The Perfect Dent

Anyone with a mild case of OCD can drive themselves mad perfecting symmetrical dents and folds (without creases or kinks) in soft felt fedoras. I thought maybe I just didn’t have the right touch, but if you look at 1940s photos, and even film stills, most fedoras were imperfectly dented:

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A Day in the 1940s

Yesterday I was the guest speaker at Todmorden Mills Museum 3rd annual Fab Forties day. It was a bit of a time-trip for me to begin with because I worked at the museum from August 1985 to March 1987. When I was there, the two original houses on the site were an 1838 house interpreted as an 1850’s mill-owner’s home, and a Regency-style cottage thought to have been built in about 1817, and restored to the late 1830s. However, now the mill owners house has been re-interpreted. The house has been duplexed to represent two 1890s mill workers residences (as it actually had been in the 1890s), and with further research it was discovered the ‘Regency’ cottage was built in 1851, and has been made over to represent a wartime 1940s interior.

The 1940s kitchen

The museum site is beautiful – a little piece of the country in the middle of the city. This was an industrial community from the 1790s until the 1940s. Most of the original buildings are gone but for the two houses, Canada’s oldest paper mill (which is now a community theatre and art gallery), and part of a brewery, (which is now administrative.) Appropriate with the wartime 1940s theme, the back parking lot was once the site of a German POW camp.

It was a perfect setting, and perfect weather, for a trip to the past. Visitors were encouraged to bring picnics and then enjoy the activities which included: the theatre converted into a Victory dance hall, complete with live dance band, wartime food ‘treats’ offered from the 1940s kitchen (warning, skip the mock fudge – its AWFUL!), vendors of 1940s vintage items, my lecture on fashion in the forties, a costume contest, vintage cars, and my favourite – a popsicle vendor (with updated organic flavours for today’s palate.) This is an event to keep your eye out for next year — I think the soccer game and Father’s Day drew some of the crowds away from this year’s event, but there is no reason this shouldn’t become hugely popular in coming years.

Contestants for best costume. The man in an original 1942 uniform won best male costume (more men came in costume but were too shy to compete.) It was a tough call for best female costume but in the end the woman in the brown dress and Victory roll hairstyle took home the prize.

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Michaele Vollbracht, 1947 – 2018

Born November 17, 1947 in Kansas City, Missouri, Michael Vollbracht was a fashion designer, illustrator, author, and designer. I worked with him in 1999 when he was the designer for a retrospective exhibition about American shoe designers Beth and Herbert Levine at the Bata Shoe Museum. Michael was one of those people you wanted at the dinner table – he had fascinating stories about everything and everyone – not mean, gossipy tales, but interesting stories that kept you spellbound. The only people he didn’t speak highly of were Johnny Carson and his third wife, because they yanked financial backing from his business during their divorce at a critical moment that forced Vollbracht into bankruptcy.

From the age of 13 until his business failed in 1985, Michael spelled his first name with an extra ‘e’ (Michaele), just because. He graduated from the Parsons School of Design in 1965, and worked for Geoffrey Beene and Donald Brooks before becoming the in-house illustrator at Henri Bendel and later Bloomingdales where he designed the Marilyn face shopping bag. The bag became famous because it didn’t have the name of Bloomingdales on the bag — the result of a printing oversight.

He founded his own fashion company in 1978 where his clothes became canvasses for his artwork – flowy, caftan-like tops and dresses showcasing bold, graphic designs. His collections were well received and earned him a Coty Award in 1980. After his business folded in 1985, Vollbracht wrote Nothing Sacred, a memoir of New York and the people he knew, from Joan Crawford to Geraldine Stutz. He then concentrated on his artwork and did odd jobs like designing museum exhibitions.

He returned to the world of fashion in 2003 when he became the designer at Bill Blass until 2007. Vollbracht died unexpectedly at his home in Florida June 6.

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Kate Spade, 1962 – 2018

Designer Kate Spade inside her New York flagship store on May 28, 1996 in New York. Photo by Kyle Ericksen/Penske Media/REX/Shutterstock (6908970a)

Born in Kansas City on December 24, 1962, Katherine Bresnahan, was attending college when she met her future husband Andy Spade (brother of SNL actor David Spade). The idea of opening a  handbag company came from a casual conversation the couple were having one evening in a Mexican restaurant about how she liked simple tote bags. The couple were yet to be married when they decided to use the name ‘Kate Spade’ for marketing the bags — Kate became the designer and Andy, the creative director.

From a humble start-up in their apartment in 1992, annual sales reached $1.5 million by 1995 when they opened their flagship store in New York. In 1996 the Council of Fashion Designers of America gave Spade the “America’s New Fashion Talent in Accessories” award. By 1998, the company had $27 million in sales and the couple had opened their first store in Japan. Kate Spade bags were the fashion ‘must-have’ of the day.

The couple sold controlling interest in the business to the Neiman Marcus Group in 1999 but actively worked with the brand, which expanded into beauty products, eyeware, and even a fragrance. In 2006 the Spades sold the Kate Spade brand and within a year walked away from the company so Kate could devote her time to being a full time mother. In 2015 the Spades became partners in a new venture – a shoe and handbag brand called Frances Valentine.

Kate Spade died from suicide in her New York apartment on Tuesday, June 5.

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Glossary – Beatnik fashion talk

Here are all the fashion terms from the Complete Beatnik Dictionary:

So if you are a flutter bum (good looking guy) and want to get all chrome plated (dressed up) in some threads (clothes), you can put shape in a drape (dress well) in an ivy (suit) with a bent Brummel (bow tie), leathers (shoes), and a lid (hat). Or maybe you just want to kick back in your goat (goatee beard) and shades (sunglasses) and wear rags (sportswear), like some johns (pants) and earth pads (shoes).

Better check your Mickey Mouse (watch) if you are picking up a dolly (cute girl) for a date. She may need a lot of time on her nest (hairstyle), by hitting the bottle (bleach her hair), or get a wig chop (haircut) and become a fuzzy duck (girl with short hair). To make cover (get dressed), she could wear a crazy quilt (new dress), and put on her binoculars/peepers (glasses) to see if pinky’s out of jail (slip is showing) before getting into some twin trees (high heels).

And if the date is good, it could lead to a rock torniquette (diamond wedding ring).

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PD Day in Toronto – Part Three – Italian Surprise

Roberta di Camerino tromp-l’oeil dresses, 1970s

On our way back from the ROM we cut through Yorkville Village (formerly known as Hazleton Lanes), to get to our car, and discovered an exhibition of 60 years of Italian Fashion in the main rotunda.

I had heard nothing about this show so it was a delightful surprise. The mall was about to close so we had only minutes to see as much as we could and take some pics.

Looking this up online today I see one of the partners in this display is the Istituto Italiano di Cultura Toronto — an organization that often sponsors Italian theme exhibitions in Toronto (I recall a phenomenal Bugatti chair exhibition they did about twenty-five years ago.) According to the institution’s website the exhibition “60 Years of Made in Italy” was organized by Fiorella Galgano and Alessia Tota from various archives and private collections, and created courtesy of the Consulate General of Italy.

On display are garments from the 1950s to the present including a lot of celebrity worn pieces. The exhibition is FREE, and on display until the end of June.

The blue and white dress is by Schubert and was made for Gina Lollobrigida in 1950, the pink pantsuit is by Galitzine, and was worn by Claudia Cardinale in the Pink Panther in 1963!

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PD Day in Toronto – Part Two – Iris Van Herpen

After leaving the Aga Khan at 6:10, we drove 40 minutes south to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), arriving with a few minutes to spare for the 7:00 start of an event featuring Iris Van Herpen (pronounced Eeris Van Hairpen) and an exhibition of her work. Transforming Fashion will open Saturday at the ROM and continue until October 8. I have to say that without doubt, this is the most suitable exhibition  ever to appear in the ROM Crystal textile galleries – FINALLY the architecture of the Crystal compliments an exhibition!

‘Air’ is the theme of this metal bubble dress, commissioned by the ROM from Van Herpen, and currently on display under Beesley’s kinetic fly trap sculpture.

Hard plastic dress… not my favourite, but still amazing

We bought tickets for this event a few weeks ago, and for $20.00 we got a preview of the exhibition, wine and nibbles, and a 45 minute audience, along with 400 other people, with Iris Van Herpen as she was being interviewed in conversation. That’s a lot of bang for twenty bucks.

I have seen pictures of everything Iris has done, but viewing them in person is a completely different experience. I was surprised to find her 3D printed pieces hard like a plastic model kit. I copped a feel of a spikey dress (see right) when nobody was looking and it was skeletal armor – sci-fi couture for clients like Bjork and Lady Gaga – these aren’t pieces that will get picked up by Saks anytime soon. Is it pretty? I think so — but is it fashion? maybe not, but this show is about ideas, not wearability. There were more wearable pieces using traditional sewing techniques, like the two dresses pictured below. I stared at one dress for several minutes trying to figure out how she made it, I should have been able to figure it out — I couldn’t.

Everything Van Herpen does hasn’t been done before, she’s not ripping off anybody else’s ideas or reviving some old look. She is at the edge of the future, and she isn’t doing it alone. Van Herpen collaborates with other artists, like architect Philip Beesley who had a kinetic sculpture hovering over the exhibition, like a Venus fly trap from the set of Barbarella.

Iris Van Herpen’s clothes make you think and question what is fashion — and beauty, and what will be… This is a show not to be missed.

…Part Three – Italian Surprise

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PD Day in Toronto – Part One – The Aga Khan Museum

Yesterday started off with me cracking a tooth on a piece of 12 grain toast (so much for whole grains being good for you…) After a trip into Toronto for emergency dental work, we had the rest of the day to ourselves, so we decided to make the best of it while my face thawed.

View of the permanent collection gallery

Our first museum stop was the Aga Khan Museum. The Aga Khan is the latest addition to the Toronto museum scene and has been open almost four years. Despite best intentions, I had not made it in yet because the museum is far from our usual destination – downtown Toronto. It would take the best part of an hour to get there by public transit, and with traffic, nearly as much time by car. It is built on the site of the old Bata Shoe headquarters where I worked for seven years before the Bata Shoe Museum opened on Bloor street in 1995. Instead of the concrete internationalist style of the old Bata HQ, the Aga Kahn is a postmodern multi-facetted geometric edifice of white marble that would look at home in a sand-swept equatorial climate, but looks more like an oddly-shaped igloo in Canada. Inside, the building is impressive with black marble walls and decorative metal grid windows surrounding a courtyard where light creates playful shadows. However, trying to get into the building is a challenge.

Firstly, it is not clear which entrance you are supposed to use to get to the parking from the main road, and once you figure that out the signs say authorized parking  only. As I am not a staff member, visiting dignitary, or delivery person, I assumed I was not authorized but it turns out visitors are authorized (they really need to reword those signs.) After driving over some of the largest speed bumps this side of the border between North and South Korea, we paid $10.00 to park underground. Signs for the entrance directed visitors to the P2 level, but after walking the entire perimeter of the underground parking we discovered it was about 40 feet from where we had parked — it just doesn’t look like an entrance.

The entrance to the museum from P2

I was now annoyed, especially when I realized we would have to pay $40.00 on top of parking to get into the museum. However, my awful day began to thaw along with my jaw when we got to the counter and discovered that the museum was free after 4 p.m.on Wednesdays. I guess that is why the museum was also busy — in fact it was crowded.

The museum has three exhibition spaces. The first is a small gallery of Islamic pottery that was a gift to the museum by the late Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan on the condition the collection be displayed in the same manner as it had been in his home. The main gallery is a huge ‘L’-shaped contemporary space for the permanent collection’s overview exhibition of Islamic cultural material. Upstairs there is a duplicate of the main gallery for special exhibitions. Currently there is a loan display from Egypt about the World of the Fatimids.

The tilework panel above had a great story: The iconography is under debate but some feel it is the prophet Muhammad’s sandals depicted under a lamp, alluding to the concept of God being like a light shining in a niche.

Our museum experience was good – there were pop-up musicians every hour on the hour, the staff were super pleasant and helpful, and there was even a decent concession stand with tasty and affordable food. The main gallery with the overview of Islamic cultural material was excellent, albeit perhaps the labels were a little too academic for most museum visitors because of their use of undefined terms.

The show approaches the topic chronologically and comparatively, following the progress of Islam across the Middle East, into Europe and Asia. A colourful display of Turkomen garments are disappointingly barely identified amidst the academically described caligraphy-illuminated Qurans, lustreware pottery, and brassware.

Display of 19th and 20th century robes from Turkmenistan. The robe on the right is a chyrpy – a woman’s cloak with false sleeves

After a break, we tackled the upstairs special exhibition about the Fatimids (we had to take an elevator because we couldn’t find stairs.) The first part of the exhibition summed up the story very well, but by the time we got halfway through this large exhibition, everything began to look the same — more of what we had already seen downstairs and not as impressive in terms of artistry or condition. At this point we had been at the museum for two hours and fatigue was setting in, so we skimmed the rest of the exhibition then tried to watch a presentation that we couldn’t hear for the noise outside the viewing room, and left.

The museum building has some beautiful elements but it lacks some logic. While the courtyard is stunning and the black marble lower hall and bathrooms luxurious, access into the building, and from floor to floor, is not easy to figure out. Regardless, this is a museum to keep your eye on for special events, concerts and important travelling shows, but check to see when there are free days, because $50.00 is a lot of money for two to visit a three gallery, one topic boutique museum — at least it is to me.

…Part Two – Iris Van Herpen

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Fashion in Song – Point of No Return by Nu Shooz (1986)

I am bending the rules with this addition because the song isn’t about fashion, but the video uses stop motion to animate a lot of shoes and sneakers – and after all, the band’s name is Nu Shooz…

The band formed in 1979 and the song Point of No Return topped the dance chart for one week in September 1986.

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Canadian Fashion Connection – April Cornell

April Cornell, 2015

In 1975 Montrealers Chris and April Cornell came back from a trip to Asia with their luggage stuffed with hundreds of pounds of kilims, Kandahar wedding shirts, Turkomen jewelry, Nepali jackets, Afghani socks, and Kuchi tribal dresses – enough to open a boutique called La Cache on Green Avenue in May 1975. The boutique was a hit.

In 1981 the couple expanded their enterprise, opening more stores, eventually acquiring two factories and a printing mill in India to produce clothing with a Victorian flare under the April Cornell label. In 1992 the company, which now had wholesale, manufacturing and licensing divisions, moved to Burlington Vermont. In 2005, the company operated over 100 stores in the U.S. and Canada — but then everything fell apart.

In 2006, the growing trend for online shopping was making enough of a dent in sales for Cornell, whose stores were locked into long leases with high rents, to require Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The company needed to reorganize. All but disappearing, the company has slowly and carefully come back – revisiting the boutique concept for four stores and an online sales site that offers housewares, linens, and a small selection of clothing.

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