Don’t buy your undies in Northern Ireland.
There I was, patiently waiting in line at the Belfast branch of Marks & Spencer, clutching a fistful of my favorite white cotton essentials, minding my own business, etc., when a stout, red-faced Irish lady barged in front of me. She was clearly intent on purchasing an oversize, rhubarb-colored brassiere in world-record time, even if it meant trampling yours truly in the process. But good manners, or something, prevailed and, giving me a cursory sideways glance, she magnanimously instructed the Marks & Sparks sales associate to “let the wee lady go first.”
I turned my rugged physiognomy in her direction, thereby confronting her with the inaccuracy of her gender assignment, and watched as rage crisscrossed her face. “How dare you embarrass me by not being a woman, when I just announced to everyone that you were! And furthermore, why is a diminutive, middle-aged man like you wearing a poofy fake-fur hat?” her wordless reaction seemed to say.
Were she not clearly of a belligerent Scotch-Irish disposition, I would happily have told her the following: If I were a “wee lady,” you can bet your sweet bippy that Saturday afternoon would not find me, bundled up like a Kurdish refugee, buying men’s underwear at M.&S. My “wee lady” scenario would be quite different.
My name would be Simone, and I would drive men wild with a lethal mixture of gutsy competence and coquetry. I would, channeling Peggy Lee, “feed the baby, grease the car and powder my face at the same time.” When it came to making “a dress out of a feed bag and … a man out of you,” I would have no problem with the latter, but I would need help with the former.
To that end, I would get a fierce little dressmaker who could knock together hotsy-totsy numbers for me. On Saturday afternoons, I would go to her modest apartment and, standing on a pile of phone books and Sears catalogs, I would strike Linda Evangelista-ish attitudes while, supervised by me, she fitted hand-sewn “originals” on my body. I would never over-praise my dressmaker; this would guarantee that she would always bust a gut to meet my unmeetable expectations. We would remain locked in an unsavory Genet-esque symbiosis–picture one of those kinky drawings by Eric Stanton ( The Dominant Wives & Other Stories , Taschen, $23.99 at Amazon.com)–until one of us kicked the bucket. Hopefully, she would go first.
Sound good? You’re in luck. Fashion anonymity is in, and dressmakers are back! Though not all of them conform to my delicious stereotype, you Manhattan girls are sure to be able to find one who tickles your fancy.
Here, are my three faves:
Intelligent, demented and puckishly exotic Sylvia Heisel has sagely never allowed her edgy sensibility to derail her classic dress-making genius. You may well see displayed in the window of her Thompson Street store a freaky evening bolero constructed entirely of hand-sewn organdy flowers ($4,600) or a silk-satin cocktail dress fringed with two-foot gold chains ($2,250), but the main thrust of Maison Heisel is one of affordable, hip restraint. “I love pop-culture fashion,” says 15-year rag-trade veteran Sylvia. “Lil’ Kim, baby got back, it’s explosive–but Campbell can’t send a woman to a dinner party in Greenwich wearing pasties.”
K. Campbell is Sylvia’s tall, beautifully mannered, African-American vendeur , publicist and buffer who does the meeting, greeting and fitting. “From a zero to a 3XXX, our customers participate in the creation of their clothes,” explains the lithesome Mr. Campbell. “I help them customize shape and color on our various models. I do the fittings. If Sylvia is around, clients get competitive. Suddenly, they’re Coco Chanel.”
Spring must-haves from Sylvia Heisel: an updated Ava Gardner, i.e., a silk dupione safari jacket ($595); silk-satin slip dresses ($495); and a silk dupione cigarette pant with a flare ($495).
Sylvia’s advice to prospective clients: “Don’t come in apologizing for your body. This isn’t humility, it’s negativity. A chick who apologizes is always going to be looking at bad points, so I end up doing upholstery and damage control.” (131 Thompson Street, 646-654-6768.)
Despite her gorgeously gamine appearance, Lee Anderson was feeling menopausal. “It’s messing with my short-term memory. Long-term is fine,” said Lee. “I remember my first customer was Valerie Simpson. I’ve been making clothes since 1979. I did Barbra during Yentl . I still have celeb clients, but I’m not going to tell you who they are.” Dressmakers are, in sharp contrast to the rest of the fashion industry with its creepy celebrity alliances, pragmatically discreet about their roster of celebupusses. “My girls pay for their stuff,” explains Lee; “the least I can do is keep my trap shut.”
Unlike Ms. Heisel, Lee deals directly with her clients. “I love to get involved. I’m skilled–if something isn’t hanging right, I can take it upstairs and fix it.” Ultra-chic Lee is a perfectionist: “When I make a jacket, I keep making it and improving it. I ignore fashion. I want my models to be perfect.”
Lee describes the process at her 67th Street establishment as “a lot like interior design. A woman goes into a showroom with her interior decorator and picks a piece of furniture. Then she customizes it–fabric, buttons, trim, proportion.” This analogy, though applicable to many dressmakers, is particularly apropos for Lee: She employs bold, Mardi Gras interior-furnishing fabrics by Manuel Canovas, Scalamandré and more obscure mills.
Spring must-have: a blouson chemise dress ($1,495) in “Hermès quality” Swiss crêpe de Chine. Choose from two prints: large rows of lemons on a mint background or hairy, gigantic brown spiders on a black background.
Lee’s advice to prospective clients: “Personalize it, but don’t try and play designer.” (23 East 67th Street, 772-2463.)
Shannon McLean is poised, witty and refreshingly snotty. In these days when everyone is aspiring downward (in England, it’s even worse–everyone, regardless of how high-born, affects a working-class regional accent), Ms. McLean’s unapologetic philosophy of snooty luxe is positively subversive. “My girls are very bourgie, very P.B.” (as in “Palm Beach”), said Shannon. “I like spoiled luxury, and so do they.”
Giorgio Armani alumnus Shannon is the dressmaker to the Marina Rust-ish junior socialites, and she fits all of them herself. “I’ve known all these girls for 15 years, so I can be precise and direct. After all, I am one of them.” Shannon and her girls eschew fashion slavery: “It’s silly and suburban to walk out of Prada head to toe. My generation of stylish women doesn’t want to be associated with a particular designer. Our mothers did that whole thing.”
Spring must-haves from Shannon McLean: “I’ll make you a weekender. It’s a chic 50’s concept–very Babe Paley–and you can wear it 10 months out of the year,” she offers. This versatile package includes a tropical wool shift dress ($500) with a dyed-to-match, midweight Loro Piana cashmere coat, slightly longer than the dress ($1,600); a pant ($300); a simple blouse ($250); and a funnel-neck Charade sweater with a three-quarter sleeve ($500). “All dyed to match, with princess seams–very Belle de Jour ,” purrs Shannon.
Shannon’s atelier (her Upper East Side apartment) is very groovy and improbably serene. Apart from the gorge clothes and Shannon’s down-to-earth wit and savoir faire , the big plus is that you get to play with her Norwich terrier, Daisy, who looks like a cross between my Norwich terrier, Liberace, and a bumble bee.
Shannon’s advice to prospective clients: “Navy! Navy! Navy!” (Shannon McLean Cose Belle, 7 East 81st Street, 988-4210.)
Apparently, 80 percent of U.K. inhabitants inhabit Marks & Spencer undies.