European Designer in NYC

This is a portion of an article I initially wrote for a magazine. I thought I’d share it here and hope that my frank opinions based on my experience do not offend…

For years, my interest in New York fashion went only as far as imagining myself strutting down Broadway to the theme tune of Cagney & Lacey, wearing those cool tan boots the glamorous blonde detective wore.  images-1

I had heard all the nightmare reports about New York: there’s big money to be made but no time to spend it; jobs offer minimal creativity; you can be fired overnight, no holidays––in Italy we got the entire month of August, plus Christmas, Easter and a wealth of saints days. But I’d gone as far as Milan would allow and, like a teenager impatient to transition to adulthood, I was exhibiting the first signs of a dangerous attraction, soon to bloom into a perverse need to have my innocence stolen. New York was the fashion capital where capitalism was fashion. Not another photoshoot featuring a white shirt/trench coat/Jackie O–inspired combo, I scoffed, secretly seduced by New York’s commercial heft. Deep down I was wondering would I be able to stick it, could I adapt…

Did I have the mettle for this ultimate showdown between creativity and commerce?

With a portfolio as hand luggage, I crossed another body of water. I was ready for the electricity, energy and anonymity that I remembered from London, but with the height of Manhattan.

Well, the city and I, we hit it off right away. Soul sisters. Cue that Cagney & Lacey theme tune. I vowed to steer clear of the corporate giants––no Donna Karan or Calvin Klein for me––and seek out smaller companies for a more rewarding experience.

This is the NYC I'm looking for

The hope

The industry I experienced

The reality

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I found my first job in the employment section of trade journal, Women’s Wear Daily. The studio was a downtown loft, the kind you see in eighties movies like Ghost, but furnished with colourful couches, throws from Rajasthan, and design books lining the walls. During the interview my future boss upbraided her design team for not sketching like me which caused discomfort all around. When I was hired as Head of Studio, the discomfort continued. My boss pitted myself and my three assistants against each other in serious psychological warfare, creating suspicion and resentment where there would otherwise have been none. Assuming incorrectly that, being Irish, I was illegal, she threatened, “I guess it wouldn’t bother you at all if you couldn’t come back into the States. Your call.”

A year later, I sat in front of a jock in a red bomber jacket who was rhapsodizing about my European background.  After WWII, it became common for Americans to travel to Europe to bring home ideas to be copied and, while less travel is required today, the custom has remained. American fashion looks to Europe. Not for money-making ideas, just creative ones.

The position on offer was Design Director of his start-up contemporary label which he mentioned in the same breath as Chloe, Marni, Stella McCartney. Where do I sign? I almost squealed. A week into the job and I was knocking off another unknown label, with offices two floors down. They had made a quick buck the previous season by putting an embellishment on a shift dress. Like sprinkling toppings on a pizza we would put a variation of that embellishment on our shift dress and give it a mouthwatering new name.

View from my cubicle was quite something

View of Gotham from my cubicle though was quite something

From the 12th floor window of my cramped West 36th Street cubicle, if I shoved aside the clutter of spreadsheets and sales projections and shifted slightly in my seat, I could just about glimpse the Empire State building. It was at these moments the fading strains of Bill Conti’s sax would rise up again above the wailing sirens and horns from the street far below.

By now my salary had reached a healthy six figures. I met Brad in The St. Regis Hotel for our interview. My European background had him slavering into his Shiraz. He hired me as Creative Director of his womenswear collection which sold in Saks. Eight days later, while spitting crab salad at me in the Meatpacking district’s trendy Pastis, eyes green with dollar bills, he announced he was shuttering that line and I would be in charge of his new exciting venture: designing fast fashion for a South African department store. It was a classic bait and switch. The wheels of commerce kept turning; we pasted together a few deliveries until I could take no more and walked out.

Brad: an NYC industry fixture

Brad, an NYC industry fixture

Brad subsequently went out of business but has since rebranded his company, trading under a new name. I have done the same. I call myself an “apparel designer” as this is not fashion as I know it. Now, halfway through New York Fashion Week, it strikes me that this is the only fashion week branded by its sponsor: Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week.

The September issue of Vogue US is heavier than Vogue Italia, Vogue Japan, Vogue Paris, and British Vogue stacked together, clocking in at around 900 pages, two thirds of which are advertisements. How’s that for commercial heft? In Italy I would have bought all four of the above Vogues at their inflated import prices before ever considering buying US Vogue.

Vogue's September issue is almost as hefty as Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch

Vogue’s September issue is almost as hefty as Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch

 

When I arrived in New York, you’ll remember I was seeking a rewarding experience within a smaller company. You might think I’ve been disappointed. Quite the opposite. The city’s energy inspired me to write my first novel, Silk for the Feed Dogs, into which I poured the sum of my experiences in the fashion industry. Currently I’m writing my second. You could say I have started my own business. In this city, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a company smaller than mine, but I open up shop daily.

And for the romantics among you, Manhattan and I are still conducting our love affair to an instrumental jazz track featuring a screeching saxophone.

And when this snow finally stops, I’ll be hitting the streets in my tan boots.

 

 

 

 

Silk and an Empire State of mind

Silk and an Empire State of mind

Final thought: What I might have looked like today had I not expanded my horizons:
Elaine in NYC, Chris and I in France and Ireland, Halloween 2010 352
The novel inspired my experience in the international fashion industry is now available. You can buy Silk for the Feed Dogs here.

25 comments

  1. I was so amazed by the size of American Vogue that I read ”theft” instead of ”heft” 😉 How on earth do people carry these monsters home? Anyway I’m glad your Irish sense of survival prevailed and you didn’t end up like the model on the last pic!

  2. 😀 Like Lia in Brussels, I too read “heft” 😀
    And HA again – Cagney & Lacey, I loved them, they were so cool in those days, just like the first set of Charlie’s Angels 😉
    Your story sounds very interesting and I’m curious about your book. Can I buy a signed copy from you?
    Happy weekend! 🙂

    • Maybe a theft did happen and I missed it, head in a spreadsheet! 🙂 Bet you’re singing the theme tune now in your head, right..? Duh-de-dun-duh, duh-de-dun-duh-daw…
      You can buy it on Amazon in paperback or Kindle and as a heads up–not sure where you’re located–but if you’re using Amazon UK they have Kindle version on promotional offer for Valentine’s week. I will of course fly over and sign it for you toute suite 🙂
      Happy weekend to you too.

      • 🙂 A laptop and an iPhone are enough technology for me. I prefer a good old book with papers that make a sound when you turn them, pages one can fold over if there’s no bookmark available and even I even enjoy the smell of old books. Wonderful 🙂
        OK, so I’ll buy a book and we’ll take it from there 😀

  3. Karen

    brilliant as always!!!! I have the same photo of the last pic that I took in Philly…it was always my fear that I would end up like her too XXX

  4. A woman after my own heart. I may tout the promotion but I’d pay above and beyond for the joy of an actual book in my hand and the lovely sensations you describe. Books, long may they last! And thank you for your interest. I promise my book has pages and words and smells and potential for dog-eared loveliness 🙂

  5. Monica

    More juice! I want more juice! (ie.. gossip.. details.. what were Really like other than spitting crab salad in your face !? ha!) loved reading this!!

  6. If you fly me to St Barths, I’ll tell you everything over lunch–just not crab salad 🙂

  7. Oh dear Jackie, I can relate rather closely to what you’ve written here but on much less of a grand scale…
    no European design houses in my portfolio but definitely a few Canadian ‘fashion fly-by-nighters’…
    and like you, I eventually came to the end of my pas de deux with the Brad’s of the fashion world…
    and am totally grateful that I never became liked that worked-to-the-bones girl in last picture!!
    Enjoyed reading your very honest and frank post–induced a huge, huge sigh of relief…
    bet you heard it all the way down in NYC!!
    Looking forward to reading your book soon~
    PS Adored {visual} comparison between The Goldfinch + Vogue US…
    need ‘we’ say no more!! 😉

  8. Oh I’m so glad you can relate and my experiences can bolster you! Thanks for offering understanding! I did hear a loud sigh–thought it was a snow plow or the sideways blowing snow here in NYC. Our pas de deux has become a pas de don’t 🙂
    I hope you enjoy my novel–it’s dedicated to all us poor worked-to-the-bones girls of fashion 🙂

  9. Sometimes you come to NYC for one thing and end up doing another — with joy! I could never make enough elsewhere with my passion — the sheer numbers in the city work in my favor. XO

  10. You’re quite correct. New York herself seems to have a hand in our decision making as if she knows what’s best for us! 🙂

  11. kathrynmcerlean@gmail.com

    That was very interesting Jackie. Your mum and I are going to a art class free off charge for 6 weeks which I am enjoying and hope your mum is enjoying it to.

    I loved Cagney and lacey too.

    I feel my art is getting better but don’t think I will make it to NEW YORK

    Sent from Windows Mail

  12. We have a saying..it’s no good going on when the wheels still turning but the hamsters dead…Expanding horizons is liberating xxx

  13. Amazing chapter of your life, J. I originally tapped your blog bc I grew up in NYC. Yep, and went to high school in the city – back when Stuyvesant was on 1st Ave and 15th St. I’ve swing danced atop the WTC, Windows on the World. Snazzy description of your journey, wonderfully told.

    Such an interesting blog.

    Xxxx
    HW

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