The following is from an interview David Brensilver conducted with Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart, whose all-vegan Brooklyn, New York-based company Vaute Couture recently enjoyed a high-profile solo show at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. Originally published on Brensilver’s animal-rights blog The Daily Maul, these interview excerpts are reprinted here with permission.
DB: Your primary motivation for launching Vaute Couture was to communicate, through your work, that there is “no excuse left to wear animals,” according to language on your website. The same argument has been made with regard to eating animals. In your experience, what motivates the unconvinced to wear the body parts of slain animals? And what roles do convenience and peer pressure play in the decisions people make about the fashions they wear?
LH: I don’t think anything motivates the unconvinced to wear animals or eat animals. I think they are unknowing participants in a large profit-minded machine that doesn’t care about animals, and that they either … don’t know yet about how animal fibers are made and/or … that what they wear and purchase even makes a difference. Most people I meet don’t even consider what they wear to be even a moral question (unless it’s something as obvious as fur), until I pose it to them. It seems that art and business (of which fashion is both) often believe they are exempt from ethics, when to me, business is the most important arena for ethics, because it has the ability to create so much good or so much bad through every aspect of the production process as well as their interaction with society.
DB: I’ve read that fur is once again popular among fashion designers. If this is the case, is its popularity rooted in the same kind of defiant attitude we see in our politics?
LH: I think fur is popular among designers (though the numbers show, thankfully, that it is actually on the decline for the actual sales of fur, according to the Humane Society of the United States), because the fur industry is spending a lot of money to make it appear popular and cool by buying designers and magazines. Also, I often wonder if by knowing that lives had to die for a material like fur, that it makes fur feel more valuable to them, like by wearing or designing with it they are saying they must be pretty important to have something that cost 40 lives … I think there’s an elitism inherent there that some designers value because it makes them feel more important, whether they consciously realize it or not. I think the defiance is interesting, too – because yes, for someone to choose to do something that they know others might see as “wrong” such as designing with fur is … to say, “I don’t care, this is my art!” and to suggest they are on a higher realm of intelligence because they put their art above doing something they might see as “nice.” But what I find so laughable is that in the end, they are just doing exactly what the fur industry wants them to do, and by designing with fur, they are not being defiant in any way, they are being the biggest followers of all and playing the pawn for the fur industry.
DB: In addition to producing garments made exclusively from vegan materials, your website indicates that the Vaute Couture “line is also made of recyclable and recycled fibers, and produced locally in NYC’s garment district.” Is it by design that this ethical and responsible approach challenges, explicitly, the notion that coveted fashions need to be derived from “rare” or “exotic” materials – including those derived from animals?
LH: Well, our fabrics actually are rare. … They are at the cutting edge of sustainability and weatherproof innovation, and are often custom made for my line, taking months to produce.
DB: Why do you think fashions made from fur elicit a more visceral reaction from many people than clothes made from leather and other animal-derived materials?
LH: It’s interesting, because wool is actually just as, if not more cruel, than fur. Sheep raised for wool are first of all slaughtered after they are done being “productive,” oftentimes at the end of a grueling cruel live-export journey. But it’s during their lives that they endure a cruel factory-farmed existence, with repeated careless shearing that slices slabs of skin off on a regular basis. And so, an animal whose fiber is repeatedly taken from them while they’re alive is often enduring even more cruelty altogether than one killed for their fur at the end, because in addition to being killed, they endure this terribly cruel process over and over until they are slaughtered in the end. Most people don’t think about this. The problem isn’t if the cruelty is necessary – certainly, it is not the intention of a factory farm to be cruel. But, it is the intention of a factory farm to be efficient and to be as productive as possible, and the well-being of animals involved only get in the way of the bottom line, resulting in incredibly cruel living conditions, production conditions, and painful slaughter. This is why animals don’t belong in business; their needs and well-being aren’t part of the equation. But none of this is obvious to the public. Most people think that sheep get a haircut and that’s what wool is. So, unless it’s for fur – where we can so clearly see that an animal died for someone to wear their skin, there isn’t the same kind of reaction. And for leather, I’m not sure, but I think perhaps because people have desensitized themselves to eating meat, and since leather comes from cows, they tell themselves, “If we are OK with one we must be OK with the other.” People are funny, myself included, with what stories we tell ourselves, the blanks we fill in. It’s interesting to stop and ask yourself, “Why do I think this?” because often the answer isn’t there. I ask myself that a lot, until I really look at what has brought me to that conclusion.
Photos and text © Gale Zucker
Julia Bogardus, co-owner of Knit New Haven yarn store
Q: What is your fashion philosophy?
A: Make it pop.
Q: How did you decide what to wear today?
A: See fashion philosophy, above.
Q: What is your fashion philosophy?
A: I like to be color coordinated, first and foremost. Contemporary, with a little edge. Like boots, with a Kangol, rather than boots with a fitted cap.
Peter Cooper, environmental lawyer
Q: What’s your favorite piece?
A: My scarf. It is a cheerful scarf, in order to reflect the oncoming departure of winter.
Meg Kazukynas of English Market
Q: What is your fashion philosophy?
A: Set your own trends. I don’t like to follow rules. Whatever you want to wear, wear it.
Samantha Galberth of Salon 2000
Q: What is you fashion philosophy?
A: Dress according to my mood. Today? Happy.
Q: What words would you use to describe New Haven style?
A: Versatile and open.
Michael Morand, of Yale University
Q: Tell us about your cufflinks.
A: They are black star flag, of the rising star country of Ghana. I got them at the Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum in Accra, Ghana.
Shawn Moore, a senior at the Yale School of Music, with his violin
Q: What is your fashion philosophy?
A: Dressy, but urban.
Q: Do you find yourself accessorizing around your instrument?
A: Not consciously.
Left to right: XinYang Li, Zhu Zhang, Yungi Zhang, and ChuYang Wei
Q: What is your fashion philosophy?
A: Xinyang Li – My fashion? (Laughs)
Q: Tell us about your polka-dot purse.
A: Zhu Zhang – It’s small and matches all my black-and-white clothes.
Q: What is your favorite piece?
A: Yungi Zhang – My jacket – I like the style, and the collar, it is fluffy.
Q: How did you decide what to wear today?
A: Chu Yang Wei – My scarf’s color – it’s very spring.
Elizabeth Goodspeed, walking her greyhound, Bella
Q: What’s your favorite piece?
A: My scarf. A co-worker gave it to me a couple of years ago.
Q: Tell us about your stripes.
A: I enjoy them. I find stripes to be really in style. You know, I think they make me look a little slimmer.
Sean Milnes, manager at Fuel Coffee Shop
Q: What is your fashion philosophy?
A: Functional first, always. Utilitarian. Everything I wear must be layerable.
For many of his fans, seeing and hearing David Sedaris read from his latest collection of essays is as anticipated an event as the release of the book itself. Sedaris’ inimitable voice, matter-of-fact delivery, and sidesplitting commentaries make his appearances seem more like uniquely sophisticated comedy shows than book readings by a writer whose audiences are made up of This American Life listeners and The New York Times subscribers.
So entertaining is Sedaris reading his own work that I recommend the audiobook formats of his essay collections as much as the print versions. Somewhere, I have Naked and Barrel Fever on cassette, which isn’t that crazy given that my car’s stereo can play that format.
I learned from a recent broadcast of Fresh Air with Terry Gross that Sedaris had released a new book, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls. And then I saw Sedaris on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which prompted me to look into where I might see him read from his latest collection of essays.
That got me thinking about the last time I saw Sedaris, at The Bushnell in Hartford. While that occasion was a number of years ago, I remember leaving the theater not just with ribs sore from hysterical laughter but with an appreciation for how much Sedaris cares about the written word.
At the end of his appearance, Sedaris recommended a book by a much-lesser-known author, whose name and book I can’t remember. Apparently, Sedaris has made a habit of recommending other writers’ work, which is a wonderful gesture given that many of his fans are likely to buy the recommended titles at his suggestion.
As much as he’s enthusiastically celebrated for his writing and public reading, Sedaris deserves a round of applause for introducing audiences to the work of other authors.
– David Brensilver
New ad-dress for success
Story Hank Hoffman
Photos by Harold Shapiro
“I love looking good. I always did,” says designer Neville Wisdom, chuckling, when asked how he became interested in fashion. Interviewed in his eponymous Orange Street boutique and design studio, Wisdom is suave in a bulky maroon sweater over a white shirt and skinny black tie, his full beard flecked with white. A native of Jamaica, his long hair has grown into tendrils of coppery dreadlocks. He does look good.
Even more, he wants the customers who buy the clothing he designs to look good.
“We custom fit all our dresses here and make sure we’re satisfied with the way a customer looks,” asserts Wisdom. “We will not let anyone leave the store unless we think the dress suits them.”
Wisdom moved his shop from Westville to Orange Street, near Artspace, last spring. The new location has brought him heightened visibility, including a mention in The New York Times.
Wisdom concentrated on custom work when starting out in Jamaica in the 1990′s, making clothing by sketching out one-off designs and then cutting into fabric supplied by his customers. That experience has stood him in good stead now that he works mostly from his own patterns, affording him both an understanding of how designs will look on different body types and the flexibility to make alterations to off the rack dresses to fit individual customers.
Wisdom moved from Jamaica to Connecticut in 1999 after a robbery at his Jamaican store. But he didn’t open his first shop, in Westville, until 2008. In the interim, he worked for many years as a surgical technician. It was a good job but Wisdom says, “I needed to have that honesty with myself to pursue something that I really love.”
His fascination for fashion dates to when he was a young boy in Jamaica, playing dress-up with his sisters and picking out clothing for them to wear.
“It became a part of me,” he says.
“My parents weren’t able to afford to buy me cool clothes. I decided the only way to fix that would be to make my own,” Wisdom says.
He erupts in a hearty laugh recalling his first design piece, a pair of pants he made when he was about 12.
“When I finished, one leg was longer than the other!” he says. “But it was cool.”
His chic styles are inspired by the fashions of the 1950s and 1960s. Wisdom has wholeheartedly embraced the Mad Men phenomenon inspired by the TV show — there is even a vintage desk set courtesy of Acme Furniture in the front of the shop with a teal Royal 440 manual typewriter and a dial phone.
But, he adds, Mad Men did not inspire his clothing designs. Rather, he attributes his affinity for the classic styles to the black and white movies he watched as a child, “the only movies available in Jamaica at that point in my life.”
In a New Haven Independent article, Wisdom described his style as “preppy meets ragamuffin.” I ask how he synthesizes these two concepts.
“My style is very retro — retro-prep. But because of my background — where the ‘ragamuffin’ comes in — that’s where the interesting seams, cuts, and angles are that somehow work together,” explains Wisdom. “Say, for one of my jackets, without that edge on it, it would just be preppy. I describe it as ‘my ragamuffin edge.’ The two aren’t supposed to be together but they’re married because that’s who I am.”
At Neville Wisdom’s Fashion Design Studio, his dress designs are displayed on the racks out front while the design work and sewing is done in the open in the back of the shop. While that arrangement can be distracting — he often works early in the morning and late in the evening when the store is closed, to get things done — he enjoys the one-on-one contact with customers. Their feedback and the fittings he does often lead to tweaks in new designs.
Wisdom is attracted to natural fibers: cotton, wool, and especially silk. Silk, says Wisdom, “is so elegant and classic. The different levels and different types and different combinations of textures — it’s such a versatile fabric to work with.”
Among Wisdom’s most popular designs are the Neville Dress, the Lavern Dress, and the David Dress. First designed about four years ago, the Neville Dress was part of his first collection. He still sells the dress, saying that while the colors may change the aesthetic is the same: “classic, timeless and very cute.” The dress — which usually comes in linen — “is very simple but still has a nice edge to it,” says Wisdom.
He has a couple of different processes for designing the clothes for his collection. In the first, he consults his cache of sketches, settles on some ideas, and then obtains swatches of fabrics he believes will suit the designs. He makes samples to “see if I’m going to put them into the collection.”
But the way he enjoys most is more intuitive: “When I go to buy fabric for samples for designs I’ve already sketched, I run into fabrics that speak to me for a different design,” he says.
“It’s difficult sometimes for me to stay on path because I have this communication with fabric,” says Wisdom. “They hypnotize me, and talk to me, tell me, ‘I want you to make something from me.’ I buy little swatches of different fabrics and when I bring them into my studio they’ll come to life.”
The September Issue
This 2009 documentary film by R.J. Cutler chronicles the production of Vogue magazine’s September 2007 issue and captures the uneasy relationship between editor-in-chief Anna Wintour and the magazine’s creative director, Grace Coddington.
Valentino: The Last Emperor
Matt Tyrnauer’s 2008 documentary film about Valentino Garavani provides insight into the Italian fashion designer’s career and his relationship with his company’s business director, Giancarlo Giammetti.
Pierre Bergé, Yves Saint Laurent’s longtime companion, provides viewers a glimpse into the private life he shared with the late fashion designer, in this 2010 documentary film by Pierre Thoretton.
Coco Before Chanel
Audrey Tautou portrays a young Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel in this (2009) feature film by Anne Fontaine, which explores the circumstances by which Chanel became an iconic name in the world of fashion.
The Devil Wears Prada
Anne Hathaway plays recent college graduate Andrea Sachs, who takes a job at a glossy fashion magazine at which she finds herself in the unenviable position of attending to editor-in-chief Miranda Priestly’s (Meryl Streep) every conceivable need, in this 2006 adaptation of Lauren Weisberger’s novel.
If you don’t know who Bill Cunningham is, you’re in for a treat. This whole issue deals with fashion, and nobody knows it better than him.
In the 2010 Zeitgeist Films documentary Bill Cunningham New York by Richard Press, we are lucky enough to follow him around in his busy daily life. An unassuming and humble character, Cunningham is essentially a sweet old man who has his finger on the pulse of fashion better than an army of young, trendy fashionistas.
Cunningham is a long-time New York Times photographer who photographs for two columns of the paper: “Evening Hours,” which chronicles high society galas and the like, and “On the Street,” in which he identifies and captures trends in fashion at street level.
To him, New York City’s streets are a catwalk. He sees movements when others see nothing. When everyone else is tired, he’s exhilarated.
“He sees trends before any of us,” according to Vogue’s indomitable Anna Wintour in the film.
“This isn’t what I think, it’s what I see,” Cunningham explains in the documentary. “There’s no short cuts, believe me.”
Cunningham braves rain, wind, snow, slush, and heat to get the shots he needs each week.
“He’s like a war photographer in that he’ll do anything for the shot,” according to Paper Magazine’s co-editor-in-chief Kim Hastreiter in the film.
The result is a fascinating record of fashion in New York City (and Paris, of course, during “Fashion Week”). One week it might be hats, another it might be shoes or overcoats – whatever is happening on the streets.
He even has a hand in the page-layout process, choosing the final edits from his film (yes, he still uses film, bless him).
“Bill’s fingerprints are all over everything because he has never, ever, ever sold out one inch of anything,” Hastreiter says in the film.
His high ethical standards are truly something to live up to. He’s never so much as accepted a glass of water while working. He works discretely, quietly, almost invisibly.
The first way I saw his work was via The New York Times website (nytimes.com). There, every time he posts his weekly “On the Street” column in the paper, he narrates a video slideshow explaining the theme. He says things like “marvelous,” “delightful,” and “you kids” completely without irony. He is just so honest and straightforward. It’s fair to say I’m obsessed with these short videos.
Another admirable thing is that Cunningham is acutely aware of societal hierarchies, but treats all subjects the same.
“I’m not interested in celebrities,” he says. “I’m interested in clothes.”
His is a story of following one’s passion, working hard, and having a great career because of it.
“The wider world, that sees fashion as a frivolity, that it should be done away with … the point is that fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life. I don’t think you could do away with it. It would be like doing away with civilization. That’s what I think,” he says with a laugh in the film.
His hard work has not gone unrecognized.
Vogue’s Wintour divulges in the film, “We all get dressed for Bill.”
There’s also a great moment in the film where he is trying to enter an event at “Fashion Week” in Paris. At first he is told to go to the press entrance, until someone recognizes him and says, “Please, he’s the most important man on Earth,” ushering him in.
In 2008, he was awarded the Officier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture. In his touching acceptance speech, he said it all: “He who seeks beauty shall find it.”
Bill Cunningham New York is available for streaming on Netflix. Visit nytimes.com and search Bill Cunningham for his “On the Street” videos. And of course, look for the hard copy of The New York Times for his meticulously laid out spreads.
Amanda May is the Communications Manager of The Arts Council. This is her opinion.
The role of costume design
The folks who dress actors for stage, television, and film roles are responsible for more than a production’s aesthetic.
“We facilitate the storytelling,” Cathy Mason, a costume design assistant at Long Wharf Theatre said during a conversation about the company’s recent production of William Mastrosimone’s Ride the Tiger, which is set during John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign.
The actors’ attire was based entirely on costume designer (and Yale School of Drama faculty member) Jess Goldstein’s research and either “built” or “shopped,” Mason said.
Given the time period in which Ride the Tiger takes place, Goldstein, Mason, and the production’s creative team were able to take advantage of fashions made popular in large part by the designs seen on the AMC television series Mad Men, which is set in 1960s New York.
So popular, in fact, is that period look, that Banana Republic worked with Mad Men costume designer Janie Bryant to produce a Mad Men Collection.
The intersection of contemporary and period-appropriate is a familiar area to Mason and her colleagues.
“Often, period shapes are such that our modern eyes aren’t used to them,” Mason said, explaining that the two are frequently blended to avoid distraction.
Such was the case with the costumes for Ride the Tiger.
“We want our characters to … look well put together, to look good,” Mason said.
Speaking in her capacity as the Elm Shakespeare Company’s costume designer, Elizabeth Bolster (who works as the Yale Repertory Theatre’s wardrobe supervisor) said in an e-mail that, “For me, blending modern and period clothing is more about being cost effective. There are plenty of places … to rent period clothing but even a good deal on a rental isn’t going to beat a $3 pair of pants from Goodwill. Fortunately a lot of fashion silhouettes and trends have repeated themselves over the years and make a blended show pleasing to the eye.”
Bolster also pays attention to what’s happening in contemporary culture.
“In working with Elm Shakespeare,” she said, “(Artistic Director) Jim Andreassi and I typically talk film and TV. Often it’s just whatever art is influencing you in your life in that moment. After seeing the Alexander McQueen show at The Met, Elm’s production of Measure for Measure was very influenced by that aesthetic, though ultimately it ended up more steampunk than high fashion.”
Costume designers can add character elements that an actor might not have been aware of – that is, a designer is responsible for developing “a portion of a character,” said John Carver Sullivan, chairman of Southern Connecticut State University’s theater department.
Sullivan, who’s designed costumes for numerous organizations and productions including those staged by the Yale Opera, talked about the importance of considering socio-economics as much as a character’s gender, ethnicity, and occupation.
Still, Sullivan said, the “overriding force is the mood and spirit of the character.” Consideration must be given to the “arc of the costumes, as well as the arc of the performance.”
And every production needs to be approached from a fresh perspective.
“Every time we start,” Sullivan said, “we say, ‘We begin with a blank page.’”
As important as a playwright, director, and actors are to a production, Sullivan pointed to the critical role each member of a creative team plays, from the lighting designer to the composer who provides the score.
Next month, the Westville-based company A Broken Umbrella Theatre will stage Freewheelers, which, as described in a December 5, 2012, story in the New Haven Independent, “will explore the relationship between the establishment, in 1866, of New Haven’s first corset factory and the patent Frenchman-turned-New Havener Pierre Lallement secured that same year for the modern-day bicycle.”
Costumes for Freewheelers are being designed by Jacy Barber, who’s been participating in production-related workshops with A Broken Umbrella Theatre producer Rachel Alderman and other ensemble members.
Those workshops yielded the Freewheelers Gallery, a work-specific creative exercise that was opened up to the public in the theater company’s Westville warehouse space.
Barber, who’s designed costumes for several of A Broken Umbrella Theatre’s previous productions and recently relocated to Washington, D.C., where she and her husband, writer and lighting designer Jason Wells, founded the Not a Robot Theatre Company, said that the Freewheelers Gallery represented the “seeds of what you’re going to see on stage … in terms of design.”
The Freewheelers Gallery allowed Barber and her colleagues to explore the play’s color scheme and to discover themes that will inform the stage production itself.
Of her costume designs for Freewheelers, Barber said, “I’m not doing a literal translation of period costumes,” an approach that is consistent with the work she’s done for A Broken Umbrella Theatre.
Barber said she tends to reference periods but also to include elements that reflect “contemporary culture and what I perceive to be a common cultural language.”
And that, along with the above-mentioned comments of Mason, Bolster, and Sullivan, reflects a commitment to storytelling as practiced by all those who work together behind the scenes to produce works for the stage or screen.