Friday, July 31, 2009

The Russian Style

Photo credit: Romanov Collection, General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

At the advertising agency we have been doing a lot of research on Russia. I was very taken by this photograph above: it is a photo of Grand Duchess Olga and Grand Duchess Anastasia with their mother, Tsarina Alexandra. It looks perhaps like Olga is dressed for volunteer work in World War 1, and they are in a summer setting. I love the rug thrown on the bare floor, the wicker furniture, the masses of flowers and plants, and the light gauzy curtains which reveal the trees beyond lit with sunlight. This room is a dream; a nice way to live, no?

Tsarina Alexandra was the granddaughter of Queen Victoria of England, and she married Nicholas II, Tsar of Russia. Here is the Tsar:

Good looking guy.

Here is the Tsar with his cousin, King George V of England. They are also both grandchildren of Queen Victoria, as was Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany; back then everyone was descended from Queen Victoria.

The Tsar and Tsarina had five children, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and, at last, a boy, Alexei, who suffered from hemophilia.
A lovely family, but, you know this, they met a sad end. The Tsar was an ineffective leader and the Bolsheviks organized against him and the imperial system. On July 16, 1918, the whole family, all seven, were killed, shot and stabbed, in a basement during the Russian Revolution. Lenin came to power and communist Soviet Union was born, putting an end to the fascinating rule of the tsars.

When we visited my brother Thom and his family in Toronto, we went to an exhibition at the art museum there on Catherine the Great (1762-1796). She was a tiny little thing who expanded the borders of Russia to be the world's largest empire. Do you know how she came to power? She was a lowly German princess who married the Tsar, Peter III. Then she had him killed and she took control. Yikes. Catherine came after Peter the Great (1682-1725), who is credited with modernizing Russia after traveling to Europe, and introducing Western art, culture and architecture. He sponsored education and publishing. But he had his own son tortured and killed. Tough crowd.

Russian style during the tsars was amazingly extravagant. Years ago at the Brooklyn Museum, there was an exhibition on the tsars' jewelry. It was a circular exhibition in one big room featuring diamonds, rubies, emeralds as big as robin's eggs. It was staggeringly beautiful. I could not leave that show; I kept walking around in circles, trying to get out.

French painter Horace Vernet, in a letter from 1843 about a Russian imperial ball, wrote: "It was magnificent; one was literally thrusting one's way through diamonds, one stepped over pearls and rubies; it had to be seen to be believed."

Here is a tsar's cut-velvet coat, cuffed with pearls and gems.

Now those were the days.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Weekend in Connecticut

The Guilford Antiques Fair

This weekend TD and I went to visit my parents in Guilford, Connecticut, an old town on the Long Island Sound. Although I grew up upstate, outside of Utica, New York, my parents moved to Guilford in 1979 which is closer to New York City.

I always enjoy taking the train there after work on a Friday night out of Grand Central Station with a cold bottle of beer in my hand. It's a nice ride up the coastline, and then we transfer in New Haven to the small Shoreline East train to Guilford.

Saturday happened to be the Guilford Antiques Fair. I remember going with me mum to this antiques fair once before, it must have been twenty years ago. I got this little white ironstone pitcher then. I still love its size and curving lines.

It poured rain on Friday night, and on Saturday the grounds of the antiques fair were wet and squishy. In fact, there was a truck stuck in the mud in the middle of the field.
All the vendors were lined up under portable tents. There was a place to sit and have a cup of coffee and a cranberry scone.

In the blacksmith shed, blacksmiths were blacksmithing. Don't these guys look right out of Charles Dickens?

I liked this vendor's display. There I bought a...

treasure chest...a black tin box to hold our multitude of tv remotes. She had it marked for $15 and I paid her $10.

I also bought this little dish for the bedside table. Hand painted. $4. Looks like Majolica, though it's not. Very Bloomsbury, no?

Then we went down to the beach. Not a lot of people there. We couldn't go in the water due to "high bacteria" caused by all the rain water run-off. I was afraid to ask what that meant exactly...

but it really is a pretty little town beach.

On Saturday night my father grilled some steaks. Then on the dvr we watched Doubt from last year starring Meryl Streep; she is pinched, hard, mean, pale. We recently saw Mama Mia which Meryl Streep made the same year; she is golden, blond, sensual, bursting with life and youth. Truly hard to believe it's the same woman, this national treasure.

On Sunday me and me mum went for a walk around the town green. Many of the houses and churches in Guilford were built in the 1700s.

We sat on a bench. The green was very peaceful and quiet.

I'm really glad my parents moved to Guilford.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

East Side, West Side

The other night TD and headed over to Chrystie Street on the Lower East Side to an art gallery opening for my friend artist Richard Haines. I first met Richard Haines in 1983 when I worked as the chauffeur for fashion designer Perry Ellis. I had just arrived in New York, and I had a short-term temp job driving Perry and his partner Laughlin Barker from their home on the upper west side to their Garment District offices in a bottle green Jaguar with a buttery beige leather interior.
Richard Haines was one of the designers working in Perry’s design room; he was the tall charming one from Virginia. The colorful, ebullient designer was Isaac Mizrahi. Richard went on to work for Calvin Klein and Bill Blass, and had his own shirt company where he made me two beautiful shirts. About a year ago he started a blog, What I Saw Today, featuring his fashion drawings -- his true calling. Before long he was illustrating for In Style magazine and J. Crew.
At the art gallery opening, his drawings were pinned to the white walls.
Richard draws stylish people on the street. His work has an immediacy and a spontaneity. He really captures the simplicity of a silhouette, the graphic essence of an outfit, the line that runs from head to toe.
We bought the drawing in the middle. I like the red color and the curving line, and Richard said that he saw this guy at Union Square which is near our apartment.

Then TD and I hopped in a cab and went over to the Meatpacking District on the west side to a party for H & M at the new Standard Hotel hosted by my friend James Laforce. We took an elevator up to the third floor where the party was in full swing on a deck cantilevered over the new High Line Park and the West Side Highway.

Of course we have watched the construction here but TD and I were still slightly stunned because we remember when this neighborhood was completely deserted and considered to be at the end of the world. That year that I arrived in New York, I didn't know anybody and systematically explored a list of gay bars, hoping to find a hang-out I liked. One club was listed on Little West 4th Street and so late one cold Saturday night that winter I found myself alone wandering around this spot exactly which was then entirely desolated. I was in snow up to my waist and the wind was whipping around. I remember thinking to myself, "I hope I don't get killed looking for some gay bar."
Times have changed.

At the H & M party I noticed that the New York girls of summer this year are wearing short shorts and strappy, bondage-y high heels. Lots of leg. Very sexy. No one is more beautiful than the New York girls of summer.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

In the Mail Bag

Here at Bart Boehlert's Beautiful Things we recently received an email from Christine in Toronto who wrote, in part:
"So, I found your blog yesterday when I googled Robert Isabell (I wanted to do a bit of reading on him, and your blog came up with the nice tribute post you wrote). But then, I scrolled down, and down, and down, and made some phone calls, and then came back to your blog and long story short, I read your entire blog yesterday!!! I know, crazy right? I’m sure you have many loyal readers, but you are now one of my favourite blogs."

Now that's what I call a good blog reader – she read the whole thing, 200 posts and counting! Thanks Christine, that made my day.

A big thanks to all my blog readers, who are continually growing in number. July 10th was the first year anniversary of when I started with my first blog post. It really has been a lot of fun for me. It's offered a great creative outlet, and I've met wonderfully talented people and made good friends in the blogosphere. Something about it clicked with me, and I find myself blogging through meals or late at night. I like taking pictures and I like telling stories, so it's a good form for me. I've received positive feedback, and I'm happy to know that readers are enjoying it. So thank you all for visiting, and I mean it!

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Two Valentinos

My haircutter of many years upped and moved to Brooklyn which is ok if I have an afternoon to devote to getting my hair cut, but sometimes I do not. My friend Matt Fox at Fine and recommended his barber who has been cutting his hair for ten years. His name is Valentino and he works at the Astor Place Barber Shop. So off I went Thursday night after work. At the Astor Place Barber Shop, you go down stairs like you’re entering the subway, push through doors, and go to the front desk. I asked for Valentino, and fortunately he was not busy so I didn’t have to wait. He was an older guy, Eastern European, very thick accent so I could hardly understand his English. He said, “Vat do you vant?” I said, “A trim, longer on the top, shorter on the sides, Mad Men.” He said, “Mad Men? Vat is Mad Men?” So I didn’t know how this would go. He said, “You vant ‘classic,’ Gary Cooper.” I thought, that works too. He cut my hair in about five minutes, chop, chop, chop, which I liked. Once, years ago, when Barneys was on Seventh Avenue, I got my hair cut at the salon in the lower level. It took about an hour and a half, and I thought I was going to jump out of my skin. Valentino finished up by blow drying my hair with a brush, curling it for lift. “Um,” I said, “I never blow dry my hair.” Not stopping, he said, “You don’t have to do this at home but I have to, to make sure it is right.” I went to the desk to pay. $15 plus tip. You can’t beat that. I walked around the corner to meet TD at a movie theater. His eyes light up, “I like your hair cut.” So I will return again to Valentino Number One.
Valentino Number Two: TD and I were at the movie theater to see Valentino: The Last Emperor. Wow. This movie has been opened for several months so many people have seen it already but if you haven’t and you love Beautiful Things, do not miss it.
The movie was produced and directed by Matt Trynauer who is a special correspondent at Vanity Fair. I’ve met Matt a few times and once had lunch with him and my friend Vanity Fair editor Aimee Bell at the Algonquin Hotel. In fact Aimee is a contributing producer on this documentary movie, which wonderfully captures the great Italian couturier Valentino who recently retired from the fashion business.
The movie follows Valentino through a few collections and the monumental celebration in Rome of his 45th anniversary in business. It also tells his back-story very well with old clips. Valentino says, “When I was a young boy I was pretending to be asleep but I was really dreaming of beautiful dresses.” My favorite passages show Valentino at work in his Roman atelier – creating a dress by draping red chiffon over a nearly naked model, and fashioning a white gown with strips of fabric along its skirt. Valentino studies the way the white dress moves on the model as an artist or sculptor studies their work. “Should the strips have sequins?” he asks. Silver sequins are sewn on the white strips by hand which are sewn on to the gown by hand. A clutch of people, all working intently with scissors, needles, and thread, crowd around the dress on the model as if performing an operation. It’s a poignant depiction of the couture creative process.
If I got it right, we are with Valentino in his house in Rome, his house outside of Paris, his house in Gstaad, on his private plane, and on his yacht. The life is luxurious, everyone is speaking Italian or French, and of course everyone is beautifully dressed; this movie makes you want to go out and shop for clothes. It celebrates touchingly the relationship between Valentino and Giancarlo Giammetti, partners in business and life. The fashion shows and the anniversary party are fun to watch. Valentino really was a master at making women look gorgeous, and a master of the up-and-down vertical line. His gowns made women appear taller and thinner, and who doesn’t want to look like that? At the anniversary party Karl Lagerfeld sidles up to Valentino and says, “Compared to us, every one else is making rags.”
Valentino retired in 2007 after this moving finished filming. He and Giammetti had sold the company to a company who sold it to another company. Now lots of money is at stake. Alessandra Facchinetti, from Gucci, was named as creative director to replace Valentino, and though she was well liked I don’t think cash registers were ringing fast enough so she was quickly axed. New creative directors Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli were promoted from the Valentino accessories group but things don’t bode well for them; at the recent couture collection, Cathy Horyn at The New York Times noted that some of the stiff gazar designs looked like they might “scratch,” not exactly what you want in a $20,000 couture dress. Let’s hope that the Valentino label doesn’t spiral down through numerous designers as other houses have. But there is a lot of money on the line, and patience is not part of the game. When Valentino started out, there was not the same pressure. He could develop his world of luxury, style and exquisite taste which we are given access to in this well done documentary. I didn’t want this movie to end; I wanted to stay there longer in that air of European refinement. So I will also return again to Valentino Number Two.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The High Line

Chic park visitors. Black is the new black.

If the great New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham can get over to the new High Line park to do a story, I guess we can visit too. After all all, we only live three blocks away. Every time TD and I had planned to go, it rained. But the rain seems to have stopped, and Monday night after work we went to check it out.

Up the stairs we went in the Meatpacking District at Gansevoort Street, home of the former Florent restaurant. The first thing you see is the new Standard Hotel from Andre Balazs which rises up overhead. The hotel is all glass windows which are lined with curtains that are different colors and too long, thus creating a messy effect on an otherwise dramatic building. But never mind about that.

The High Line itself was built in the 1930s as an elevated train track in order to get dangerous, dirty freight trains away from the street. No trains have run on it since 1980, and when it was threatened with demolition, two ingenious New Yorkers and neighbors, Joshua David and Robert Hammond, formed The Friends of the High Line to develop a park there. It was designed by Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio & Renfro, and the first section, up to 20th Street, recently opened.

I love these silver birches; they look so great in a city, combining green with a grey urban color.

The designers left some abandoned train tracks. The wild flowers and prairie grasses that were planted here look like they just blew in.

The concrete planking of the walkway evokes a linear train track.

These plants and trees will grow in and get larger every year.

Chaise lounges are installed for relaxing and people watching.

I like how the designers mixed blooming plants with the industrial tracks.

At 16th Street an amphitheater offers a place to sit over traffic going up 10th Avenue for an unusual perspective.

Flowers in the Chelsea art gallery district.

A meadow, in the city, elevated.

I loved this gigantic purple-blooming plant.


...and TD.

A great place to view the sunset.

The elevation of the High Line offers a new and unexpected viewpoint; you kind of feel like you're walking on air. It's a wonderful addition to the city, as is the Hudson River Park; how did we live without these things? The High Line is New York itself: smart, energetic, stylish, cerebral, a little edgy. Kudos to its creators.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Robert Isabell

I've read the sad news that event planner and floral designer Robert Isabell has passed away. I saw it first yesterday on where Billy Norwich reported it. Today it's in Women's Wear Daily, and not yet in The New York Times. WWD said Isabell was found on Tuesday in his home but it is not known how or when he died. My friend decorator Mario Buatta told me a while ago that Robert Isabell had befriended and was spending a lot of time with Bunny Mellon, the widow of billionaire Paul Mellon and legendary taste-maker who famously taught Jackie Kennedy about antiques and gardening.

For a time, Robert Isabell was the hottest floral designer in New York; he did the work for both Caroline Kennedy's and John Jr.'s weddings. Once, I can't remember why, I was in his floral studio in the Meatpacking District, a garage packed top to bottom with fabulous flowers – what a great job he had, arranging beautiful blossoms. Back in the day, when I was a freelance magazine writer, I also worked as a waiter for Glorious Food, the glamorous catering company. That was the worst job I ever had. Those guys I worked for were mean. Ok, once, in Utica, I worked for a furniture store and had to move heavy furniture all day. That was the worst job. Then comes Glorious Food. Anyway, one Glorious Food event I worked at was the huge party which launched fashion designer Christian Lacroix in New York City. Robert Isabell did the flowers.

I'm talking 1987 here. Christian Lacroix was the hot new import from France and his partner was a publicist so we in New York City were whipped into a media frenzy over the arrival of the couturier. Julie Baumgold who is married to Ed Kosner, the former editor of New York magazine, wrote a wonderful column about society for New York at the time called "Mr. Peepers." Before Lacroix arrived she wrote a cover story about him entitled "Dancing on the Lip of the Volcano" which I remember vividly. And I wonder: what happened to Julie Baumgold? She is a talented writer I would like to be reading regularly.

Lacroix made his big debut at a party at the World Financial Winter Garden, which was later terribly damaged during the 9/11 attack. But there I was setting up dinner tables. Robert Isabell was setting up too, lining little votive candles along the arc of steps that descend into the Winter Garden. For Lacroix he arranged tight packs of tulips, peonies and roses in bright, vivid colors like pink, orange, and red, which corresponded to Lacroix's highly decorative designs inspired by the south of France which were presented at a fashion show that night. The evening captured a fizzy moment in New York history. As it happened, the October party was right after the Black Monday stock market crash so that event was the last of the high-flying Reagan years.

Later I worked as the style editor at the Hearst magazines web site. Robert Isabell was launching a collection of fragrances so I set up an interview to write a piece about him. I went to his house on Minetta Lane where I met him and a publicist. Unfortunately that interview did not go well; perhaps Robert was having a bad day.

I have written about Christian Lacroix here before. He is a gloriously talented designer but recently his company declared bankruptcy. Floral maestro Robert Isabell has died. So many ravishing flowers and exuberant fashions have come to rest. Appreciate the present my friends for beauty passes.

Monday, July 6, 2009

A Trip to Southampton

My brother Thom recently bought a home in Southampton, the summer resort town on the eastern end of Long Island. Over the Fourth, TD and I went to visit him, his wife Karen, and sons Brian and Aaron. The house has a great location and getting around on bicycles is easy since it's less than a mile from town and a little more than a mile to the Atlantic ocean. It's a beautiful new house, with spacious proportions and a pool in the backyard.
We settled into the guest room.

My nephew Aaron took me on a bicycle tour of the town. It's a very pretty village with lots of stores for shopping.

We went into Hildreth's which Aaron said is the oldest department store in the country.

Aaron has a part time job which he loves at The Elegant Setting on Main Street, a charming shop stocked with William Yeoward china, monogramed tote bags, and stationary from The Printery. Here is the lad in his element.

Outside the Parrish Art Museum is a striking exhibition of ancient Caesar busts. It smelled wonderful here due to the blooming honeysuckle.

The Topiaire Flower Shop on Jobs Lane had colorful country flowers.

Corals and shells were piled high at Privet Cove.

Then it was time for a trip to the beach.

A seaside manse.

Back at the house we had a refreshing swim in the pool.

Poolside view from my chaise.

The living room has doors out to the pool.

On the Fourth of July we went to the village parade. Bagpipers performed an elegiac tune in a circle.

In Southampton, they plant white impatiens in the traffic meridian which I think is very chic.

In the middle of the town is the still Agawan Lake.

We headed to Coopers Beach.

The runners are off; here are TD, Karen and Thom leaving the house.

At sunset, we went down to the beach for a walk.

And enjoyed a moon over Southampton.

It was a great weekend, and there were many wonderful things to eat and drink. I loved all the tall trees around and the quiet streets. And it was a treat to be at the beach. The weather cooperated beautifully; bright, sunny days but not too hot – the very best of summer.