Monday, September 29, 2014

Normcore vs The New Normal

(Designer Stella McCartney after her Spring 2015 show. Photo from

There was a lovely essay by Cathy Horyn a while back dealing with commercialization of fashion -- that is, high fashion becoming increasingly more wearable, from Celine's Birkenstocks to looks that are all about branding and recognition, about simple messages and wearability. It is a good essay, go read it. And it is tempting to assume that in the days of Twitter and soundbite, the need for simple messages permeates everything, including fashion (one of the most expressive industries), where the promise of individuality and idiosyncrasy has been subsumed by the notion of uniform, and when even high-fashion designers seem to borrow GAP's latest "dress normal" slogan.

It is also tempting to blame the ubiquitous yet poorly understood "normcore" trend from last year -- when everything and everyone were suddenly "normcore" (much like TV anchors who want to appear hip by calling everything a "selfie"). But these two movements are distinct even though they do share the surface appearance of faded jeans and sweatshirts: normcore is a trend precisely because it is self-consciously perpetrated by the very young, very thin, and very fashionable. Everyone else dressing in white sneakers and hoodies looks like normal mid-American frump, that has been the basic default of the non-fashion crowd who have never heard of Zeline. They are not participating in the fashion moment; their trappings have been appropriated by those who could do so while looking distinct.

In a way, normcore is more akin to "no makeup selfies" and "woke up like this" hashtags: because of course millions of women do not wear makeup on a regular basis, like they don't wear or even have interest in high fashion. But for them no makeup selfie would not be an exercise in vanity, just because most of them (us) would look like normal middle-aged women not wearing makeup, to the consternation of beauty experts everywhere. They would not provoke a flood of Instagram likes, they would not look like a humblebrag, because there's nothing flattering about them (and flattering is the unspoken expectation of #wokeuplikethis). To reject makeup (or fashion) is to announce having had access to those things in the first place -- it is the tortured, self-conscious refusal by those who do not have to refuse, like those clothing fasts and shopping bans that were all the rage a few months back. We can only refuse what we have to begin with: most of us cannot be normcore because to refuse the high-fashion labels one has to have access to them in the first place.

Then there is also looking like your refusal is intentional and not coincidental -- hence the very young and very thin; everyone older and heavier would simply look like a mom who has given up, thus ultimately failing in the main intent: separating oneself from the hassled masses while pretending to look like one of them. It's a tricky thing to pull off, and impossible for anyone who does not meet this very narrow criteria. Unless you are a model-looking twenty-something or Emmanuel Alt, slapping on a pair of mom jeans would not make you look high-fashion (or French). It is not individuality via anonymity, the battle-cry of normcore enthusiasts, but rather a demonstration that some women manage to look amazing no matter what. Which is all good and fine, but I think it is quite important to realize that this is what sets normcore apart from that other thing.

And that other thing, comfort and wearability and comfortable familiaty Horyn is talking about, is certainly not bad -- it is still about beauty, I think, but the beauty all of us not blessed with genetic and chronological gifts can indulge in. I can appreciate looking good in a beautiful, simple sweater and a pair of slacks. Not normcore, certainly, as instead of refusal there is a desire to embrace -- a different aesthetic perhaps, but an aesthetic external to the wearer of clothes. This is to say, normcore seems to be more of a personal characteristic, while normalcy of fashion is indeed a moment that exists for everyone to participate in. Whether it's a ood or a bad thing -- only Cathy Horyn knows.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Luxe Fabrics and Political Choices

The quality of air is different in the fall -- the temperatures that would feel balmy in July are downright brisk in September. Either that, or I am deluding myself in order to wear wool when it's almost seventy degrees outside.

Merino wool, to be exact -- this COS lightweight top is a dream, in a warm beige and luxurious drape, and the pleated sleeves give it a distinct yet subdued character. 

The skirt, however, is the real showpiece here: it is by Litkovskaya, a Ukranian designer, and I recently bought it from, one of my favorite online stores. The material is a substantial, stiff silk, almost taffeta-like in quality but with a rough finish that feels a bit like wool. (Another reason I like overseas shopping is the variety of quality natural textiles, especially silks. Silks in the US market seem to be largely dominated by chiffon and charmeuse, with some washed silk thrown in for good measure. While I enjoy all of those, I also seek out heavier weights and raw silks; so far, Suitster and VanHongo are my go-tos for those.)

And the side view, showing the intricate pleating of the skirt, and the side sweep of the hem. It is quite architectural, and cleverly constructed: the closure is via hidden snaps in front, which allows the skirt to move well despite the rigid fabric. I chose Rachel Comey shoes with wooden heels here because they seemed to work with yet against the more dressy elements. They also played well with driftwood of my reading chair!

The necklace is from Luv AJx JewelMint collection, and it is lovely. Here's its closeup (and my fresh manicure).

And there is also another thing. Shopping and clothes are frivolous, no doubt. But, as any social institution, it matters in that affects our lives as well as lives of those who make the clothes and run the shops. I became interested in fashion as an extension of my fascination with social movements, and specifically the intimate connection between the US garment industry and labor union and suffrage movements in the early 20th century. But even today, manufacturing and distribution of clothing are deeply connected to the social institutions and political climates, and one cannot escape being enmeshed in politics of it all. And I really get that sometimes one doesn't feel like dealing with the complexities; sometimes, high street (like that lovely COS top above) is just fine.

But sometimes, I want to consider what economies are being supported with my spending. And this is when I shop small, local, indie, etc. And I have been making a concerted effort to support Ukrainian businesses and designers. Most of you have some knowledge of the tragedies that have befallen this beautiful country and its people lately; I am heartbroken about it. And I think people and institutions of the West too readily default to charity as a way of supporting struggling countries, with not enough attention given to investing into local economies and supporting local manufacturing. It seems to me that making economies more sustainable is quite beneficial in the long run.

So no, I won't pretend that my shopping will save the world or even solve any of its problems; but I do feel that when we decide to spend money, where and how we do so matters, and thus our choices should be considered... at least some of the time. I wouldn't expect anyone to ditch Zara just yet.

Sunday, September 21, 2014


(Mushroom, onion, and bacon omelette)

I am such a creature of a habit that nothing makes me happier than a well-established routine. A GOOD well-established routine, I should say, as it takes me months and sometimes years to finagle a bit of my life into a fitting pattern, the repetition of which never bores me but rather comforts me. Like a favorite sweater, a routine should be cozy and it should also fit -- into the time available to it, into the season, and most of all into the notion of a person I would like myself to be.

So it is with my weekend mornings in the fall -- they are long and free, and the weather is perfect for that sort of thing. I wake up at 6:30 --  a late morning for me, since on the weekdays I am up at 5 am. I get ready and walk to the gym for my 8 am barre class. I love morning exercise classes, it's such a nice way of starting the day. Especially barre -- not too intense, but with plenty of varied movement and stretching, I feel energized and not exhausted.

After the class, I walk some more: I stop by a local Italian market to get some fresh rolls and almond milk, and then continue to the coffee shop, to get my latte and Chris's chai (yes, we like foofy drinks, what of it?) and walk back home. The loop home-gym-store-coffee-shop-home is just under three miles, and I get back by 10 am. By then, I am ready for breakfast, and usually cook something fun for the both of us -- omelletes, like the one pictured above. It's from today. Chris also enjoys hash browns, which I make from scratch. We get our produce from farmers' markets, when in season, and from Door-to-Door Organics year round. (And that is also a part of my routine: by opting to have most of my food delivered, I free up time to do other things. Yes, I do realize that we are very fortunate to be able to do that.)

We eat breakfast and drink our coffee, and then it is on to shower, internet and/or movies, lunch, reading, errands, afternoon, grading, prep for classes. I cook lunch as well, since it' the weekend, like this cod with piperade, roasted potatoes, and parsley almond sauce (via Blue Apron).

But it is the mornings that are my favorite, and I treasure every weekend day when it is not too cold or rainy to walk to the gym and all over town, errands and leisure pleasantly entwined, a perfect balance between indulgence and purpose.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Faking Minimalism

Yes, I am still doing outfit posts! Yes, those are from teaching days; I am still finessing my work uniform, as I am not yet ready to commit to a certain look but I do want the ease of decision-making while dressing, and a defined style. I will probably never be a true minimalist, but I will fake it the best I can. My wardrobe is not exactly small, albeit it is not large either: it takes up half of a small walk-in closet I am sharing with my husband. I would like it to be smaller in theory, but in practice I am not ready to commit to a narrow enough aesthetic (that is, dresses could probably go, but I do enjoy them every now and again.)

Anyway, here's what I wore last Friday.

Fall is my favorite season, because, as mentioned earlier, I gravitate toward seasonal fibers as much (if not more) as seasonal clothing items. So yes, sweaters, and yes, layering; but most of all, I welcome the season of wool and silk, of leather and suede, of texture and more texture. However, since it is still a bit on the warm side, I concede by wearing some more summery toppers, like this Reformation coat, made from recycled heavy cotton and linen:

And check out my bag! It's by Mansur Gavriel, and unlike with clothes, I do enjoy color in my bags and shoes.

 Underneath, I am wearing a silk T by Alexander Wang shirt and Vince wool pants. I love the tuxedo stripe on these, and slim yet easy fit. Shoes are Maje.

The accessories close-up: besides my usual four rings, I am wearing a hammered knuckle ring and the beetle bracelet from Humble Chic. That store is a great source of interesting costume jewelry.

With all my love of chunky statement jewelry pieces, I have been gravitating toward more delicate necklaces lately. While I am certainly not ready to dump all my three-pound bibs yet, I've been wearing more subtle pieces. This is one of my favorites, a small necklace with a lot of visual interest.

 Perhaps, faking minimalism is easier with jewelry?

Friday, September 05, 2014

New York Almost Fashion Week

 So it's this time of the year again. No, I do not mean NYFW but rather the time when Kate Wendelborn of Protagonist presents her next collection, and I travel to NYC like a fashion-forward Hamelin rat.

I feel like I repeat myself a lot -- Wendelborn's aesthetic is as minimal and luxe as always, and the clothes are just as tempting. She continues to develop her pared-down style, and the collection now includes heavenly pants, chunky and lightweight knits, and even skirts and dresses. And as always, there is a plethora of buttoned shirts with gracefully elongated cuffs, silk blouses with scooped hemlines, and superbly cut tanks. There was even a couple of printed pieces in a lovely abstract watercolor that Kate described as "a print for women who don't wear prints".

I am pleased to see that Barney's now carries a few of her pieces too (some are exclusive, including a gorgeous Merlot layered-cuff shirt). But as much as the collection itself, I enjoy the shopping experience -- the chance to chat with the designer and the staff of The Apartment, to shop in a very laid-back atmosphere, and to fulfill the fantasy of being the only person in the store full of amazing clothes. Just look at these racks! Also, as is proper for a fantasy, everything there is the sort of thing I really really like.

 (Needless to say, I did buy a piece. )

And of course I petted the house dog! (Yes, there is food on this table. No, fashion people don't eat.)

 They have redecorated the main space, and I just love the interior design there:

And then it was off to meet Genevieve, grab some ice cream, and head to the fashion show! Brand Assembly is collaborating with Lord and Taylor, and they are carrying a range of limited-edition exclusive pieces by a few up-and-coming brands - Sachin and Babi, Torn by Ronny Kobo, Michelle Kim, Danielle Kallmeyer and Priory of Ten, to name a few. 

First, we looked at the clothes, which are reasonably priced, and lovely:

Love that TORN by Ronny Kobo crochet sweater!

See the logo? Proof we were there!

 And then there was a runway show highlighting the collection. Models whizzed by at warp speeds, so I had better luck capturing the audience and their reaction than the actual looks, but hey.

(This Priory of Ten look is so good, it had to be snapped twice.)

 Here's the program!

And this was my day. Now it's back to school and back to work. So long, fantasy life!

Monday, September 01, 2014

Almost Sweater Weather!

Wouldn't you know it, as soon as I want to do a fall fashion post, temperatures jump to 90F. Not so much sweater weather, although this past week has been hopeful: brisk mornings that required a sweatshirt on my usual walk to and from the gym, and the air had this crisp quality I love so much, with the under-taste of apples and yellow leaves. Oh well,the fall is on pause for now, but to celebrate this almost-fall, I'd like to talk about almost-sweaters.

I love cashmere and wool, and the heavy fluid knits in oversized and shrunken silhouettes. But lately my concept of sweaters has expanded to include the sort of in-between garments that are not quite jackets, not quite knits, and yet they are worn as toppers and technically can substitute for either. Here are some favorite pieces:

COS pullover: it is made in woven wool, with a beautiful drape. Wears like a suit, with an ease of a sweater -- perfect with a collared shirt and dress pants.
 Isabel Marant boiled wool jacket. Even though it is technically a jacket, the fabric (thick, soft and woolly) has the give of a knit. During last winter's polar vortex, I layered it under coats, and never looked back.

Shockingly versatile double-faced wool piece by Protagonist. The wool is thick and structured, so that this pullover has an architectural character, and yet functions like a knit. I lived in it last winter and cannot wait to start wearing it again. Here it is at the American Museum of Natural History:

(Layered over Protagonist silk top, with Carin Wester trousers and Emerson Fry trainers).

Recently, I added another piece to my collection of these liminal garments: a wool and suede jacket by Primerova. It is an open jacket in very soft, grey heavy fabric reminiscent of a thick grandpa cardigan. Suede inserts on the shoulders and suede self-belt give it added character, and it can be layered over shirts, t-shirts, other knits, or worn on its own. In the pictures below, I am wearing it with Alexander McQueen belt (it's the one from Spring 2013 beekeeper-themed collection, and I am obsessed with it! There are tiny jeweled bees on the buckle.)

Shoes are Alexander Wang, and the skirt is from Viktor Luna's sample sale. I like the slightly messy look of the jacket here, but of course it can be worn in a more structured way. So I will count among my versatile almost-sweaters (or not-quite jackets), and cannot wait for the temperatures to cool off enough to wear it with long-sleeve t-shirts and tweed pants. Here's to hoping for a long and cool September!