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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Final thought: What I might have looked like today had I not expanded my horizons:
The novel inspired my experience in the international fashion industry is now available. You can buy Silk for the Feed Dogs here.