Hearts' evil plot to brainwash the world.

Dee and Dum torture Alice in the Truth RoomThe Suits in the Court of Hearts

The costumes were perfectly appropriate too; Alice's blue pinafore is updated to a trim blue sheath paired with tights and biker boots, while the Hearts' royal court is called "The Suits" and is approprately attired in black and white suits with card numbers screened onto the fabric. I especially loved how The Caterpillar was given a puffy corded smoking jacket and round spectacles; the look was perfectly caterpillar-esque while still being human.

Alice and Jack visit The Caterpillar

Filled with an exceptional cast and fun little references back to the original Lewis Carroll tale, Alice is definitely worth watching. I do wish there had been more Cheshire Cat and certainly some talking flowers, but I do think the result was a nice attempt at modernizing the original in a clever way. I always love a new take on a classic, especially when it looks like this!

Film: A Thing of Beauty

Edie Martin as Toots Brawne and Abbie Cornish as Fanny Brawne in Jane Campion's Bright StarSubscribers - please click through for best viewing!

After much anticipation I am so happy to have seen Jane Campion's new film Bright Star. More than the beautiful story told, I love that the look of the film conveys so much more than the dialogue or action. It is as though Jane Campion has gone back in time to re-create the original inspirations for John Keats' poetry, creating a sublimely simple and beautiful design. Romantic, of course, but perfectly atmospheric for the late Regency period. Set near Hampstead Heath (just outside of London at that time,) the exteriors are rich with seasons, colors, and all manner of flora.

Fanny's room in Bright Star

Meanwhile, the interiors are cleverly set to show changing spaces. Fanny's spaces are airy and bright, with white-washed woods and crisp linens. Keat's spaces are dark and wooden with tufted leather sofas and dark wood tables. Family spaces are a mix of both, creating a cozy, loving space the perfectly suits this interesting family. The house is simple, a middle-class dwelling without much ornament or pomp. It is clear that the cook and the maid are part of the family circle, while friends and neighbors are familiar confidantes.

And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep,
In blanchéd linen, smooth and lavendered,
While he from forth the closet brought a heap
Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;
With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
And lucent syrups, tinct with cinnamon;
Manna and dates, in argosy transferred
From Fez; and spicéd dainties, every one,
From silken Samarcand to cedared Lebanon.
These delicacies he heaped with glowing hand
On golden dishes and in baskets bright
Of wreathéd silver: sumptuous they stand
In the retiréd quiet of the night,
Filling the chilly room with perfume light. -
"And now, my love, my seraph fair, awake!
Thou art my heaven, and I thine eremite:
Open thine eyes, for meek St. Anges' sake,
Or I shall drowse beside thee, so my soul doth ache."

- from The Eve of St. Agnes, John Keats, 1819

Sammy (Thomas Sangster) Toots (Edie Martin) and Fanny (Abbie Cornish)

While certain details are known about Fanny Brawne and her family, I could find nothing in her history about why her family was in such a straightened financial condition, other than Mrs. Brawne had recently been widowed. In the film, it is clear that the Brawnes need to economise, but the children still speak French, go to beautiful parties, have pocket money for books and paper, and have dancing class from a private tutor. Mr. Keats, on the other hand, is clearly of a more impoverished class. While educated and presentable, he seems to be largely dependent upon friends for his room and board.

Fanny stitches her collar.Fanny's dress at the ballThis difference is also conveyed majestically in the costume design of the film. Fanny Brawne is derisively described by Keat's friend Charles Armitage Brown as "fashionably slavish", and there is much talk about Fanny's "stitching". Mr. Brown, and Keats at the beginning, both think that this stylish proclivity shows a shallowness of character in Fanny. She, however, takes great pride in her craft talking about her talent for design and style, and presenting herself as entirely confident in her avant-garde looks. The difference between her style and Keats' shabby dress are entirely evident, creating even more tension between them. When Fanny and Keats first meet she criticises his jacket, suggesting he needs one in blue velvet rather than his well-worn wool.

Fanny (Abbie Cornish) & Keats (Ben Whishaw)In every shot, Fanny's costumes set her apart from the group. She is more elegant, more daring, more colorful than anyone else, conveying her personality and good humor. As the relationship with Keats grows Fanny's style changes, starting with bright colors and elaborate hats and moving toward more somber tones and quiet embellishments. The other Brawne children are equally stylish, especially Fanny's younger brother Sammy. His lanky early teen frame is perfectly suited to his short jackets and tall straw hats, but his crowning glory is the jaunty silk cravate he wears in each scene.

Promenade Ensemble, 1822, from Ackermann'sThe fashion of the late Regency period is far more interesting than the early Regency. In this time (about 1816 - 1822), there is more pattern, silhouette, and color than the simple muslin frocks commonly associated with this time. The short Spencer jacket is still popular, but now there are long redingotes, and the hats are much more elaborate than the simple bonnet. To create such stylish designs herself, Fanny Brawne likely consulted ladies' magazines or the fashion plates from France. While early Regency gowns were straight and clean, this era shows more flounces at the hem, creating weight and dimension. The waistline was just beginning to creep downward from the empire line, but this still dominated the designs, as did the elegantly sloping shoulder. Just a few years later, sleeves and skirts would increase in volume, creating the perfect bell shape that would last through the 1860s. This film captures such an intriguing moment of fashion, from such a unique perspective: that of a Regency-era tastemaker, who was the most fashion forward member of her circle.

Abbie Cornish as Fanny BrawneAs Fanny and Keats' romance runs into difficulty, Fanny seems to take on the quiet tragedy of the poet. Like any teenager, she's given to moodyness, flights of fancy, and dramatic passions. One of the most beautiful scenes is when she and her siblings gather butterflies and then set them free in her bedroom. The colors, dainty insects, and gauzy atmosphere create a romantic image like none other.

As the film nears it's tragic end, the atmosphere grows crisp and cold, while Fanny's vivid pinks and rich browns give way to deep blue and finally black. The lush greens of spring and summer have given way to stark tree trunks, gray skies, and brown earth. The stunning warmth of the romance fades into memory, leaving the viewer wanting more of everything.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

     Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

     With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;

To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,

     And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

        To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

     With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,

And still more, later flowers for the bees,

Until they think warm days will never cease,

     For Summer has o’er-brimmed their clammy cells.

- from To Autumn, John Keats, September 19, 1819

It is a credit to Campion to have so masterfully captured this time and place so perfectly in Bright Star. The many layers of visuals - cinematography, costumes, and sets - serve to tie the true story of the romance with the actual poetry that we have known and studied for generations. To unite all of these elements so seamlessly, so effortlessly, sets a new standard for any type of biographic film.

A New Millenium Werkstatte

Pendant, Josef Hoffmann c. 1905, silver, gilt & semi-precious stonesTo quote the great Shirley Bassey: "It's all just a little bit of history repeating..."

One of the reasons I left the luxury goods industry a few years ago had to do with the way it made me feel overall. After years of excitement in the fashion fast lane, I found myself overwhelmed by its shallowness that left me increasingly empty. Even the "luxury" brands were losing their core of craftsmanship and selling out to the mass-market, driven by the need to satisfy stockholders. In the storm of marketing, messaging, editorials, and bling, I started to feel sick. When you witness someone splitting an "it" bag across three credit cards for the hundreth time, it starts to get to you. I asked myself: "How long can a brand remain "aspirational" and "white hot" before it burns iself out?"

The question still hangs over me when I take a look at the luxury fashion world these days - from a lot further out, happily, which usually gives some great perspective. Perspective, or common sense?

Consider the current unpleasantness of the economic world; there are a lot of people in big, expensive homes all over the country, homes full of clothes, electronics, cars, shoes, and it bags, who are wondering if they're going to have jobs next week. This, is a big portion of the "new" luxury market, and the rose-colored glasses have been lifted recently. Now comes the dawn of perspective: is any of that stuff really lasting and fulfilling, or is it just stuff?

Belt Buckle, Kolo Moser, 1903, silver, opal & rubyLast week, The Cut by New York Magazine published a post entitled " 'It' Bags ARe About to Be So Embarrassing". In it, there is a quote from Claire Kent, a former luxury analyst from Morgan Stanley who now works as an industry consultant, from a speech at the recent London Luxury Briefing conference. Kent mentioned a "luxury fatique", that people were afraid of debt and that customers would be steering clear of aspirational brands. She also said "An 'It' handbag will become an embarassment - a clear sign that you don't have your own view of fashion." Well, we all knew that was the case...

Today, Jezebel published a post about "Luxury Shame" - the phoenomenon of rich people feeling bad about throwing money around. They cite certain luxury shoppers telling others that their gown is an "old Phillip Lim" as opposed to a new Balenciaga - because that makes it okay. (I say, if you have the good stuff, wear it proudly! Don't lie to people, just a little less?) Jezebel also cites ecommerce sites like Gilt Groupe whose big appeal is the discretion of anonymous delivery boxes - so no one will know you're dropping your now-diminished 401K on Jimmy Choos. Yes, assuage your shopping guilt and extravagance in a nice brown's shopping porn!

Brooch, Josef Hoffmann c. 1910, silver & semi-precious stones

Brooch, Josef Hoffmann, 1908, silver, partly gilt & semi-precious stonesBrooch, Josef Hoffmann, 1910, silver, gilt & semi-precious stones

All of this guilt about shopping and high-priced products has put me in mind of one of my favorite periods of art and design: the Wiener Werkstätte. Also known as the Vienna Succession, this brief period of design began at the beginning of the 20th Century and continued until just before World War II. Vienna was the epicenter of the arts, being led by a group of artists that wanted to fuse graphic and applied arts - seeking a union of form and function in design. The Werkstätte was formed in response to increased mass production of products and overall industrialization. They sought to return art and design to fine craftsmanship, logic, beauty, and usefulness. The most famous Werkstätte artists are likely to be Gustav Klimt and Josef Hoffmann, but the group included hundreds of artists across all aesthetics.

Left - Emilie Floge in 'reform' dress & necklace by Kolo Moser c. 1910, Right - Necklace, Kolo Moser, 1903, silver, white chalcedony & carnelian (This necklace was given to Emilie Floge by Gustav Klimt.)I have been thinking of the Werkstätte lately because of their jewelry; it perfectly suits our current climate and I'm sure it will be only a matter of time before we return to this kind of aesthetic. Simple, elegant, modern, colorful, and beautifully crafted.

The most significant Werkstätte jewelry was designed by Josef Hoffman and Kolo Moser. While most worked with silver and gold, the focus of the work was on the metal designs and the unique arrangements of semi-precious stones. You see, during the early part of the 20th Century in Europe, times were tough. Economic depression, wars and revolutions... It was all pretty unsettling, and it was considered to be in bad taste to wear real gems. (Remember, this was also the time when CoCo Chanel invented costume jewelry too.)

Does any of this sound familiar?

Luckily for the patrons of the Werkstätte, their pieces were usually custom-made by hand as individual art pieces, which made them beautiful, tasteful, and lasting. Luckily for us, they are still as modern and wearable today as they were then! Perhaps with all of this luxury guilt going on, designers will take some cues from the Wiener Werkstätte and make things that move away from mass-market bling and into hand-crafted, wearable art... After all, history is repeating these days.

All images scanned from "Wiener Werkstätte - Design in Vienna 1903-1932" by Christian Brandstätter

Film: Vicki & Norman's Fabulous House

Vicki sings to Norman - with a Barcelona chair in the backgroundIt's funny - during the two years I've been working in the interior design industry, I've started to notice set and production design in film much more than I used to do. When I worked in fashion I pretty much only looked at costumes, but the interiors and mise-en-scene (as we learned in film class) are just as significant. I know that's stating the obvious, but when you spend your whole day looking at furniture, lamps, rugs and accessories, it puts the whole thing into greater perspective.

Tonight I watched Judy Garland in A Star is Born on TCM and absolutely fell in love with Vicki (Judy Garland) and Norman's (James Mason) fabulous house on the beach in Southern California. (To be fair, I should state that every frame of A Star is Born is gorgeous and Judy Garland's performance is just incredible. It kills me that she didn't get the Oscar she deserved for this film.) But, the house that Vicki & Norman share on the breakers of Malibu is truly a luscious example of pitch-perfect mid-century California modern. You see it in detail in the scene when Vicki comes home from the studio and sings "Someone at Last" to her husband Norman before dinner. You know - the scene right before he drops an atom bomb on her Oscar speech? It's a goodie.

The house is spacious, no walls, and utter Southern California in the mid-fifties. Neutral tones, stucco, and pale stone meet hardwood floors in deep acorn, and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Pacific. A geometric mustard-yellow sofa is matched by another in chocolate brown; these are both dressed in casual cushions in fuscia pink, cobalt blue, and deep orange. A geometric-link rug in black and white dresses the main group while leopard and zebra skins serve as throw rugs in other parts of the room. To complete the look, crisp white Barcelona chairs are placed strategically throughout.

The vivid, glamorous room shows the last carefree moments of this film and it's absolutely wonderful, as is the entire picture. Who would have thought that a Judy Garland pic would feature such cool design?

Since I couldn't find a clip showing the "Somone At Last" song, I decided to leave you with the most famous song from A Star is Born which is "The Man That Got Away"... Judy is delish.

Yves Saint Laurent at the de Young Museum

It's here! The 40-year retrospective of Yves Saint Laurent is now happily and beautifully displayed at the M.H. de Young museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. I have been looking forward to today's press preview for months, and the whole morning was well worth waiting for!

I learned a few days ago that not only would the international curators of this exhibit be attending, but also some of Saint Laurent's best couture clients, close friend Betty Catroux, and one-time love and long-time business partner, Pierre Bergé. This was going to be quite the preview - as it should be! The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts collaborated with the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint-Laurent to create this comprehensive gathering of Saint Laurent's most iconic fashion ensembles, direct from the company archives.

Of course, the passing of Monsieur Saint Laurent earlier this year puts all of this into much higher relief, making the show not merely a simple a retrospective, but a celebration of the life and vision of this singular designer. Speaking so softly as to barely be heard above the snapping cameras, Monsieur Bergé opened his remarks by saying he wanted "to talk about Yves." It is clear that his own sadness at the passing of his friend and companion is still very close to the surface, with this gathering being especially poignant for him. Bergé and Saint-Laurent met in 1958 and opened the Maison Yves Saint-Laurent in 1961, with Bergé managing the business and operations end of the company. While the pair's personal relationship has sometimes been called "rocky", Bergé and Saint-Laurent remained in close for fifty years, with their mutual fondness and solidarity remaining steadfast.

Bergé said "Is fashion art? I don't know. I doubt [it]. What I know is to create fashion, you must be an artist."

The exhibition is arranged within four themes that truly celebrate Saint-Laurent the artist: Masterful Pencil Strokes, The YSL Revolution, The Palette, and Lyrical Sources. The arrangements show the different facets of his design and its far-reaching influences. Ensembles are grouped by similarity, not in chronological order. This allows the visitor to see how Saint-Laurent returned to the same inspirations throughout his forty years of design. The different themes could be called out to the viewer more clearly in the exhibition space, but the essences of color, shape, texture, and art are easily seen.

When I spoke with Jill D'Alessandro, associate curator of textiles at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, she said that her "favorite" part was difficult to define, but that she was most fascinated by the contrasts and dichotomies he always explored. "Masculine/feminine, black/white, or how he took a painting - something flat and static - and put it onto something that moved." Certainly the three Mondrian dresses that are shown look as fresh and fabulous as the first time they appeared on the cover of Paris Vogue in 1965.

In a measure of true classics, truly timeless haute couture, there were many pieces that were many decades old but would still be very chic today. I spoke with Diane Charbonneau, exhibition co-curator and curator of contemporary decorative arts at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, while standing in front of two gorgeous evening gowns that were designed in tribute to Henri Matisse. We both agreed that while the ensembles were at least 25 years old, both of us could wear them this evening and be the chicest women in town. It was this visionary design that made Saint Laurent a master, and all of this is on display from the cheetah prints to the stacks of bangles - the trends are still with us today.

Diane Charbonneau and I also agreed that the next greatest thing to see in person is the incredible craftsmanship. The opulent textiles and embellishments such as Lesage embroidery are a feast for the eyes. If anything, the exhibition could be seen as a celebration of fading handcrafts and subindustries of the world of haute couture. Houses like Lesage have been creating embroidery with thread, beads, riboons and sequins since the Belle Epoque, but are now among a dying breed of artisans that serve a clientele that is getting more and more rare. It is on the clothing of Yves Saint-Laurent that one can see this craft up close: an evening gown with appliques of Schiaparelli-inspired lips shows that no two sets of lips are identical - they are each shaped differently, with individual silhouettes and materials. It is this type of detail and collaboration between designer and craftsman that brings the greatness to this oeuvre.

As we visited the final group of literary ensembles, (a velvet tuxedo in tribute to Oscar Wilde would look perfect on Blair Waldorf if she were trying to dress like Chuck Bass...) I was introduced to Monsieur Bergé. I began by saying "Bonjour Monsieur!" and then quickly became tongue-tied as I realized that I should probably NOT embarrass myself by trying to speak French in that moment. So, I got nervous and sputtered something about enjoying his stay in San Francisco. I had always heard that he was ruthless in business and more than intimidating to his underlings - so who was this cute smiling man in front of me? He was warm, kind, and when he squeezed my wrist in farewell the gesture was unexpected, gentlemanly, and affectionate. I was completely flummoxed. It's not every day that I meet a living legend, and certainly not every day that they're actually nice about your being nervous around them.

Fans of Saint-Laurent can be fanatical, talking of the designer with a bit of a frenzied adoration and almost proprietary love. Once a devotee, always a devotee. My mother has always loved Yves Saint Laurent, which is why, as I've mentioned before, this was the first designer I ever knew. She still talks with fondness of her trousers, skirt and sweater purchased at the Boutique in Dallas years ago, and how she wished she'd had that odd $300 then to buy the peacoat too. I felt it was only appropriate then that I bring my Mom with me to this preview. Her favorite ensembles were from the 1976 Ballet Russes collection; when approaching a full-skirted mannequin with a fur vest and hat she said: "THIS was the one I always wanted..." This is definitely a show to feed everyone's closet dreams.

In a final note of cleverness: I loved that the museum put the entire press kit onto individual memory sticks, packaged into cute boxes with pink labels. They looked like slices of cake on a tray - delightful and smart. I also loved that we were each given the museum's own edition of the "Yves Saint Laurent Couture Coloring Book" - a very fun party favor for kids young and old. A very special thank-you to Jill Lynch at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and a huge congratulations to everyone involved in bringing this very special exhibit to our beautiful new museum - the exclusive venue for this exhibit in the United States. Do not miss this show - you will regret it!

Yves Saint Laurent at the de Young Museum

November 1st, 2008 - April 5, 2009

50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive

San Francisco, CA 94118

Please visit my Flickr feed for even more images from the Yves Saint Laurent exhibition. For my other posts on Yves Saint Laurent, please visit Master Class from June 2007, and Going Gauche from October 2006.

Pink & Black YSL Sketch by Yves Saint Laurent

Photo of Yves Saint Laurent & Pierre Bergé, Alice Spring 1983

All other images shown are by Poetic & Chic